On paper, Grand Theft Auto Online was a game I long found unappealing. Between its lack of story, general grind, and players’ apparent propensity for causing mayhem, it just didn’t sound like much of a good time. Well, after a couple months of playing the title (on the PlayStation 4) fairly regularly, it’s safe to say that my fears were mostly misaligned. In fact, I’m finding that I’m having a far better time in the game than I thought possible, and that’s despite what the game is to most players, as well as what it lacks.
If you’re as late to the party as I was with GTA Online, its premise is simple. You play as a character of your own making who’s just arrived in the city of Los Santos in the great state of San Andreas. This new person becomes acquainted with the game’s methods and madness via a series of introductory missions hosted by GTA V regular, Lamar Davis. You drive, chase, and shoot; obtain the basic layout of the land; and quickly learn of the game’s ubiquitous multiplayer aspects. With basic weaponry and automotive transport at your side, you’re then let loose to do as you please.
So, without a story, what in the world do you do next? Well, for me and my husband, the first thing was figure out how to play together. Much to my delight, the game offers a few different options for folks averse to public lobbies. Its “invite only” sessions are what we use the most, as they are private and allow us to invite in other PS4 GTAO friends. We’ve also used the “closed friend” session, which is also private, but only the session’s host can invite in friends. Either option gives players nearly free range, with the exception of certain tasks that can only be done in the game’s regular “freemode” (public) option, like running businesses and some heist setups. (If helpful, I may outline the different session types in a future post, with notes based solely on what I’ve learned from them, as going online to find answers about them mostly proved fruitless.)
With our session ready to go, the next thing was to actually decide on what to do in the game. GTA Online turns seven this year, and over those years, the game’s become a sandbox of gigantic proportions, with numerous expansions that are open to everyone. And even with the limiting factor of us playing alone and usually just as a duo, there are still hundreds of “jobs” at our disposal. In the game, a “job” is any hosted activity, from races to missions to heists to deathmatches to parachuting. There are markers all over San Andreas indicating these jobs, and they can be selected from the game’s menu, taken from the game’s NPCs (like Lamar), or accepted via outside player invites. (As indication that our private sessions are only private in the academic sense, we receive random player job invites all the time.)
Besides taking on jobs, we can also partake in the game’s daily objectives – a series of three tasks offered by the game each day. Do all three and receive a nice bit of cash along with a decent chunk of reputation (leveling) points. (Doing all the daily objective in a week or a month results in extra bonuses, too.) Some days we choose to form a motorcycle club* and take on various MC missions; or, we can choose to become the CEOs/VIPs of “an organization” to tackle different business…um, ventures…y’know, in the GTA sense. Early on with the game, we also followed a treasure hunt and gathered up bounties. Occasionally, the shady car dealer, Simeon Yetarian, will send notice of different cars he wants; we find and deliver them for cash rewards. And sometimes, we just do nothing important – we drive around looking for cool cars, or we parachute off cranes, or we can see how quickly we can become “archenemies” (by attacking on another), or we snag a couple ATVs and ride them across beaches and beachgoers. Fun times. Silly times.
*We learned that the in-game motorcycle clubs have nothing to do with the Crews that can be created online through Rockstar’s Social Club. Being part of a Crew enables you to play online with its members, and you can interact with those members social media-style on the Social Club site. You can also rank up within the Crew, but this doesn’t affect your level in the game.
But, in reality, GTA Online is all about making money, because it’s what you need in order to obtain things to kick off certain jobs. Want to start a heist? You’ll need a high-rise apartment, or a facility, or an arcade (depending on the heist). Want to start an underground business? You need a nightclub, or maybe a bunker. Want to be the head of your own motorcycle club? You’ll need a clubhouse. If you want to fast cars, the nice clothes, the fancy weapons, they all cost money. The version of the game I picked up came with extra money and a few decent properties, which provided a good head start. As well, Rockstar seems to be pretty good about providing weekly bonuses on different jobs (a good incentive to try out new ones), discounts, and even free cash, all of which are welcome…to me as a new player, anyway.
At this point, you might be wondering if there’s a downside to all this. Aren’t we bothered by the fact that we can’t do everything in the game by playing “privately” and (usually) only as a two-person team? Don’t we hate that we can’t run businesses, actively or passively make millions? Isn’t it just awful that we can’t partake in certain jobs (namely big, money-making heists) that require four people?
Nah, no, and nope.
The things of it is, we know what we’re missing out on and how to take part in all of it, if we wanted to. And that is, to play the game as Rockstar intended, duking it out PVP in public lobbies because that’s where all the money fun(?) is to be had. Well, as many can attest to, GTA Online is truly what you make of it. You can grind and explore; become rich or remain humble; race and shoot your way to glory or stay silent in the shadows. You can take on the world and everyone in it (at a price, so be nice), or just spend an hour looking for stunt jumps. There’s something weirdly brilliant in GTA Online’s unstructured approach to gaming, and I don’t hate it. There’s something freeing about going into game with no primary goals, no feelings of “I must complete x and y today if I’m ever going to get to z,” no stressors over boss battles or difficult levels. And personally, through it I’ve gained a much better understanding of the meaning and appeal of sandbox games.
In GTA Online, I have nothing to do and everything to do, and it’s all pretty great.
All images including lede taken by author during PS4 gameplay of Grand Theft Auto Online © Rockstar North, Rockstar Games (2013).