Grand Theft Auto Online Makes A Superb Second Impression

I gave Grand Theft Auto Online a chance to make a second impression this morning by spamming on the "retry" button. I had to. The first impression at 7am wasn't so hot. Server woes and all that. But I wasn't going to let Rockstar Games' overburdened online infrastructure keep me from trying this game out. Eventually, I got in. Good thing. It got way better.

I've only played about 10 minutes of GTA Online—not for lack of trying—so I'm not going to be able to tell you about any deep features in the game. I'm not going to break down any intricate systems, offer tips and cheats. No, I can just tell you what a first dip into this thing is like.

Let's go in chronological order...

The Rough Start

I first tried to get into the game at around 7AM this morning.

I'm on an Xbox 360, and I've played through the single-player campaign. The download to activate GTAO is small. It's under 60MB.

Once the title update was downloaded, the game started loading. While it's booting up, you can toggle between loading into the single-player game or the online mode. It's more or less the same in terms of the world map. You're going to Los Santos or Blaine County either way. Same landmass. Just different timeframe, different missions, different structure and, in theory, other people in the same world.

I hit server troubles right away. GTA's creators at Rockstar Games had warned that things would be rough. This was expected, if annoying. Before I could even create a character I was getting warnings that Rockstar's cloud servers were down and that I wouldn't be able to save. Instead of accepting these warnings, I just hit the "retry" button again and again. In about a minute, I was in. I was able to start creating a character.

I decided I'd play as a woman as that seemed novel and newsworthy enough. In fact, my game defaulted to presenting a female character model. It defaulted to a guy for one of my colleagues.

You don't sculpt the character's looks manually, but you can toggle their gender. What you primarily do to design their face and skin tone is select their grandparents and move some sliders to determine how much one side of the family's looks affect your character's. If you're in the Rockstar Social Club or have special editions of the game, you can skip the parental grandparent part of the customizer and choose to have a "special dad." I use the Rockstar Social Club, so I was able to do that and make Red Dead Redemption protagonist John Marston my father.

After figuring out your characters' ancestry, you can shape their "lifestyle", which is another odd, interesting change to how characters are customized in this game. Apologies for the blurry shot, but take a look:

Grand Theft Auto Online Makes A Superb Second Impression

What you're seeing is the default way my character's time would be spent each day. All the notches in the categories on the right are drawn from a pool of 24 hours of time. The game tells me I can't make my character sleep fewer than four hours of the day. I don't think I can make them sleep more than six. You, like me, might be wondering if this means my GTA Online character will go to sleep for a sixth of my playtime in the world. I do not know! We shall see...

I chose a hairdo, makeup, hat and shirt for my character and named her. I waited for the game to load more and catch up to what I was doing. And then GTA Online's proper intro began.

The intro is cool, showing your character fly into Los Santos and meet GTA V supporting character Lamar. GTAO takes place a few months before V, according to Rockstar, so this is all prequel stuff. Your character doesn't speak and doesn't have that many customizable wardrobe options at the start. The former is fixed; the latter will certainly open up the more you play.

The intro cinematic ends with Lamar greeting you and driving you from the airport into the city. It's setting things up for the fact that at least some of GTAO is driven by narrative and will unfold as a sequence of missions. At the start, Lamar takes you to a parking lot for a streetrace. And that, sadly, is when GTAO wants to again talk to Rockstar's servers and find other players against whom you can race. That stopped my progress dead for more than an hour. The servers simply wouldn't match me with other players.

I backed out to the single-player and loaded GTAO again. Didn't help.

I rebooted the game. Didn't help.

I tried starting the game from GTA V's "online" menu, selecting a crew-only game or an invite-only game. Didn't help.

I tried starting from the online menu and selecting a "solo" session in GTAO. That seemed to work. I loaded back into the parking lot and could run around. But Lamar wasn't there. I jacked a car and was told to go back to the race trigger point. A yellow GPS line drew my path to it. I went there, but there was no trigger point to be found.

I left the game idle, resigned that I wouldn't play Online today. After some time passed, I got a warning message saying I would be kicked from the game for being idle. I pressed a button to acknowledge this and then....

...my character re-spawned in the parking lot in a matchmaking screen. Other real, human players were also getting ready for a race. We were getting ready to go!

The Magical Second Impression

I sat back down, controller in hand and realized I was actually about to play GTA Online for real. OK. What'd I need to do? The game was showing that I would be racing seven other characters, one of whom I think may have been the computer-controlled Lamar. The others were people. Maybe all seven were and Lamar didn't count? Not sure. I could also bet on myself. I bet $100.

The race began and I was immediately left in the dust. Yes, even on day one, hour... three... I'm already being left in the dust in a multiplayer game. So it goes.

The race was a pretty simple checkpoint course through downtown Los Santos. We raced at night, though I'm not sure if the time of day was forced by the game or random. As I drove, I could hear Lamar taunt me.

I passed a couple of competitors, didn't come close to catching the lead one, saw some players drop out and ended up finishing fifth of... five.

After flashing the after-race match results, the game then loaded a cutscene of Lamar telling me to go get a drug package. I'm not sure if we were robbing people, reclaiming a robbed package or what.

I noticed that the two other guys Lamar was briefing looked familiar. Were they the other players from the parking lot? Yep.


I think the guy in the backseat wasn't into this, so as we slowed to make a turn, he jumped out of the back and tumbled into the middle of an intersection. Our driver was having none of it. He backed up over the other player. Horrible. Wonderful. So very GTA.


As soon as Lamar was talking I was back in control of my character and standing next to a car, ready for this mission. I pressed a button to drive, but my character got in the front passenger seat. One of the other players in this group took the driver seat. The third player got in the back. This was a pretty cool moment. See, none of us had manually grouped together. The game had just decided to keep us together to keep the story going.

The driver player was a bit of a hellion. He tore down the streets of Los Santos, following the GPS waypoint, which we could all see. I think the guy in the backseat wasn't into this, so as we slowed to make a turn, he jumped out of the back and tumbled into the middle of an intersection. Our driver was having none of it. He backed up over the other player. Horrible. Wonderful. So very GTA.

Now it was just me and the driver.

He drove us to the spot where the drug package was. It was in some garage or something. It looked like a rival gang had it. All computer-controlled. We jumped out of the car and started shooting. The guy with the package ran. I chased him, shot him and took it. The other player and I then hopped in the car. I drove this time, a little carelessly, and we got back to Lamar.

For this next cutscene, Lamar talked directly to my character. The other player was in the background. I wonder if that was different for him/her. Not sure.

Lamar made fun of me not talking, introduced us to a new character and then we were set free to buy some better clothes.

At that point, the game world opened up.

And at the very next moment, my former partner in crime, my reckless driver buddy, ran up behind me, punched me to death, stole my hat, I think, and ran away.

Jerk.

I guess he didn't care that the game's tutorial messages had indicated that we'd level up faster by doing missions in a group and level up even faster by doing them in a Rockstar Social Club-connected "crew". It wasn't meant to be.

This was nearly the end of my session, but one other funny thing happened. I guess because it was a player who killed me, I got a special post-death scene. The guy who runs the GTA V cult, Epsilon, showed up, floating in the sky, talking some new-age mumbo jumbo about being able to see everything. Really, this was just Rockstar's cheeky way of introducing the concept of a "passive" mode that lets you roam the game's open world without fear of being attacked. I heard him out, respawned, ran toward a clothing shop and pretty much ended things there.

As I was reluctantly turning the game off, I did check the map. You can see part of what I saw in the shot way up top. The other white dots were other players. I did try to approach one—I grabbed a motorcycle and started racing toward one. The other player, who was in a car, started racing away from me. But then I realized I was on a motorcycle. I had no gun. I wasn't going to win any confrontation. So I powered down.

And there you have it. A couple of hours of server trouble. About 10 minutes of playtime. The latter was quite fun. I want back in. I hope those servers can handle it.

To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.