GTA Online is a shambles. And that's not always a criticism. The disorder is part of what makes it so entertaining; you've played better driving games and better shooters, but everything in Los Santos is so gloriously chaotic and unpredictable that it's no surprise many people are persevering with it - despite myriad issues that would bulldoze just about any other online game. When it works, it's often a joy.
The problem is that most of the time, it doesn't work. I'm not sure I've spent any 48-hour period of my life tutting and sighing as often as I did during my first two days with the PS3 version. Half the time I was completely unable to get in. The other half saw the game hang while loading the tutorial mission or kick me out as my character approached the car you're supposed to complete it in. When I finally connected, I was forced to repeat the tutorial missions three times and had to sit through the intro seven times. I've lost six characters to date, tens of thousands of dollars of in-game cash, and it's corrupted my single-player save twice (an issue that, thankfully, seems to have been resolved).
I can deal with the connection problems. Those are to be expected in the early online days of a game that is already one of the biggest sellers of all time. The lost progress? Not so much. There's been a weird reluctance in some quarters to take Rockstar to task over this, the problems written off as 'hitches' and 'niggles'. But I've spoken to people who've ploughed dozens of hours into the game and have lost their progress entirely. Level 40 characters: gone. $150,000 savings: vanished. No one should be losing hours of effort like this, but sadly it's to be expected when a developer launches an online game of this scale and scope without extensive beta testing.
As it happens, my current character seems to be unaffected - though he's still a bit of a wax-faced monstrosity, like most of GTAO's avatars. The character creator is a good idea on paper. Your appearance is determined by a variety of factors, from your lineage to how you spend your day. Someone who spends seven hours a day watching TV, for example, will look rather different from a gym nut and part-time criminal mastermind. Yet whichever sliders you adjust, the result only looks vaguely human. A generous assessment would pin this as another example of Rockstar satire, ensuring every inhabitant of Los Santos looks like they've recently undergone cosmetic surgery.
They're mute, too, which is fine. Many online avatars are. But the story missions have several of the single-player game's cast - Lamar, Simeon, Lester et al - jabbering away nineteen-to-the-dozen to characters that can only communicate by gesture. Rockstar's smart enough to make a gag about you being the silent type, but not smart enough to relieve the verbal diarrhoea that everyone else seems to suffer from. Still, their presence is a valuable link to the single-player game, because it helps you feel less like a random gangster and more like a part of Los Santos' criminal underbelly.
The missions themselves are frequently entertaining. Whether you're tackling a story mission with friends or an impromptu race with strangers, the result is invariably chaotic. Activities range from group parachute jumps to jetski races and cross-country bike rides, but it's when the stakes are raised that things get interesting. There's a terrific mission called Top Fun that sees a team on bikes attempting to escape from a group in fighter jets. My own ineptitude helped me in this instance, as I swerved wildly to avoid a car and careened onto a grassy bank just as an explosion shook the tarmac where a decent driver would have been. Given a selection of alternative missions to choose from when it ended, we all voted to replay it.
Later, I was part of a four-strong gang attempting to steal some drugs. Tiring of the methodical cover-based approach against an enemy that didn't seem to dwindle in number, I strode into the melee with a micro-SMG, taking down five enemies before succumbing to a headshot from the last man standing. The other remaining gang member thanked me for my assistance, sprinted for the package and ran back to his car. I spent the next five minutes as an enthralled spectator, watching him make his getaway.
It's the races that I've enjoyed the most, however, and I think that's partly down to how Los Santos has been built. Rockstar might have arranged areas of the game into circuits with glowing checkpoints, but there's an organic feel to them that you don't get in other online racers. One race, which takes place in the Los Santos Storm Drain, is basically two straight lines and two hairpins, but I don't think I've laughed so much playing an online game as when I was part of a six-car pile-up on the first turn, with half of the vehicles left on their roof. It's even better when traffic is involved, because traffic is GTA's great leveller - the equivalent of Mario Kart's blue shell.
Each robbery has that thrill of the illicit that GTA captures better than any other game
It's true that doing nothing but playing mission after mission in this world seems to go against GTA's grain, but my experience with free-roaming play has been very hit-and-miss. At times, the world can seem quite empty, forcing you to drive for several minutes before you encounter anyone else. Make some noise, however, and you'll usually attract the attention of other players. You can hold up liquor stores or gas stations by pointing your gun at the clerk, while a neat touch allows you to shout through the headset to increase the speed at which they'll empty the till. Each robbery has that thrill of the illicit that GTA captures better than any other game - but if the two-star wanted rank and the police presence are quickly lost, you'll find that other players aren't so easily evaded.
That some are merciless enough to tail you across the entire map wouldn't be a problem, except for the fact that the fees you're charged for vehicle repairs and hospital bills often add up to more than you've earned from recent missions. As such, you're often best advised to do things on the quiet, well away from others, certainly until you've visited an ATM to deposit your takings where no one (bar Rockstar's shaky servers) can take it from you. How strange that a game that tacitly encourages you to go crazy so readily punishes you for doing so.
Perhaps the idea is to discourage you from violence for violence's sake in favour of a more methodical brand of criminality. If so, it's not working. I've met very few people who haven't attempted to instantly shoot me or run me over, usually with some success. For a $100 fee (in-game cash, fortunately; Rockstar hasn't been quite that aggressive with micro-transactions) you can turn on Passive Mode, which prevents others from harming you. I'd strongly recommend it, if only to hear the frustration of other players when they're trying increasingly explosive ways of killing you and end up blowing themselves up.
The unpredictable way the game handles parties is just one of several examples of Rockstar's relative inexperience in online gaming
Then again, you can get in trouble simply for minding your own business. On two separate occasions the game has warned me about my behaviour when I was simply soaking in the ambiance of Rockstar's wonderful world. I can only assume that both times I was unfortunate enough to be placed with a group who didn't want a stranger there, but that's symptomatic of a game that can make it difficult to play with only your friends. An attempt to have a quiet round of golf with two friends saw each of us placed in a separate game, while a race saw two of us matched with a teenager spouting a stream of homophobic abuse.
Rockstar can't be blamed for the behaviour of its players, of course. (With that in mind, the Xbox 360 version has a distinct advantage, as you can just use Party Chat to filter out any nastiness.) But the unpredictable way the game handles parties is just one of several examples of Rockstar's relative inexperience in online gaming. Unreliable storage of your progress is a far more damaging one.
GTA Online is a shambles, then, but in good ways as well as bad, and that's why it's impossible to dismiss. However, with so many reports of lost characters and cash still coming in, you are advised to hold off for further fixes. In the meantime, take GTA5 offline and you've still got a version of Los Santos that allows you to get in fights, blow stuff up, have a whale of a time - and be sure you'll get to enjoy the fruits of your criminal labours.