I’m finally into Grand Theft Auto Online. It took me a while. The game launched in late 2013, though I’m not sure I could have been excited for it sooner. What’d it take? Two nights of chaos and a revelation about what Rockstar’s multiplayer game actually is.
For some time I have been a GTA Online skeptic, possibly like many of you. Over the past decade or so, I’ve played Vice City and Bully and Red Dead for the singleplayer. That’s what I look for from Rockstar Games. GTA Online, I thought, was a side project, a micro-transaction moneymaker, something other than the main event. And yet for three years, aside from a new-gen version of GTA V, it is all Rockstar has been putting out: free expansion after free expansion, from “Lowriders” to “Further Adventures In Finance And Felony” to “Cunning Stunts.”
I’ve tried it.
I’ve tried to like it.
It’s been hard. The map always seemed too cluttered with too many things to do and too few indications about what’s worth doing. Was I supposed to want to play tennis with people and arm wrestle? Were there really so few missions made by Rockstar and so many merely “Rockstar-verified”?
My young nephew is into the game. Last spring, I asked him to explain it to me and he proceeded to load up one his favorite modes in the game. In the mode, one set of players stands on a bridge that connects two office towers. They have rocket launchers and fire away at a team of opposing players who drive armored SUVs, speed them down the street and into ramps that launch their vehicles at the players on the bridge, hoping to take the rocket launcher players out. The job was cool because it paid well, my nephew explained.
I took a video of it with my cell phone, because, well, I needed to remember that this is what GTA:O could be, if only I explored more of it.
For my nephew and for many other gamers, I’m sure, GTA Online is partially an economic fascination. It’s among gaming’s better deals. Buy GTA V and you get GTA Online and years of additions for no extra cost. You get a full multiplayer game set across the massive faux-L.A. and countryside of GTA V with more activities added to it every month or so. A new mini-expansion, “Bikers,” is coming out next week. GTA:O is both a playground and a persistent shopping opportunity, where the aim of the game can be the payouts you get for jobs that in turn let you buy better homes, cars, and maybe a heavily-armed yacht. You can bet in-game money on other players’ performance, too. Making money is the thing. There’s a player on the GTA:O subreddit who says he was bored the other day and decided to offer to flip parked cars with a stolen bulldozer for $200. Here’s a clip of someone paying up.
I’ve tinkered with GTA Online, but as of last week, I was a mere level 11 character who was sometimes matchmaking with people well over 100. I’m high enough level to own property but not high enough to activate the game’s acclaimed multiplayer heists. I’ve tried to catch on to this moving train of a game a couple of times, recently when I heard they were now leeting players hire other players to do work for them and even more recently when Rockstar added the option to speed through cartoonish stunt races laid out across the map.
My most recent try with the game was a success. I discovered that I could play the game as a fever dream, as a bunch of non-sequiturs, as an absurdist delight. But of course! GTA is always best when you embrace the chaos.
Maybe I just got lucky. Rockstar regularly picks out a mode and makes it pay out better character-leveling XP and money, then offers players who boot up the game the option to forgo loading the full GTA Online open world to just go into that highlighted mode instead. Last Thursday night, I turned on my PS4, started booting up GTA V, chose the day’s Rockstar-selected mode and was soon standing with other players in the back of a cargo plane, ready to jump out. We had to fall through the sky, open our parachutes, float through targets and, because this is GTA and such things are permissible and even advisable, a rival player ensured I failed by gliding down beside and shooting me with a machine gun. I assume my carcass floated to the ground.
The match ended, I went back to GTA Online’s open world and got hit with a barrage of invitations to join new modes and matches. This is a constant in the game. The open world you’re in is shared with a couple dozen other players. They can see you on the map, and you can see them. You can interact with them or invite them to do activities with you. But players from across the game can also broadcast invitations to join them in missions. These requests are presented as text messages in your in-game cellphone and they are pretty much constant.
Just as I was back in GTA Online’s open world I got an invitation that looked amusing enough to take. It was for a “Sumo” match. Soon enough, I was allied with two other players against four rival players. The rules of this contest: we were all sitting in parked cars on the roof of a hotel that had a hollowed-out center; we needed to ram the rivals’ cars off the roof. Fun!
It dawned on me that I should play GTA Online by being up for anything, by accepting alerts to try one ridiculous mission after another. At this point, Rockstar has added so much to the game that there is always stuff to be alerted that you can do. On that Thursday night, I’d get alerted that a player-CEO was available to be taken down in a neighborhood and, soon enough, me and a bunch of other players were all tearing up the streets near the Los Santos airport trying to be the one to run the player off the road. Then I got an alert that one of the game’s quasi-new map-wide contests was beginning, this one challenging players to destroy AI-controlled private military helicopters and trucks. To do this, I had to drive up to the center of the map and team with another player. He flew the chopper while I manned the machine gun. Maybe it was his flying. Maybe it was my shooting. But we didn’t do so well.
As with most multipayer games, GTA Online is tougher to enjoy if you aren’t very good at it, which you won’t be if you don’t play it often. You have to play a lot to learn the maps, tracks and modes, to get better gear and not constantly die or come in last place.
Oh, to be as good at GTA Online as this guy!
Happily, unlike many other multiplayer games, GTA Online is a great game for lurking. It’s a premiere game for people-watching or, more accurately, people-listening. When you’re not in a specific match or mission of the game, you’re in the giant open-world of the GTA V map with dozens of other people, whose voices you can hear if they have mics plugged in. There may be restrictions that I’ve yet to discover, but, without fail, if you enter into GTA Online you will hear people talking.
Last Thursday, one player was talking to a friend about what the teacher said at school. I didn’t quite catch it. As I drove north toward the helicopter mission, I listened to a few players discuss the possibility that another player, who wasn’t using a mic but who was flying around in a jet attacking people, was cheating. They reasoned that the player wasn’t targetable and they wondered if there were cheats that hackers could use on PS4 that had that effect. Mind you, I couldn’t see these players. I was nowhere near these players. But I could listen as apparent strangers, one with a southern twang, another with a midwestern drawl, commiserated about their newfound nemesis. The game’s a melting pot.
I played GTA Online again on Sunday and took on another mission that had me driving north to the game’s underutilized Blaine County region. It was a long night time drive, mostly on a highway up the map’s west coast. As I did, I heard the voice of what sounded like a boy, probably an American, who was playing somewhere else on the same map. Soon, he was chatting with a grown Frenchman, cooking up and executing a scheme that I think involved stealing a police vehicle by using some trick involving having the police to kill one of them.
Here’s their exchange, which played out as if it was a radio show to entertain me on my drive to the northern edge of the map. Note the poor French guy’s struggle to keep up, the boy’s winning enthusiasm and the sad end to their fast friendship. This is real human drama, folks, and part of the fun is not understanding half of what they’re talking about but visualizing it as best as possible:
American kid (male): Yo, dude.
French guy: What’ s up?
American kid: Are you the guy in the white car that I’m driving around with?
French guy: What?
American kid: Are you the guy that’s driving with me?
French guy: Yeah.
American kid: Oh, okay. Yo, dude, sorry I killed you. I just needed that money.
French guy: I won’t kill me...
American kid: Oh. Ok. Let’s go this way. [laughs] Oh, shit, shit shit shit shit!
[30 seconds of silence]
American kid: Oh, this is my garage? I’m going to call my Cheetah and repair it. Let’s see. Vehicles. Request. Or should we get my Kuruma? And we get in a five-star cop chase? ... I’ll get the Kuruma.
French guy: Sorry for my English, but I’m French. I try very hard to speak English.
American kid: Alright. I just called out my Kuruma. Alright. Let’s go. Here. Get in. [30 seconds of silence]. Yo, you want to go find the impound and steal that armored car?
French guy: Yeah.
American kid: Alright. I’ll get my car impounded and then we’ll go there and steal that car. Let’s just kill a few people and then let them take my car. Alright...Dang it. That didn’t hit them. ... Here we go. Yeah, good, alright. I got the cops on me. Now, stay in my car and it’ll get impounded when I die. Then just pick me up and we’ll drive there. Alright let’s see. Let’s drive to one of the cops. [10 second pause]. Here, don’t kill them. Let me die. Alright, good, now they should impound my car. Alright, they impounded it. Alright pick me up, let’s go.
French guy: Sorry. I’m here. Shit.
American kid: Here, I’ll run to you. Oh, you’re going to go this way? Alright.
French guy: I tried.
American kid: Alright, I’m right here. Alright, let’s go. Alright, I’ll set a waypoint. There we go. Alright, follow the waypoint. Let’s go.
French guy: Shit shit shit! Woo-hoo! [two minutes later] Fucking computer!
American kid: Alright. I just took out one of the cops. Alright we’re here. Go a little bit more. Just go around here. Alright I’m getting out here. [pause] Yeah, I’m going to frigging jump them. Shit, wrong way. [pause] I’m right here by my car. My Karuma is in here. Should I just grab my Karuma? I’ll just grab my other car. Get in here! [whispering] Alright, let’s go! Alright, dude, I got it I got it. Let’s go. Open the gate. Dude, get in the back, get in the back so you can shoot!
French guy: [laughs]
American kid: Oh, you’re dead?
French guy: Yeah.
[a few minutes later, after they’ve regrouped]
French guy: Oh shit, boom!
American kid: Yeah, that car just went down hard.
French guy: [laughs]
American kid: The good thing about this car is that it is fully armored. Except in the windows. But the windows are armored but not like 100%. Probably like 80. Alright, let’s ram some of these frickin’ cars. BOOM!!!! Yo, I just feel like robbing this bus right now. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to rob this bus. Yo, dude, get on the bus, get on the bus. Dude? Dude, did you die? Aw, he left. Damn it.
When I got to the north end of the map, the opportunity I was chasing after was gone. It had been on a timer and expired. There isn’t much to do up in that part of the game, though GTA:O’s refined menus let you quickly pick a mission or match type that will get you back into some action sooner. The drive was a bit of a waste, but it’s typical of the slight inelegance that remains in the game. Rockstar has decluttered the game map by now hiding all mission markers by default, which encourages players to play the way I’m playing: by reacting to each new cell phone message invitation. But burrowing into the game’s menus still presents an overwhelming amount of missions to do with no clear pathway about what to do next and why.
Missions can also be confusing, especially for randoms and those who are poor sports. On Sunday, the game was paying out extra for doing some of the few GTA Online missions that have cutscenes and a storyline. The featured missions involved the character Lamar, and the mission I jumped into required two pairs of players to hop into lowriders and attempt to instigate a gang war. I let a veteran player drive a yellow lowrider while I shot from its window. We did well enough and got to a meeting place where we then had to wait three dull minutes for the other players in a purple lowrider to get their act together and meet up. We then had to all drive to a final location for a final shoot-out, but one of the low-level players in the purple lowrider was immediately killed and then quit the mission.
I backed out into the open world. That low-level player soon spotted me in the open world and shot me. Great. So it goes in GTA Online, though. I’ve mostly had a good time.
I am but in GTA Online’s shallow end, and I am sure the game’s sharks would see me in my newbie gear or watch me enter my basic house and snicker. Or, as they have done on recent nights, blast me at close range with a tank somewhere near the equivalent of Sunset Boulevard without even braking. I’m fine with that. For now.
I’m in GTA Online to go with the flow, try random missions and gawk. I’m suddenly loving this bazaar of the bizarre.