I peer through my night vision goggles. The hall ahead seems clear. "Evan, you good?" Standing to my left, my partner indicates he is. "Let's move up."
Just then, the building shakes from an explosion. Our support team in the helicopter above must be keeping the guards outside occupied.
"Air team, you guys doing okay?"
"We're doing great," Patrick replies, cool as ever.
"We're almost to the lab. Keep 'em busy for another minute or two and we'll be clear."
Evan and I take cover at the next corner. We've come a long way for this one, and there's a big payoff waiting. We just need to get in those doors, grab the goods, and get out alive. No problem.
Over the past week, I've done some extraordinary things online. I've broken in and out of prison, I've stolen military hardware from an aircraft carrier, and I've parachuted into a top-secret lab under cover of night. It's been a pretty great time.
For a dozen or so hours, I've been teamed up with a group of four friends, knocking over banks and breaking into prisons in GTA Online's new co-op heists. Today, I thought I'd share what we've been up to, along with some early thoughts about how Rockstar's ambitious new multiplayer venture holds up.
GTA Online is the MMO-lite online component of Grand Theft Auto V, in which you take control of a custom avatar of your choosing and take on missions and challenges across the entirety of GTA V's sprawling map. Here's my main lady:
She's pretty cool.
As you play more and more GTAO, you'll gradually level up, increase your skills, unlock better guns, and more challenging missions. Players are dumped into the open world by default, where they mostly just cruise around blowing one another up. You can also play more structured matches against other players, competing in everything from deathmatches to helicopter races. If you just want to play along with friends, you can team up for co-operative "jobs," which pit you and your teammates against computer-controlled enemies and have you stealing cars, interrupting street deals, or just killing waves of bad guys.
For all the various things you can do in GTA Online, heists, which were released as a free update last week, are a whole new kinda thing. Here's Rockstar's trailer:
If you played single-player GTA V, you'll already be familiar with how they work. In the main game, you would periodically plan and execute a heist with your team of three playable protagonists. You'd pick a plan of attack, undertake several "setup missions" to line up the vehicles, gear, and costumes you'd need, then finally carry out the job. GTA V's heists were really cool in theory, but a bit disappointing in practice.
GTA Online's five new co-op heists are designed for teams of four players and are meant to be replayed frequently, with different tactics and roles. Over the past week I teamed up with my colleague Evan Narcisse along with two of my regular Destiny raid crew, Lifehacker's Patrick "Ice Man" Allan and Mashable's Adam "Hothead" Rosenberg. Evan was level 12 and had a nice enough in-game apartment to host the raid, so he was our ringleader.
Some things about GTA Online's heists are good. So, so good. Other things are not so good. Before I get into all of that, though, here's a breakdown of the three heists we've carried out. Heads up that from here on out, this post will contain lots of what could be considered spoilers for the those three heists.
This one is basically Baby's First Heist, a two-player bank job that's mostly just designed to get you familiar with the basics. It's actually a little weird that the first heist requires only two players; we got our four players together and wound up having to carry it out separately, in two groups of two.
The Fleeca Job is pretty straightforward: There's a single setup job, where you and your teammate steal an armored car. Then, the two of you head over to the bank, one of you hacks into the bank's security on his phone while the other drives. Once they're all hacked in, both of you storm the lobby and takes out the security cameras. One of you is on crowd control and has to keep a gun pointed at the people in the front, while the other goes into the back and does a drilling minigame to get into a safe-deposit box. After that, you'll escape in a brief car chase that's pretty easy, thanks to your armored car, and get rescued straight off the highway in a very cool grand finale. The whole thing took us somewhere north of an hour, once we got it up and running.
This is the first "real" heist. It took us a really long time to complete—probably six hours, all told. There are a bunch of different setup missions, many of which are undertaken by two groups of two players, completing different challenges in different areas of the map. The ultimate goal is to break a dude out of prison, and to do that, you have to steal a plane and a prison bus, pose as cops, assassinate some lawyers, and eventually send two people into the prison posing as a guard and an inmate...while the other two are flying overhead in the plane and a stolen helicopter.
I was on the ground team for the final mission. Our cover was blown early on (I believe that always happens), and we had to shoot our way onto the prison yard and grab our target, then shoot our way out through waves of NOOSE [ GTA's version of SWAT) troopers. Then, we had to hop into an armored vehicle and coordinate with the air team to meet at an airstrip, jump onto the plane, and escape, all with a five-star wanted level. It's a wild ride, and a significant jump in difficulty from the Fleeca Job. You'll want to bring some snacks.
The third heist we pulled was easily the best of the three we've done. Our job was to steal data from a lab located off the highway northeast of Los Santos. To do that, we'd need to steal a mega-powerful attack chopper and an EMP from the military, outfit a stolen armored truck with it, and sneak that truck into the lab. Then, under cover of night, we'd fly the chopper above the labs, detonate the EMP and send a ground team in to steal the data, then swim out and rendez-vous with the chopper on a nearby beach.
The setup missions for this heist were superior to the Prison Break—not only were they more varied and exciting, but they were all four-player missions, meaning we all got to work together the whole time. Best of all, several of the missions had checkpoints that made everything much more forgiving. Aaaaand without spoiling too much, there's a really good mission that takes place on an aircraft carrier that features one of the best musical moments in all of GTA V.
So, that's what we played. There are still two more heists we haven't done, but we had more than enough fun with the first three to keep going and play them all, plus I want to go back and replay the first ones while performing different roles.
In the meantime: What was good about the heists? What was bad? Funny you should ask. Let's do this.
GTA is more varied than most other popular online games, particularly console games. You can't do anything in this game, but you can do a lot, especially when compared with other online games like Call of Duty, Destiny, or even Battlefield. That variety carries over to the multiplayer heists, often in entertaining ways.
Over the course of the heists we played, we flew helicopters, did high-pressure hacking minigames, snuck into complexes without being detected, held up a bank while taking out security cameras, posed as cops and prison guards, and even engaged in high-altitude jet combat. The roles on each job are also nice and distinct—I'm looking forward to replaying them with everyone in different roles.
Things frequently go a bit haywire with most setup missions, so it's nice that there's a fair bit of room for improvisation. In one mission, our group had climbed aboard an attack helicopter and were making our escape when I was knocked from my seat by an enemy chopper. I wound up on the ground, but was able to steal a car and follow along, firing rockets up at the helicopters that were still chasing the rest of my team.
In some cases, we were annoyed to find that we couldn't plan things exactly how we wanted—for example, we couldn't arrange our personal cars to form barricades in preparation for a difficult parking-lot shootout—but in general, as long as we stayed within the mission's parameters, there was room for on-the-fly planning.
Heists more or less require you to play with friends and to use voice chat. Because of that, the designers were able to create complicated, multi-layered challenges that require real coordination and teamwork. That makes almost every mission much more rewarding than you average GTA Online job, because everyone has a crucial role and has to coordinate with their teammates to make it work.
I've come to really love my team. I love my teammate Evan…
...and I love my teammate Patrick…
...and I love my teammate Adam, too.
The grand finale of the big prison break had us all in dramatically different roles: Evan and I broke into the prison and fought our way through a ton of cops, Adam flew the plane we'd stolen into position, and Patrick stole a helicopter and flew interference, using a rocket launcher to keep jets (uh, there were jets) from shooting Adam down. We had to carefully communicate and plan things out, or we'd be hosed.
The Humane Labs raid was even better—every setup mission had all four of us doing something or other, so we always felt like we were helping each other out. During the finale, we detonated an EMP inside of the labs, and Evan and I parachuted down to the parking lot, put on night-vision goggles, and raided the place while Adam and Patrick fought off incoming backup in the attack helicopter above.
Speaking of all that…
After fighting our way through the inside Humane Labs, Evan and I found ourselves at a door locked with two keycard locks. We had to each step up to one, then count down and slide our cards at the same time. It was a small detail, and not all that hard to get it right, but it felt so cool, because it felt like we were acting out something we've all seen in countless heist and action movies. "Ready… three, two, one, go. [Door opens.] Okay, we're in."
And that's really the thing that GTA Online's heists get so right. The slow-burn music, the voice coming over the radio in your ear, the long setups and exciting finales… at their best, heists make you feel like you and your friends are getting to act out an awesome action sequence in a big dumb blockbuster movie. Midway through one of the missions, Patrick remarked that we were basically playing through a video-game version of The Fast and the Furious. That's about right.
Until now, I've had a hard time getting into GTA Online. It's enjoyable enough in small doses, and can be a laugh with friends, but the world itself is so hostile and chaotic that it's difficult to find a foothold. That's still a problem—everywhere I go there are trolls and killers and plenty of people who make it their mission to creatively ruin your fun even if you're in passive mode—but now that I've started playing heists, I feel like I've got a reason to get more into GTA Online itself.
I've started doing more jobs, leveling up and customizing my character, and generally putting more time into getting better at it. The process isn't dissimilar to the way Destiny's raids kept me playing long after I would've otherwise stopped. Heists are a complicated, rewarding endgame activity for you and your friends to come back to multiple times, and they've done a good job of making me more invested in my character.
GTA Online retains GTA V's commitment to putting you "in the world." That means that before you can get into a helicopter and fly it up above your heist target, your whole team has to actually drive out to the helicopter. In some ways, that's really cool—it sets the stage, lets tension build, and gives you a chance to chat with your teammates. But on the whole, there's still too much downtime in GTAO's heists.
Completing a phase of the heist throws players back out into free-roam mode. We'd have to wait for our host, Evan, to make his way back to his in-game apartment and invite us all. Sometimes that'd take a minute or two, sometimes five or more. Other times, we'd have to wait for him to get a call from Lester before we could proceed. We'd all mess around a bit, checking in with him. "Nope, no call yet." Before we could start the Humane Labs heist, we realized that Evan didn't have enough money for the $50,000 buy-in to get us going. He was the only one with the raid unlocked, so we had to spend a bunch of time doing random jobs and earning him enough cash, when we would've rather just gotten started.
The loading screens are worse than all of that. Every time you fail a mission, you'll have to wait at a lengthy loading screen before trying again. Every time you finish a mission, you'll have to wait at an even longer one. I'm talking minutes on end, just staring at a blank screen and a spinning wheel.
You run out of things to talk about, and eventually everyone starts talking about the loading screen. "Damn, this is a long loading screen."
Heist missions can be very difficult. Sometimes that's a good thing—if they were too easy, we'd blow through them, and that'd be that—and if things are too difficult, you can always lower the difficulty at the expense of some money and XP. But it's less that the missions are difficult and more that they're punishing.
Several times while setting up the first big heist, we were broken into two teams of two and tasked with different objectives around the map. Say, two players will dress up as cops and steal a squad car, while the other two will assassinate some lawyers and steal some papers. Thing is, if either team fails, both teams fail and must start all over. Nothing's worse than having a perfect run, then getting a failure screen for something you couldn't even see happen.
We've also failed missions for some extremely dumb reasons. Once, I was shooting guys at a prison from "out of bounds" for too long, and the game saw fit to end the entire mission and make us replay it.
Another time, I died underwater during an otherwise near-perfect heist and, because we'd already used up our sole extra life, we all failed. Parachuting is surprisingly deadly, and several times we've lost teammates (and come one step closer to losing a mission) because someone hit a rock or a telephone pole.
The game only gives you one respawn pooled among your whole team, so if that second person dies, you'll fail the whole shebang. That means it's possible to fail a mission at the very end, when all danger is behind you and you should really all just be celebrating. Maybe you're driving back from the gunfight you just had, accidentally trigger the cops, and get shot to death. Maybe you're parachuting to the rendez-vous, victorious, and accidentally fly into the blades of your buddy's chopper. You'll lose the mission and have to play the entire thing over, all because of a stupid mistake. And given that GTA's controls, while improved compared with earlier GTA games, still lack the precision of a dedicated shooter or racing game, it's easy to make stupid mistakes in this game even if you're pretty good at it.
Because you'll die a lot and have to replay missions a lot, that means you'll have to listen to the same pre-mission jokes from your mission-givers. Some of the jokes are okay, some aren't, and I only half-heard most of them, since my team and I were trying to talk to each other over them. But there are only so many times you can hear the same dialogue, especially when you've screwed something up and are replaying it for the sixth time.
I haven't played GTA Online heists with strangers, and I would never, ever want to. That's partly because you'll need to clearly communicate with your teammates to make these missions work. But more than that, you'll need to be playing with three people you can easily forgive and who will forgive you. Because the game is so unforgiving, you will probably fuck up and cost your team a victory. Your teammates will do the same thing to you. You'll beat yourself up about it, or feel frustrated that your teammate can't just get his or her shit together.
It's so, so important that you're playing with chill, cool people who you like, and with whom you can (eventually) laugh about your collective failures. If there's one thing that random GTA Online players are not, it's chill. I'm sure it's possible to find a group of like-minded, fun buddies with whom to tackle a heist, especially if you're coordinating using an outside service or message board. But if you're just spamming invites to everyone in your lobby like so (so) many people do, well… good luck, I guess.
I sense that a good number of people will want to play the online heists but will never be able to, which is a shame. I understand why it'd be difficult for Rockstar to include AI bots for all the roles in every heist, but it's still too bad that so many people will miss out on something so generally cool.
Sometimes, GTA Online works perfectly. Other times—often, really—it feels like it's being held together with chewing gum. The long-ass loading times, erratic spawning, odd connectivity, and inconsistent invites all suggest that the game's online infrastructure isn't as solid as it should be. Some of that's understandable—surely this is one of the most ambitious shared online worlds ever created—but it can still be a drag.
I've seen many, many players complain about connectivity issues. Other than the widespread issues on the day heists launched, we've actually been pretty clear in that regard. However, plenty of small bugs have cropped up: There were times when my teammates could climb up a wall but I couldn't, times when we'd all load into a map with no HUD or weapons, and have to wait a minute or so before everything finished syncing up. There was also at least one extremely, deal-breakingly terrible bug.
After trying and failing the prison break multiple times, we finally made it happen. Adam had to land his plane twice to pick us all up, but we actually managed to survive. We lost the cops and were flying for freedom, cheering over our chat channel, high on our victory. We had only to get to a checkpoint in the air, at which point the guy we'd rescued would take the plane's controls and the rest of us would bail out and parachute for the beach below.
And then this happened:
Huh. Okay, maybe we'd just hit it wrong. Let's try again.
We tried again, and again. Eventually our happy chatter died down. We tried landing the plane, and none of us could even get out. We took off again, flew through the ring again, and still, nothing happened. We turned to Google. Turns out, hitting that ring is supposed to trigger a short cutscene where we all bail out, but it wasn't happening. Our game was bugged.
Eventually Adam had to crash us into the ocean, and we failed the mission.
Next thing we knew, we were back outside the prison and had to do the whole… thing… over. It was the worst, most dispiriting bug I can ever remember running into in a video game, and thanks to all my time playing Destiny, I've come across some pretty bad bugs. It soured our mood entirely, and while we did stick it out and finish the heist (it didn't bug out the second time), we were left with a bitter taste. We eventually got over it and haven't encountered anything that bad since, but I'll never forget that it happened.
So, that's kind of a shitty note to end on. And it was a shitty note to end on, at the time. But the second heist was much smoother—and generally, much better—than the first one. Before long we were all having fun again.
For all the cheap deaths, long loading screens, bugs, and assorted other frustrations we encountered in our first three heists, I remain awfully impressed by what Rockstar has managed to pull off. These are some of the most ambitious co-op challenges I've ever undertaken in this type of game, and I'm willing to forgive a lot of early roughness.
I'm hopeful that the developers at Rockstar will continue to tweak and fine-tune their game as they have over the past year, and that the GTA Online of 2016 and beyond will more fully and seamlessly realize its creators' vision.
For now, it's a damn good start.