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Grand Theft Auto Online - an assortment of criminals stand in a row, including a motorcycle club president, a white collar criminal, a gun runner, and a gambler. Image: Rockstar Games

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9 years on, GTA Online is a fantastic theme park of crime

With no need to serve the time

I don’t have to introduce Grand Theft Auto Online to you; it’d be like asking someone if they’ve ever heard of a director named Steven Spielberg. “GTA” is a household name, used by bored teens and concerned media pundits alike. We’re still a ways out from any official information on Rockstar’s next narrative campaign in Grand Theft Auto 6, and so, GTA Online serves as an accessible outlet to indulge in all things Grand Theft Auto.

Rockstar’s crime franchise has vacillated wildly in scope and tone over the years, from grounded, small-time drug robberies to wild, wacky, satirical characters who love cocaine and murder. GTA Online does its best to offer all of this. The player first arrives with a small fund, a car, and a mugshot. From there, they connect with the city’s south side, and work their way up to being a multimillionaire mogul committing high-end car thefts and celebrity robberies.

Rockstar has created a series of open-world activities and structured game modes that allow people to essentially pick their own flavor of Grand Theft Auto — at least, once they’ve settled in and unlocked the various modes. If you remember the days of popping in cheat codes and equipping a rocket launcher to shoot at the poor citizens of San Andreas, or the scheming, cigar-smoke hazy ’80s vibe of Vice City, then you can absolutely capture that.

GTA Online - A player sprints across the screen, surrounded by explosions and gunfire. They have the objective to find and eliminate the Triad Lieutenants. Image: Rockstar Games

In effect, GTA Online’s conceit is to offer a theme park that functions as a facsimile of the modern world. Your phone might ping with mission invites; a random event on the street might challenge players to cause the most property damage, or speed into oncoming traffic without getting hit (for as long as possible). Nine years after its launch, this San Andreas still feels like a vibrant open world — if a culturally dated one — and there’s always the simple joy of colliding with motorcycles on the highway to watch NPCs ragdoll over your supercar.

If you’re not interested in playing an amped up version of Hot Wheels in the sky or having armored vehicles battle to the death in the Thunderdome, there is more grounded content to sample. If you have everything unlocked, it’s hard to get bored in GTA Online. I can play a mini campaign around a heist in the Diamond Casino, or just mess around with my friends in a game mode that’s basically Tron. The businesses and enterprises offer satisfying single-player loops, like stocking a warehouse with expensive cars or gun-running across the state.

GTA Online - A sophisticated looking business owner in aviator shades and a white coat stands in the middle of his big warheouse. Image: Rockstar Games

Some of Rockstar’s storytelling has matured in the sandbox, both in comparison to GTA 5 and the earliest missions from GTA Online. Lester, a bit character from GTA 5’s campaign, is one of also the protagonists of GTA Online, and it’s nice to see him get his own love story in the multiplayer counterpart. In GTA Online, the silent protagonist deals with eccentric, deeply flawed people who can’t get off the treadmill of capitalism. They’ve usually identified some kind of cool crime opportunity, and they either want you to do it on their behalf or stop their rival from ruining their operation. The quality of the scripted characters notwithstanding, NPCs on the street sorely need an update — their kvetching about selfies, social media, and kale smoothies is wearing pretty thin in 2022.

There’s also the problem of merely getting to all of this content. Jumping into GTA Online in 2022 means having to sort through an endless amount of upgrades to unlock, content to buy, and tiers of missions to unfurl. Some of this is a natural occurrence for what’s essentially an evolving platform, but regardless: So much of the good content is buried under an exorbitant amount of bland stepping stones.

As a player who’s been plugging away at the grind since the Xbox 360 days, I’m able to stroll in with pockets full of in-game currency and pay for new expansions the day Rockstar releases them. If you want the hottest condo, coolest town, and most exciting missions, you’ll have to unlock resources and reinvest them in profitable enterprises. There’s also the monetization. If you don’t want to grind the millions for fully functional arcades with all their new gameplay features and quests, for instance, you could just… buy a Shark Card. Or you could purchase a monthly subscription on consoles.

All in all, there’s little bad to say about the state of GTA Online in its current form, especially since many of the later campaigns have ironed out issues and introduced likable allies. The problem is that hell is other people, and merely existing in San Andreas exposes you to the rest of the game’s player base. While invite-only sessions are possible, the missions with enough risk and associated reward require public sessions. At best, the other players leave you alone, but at worst, they can be bullies that ruin your day.

GTA Online - two sports cars rev up, ready for an underground race, against a wall of vibrant graffiti Image: Rockstar Games

In its lowest moments, a session in San Andreas can feel like the Stanford prison experiment, with players willing to spawn camp you endlessly, with tanks or orbital cannons ensuring that there’s no escape beyond quitting out of the server entirely. On PC, other players don’t even need in-game tools to be a bother. Sometimes, I log in only to immediately appear in a cage, teleport into the sea, or watch as dozens of spawned, unpiloted planes fall from the sky in a matter of minutes via mod tools. In general, if you don’t already have a dedicated group of friends, I wouldn’t expect to make them in GTA Online.

But there’s a reason why GTA Online sticks around, continually spawning social media memes and sustaining private role-play servers. It’s a theme park that isn’t shy about doling out rewards, and it isn’t particularly concerned with cultivating a sense of realism. The set-pieces are excellent, and the campaigns are exciting, cinematic romps. The company from fellow players may not be great, but the show has been entertaining enough to keep me around for a decade.

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