GTA Online hands-on: a weekend in Los Santos

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GTA Online: 'an unholy combination of Top Gear and Fatal Attraction'

Trust no one. That's the first rule of life in Los Santos. As soon as you hit a server and the city opens up before you, there are going to be up to 15 other people on the streets – and sometimes they're crazy as hell. On Saturday night, I found myself being stalked by one maniac named BlockyWizard who – armed with an assault rifle compared with my puny micro-SMG – relentlessly pursued me through the game, riddling me and my car with bullets at every opportunity. We fought, we drove fast, we fought again. It was like some unholy combination of Top Gear and Fatal Attraction.

At least you're lowered into the snake pit gently. When you first arrive in GTA Online, after Franklin's potty-mouthed pal Lamar picks you up from the airport, you're channeled into a sort of tutorial race followed by some other educative messing about. Then it's onto the streets for real. The character you just spent half-an-hour creating is pretty much a defenceless fawn at this stage; just a handgun and some cheap clothes for company. But then you get a car and the jobs start rolling in: Gerald wants you to pick up some drugs, Simeon has a vehicle he wants you to repo. All this comes to you via your trusty in-game mobile phone – you just dial and hit "accept" and you're transferred into a mission. It takes a few seconds, but the transition is relatively smooth, and there's a lobby screen where you get to chose your starting weapon and some armour, as well as tweak who you want playing with you – friends or similarly skilled strangers. You can also attempt plenty of missions alone, although it's always better to have a wingman. Blundering into a drug deal or attempting to repossess a moving car will usually be easier with a little extra muscle.

There are also mission jump off points littered around the map, giving easy drive-in access to deathmatches and races. The variety of options is impressive, from shootouts around a country estate to bike races across the airport runway. Success earns you cash and reputation points, the latter unlocking ever more juicy weapons and vehicle upgrades. And you want better weapons pretty fast. At first, you're limited to short-range blasters: handguns, a sawn-off shotgun, that micro-SMG... and Los Santos is no place for people who only pack a Mac-10 and a lousy attitude.

GTA 5 screenshot GTA 5: trouble is guaranteed

That's because those 15 other people know where you are at all times, and you know where they are – you all show up on the in-game map. If you meet, there's usually a shoot-out and the victor gets the loser's cash – as well as their car (although you can have the latter insured for quick recall). Whatever you earn from missions or robberies should be banked quickly via any ATM machine you pass – that way other players can't grab your life savings. But here's something I learned the hard way: keep $500 in your pocket at all times. If there's some crazy murderer on your case, $100 gets you into Passive Mode, where you can't be killed – but that cash needs to be on you. If you don't have it, your psychopathic arch nemesis can just keep chasing you down and taking you out.

At first, this wasn't just inconvenient, it was expensive. Hospital bills ran into thousands, so a few run-ins could soon really deplete that fund you were building up to buy an apartment or garage. I'm just checking with Rockstar right now but it seems those charges have been reduced significantly since the weekend. Still – never travel empty handed; even if it's just a couple of dollars to buy a soda when your health is low.

But so far, being inside the multiplayer Los Santos has been a weird, thrilling, hilarious and also frustrating experience. On Saturday, I was hoping to meet fellow games writers Keza MacDonald and Matthew Reynolds for some co-op shenanigans, but I found that, although I was able to access jobs and missions, I couldn't get into the Friends menu and join up with pals. I was alone.

Meanwhile, Keza was having a night in Los Santos that swayed from the sublime to the ridiculously upsetting. "On the one hand I spent six or seven hours having an inordinate amount of fun with a great group of people," she says. "We were hopping between racing and shooting and base jumps and discovering a helicopter deathmatch that has since become my favourite mission. On the other hand I logged in on Sunday to discover that the character I'd spend 20-something hours with over the last week had disappeared, apparently beyond return. She's still not back. It's a perfect illustration of the GTA quandary at this point: it's amazing when it works, but it still barely works, and playing at all involves an eye-watering element of risk."

GTA 5 GTA Online: features a helicopter deathmatch

And this is the problem right now. Los Santos is a city of risk and reward, but some of the main risks are outside of the fiction – losing a character you've leveled up and cared about is just about the worst thing that can happen in a multiplayer game. This has to be something Rockstar is working on.

What the game definitely realises though, is the chaotic thrill of life in an urban sprawl entirely populated by gun-toting ne'er-do-wells. You can be cruising the streets looking for a convenience store to turn over (sorry mum) when in a flash, two other players in roaring muscle cars scorch past pursued by half the LSPD. At other times, there are weird moments of unspoken camaraderie – like Journey re-imagined by a 14-year-old action movie fanatic with attention deficit issues.

On Sunday night my female character was waiting at an ATM to cash in about seven grand's worth of stolen car funds; when I turned round there was a male player character waiting for me beside a motorbike – he sounded the horn and waited some more. So I got on. We spent the next half-hour riding around the city and ridiculous speedlike Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis in Top Gun, zipping in and out of the traffic as the giant sun sunk behind the skyscrapers. Then some other player took a shot at us as we passed. We followed him to a tattoo parlour, where he got out of his car and walked in for some new ink. My new friend calmly stopped, got off his bike, pulled out a can of gasoline and poured it all over the car. He then poured a line all the way up to the door of the tattoo parlour. When the guy came out, my pal ignited the line and rode off; I looked back to see our victim attempting to get into his vehicle as it exploded. We just kept riding.

Aoife Wilson from Official Xbox Magazine was also in the game on Saturday night. Her highlights? "When everything comes together and you're able to jump from a deathmatch into a race and then into freeplay mode with a group of friends over chat," she says. "There's always a 'did you see that?!' moment to discuss, or a good-natured game of fisticuffs breaking out." Earlier than afternoon, I'd attempted a mission with Wilson's editor Jon Hicks. Somehow, it ended with us lying upside down in his wrecked car as it floated down Los Santos river. "Worst date ever," I texted over the Xbox messaging system.

GTA 5 screenshot GTA 5: there's always the sense that something can go wrong

Massively multiplayer games are all about player stories; the narratives are seamless and emergent, and this is the beauty of them. But you need all the other systems working perfectly to coax these plotlines out. Rockstar seems to have the basics up and running now – there is plenty of anarchic fun to be had out there in the streets, hills and desert expanses of Los Santos and its environs, but you've always got the jitters than something will go wrong – not with your gun or your vehicle, but with the infrastructure holding it all together.

There are a few questions too about the economy. The cash you earn from missions starts at around $1000 and there are richer picking to be had, especially as you start to move up the Reputation scale. This means, however, that it'll be a good few days before you're looking at, say, buying a home (grotty apartments start at around $100,000) or even a garage (a two-car lock-up is around $25,000). Compare this with the $1,250,000 you can earn from simply handing over £13 to the microtransaction system, and some players are wondering whether the balance isn't too far in favour of the monetised shortcut.

But then, when GTA Online is working – really, really working – then fans are going to want to spend time in here, experiencing the world, ranking up, experimenting. A weekend in Los Santos is dangerous, frenetic, and violent – and after my TopGun experience I almost wish there were more interactions available to strangers on this dark and lonely streets than merely shoot, gesture or share a vehicle (you can invite people back to your apartment but I'm not sure what that means – it's only happened to me once and the player sold the house as soon as I arrived, which I thought was pretty rude). But really, this is an experience to be shared over many weeks with people you know. That way, before you realise it, you'll have that modernist mansion in the Vinewood Hills you always dreamed of.

But without friends, without ambitions ... well, coasting the streets looking for trouble is totally fine. You never have to look far or wait long. And believe me, if no one else is available, you can absolutely definitely rely on trouble.

Source: Tablet Android

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