Why the Highest Grossing Piece of Entertainment in History Feels like a Cheap Mobile Game
GTA Online has had a bumpy history. I remember playing it on PS3, disappointed at the lack of heists and content in general. I spent a few weeks messing about with my friends and then we all put it down and moved on. Fast forward to now. The casino update has launched, heists are available, there are multiple businesses to own. Now that you can throw all your hard-earned money away in the Diamond Resort and Casino, GTA Online finally seems complete, as all the vices of the criminally rich are present—well, all the ones that can be put in a videogame and still allow it to pass classification.
The aim of GTA Online is to make money and rise to the top of your own criminal empire. The main ways to make money are: missions, heists, businesses, and shark cards bought with real money. These start at £1.99 for $100,000 and end at £64.99 for $8 million.
The mission matchmaking is appalling. I was in a motorcycle club (one of the cheapest businesses you can start) with my friend, so I assumed we’d get put into the mission together, but I had to quit and restart multiple times until I was made host, then quickly changed the invite settings to closed instead of open. This seems like a pretty big oversight on Rockstar’s part, as playing online with friends is such a key part of any online gaming experience. Add to this the fact that the random players I get put into four player missions with seem utterly inept and hard mode (which gives you more rewards but forgoes any respawns) is out of the question. My friends and I are all on different working schedules, so getting four of us together at the same time is hard enough before adding wasted time with dodgy matchmaking. This seems like something that could be easily fixed, but, without the ability to reliably make money from missions, more people will turn to shark cards, so it isn’t fixed.
Since all the heists (apart from the doomsday heist) are four-player, I either have to wait for days on end for my friends to be available, or rely on strangers who often don’t use microphones. Some sort of ‘Ping’ system like the one used in Apex Legends or Dota 2, which can visually convey instructions, would greatly help this game. The hard bonus is huge on heists but, as mentioned before, impossible with random players and not a team you’re in a party chat with. Again, this seems like a way of deliberately slowing down organic money earning to push shark cards.
Now for the businesses.... I’m not a fan of grinding in games. Working for progression, upgrades, rewards? Happy to do so! I still enjoy Destiny 2 despite how much I have to grind, because every time I finish a mission I’m rewarded with slightly better guns or armour. There is no guarantee of success in GTA Online, however. Most businesses will end up costing you upwards of one million dollars to buy and fully upgrade, many closer to two or three times that amount. The missions involved with them become repetitive and tedious, but that is just about bearable though as I enjoy talking to my friends and catching up while resupplying my cocaine lockup or promoting my nightclub. The nightclub itself is an excellent endgame business that can be used as a hub for all your others, passively accruing product from my other running businesses while I actively manage them.
Where GTA feels like a cash-grabbing free-to-play mobile game is in the two progression options available to players. Players have to choose between spending time or money in order to progress meaningfully; either grind for hours or just buy a shark card, similar to buying gems in Clash of Clans to speed up construction. Add to this the fact that all the property types are cosmetically identical and this game really starts to lose its appeal. The location and exterior may differ, but inside, every nightclub looks the same, as does every bunker, weed farm, etc. This is an issue with many of the apartments too and is just lazy. Players are expected to spend money or hours on property Rockstar can’t even be bothered to individualise.
This may all sound tedious, but fine. It was fine, until I got blown up by someone on an Oppressor, a flying, rocket launching bike. Every lobby I’ve been added to in the past four days has been filled with players on Oppressors griefing others, killing them mid-mission for no reason other than to destroy their supplies. They don’t steal them for their own businesses, they just kill you because they can. The only way to resupply or sell anything is to be in a public lobby, so all your hours of mind numbing grinding can be wiped away with one shot. This has absolutely ruined the game for me. The excitement caused by the risk disappeared when it stopped being a potential risk and became a guarantee. My friend lost two million dollars worth of stock in a day and I can’t resupply my businesses anymore. Sure, I could buy the stock and cut out the dangerous part, but then how can I sell it? I can’t. It’ll get blown up.
Vehicles like the Oppressor, or the Tron Bike, or the futuristic tanks, or the James Bond cars, make the game feel more like Saint’s Row than GTA. Not to say Saint’s Row is at all bad, but it doesn’t fit the more grounded tone of GTA to include vehicles that used to only be available by button combination cheats. In a game with mostly conventional weapons and vehicles, these sci-fi inspired hell machines absolutely dominate and rule unchallenged. Being in a motorcycle club allows players to summon their bikes right next to them, so everyone with an Oppressor can summon it, hop on, and fly halfway across the map in moments. Hardly balanced.
The only way to ensure your hard work will pay off is to get into a public lobby by yourself. This can be done by artificially lowering your internet speeds temporarily (a quick Google search will tell you the best way to do this on your console or PC) or waiting for the game to randomly kick everyone out of your lobby. So you either game the system or wait for the system to break… great way to play the game. There is a passive mode built in which disables your weapon wheel and stops other players from hurting you, but this also prevents you from registering as a CEO or motorcycle club president, preventing you from engaging in business missions.
All these issues could be solved relatively easily by Rockstar, but that would stop people buying shark cards. If you can’t beat the people on Oppressors, buy money, get your own and join them. However, then all the challenge in the game is gone, because you have a flying rocket bike, so the only fun thing to do is piss off other players, which causes them to either quit or buy the same bullshit vehicles and so on ad infinitum. This is beneficial to Rockstar though, as the Oppressors cost almost $4 million—that’s about £30 of real money. GTA Online microtransactions have earned Rockstar at least $500 million as of 2016, more than double the full game’s budget (1), and as of 2018 GTA V has made over $6 Billion (2). I’m more than happy for studios to earn money for a game they’ve worked hard on and that is, for the most part, fun to play, but the inherent greed shown in the time consuming grind that is GTA Online shows utter contempt for player fun in favour of player money.
GTA Online is fun to play with a group of friends for a few weeks at most. The excitement of visiting friends businesses quickly wears off once you realise they’re all the same, and missions and heists lose their thrill when other players get involved. I do give credit for the nightclubs featuring real DJs though; I’ve enjoyed writing this review while my character dances to the Black Madonna. Though I believe Rockstar worked hard on the game initially, the updates quickly feel shallow and lazy, and the grinding and griefing makes the game frustrating beyond belief.