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Saturday, October 05, 2013

Game Review: 5 Huge Problems with GTA Online


First note that this is for just the online portion of GTA V.  I may have another post on the main game at a later date.

Second, some may say it is unfair to review GTA Online since it has been out for less than a week and Rockstar had warned ahead of the launch that unexpected demand for the game was going to cause issues.  And yes, some issues - like the fact that I can't currently sign into the game ... are probably due just to demand and will be resolved as Rockstar throws hardware at the problem.

Others, however, like the incredibly bugged tutorial missions that blocked the game for a majority of users - were clearly not because of high demand.  You couldn't even get into the game in offline or "solo" mode (and in fact, oddly - I had 5 people show up to my solo mission...).  We're now a couple patches in and if the servers are up, you can play - but the experience still has many issues.  Many of them aren't bugs, but simply design.

This is clearly another beta being rolled out as a product.  Now, GTA Online is a free component to a game which is already larger in scope than most titles in its price range.  Still, it is a product - and while one that shows a lot of promise (and I've already spent many hours on) ... is still deeply flawed.

However, in fairness to Rockstar I'm not even mentioning huge outstanding bugs like your character simply disappearing - under the assumption they'll fix that in short order.

Quick Overview

GTA Online is where players of GTA V can create their own criminal and run around Los Santos (and the greater Los Santos area) with other criminals created by players.  A bevy of activities await: Deathmatch, Last Team Standing, Vehicle Deathmatches, Races of nearly every variety, Missions (more on that later) and what seem like the entire set of activities from the main game (Tennis, Parachuting, etc).  Some of these open slowly as the player levels up.

At its core, it is a lot of fun.  It brings the RPG/Customization angle from San Andreas (but with a complete character and not just making CJ fat) and mashes it into an expanded online offering that goes well beyond the already surprisingly fun online mode in GTAIV.

Problem #1: Dying

Dying is pretty much expected in a game like GTA Online.  And when you have a bunch of people on the server which think the game is mostly about crashing cars into players to steal the $100 that drops out of their pocket ... it can happen a lot.  Especially because the game seems to egg on revenge tactics by always dropping you near the person who killed you.  We've had people hunt us down repeatedly for seemingly no other reason than us being on the radar.

This would be fine if it wasn't for the 5% death tax, which appears to max out at 2K.  I believe this is the same tax as in the story mode, but the online mode currently lacks any major heists to have large sacks of money laying around where even though you're paying more ... you have plenty.  No, here once you have managed to stockpile a decent amount of cash (you'll want $75-100K to buy a decent apartment, for instance) ... your cash becomes a huge liability.  We had about $80K saved up over the course of hard playing all afternoon and night ... but about 10 minutes of getting caught in the middle of some crazed bounty hunt, we were back down to ~$53K.  About five hours of play were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

If Rockstar expects the offset to this to be players buying cash with real dollars, then GTA Online will go down as one of the largest missed opportunities in online gaming.  And it will join such modes as Mass Effect 3's online component as being sacrificed to the idiot blind god of microtransactions.

Problem #2: There is no Passive Mode

Rockstar will tell you that if you want to run around and not get capped, you can just go into passive mode.  Passive mode costs $100 to get into (for some bizarre reason never explained).  Passive mode is also completely worthless as other players (and AI) can still run you over, shoot you from their cars and we think still pull you from vehicles and punch you.  It basically just means they can't shoot you while outside their vehicle.  Which is really not worth the $100.

Whether this is a deeply bugged or simply horribly designed feature is difficult to tell.  Rockstar has not as of yet mentioned any changes or fixes to the mode.

Problem #3: The Weird Bounty System

The other odd thing about having online players run around in free mode killing each other is ... there is very little point to doing it.  If you die, you lose ... some of your cash?  It is actually a little unclear - once you have $5K in walking money, Rockstar will warn you that players can steal your cash. Update: it sounds like it is $100 (always) + whatever you have over $5K. 

Course, there is no reason to run around with cash since you can deposit and withdraw money to your bank right from your phone.

However, none of that means anything since the death tax extends to your bank account.  So if I kill you, I'm unlikely to get any cash for it - but you'll lose 5% of everything you've got, or $2K, despite where it is.  After a certain level, you (and oddly, AI's) can put bounties on another player's head.  These seem to range from about $1K - $10K but are usually less than $5K.  

This is actually a horrible system, designed to do nothing but drain capital across the server.  Let's say you have a player with $80K in the bank.  They stand lose $2K just from dying once.  Someone puts a $3K bounty on their head.  Chances are players are going to die more than a couple times trying to kill them (especially since players often kill each other trying to get to the bounty).  So basically one player gets a slightly subsidized death and everyone else who participates loses out (potentially severely).

The only time I have ever profited from bounties is when I was lucky enough to get a $3K and $9K (which is very rare) bounty back to back.  Even then I died enough to eat up the $3K bonus.

So in short, one of the things players are most likely to do on the server - run around, cause mayhem and shoot at each other ... appears primarily designed to keep bank accounts low.

Problem #4: The Capital Throttle

This is all compounded by the fact that Rockstar has clearly made making cash a very slow process.  If you have a decent session going with lots of players, you can bounce from deathmatches to races relatively easily.  These will net you around $200 - $2000 depending on how well you do.  They can also take up a lot of time, especially some of the multiple lap races.

You can, as the title suggests you could, steal cars and sell them.  Without this being couched as a mission, you can only do this once an hour.  It is, however, one of the quickest ways to make money if you get the right car.  You can also holdup liquor stores, gas stations and the like - although time to completion there is highly dependent on how well you can evade the police.

There are a few choice missions which net a high profit, but you can't really select those voluntarily.  You have to hope one of your contacts hands them to you (more on that below).  The result is that activities that are the easiest to get to, but conversely can take up the most time ... actually offer the lowest profits (especially after you factor in buying ammo and armor).

Problem #5: Missions

All of the above compounds into the final huge issue: the mission structure.  Since deatchmatches and races are time consuming and not very profitable, it can be difficult to get players to actually play them. Worse, the goal based missions are easily the most entertaining and often offer higher rewards - but you can't select them.  After you do a goal based mission, you can vote on another session - but are limited to deathmatch and races (even though Last Team Standing sessions are labeled as Missions, which they really are not).  Most people just drop back into free mode.

This makes the best part of the game: performing goal based missions with a decent number of online players, something of a rarity.  You can call your contacts and hope for the best, but the result is something of a pot luck between who will respond to the Jobs text.


GTA Online has a great core to it, but well beyond the issues of connectivity - it has some serious design issues.  Rockstar has currently turned off both the Stock Market and GTA$, so that players can't lose real money in the virtual game.  There are two unfortunate trend to all five problems: they all factor into keeping you bank account hard to grow and easy to deplete, and they're easily solved if you are willing to pony up some real cash to bankroll your virtual criminal.  

I really, sincerely, hope that this is not Rockstar's solution to the game.