James fires up his wheezing Xbox 360 to see how GTA Online is going.
By James Pinnell on October 17, 2013 at 10:33 am
GTA Online is an ambitious game plagued by its own inability to evolve past last generation’s console drudgery, and hampered by its own scope and ambition. Covered by the sludge of poor netcode, server overloads, bugs, lag and outright crashes is, underneath, probably the best official iteration of multiplayer GTA yet. If you can get it to work, that is — the past few weeks since the soft launch of GTA V‘s online portion has been a devastating blow for the usually on-point Rockstar — but two patches later, most of you should be able to get past the loading screens and error messages to enter the belly of the beast.
How much fun you have while you are there, however, depends entirely on how many friends you have and a lucky roll of the dice.
Rockstar have attempted, largely, to replicate the story scenario of GTA V and merge it with an online instance — you and 15 other people essentially run around Los Santos, doing the things you usually do when you have guns and little consequences, while attempting to earn cash and “rep” by completing missions and knocking over convenience stores. In theory, the game does most of this quite fluidly. When the servers are behaving, the cars drive smoothly, your opponents (and friends) are generally in sync with you and your weapons do just as much damage to them and yourself as in the single player realm. Everything, from weapons to vehicles, transitions seamlessly between the various online sessions and missions, creating a new sensation of persistence and, at the very least, consequence when your car is towed or you totalled.
The content is equally sound — there’s a fair amount of variety, from races to pickups, assassinations to deliveries, and it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to weasel your way in and out of sticky situations, cackling on your mic with friends as you all manage to flip your SUVs across a set of highway overpasses. You’ve all failed the mission, naturally, but you’re laughing so much it hurts and the game almost seems to appreciate this, spawning you all back within the same area and almost beckoning you back to the city, hoping you’ll try again.
Sadly, the much anticipated heists, the thinking man’s portion of collaborative GTA play, are still MIA, as are the ability to create your own missions and customise more of the playing fields. I can’t even imagine what sort of carnage-stricken mayhem people will cook up for others once these features are implemented. Judging by the tentative and fragile state of the game, however, I assume much of this new goodness is still a little ways off.
It’s not all car flipping and drive by shootings, however, as GTA Online struggles to keep pace with the now distressingly-apparent memory and latency problems that slam on the brakes of momentum within the game. Jumping between sessions to find friends is messy and convoluted, as is starting a private session or attempting to even consider communicating with random teammates. Missions have twitchy transitions between lobbies, and the method in which jobs are handed out, accepted and shared isn’t user friendly, nor easy to follow.
The population cap removes much of the “overworld” feeling from the game, especially since the entire city (largely) is in play, and while you can track other players, most of the time going anywhere near them results in bullets immediately entering your body. Whoever doesn’t kill you immediately will probably kill you minutes later, or will inadvertently kill you thanks to their complete stupidity and/or inability to drive trucks, cars or shoot a rocket at something that isn’t your face.
On top of this, the Xbox 360 just seems to struggle to do anything without chugging and heaving like a dying panda. The initially cool, Google Maps-style jump between current position to mission start becomes aggravating once you’ve been staring at it for five minutes while the game gradually loads the instance in the background. The systems’ lack of RAM means the majority of the game streams from the Disc or HDD, causing an insane amount of texture popup and strange traffic and pedestrian patterns, like trucks spawning on top of cars or civvies appearing randomly in the middle of the road.
On more than one occasion, I’ve made the game crash completely — once when I left an Xbox LIVE Party during a mission, and the other when I left a mission and changed session. Frankly, the game doesn’t take enough initiative to automatically group friends together and if not push them into a private session, then make space within a session to squeeze them in.
For its faults, however, the game runs quite well, especially at high speeds, and manages to track the various players and their activities without much fuss. I just wish it wasn’t so hard to start missions with friends, nor quickly restart them when they fail. Most of the time you only have one or two Team Lives available, so a pointless or silly death means a gigantic “fail” sequence and yet another slew of lobbies and timers to get through. There is a “Playlist” feature available that allows for a playable list of missions a group can shuffle through, but the only time I was able to trial this, one of the missions crashed out, somehow destroying the lobby completely. It’s a shame really, the foundations of GTA Online are sound and the developers have done an admirable job at pushing out the last ounce of power the old horse has left.
But its the jerry-rigging of such a vast world into a cut down, semi-persistent experience that seems to have caused so many problems. There are still too many bugs, glitches, useless lobbies and transitions that break much of that fluid mayhem that the single player enjoys. The most enjoyable part of the single player game, the heists, are going to be intensely important in retaining any sort of long term cooperative enjoyment within the title, along with the mission creation tools and the continued patches to address stability. After a very rough start, Rockstar have their work truly cut out for them to ensure their devoted will keep the faith.