First Impressions:  The Good And Bad News About GRAND THEFT AUTO ONLINE

Investing time in GTA ONLINE right now is a crapshoot.  But it may also be worth the risk.

The multiplayer experience has never been a real draw for me when it comes to gaming. Part of the problem is surely the games themselves (I’ve yet to play a Call of Duty title that didn’t bore me to tears), but the other part of the problem—the much, much bigger part of the problem—is the online multiplayer experience itself. The culture that’s sprung up around AAA titles like Halo and Call of Duty and Gears of War seems almost aggressively childish, a churning sea of idiots screaming “faggot” at one another while mindlessly careening around a series of incongruously beautiful locations. Why would anyone choose that experience over the dozens of games offering amazing single-player campaigns? It’s baffling, and more than a little depressing.

There are, however, a precious few notable exceptions to my “Multiplayer Games Can Suck It” ethos. Over the past five years, two AAA titles offered up an online experience that transcended whatever misgivings I might have had about the people I was sharing a game map with. The first of these was Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, an epic western whose brilliant online campaign seemed to catch just about everyone off-guard. The second, oddly enough, was EA’s Battlefield 3, a game I was dragged to kicking and screaming. I could spend thousands of words talking about either of these titles, but that’s not why we’re here today. We’re here because a third game has joined Red Dead Redemption and Battlefield 3 on my list of standout multiplayer games. And here’s the kicker: Grand Theft Auto Online has achieved that status despite being, y’know, kinda-sorta-not-really “operational."

Broken, one might say.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration. Since launching on October 1, Grand Theft Auto Online has been, quite frankly, a clusterfuck. It’s not quite SimCity-levels of clusterfuck, but still: it’s been messy. A few weeks after Grand Theft Auto V sold $1B worth of copies in its first three days of release, Rockstar Games threw open the doors on the game’s incredibly deep multiplayer component, promising an experience that would live on long after most gamers had finished GTAV’s single-player campaign. GTA Online was pitched as an ongoing experience, a neverending parade of Team Deathmatch sessions, Survival matches, drag races, customizable characters, frivolous activities (You guys, tennis!!!!!) and more, all of it set against the sprawling, 100+ square mile backdrop of GTAV’s world map. You might recall that GTA Online announcement trailer, which, in its final moments, offered one of the all-time greatest money-shots online gaming's ever seen. Here, relive the magic:

The disastrous launch of EA's SimCity was an all-timer, an instant cautionary tale that'll probably end up repurposed as a scary story that game developers can tell one another on the long nights leading up to the release of their next, big AAA game ("...and then, without warning... the lights flickered! The servers crashed! And in the end, no amount of PR bullshit could save them! Muhahaha!"). If EA's catastrophic SimCity launch taught us anything, it was undoubtedly "Any company launching a highly-anticipated online game should plan on conducting a metric shit-ton of beta testing prior to releasing that game, and even then they should be prepared for the worst when their servers go live (basically: overprepare to a silly degree)."

Alas, it appears that Rockstar did not overprepare for the release of GTA Online. Upon logging into the game on October 1st, players encountered all manner of bugs, glitches, and game freezes (insert Bethesda joke here). Some players couldn't get past the opening tutorial, while others were able to play long enough to earn some cash and level up their character a bit...only to discover that their character (and all the progress they'd made) had simply disappeared in between gaming sessions. For a day or two, few people seemed capable of logging into GTAO at all (IGN's Keza MacDonald has virtually abandoned her ongoing review of the game after repeated issues with Rockstar's servers). A patch was released, but problems persisted. As of this writing, it seems as though logging into GTA Online and using it as Rockstar intended is-- at best-- a total crapshoot: you may get in, and maybe you'll even be able to level up your character and join a few missions. But to their credit, Rockstar has been pretty upfront about the game's ongoing issues, and they've offered up suggestions on how players can best avoid having their characters deleted. Still no guarantee that won't happen, of course, but still: it seems that Rockstar's being open, honest, and doing what they can for players.

And so, the smart move is obvious: we should all stay the hell away from GTA Online until Rockstar's got the thing under control.

But here's the thing about that "smart move": if you are able to get into the game, run through some missions, rank up your character, and taste a bit of what Rockstar's GTA Online experience will (should!) ultimately offer, you're gonna find it damn near impossible to stay away from the thing. I, for instance, know full well that all of my progress could disappear at any moment. I also realize that each minute I spend in the GTAO world is a minute I could be utterly wasting. And I understand that if the worst does occur, I will be angry. Angry with myself, angry with Rockstar Games, and, what the hell, angry with anything else that happens to hove into my field of vision for the next forty-five minutes. I know all of this, and yet-- having tasted GTA Online's good life, and at length-- I find myself incapable of staying away. As reckless as it may be, coming back to the game right now just feels worth the risk.

Over the past four days, I've been able to join missions (and/or "Jobs") just as often as I've found myself unable to join them. I've sunk a few hours into the game, enough to have leveled up into the double-digits. I've experienced the service's Team Deathmatch, Survival, and Last Man Standing modes, and I've performed a number of missions for the minor-league criminals who call me on my in-game phone from time to time. I've entered a number of races, winning as many as I've lost, and I've spent a sizable chunk of time engaged in one of my favorite activities from Red Dead Redemption's online mode: causing, observing, and participating in the absolute chaos that naturally arises from being in one of Rockstar's open worlds with a dozen-or-so complete strangers. I've seen dudes running around in short-shorts and cowboy hats, shotgun in hand. I've stood on a rooftop and watched one guy make a crazy stand in the face of what had to be a four-star police response (and I rooted for him all the way up until the inevitable). I've taken note of the numerous ladders that GTA Online's adds to the single-player version of Los Santos, and I've used them to climb onto previously-unreachable rooftops to pick fights with cops, strangers, and other passersby.

When it's working correctly (or close to correctly, if that's the case), every moment spent in the GTA Online world is massively, indescribably entertaining. To me, it feels a lot like Red Dead's online world, just with a helluva lot more stuff-- people, modes of transportation, sniper's nests, law enforcement, activities, missions, matches, and other players-- packed into it. The Team Deathmatch levels I've played seem cleverly designed, and the team balancing seems to work pretty damn well. The least compelling part of the experience is probably the races, but that may be because I already get so much enjoyment out of the simple act of driving and listening to the radio: I don't need checkpoints for that to be interesting. My favorite activity thus far, though, has to be the Survival rounds.

The edge-of-your-seat thrill found in GTA Online's Survival matches is strong: you and up to three other players (you can play with friends or whatever players the game aligns you with, but I always played with a few friends) are placed in an area-- a construction site, say, or a meth'd out shanty town-- and are given a few seconds to round up the ammo, armor, and weaponry scattered around the environment. A buzzer goes off, and a wave of enemies (angry cops, meth addicts, etc) comes at you. Survive long enough to kill them off, and the match throws another, stronger, bigger wave of enemies at you. Die, and you stay dead until the beginning of the next round. If your other teammates don't survive that wave, game over. While you're waiting to see how things play out, you get to watch the entire brouhaha from an elevated position, an eye-in-the-sky perspective that allows you to apply different filters to the scene. For instance, you can apply a "News Chopper"-style filter that'll allow you to watch the scene play out as if it were a breaking news story (complete with the news crawl name-dropping your teammates):

That sort of detail is everywhere you look in GTA Online, from the design of the Deathmatch "arenas" to the way currency works in the game. As you complete missions, jobs, and win races/matches/what-have-you, you'll amass a bit of money. The game tells you to deposit the cash in ATMs (located fairly commonly around the city), and will send you a warning of sorts if you end up with too much burning a hole in your pocket. Why? Because if another player decides to, say, gun you down in the middle of the street-- which, let's face it, is a nearly constant occurrence in GTAO-- you're gonna drop that cash. As in, you lose it. Because cash is used to buy armor, weapons, upgrades, housing, and a host of upgrades for your "Personal Vehicle" (and because GTAO doesn't flood you with money like the single-player campaign does), that's a definite bummer. And so, visiting ATMs becomes part of the game's routine...until you realize that Rockstar has given you an in-game cell-phone with internet access. Internet access means online banking, which means that-- if you poke around in your phone's interface a bit-- you'll see that Rockstar made it possible to make deposits from anywhere, at any time.

Whenever one of these thoughtful details reveals itself to me, I'm delighted. Just when you think you've got a handle on what the game's capable of and where its boundaries are, it shows you another little trick that's been hiding up its sleeve. Once you're able to get into the game and play it as Rockstar intended it to be played (assuming you haven't been able to get a little quality face time with some of the game's modes) you'll see that there's a mind-boggling amount of content available here, and the possibility for add-ons is...well, that's mind-boggling, too. Grand Theft Auto Online isn't just an online mode: this thing could've been packaged and sold at full price on its own, sans single-player campaign, and I guarantee you no one would've complained. Assuming it worked at launch, of course.

It's funny: spend a few hours in GTA Online and, like me, you'll probably have a few moments where you'll think, "Man, Rockstar thought of everything." And, y'know, they almost did. That's the bad news. The good news is, the game's technical problems are almost certainly temporary problems (very likely being worked on 'round the clock by some extremely-frazzled Rockstar tech-geeks), and there's an enormous, wildly entertaining single-player campaign on the very same disc for everyone to occupy their time with while they're waiting on those kinks to get worked out. Could be a few days, could be a week, whatever: The best news is, Grand Theft Auto Online-- even in its intermittently-working state-- is a goddamn blast, even more so than any of us dared to hope it'd be. If it's this great now, I can't even imagine how involving and entertaining it'll be in its final form.

My advice? If you've got stuff that needs getting done in the next, oh, six months, I wouldn't put it off another day. Soon enough, Grand Theft Auto Online's technical woes will be resolved, and when that day comes...there ain't a chance in hell you'll be getting anything done for a while.

UPDATE: Soon after completing this piece, Rockstar Games issued a new statement regarding the status of Grand Theft Auto Online. : a patch is headed our way very soon (October 10th), and...well, here's some of what Rockstar had to say about it over on their official website:

A new title update to address the reported issues of game progress loss in GTA Online as well as other technical fixes, tweaks and enhancements is now available for PlayStation 3, and we expect it to be available by tomorrow at the latest for Xbox 360. This title update will resolve the cause of players losing their gameplay progress except for some specific instances where players purchase a vehicle and the save does not occur due to a cloud save failure. A fix for that particular issue is being worked on and we will provide an update as soon as we know when this will be resolved.

So what might this latest patch entail? First and foremost, Rockstar says the patch will fix "multiple issues causing character deletion or other loss of progress", as well as "an issue causing the loss of guns and ammo". That's great news, as those are probably the two biggest concerns for players at the moment, but there's a slew of other fixes incorporated into GTA Online's latest patch that you might also be excited to hear about. Head on over to the company's official site to read the full rundown of adjustments/fixes, and keep your fingers crossed that this update proves to be the cure for what's been ailing GTA enthusiasts for the past week (oh, and in the meantime, feel free to make everyone's wait go by a little faster by sharing your own anecdotes about GTA Online's bumpy launch in the comments section below: the high's, the low's, the triumphs, the bitter defeats, the impossibly short short-shorts, etc).