Yesterday, Rockstar released the latest free expansion for GTA Online, Arena War. While it isn’t the game’s biggest update, it’s very different from previous expansions.
Arena War introduces seven new modes, all set inside the Maze Bank Arena, which is located near downtown Los Santos. These seven modes are part of a new in-game reality competition show called Arena War (think American Gladiators meets Death Race). The modes themselves aren’t terribly inventive, but their presentation is unique. Each mode has specific commentary from different in-game celebrities, like action movie star Jock Cranley. They also have custom graphics and video packages to introduce them, as well as new music intros and themes.
The new modes are all vehicle-focused and range from simple capture the flag to more exciting death races or bizarre asymmetrical battles. All of the modes limit players to one life; when your car explodes you have to wait until the next round or match. Thankfully, Rockstar added in a new feature to help prevent players from leaving after dying. When players are eliminated in any of the new modes, they spawn in a spectator box. This area is a small VIP lounge above the arena where players can grab a few drinks from the bar, watch the rest of match using telescopes or drones or spin a wheel to win different prizes, like cash or XP. The spectators in some modes can even use RC cars or gun turrets to disrupt the competition. It’s a cool idea, and, in my time with Arena War, I encountered less players leaving after dying or when their team was losing.
My least favorite modes added in this update are Flag War and Carnage. Flag War is just capture the flag, but in cars. It isn’t bad, but it’s not very exciting. Carnage is a straight-up demolition derby that can become quite chaotic with a full lobby.
The modes Hot Bomb and Here Come The Monsters can be exciting, but only when they have a full lobby. My first match in Arena War was a match of Hot Bomb with only two other players. In Hot Bomb, one player has a bomb and must crash into another player to pass them the bomb. The bomb has a timer, and whoever is stuck with the bomb when the timer runs out is eliminated. With only three players it was hard to pass the bomb, and the match was over quickly.
Here Come The Monsters pits a team of small cars against a team of huge monster trucks. The small cars try to survive for a certain amount of time while the massive trucks hunt them down. Like Hot Bomb, this mode really needs a full lobby. I played a few matches of this mode with only five players and it never felt hard to avoid the trucks. These modes could benefit from having a higher minimum number of players necessary for the match to start.
Other modes don’t suffer from this problem, and they’re a lot of fun. Tag Team and Game Masters are both asymmetrical modes. In Game Masters, one team of players in cars is tasked with collecting checkpoints that spawn around the arena. The other team sits up in the spectator box and can use turrets, RC cars, traps and drones to slow or stop the other team from collecting checkpoints. Each team switches sides, and the team with the most checkpoints wins. The mode feels a bit like Watch Dogs: controlling traps, such as pop-up barriers, is done via different cameras, and you use a cursor to point at the traps you want to activate. I also enjoyed sending out explosive RC cars into the arena to blow up my opponents.
Tag Team is similar to Game Masters, but instead of two teams of eight, each team is made up of only two players. One player is in the spectator box, using traps and other tools to help their teammate in the arena, who is trying to destroy the other players. This mode is probably best played with a friend, because getting stuck with a random player who won’t help you or isn’t playing can suck.
Out of all seven new game modes added in Arena War, the most fun I had was in Wreck It, a death race filled with tactical decisions. Wreck It is played on a small track where it takes less than 30 seconds to finish a lap. Each race has players driving around 15 laps. The mode is permadeath, like the others, but it also features a pit stop area where players have the option to pull off and heal their vehicle. Using the pit stop takes time; spend too much time healing and other players will lap you and finish the race before you can reach the finish line, resulting in you getting disqualified. Protecting your car is key, but taking out other players is a great way to move up the leaderboard.
Wreck It is a fun and intense race where players have to choose between being aggressive, healing or falling back and staying safe. Add in traps dotted along the course and spectators sending in explosive RC cars, and it’s a fantastically chaotic and fun mode.
All of these new modes are available for free to any GTA Online player, but Arena War also offers players a new way to earn new items and upgrades. Players need to purchase an Arena Workshop, which costs $995,000. This unlocks a new progression path, complete with new levels and rewards. Inside this new workshop players follow their career, look at different stats relevant to Arena War and also upgrade and modify some of the new cars added in this latest update. While some players won’t be able to afford this workshop, the new progression system seems like a smart way to add more into GTA Online.
Previous updates, like After Hours and Gun Running, have been focused on making lots of money and grinding business missions. This was hard to do alone, and trolls could ruin your missions. Arena War’s progression system is focused on playing fun new PVP modes and works well alone, as well as with friends. Things could get harder if the modes aren’t popular with players, but I’m excited that this late into GTA Online’s lifecycle Rockstar is trying out a totally new progression and reward system.
This new free update also includes the usual assortment of new sports cars, sedans and clothing. Much of the new clothing is locked behind Arena War progression, though you have the option to pay extra to buy the clothing without upgrading your career. The prices are really high, so I wouldn’t buy too many items early. A lot of the new clothing is food themed, which is great for those who have been wanting to wear a pizza hoodie. Rockstar has also added a bunch of new alien and astronaut costumes.
Arena War is a great update for GTA Online that comes at a perfect time. With some fans worried about the future of the game after Red Dead Online was released, Arena War shows that Rockstar is still willing to update GTA Online with sizable expansions, experiment with new mechanics and progression systems and surprise players with fresh content.
Zack Zwiezen is a a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. He has written for Gamecritics, Killscreen and Entertainment Fuse.