Grand Theft Auto Online is five years old! And that’s weird because it seems like only yesterday that I explored Los Santos, running crimes and other violent shenanigans against hapless citizens in the sun-bleached city. The game, specifically its online mode, has come a long way since its debut. On this, the five year anniversary of Grand Theft Auto Online, let’s take a look back on the past, present, and future of Rockstar’s landmark foray into open world multiplayer gaming.
The earliest iterations of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption were specifically single player only affairs. I mean, I never entertained the thought of playing GTA games online because I was perfectly content with it being about me versus Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas. It surprising, then how it took so long for multiplayer to arrive to the series. Even when the new wave of Grand Theft Auto titles made their way over to the PC, the Wild West of video gaming, online play was non-existent. Except, of course, for the extraordinarily unofficial patch to the PC edition of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that is still played to this day (how do I know that? Because of all the posts I see in the back alleys of Imgur’s user-submitted postings). 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV would go to become the first game in the series to support full online play. And it did a pretty good job. Supporting 32 players, these avatars could run around Liberty City in various deathmatch and team deathmatch game variants on any of the city’s three islands. There as also a Free Mode that threw these people onto the map where they could do pretty much what they wanted. Thinking on it now, I have fond memories of the hours I spent with a friend tromping around Liberty City trying to blow each other off the Empire State Building with rocket launchers, chasing the cops after not paying the bridge tolls, and trying to ram each other with attack helicopters.
The next step in the evolution of Rockstar’s open world multiplayer gaming came from my favorite game of 2010, Red Dead Redemption. It was abundantly clear that the studio learned a few lessons from Grand Theft Auto IV and came to the Western-themed game with a new approach, one that introduced character progression and rewards for achieving various gameplay milestones. Featuring a more substantial collection of game types, many of them variations of familiar concepts as deathmatch and capture the flag, you could see that Rockstar was trying out new ways to get players online and keep them there. The longer you spent playing game types and earning money, the more character models, clothing options, horses, and gold variants of all in-game weapons you’d earn as rewards. Multiplayer got an additional boost through new downloadable content and the zombie-themed Undead Nightmare add-on which brought in an attack/defend game mode Stronghold, Undead Overrun, and Land Grab. Red Dead Redemption’s multiplayer was a positive step forward for integrating online play in those that would traditionally be offline. And it’s clear that both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption proved to be an education for Rockstar next, and most substantial, release.
Come Game of the Year time in 2013, it was a surprise to no one that Grand Theft Auto V topped the charts. Set against the backdrop of a modern and somewhat financially stricken Los Santos, players guided the destinies of three men, one trying to make his mark on the world, a second suffering under the strain and impotence of a disrespectful family, and the third that’s, well, an utter psychopath. While these three men find a way to find meaning in their lives, it is the player created protagonist of Grand Theft Auto Online who would make the biggest mark on the franchise. From the moment your character teams up with Lamar to run a street race before being sent off to do whatever you want, it certainly felt that everything Rockstar did with online multiplayer was leading to this moment. And five years after its initial release, its a beast of a product.
A lot of that has to do with the game’s post release support. Rockstar has continued to build upon the online game with a dearth of content that adds all sorts of new vehicles, game modes, gameplay mechanics, and the means to manage criminal empires and perform big, elaborate heists (the highlight of Grand Theft Auto V’s campaign) with friends or like minded folks. Over the past couple years, I dropped in and out of GTA:O to see what has been added to a game already bursting at the seams. It always felt like something new came out at a regular clip. Smuggler’s Run, Beach Bum, a GTA-inspired homage to The Italian Job, and the TRON infused Deadline are just a few examples of the new content added free of charge. In this era of controversy surrounded wallet gouging microtransactions, it was really refreshing to see that Rockstar actively kept a level playing field even though they could just as easily asked people to pony up. There were no extenuating circumstances that could prevent one person from not having access to the same guns, cars, and clothes that another player had.
Rockstar’s plans for online content would go beyond adding more vehicles and hairstyles. Business-oriented content, such as Bikers and Gunrunning, would give players a chance to build their own criminal empires with other people. Channeling Grand Theft Auto’s own Lost and the Damned MC, the Sons of Anarchy-esque update would let players take on the roles designed to keep a motorcycle club’s wheels spinning, bringing in new people as Prospects and let them work their way up the ranks. Motorcycle Clubs and Crews was a wild idea that serves as a great GTA analog to player run guilds and clans you’d typically find in MMORPGs. If running a felonious business isn’t your thing, why not try your hand at all sorts of deathmatch and racing-based activities. One of my favorites is “Slasher” which pits two teams against each other but with a twist: one side is dressed in clown masks and carry shotguns with which to hunt the defenseless players, armed with a flashlight and night vision goggles. I also loved the Adversary racing modes in the Deadline expansion because the games revolved around trademark friendly Lightcycles (complete with light trails) used in gladiatorial racing scenarios. The aforementioned Heists take players all over Los Santos and Blaine County in massive, multi-part jobs that lead towards bank robberies and prison breakouts. All these missions and jobs are in service of earning money to buy high end cars (like my personal favorite: the flying DeLorean-inspired Deluxo), planes, boats, motorcycles, expensive property, good looking suits, and a myriad of personal accessories that will make your avatar stand out from the pack. I love Grand Theft Auto Online for how it gives you the freedom to do what you what, when you want. And should you tire of getting run over or shot at, there’s always a Passive mode that makes you immune to other players, preventing them from killing you and stealing your cash or plowing a car into you while trying to nab that perfect selfie.
Grand Theft Auto Online does a lot of neat and nifty things although sometimes it is not all wine and roses. The success of the online component and Rockstar’s continued support has led many people to believe that the company has scrapped plans for additional single-player content. There are a lot of areas in Los Santos that didn’t see much use in the single-player campaign, such as the Blaine County prison, military base, and the Vinewood Racetrack. GTA Online has also elicited some grumbling over an in-game economy that charges exuberant amounts of money for the coolest stuff, be it vehicles or weapons, and that the availability of Shark Cards, money boosts paid with real-world dollars, means that fortune often favors those with fortunes. Granted, player rank often determines what items players can have access to and Rockstar regularly offers double money/job point promotions but at the end of the day, money creates a divide between the virtual haves and the virtual have-nots. Some of the game’s problems aren’t a fault of unbalanced players and economy. GTA Online sometimes isn’t the most stable. I’ve run into issues where game sessions fail to load or I get stuck on loading screens. Things have gotten better since the initial release of the game but I was surprised to see that I was still having trouble with excruciatingly long load times and session timeouts five years later.
Despite such problems, Grand Theft Auto Online was--and still is--a meaty evolution of Rockstar’s vision for open world multiplayer. I love it the most because it allows me to explore Los Santos at my leisure, with my own car, wearing the clothes I bought all while remaining unencumbered by a story that’s always pushing you in a direction. If you prefer playing with friends, the implementation of player-run Crews and clubs makes it easy to get people together to perform various dirty deeds created by the GTA Online development team. However, if you want to flex your chops and try a hand towards game design, the inclusion of a Content Creator allows you to design their own competitive deathmatches and races using the assets from all of the game’s expansions and add-ons. With so much see to do, Grand Theft Auto Online does a great job of giving players stuff to do when the campaign is over. And it also makes me excited to see what they have in store for Red Dead Redemption II.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.