Way back in 2008 I wrote an essay contrasting cooperative/creative players with combative/destructive players. Roughly: Some of us sign on so we can build sandcastles, and the multiplayer exists as a way to collaborate and view each other’s work. Other people see multiplayer as a way to destroy other people’s sandcastles. A lot of games will focus on one or the other. (The Sims and Left 4 Dead are very collaboration-focused, while Quake 3 Arena or Battlefield are PvP focused.) Some games provide distinct areas for each kind of player. (World of Warcraft has both Roleplay and PvP servers.) The co-op players have their fun, the PvP players have their fun, and everyone goes home happy.
But some games are sociopathic in nature and are structured to lure the sandcastle-builders into a place where they can be prey for the sandcastle-crashers. This is GTA V Online. I’ve been playing GTA V Online with the rest of the castExcept for Mumbles. over the last week or so. Like the single-player game, it’s gorgeous, massive, lavishly produced, brimming with content, and aggressively obnoxious.
The most unforgivable sin here is that of excruciating loading times. GTA V already takes a nice long time to start up. Then it takes a really long time to launch into online mode. Then it makes you wait even longer so you can connect to an instance. Then there’s the actual loading screen proper where the game pulls art assets into memory.
The gameworld is stupid. Have you ever found yourself driving around GTA V thinking, “Man, I love it if there were a dozen or so dudebros in here pointlessly trying to kill me whenever I try to accomplish anything, and if the screen was cluttered with a whole bunch of notifications telling me which random asshole killed whichever other random asshole!”? Did you ever think the game would be more interesting if you were pitted against a bunch of guys fifty levels above you, who have access to end-game equipment you aren’t allowed to buy even if you could afford it? And where there’s nothing really to be gained from killing someone? Does that sound like the multiplayer experience you’ve been longing for? No? Tough.
Oh, did you want to play in a private session with just your friends? In that case you have to wait for the loading to finish, then exit all the way back out to single player, enduring two long load times in the process. Then once you’re back in single player you can launch into a private session, which will drag you thorough all of that loading crap yet again. Then you send your friend an invite. Then they get to sit through one or two minutes of loading. And then they can’t connect for no reason because screw you and your desire to play with friends. Go play with the assholes! Let them shoot you!
Maybe your friend can host and invite you? Maybe you need to restart the game? Or they do? Hey, it’ll work eventually. Just fifteen or so minutes of loading screens and connection timeouts and the two of you can at last enjoy the bliss of not having to fight a tank every time you try to make a run to the store.
So maybe you’ll do a job together? Fine. But when the job is over it will dump you back into a random public world with all the assholes. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll wind up in the same public world, but we’ve had games where it split up our group when we left an activity together. And then if you want to be in a private world you’ll have to go through the tortuous loading screen ordeal again: Exit to single-player » load » Start new private session » load » load » invite friend » load » repeat until it works or you give up and just accept that you’re going to be randomly murdered once in a while.
But if you’re in the open world, then every time you try to do a job with your friends it will fill up the roster with randos. You can set it to private if you’re quick, but once a dude joins you can’t get rid of him, and it resets your matchmaking to open every time you move to a new job. Since most jobs are about three minutes of activity and two minutes of menu-shuffling and loading screens, keeping the randos out gets to be a pain in the ass.
- When you’re done with an activity it keeps the group together, but instead of letting you choose your activity directly you have to vote on six randomly chosen ones. If you want to play something specific then it’s another round of loading screens for everyone as you disband and re-form the group.
- Don’t like all the deathmatch and you just want to level up your driving and athletic skills in peace? You can enter passive mode, which makes you unable to use (or even equip) weapons. The bullets of other players will pass through you. Sounds good, right? Except, they can still kill you by blowing up cars around you and you’ll be unable to defend yourself, so really the feature just makes you more helpless.
- Plus, other players can put a bounty on you. Having a bounty prevents passive mode. And since they have more money than they can spend and you’re a broke newbie who can barely afford bullets, they have yet another way to intrude on your game with little fear of reprisal.
- In the world with other people, the interface beeps incessantly with announcements for heists. It’s like getting a text every time someone posts an ad to Craigslist, even if you don’t care about Craigslist.
- You’re vulnerable to having your money stolen. So to protect your income you have to physically drive to an ATM or screw around with the awful web interface on your phone to make the deposit. (How are you depositing cash via a phone, anyway?) It’s not a game-breaking thing, but it is a bit of useless busywork required to keep the strong and rich from stealing from the weak and poor.
- You know what my favorite mission type is in the single-player part of the game? Rampages. You know what I’d love to play co-op? RampagesIt would basically be Payday or Killing Floor.. You know what mission isn’t available in multiplayer? Rampages.
- The game pays you for races based on how long the race takes. The longer the race, the higher the payout. The payout goes up every minute, so if you cross the finish line at 3:59 you’ll get (say) $2,500 but if you wait one second longer the first-place prize will be worth $4,500. This isn’t bad or broken, but it does seem like an odd choice. It means the fastest way of making money early in the game is to start a race with friends and have everyone sit around for four minutes before they start driving. Want to make even more money? All of you race alone, since then you can all come in “first place”.
- You can place bets in a race, but the interface never explains how bets work, what the payouts will be, or how things operate when some people don’t bet at all and other people bet different amounts.
- Before you jump down my throat to say that I’m doing matchmaking all wrong, let me point out that there are a lot of ways of doing things. If you want to start a race you can physically visit the race point in the world. Or you can arrive at it via post-race random selection. Or you can use the job menu. Or your in-game phone. Every method is a little different and there’s no clear indication of which one you’re “supposed” to use. Your phone actually has two buttons for starting jobs. One to accept random invites from randos, and another to throw you into a random job with randos. Neither button can set you up with friends.
- The police do “guilt by association”. If you’re too close to a troublemaker you can inherit their wanted level, even if you’re not doing anything wrong. This offers yet another opportunity for the strong and wealthy to grief the weak and poor, since a jackass with a minigun and supernatural body armor can dump a bunch of police heat onto someone who is absolutely not equipped to handle it and probably has more pressing things to do than flee the police.
- In the open world, there aren’t any obvious tools for muting obnoxious people. It’s all or nothing.
- Actually, there aren’t any tools at all for reporting hackers, scammers, or toxic players.
- As I ranted about on Twitter, when you create a crew it requires you to create a motto. (Note that I’ve never seen anyone’s motto in-game, so I have no idea what they’re for.) There’s an idiotic language filter straight out of a 1995 AOL chat room. It bans the word “shenanigans”, because it contains “niga”, which is a misspelling of an abbreviation of a racial slur that’s used hundreds of times by voiced characters in the single-player part of the game.
- While it hasn’t happened to me, Josh and Rutskarn keep being told they need to re-play the tutorial every time they try to sign on.
- For the last three days in a row the game has forgotten my settings. I sign on and the volume levels, controls, and gameplay options are all reset to default.
- I’ve had to agree to the EULA / TOS three days in a row.
- After many frustrating attempts, Josh and I finally got into a game session together. Then I invited him to the crew I’d created the day before. He was informed that he would leave the current game session if he accepted the invite. This is like needing to log all the way out of World of Warcraft to join a guild.
- Before a race starts, you can select what radio station you want to use. This is good because you don’t want to have to fiddle with the radio while you’re trying to race, and also because this is the weakest GTA soundtrack since Rockstar began licensing real music eleven years ago. However, this feature is just a waste of time, since the radio is again randomized if you end up resetting because you crashed / flew off course.
- If you’re driving around with no money and you attempt to pick up a hooker, the game will offer to sell you in-game money via microtransactions. This isn’t a dig at the multiplayer so much as a hilarious and unfortunate implication of their attempts to sell fake money.
- When an activity ends, you have to rate the previous activityThumbs up or down., then vote on the next activity, then load it up, set the first page of options, then do the matchmaking and set more options, then wait for all the players to load, then select vehicles, then go through a useless confirmation screen, then launch the race. I just timed it: The fastest this can be done is in about a minute, and that’s assuming you’re repeating the previous activity, you don’t wait for matchmaking, and nobody wastes time in vehicle selection. In practice, your normal screwing-around-between-races cost is likely to be double or triple this. Since the average race is about three minutes long, it means you might spend nearly half of your time staring a loading screens and scrolling menus.
- Related to the above: Some options are remembered from the previous race, while other options are cleared or reset every time. Notably, “closed” matchmaking for friends-only is always reset to “open”, so make sure to scroll quick and turn that off before a bunch of randos invade your game!
- I haven’t even reached the point where we can do a heist together, but according to Yahtzee’s review, a heist begins with un-skippable cutscenes. Then your crew is split up to do different stuff in different areas of the gameworld. (Rockstar, do you not get the whole concept of “co-op” play?) If any individual team fails, the whole heist fails and you have to start over. It’s like Left 4 Dead, except there are unskippable cutscenes, you can’t help each other, you’re playing on different maps, the failure of one person makes the entire mission fail, and the matchmaking is shit.
- In races, it always displays the “world record” time for the given race in the lower right, but this feature is broken. The times given are ludicrously low. (I once saw the world record for a 20-checkpoint, 2-lap race as 14 seconds.) These figures are either hacked, glitched, or bugged. But fine, ignore the world record. You can have the game display your personal best time instead. Except that figure is always blank, no matter how many times you run the race. And even if it worked right, the “best time” feature is pointless. It doesn’t say who set the world record, which might at least make it an interesting bit of trivia. But it’s just an impossible time set by nobody, forever displayed in the corner for no reason.
Grand Theft Auto Online isn’t all horrible. It basically delivers on what us Saints Row fans have been begging for Rockstar to do since at least 2008: It gives us a way to craft our own character and experience the GTA world on our own terms instead of seeing it through the eyes of yet another hackneyed unlikable Rockstar protagonist. It’s just that everything in the game – every menu, every activity, every mission – is designed to dump you out into the 24/7 open world deathmatch. All roads lead to deathmatch, and it’s easily the least interesting part of the game.
The whole publisher mindset of “The Future is Multiplayer!” would be a lot less obnoxious if they weren’t so bloody awful at it. We had better multiplayer than this 16 years ago, in Unreal Tournament. Remember how “multiplayer” and “shared experiences” and “being online” was such a huge selling point of these consoles? Welcome to next-gen, kids. Your spiffy new machine will still have massive load times, the matchmaking is idiotic, there’s no attempt at game balance, and everything’s so half-assed that you can’t tell the bugs from the horrendous design choices.
In 2015, there’s no excuse for why “I just want to play with my friends” needs to be this hard. Particularly not from the likes of Rockstar.
This review is based on the Playstation 4 version of the game.
 Except for Mumbles.
 It would basically be Payday or Killing Floor.
 Thumbs up or down.
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