You know, I never cared about the heists. Mostly because I didn't really care for the heist structures in story mode, but also because GTA Online's canvas offered a lot more than robbing shops and banks. In fact, GTA Online was my reason to buy GTA5, though the grimly inevitable (and weirdly prescient) events surrounding the online side's early days put a dampener on my attempt to dive in as soon as it was enabled and not leave the couch for a week. Once the network issues were sorted, however, it blossomed into a whirlwind romance that delivered GTA's evergreen magic by the bucketload.
There are a lot of things wrong with GTA Online. But this article isn't about that. It's about nearly being sick from laughing too much. It's about avoiding the city to head to the mountains for a nice bike ride with buddies. It's about four of you going on a shopping tour in a pal's car and it turning into warfare against the five-o. It's about the glory that happens when GTA becomes GTA plus your friends.
I had a pack of five or six friends that would play regularly. Early on it was every evening, and they were evenings full of laughs. Based purely on the quantity of those laughs, GTA Online is the funniest game I've ever played - it seems that slapstick never loses its base, primal edge (especially when it's the result of ineptitude or over-confidence). GTA Online offered a lot of opportunities for both to bear fruit, but the sparseness of stuff to do that wasn't racing or deathmatch threatened to end a beautiful honeymoon period. Then, there came the classic situation for online gaming - some people being a higher level than others. As with traditional MMOs, this isn't really a problem if lower-level peons can tag along on game content for higher-level pros and when a buddy reached level 15, the survival mode came into my life.
Of all multiplayer modes, survival is probably one of the best for co-op. It scratches the gaming-with-buddies itch right in the sweet spot, where it's more than simple relief and something verging on the sublime. GTA Online's survival missions are a bit shoddy, but initially challenging. This prompts a bit of naughty ingenuity in finding ways to game the game. The brilliance of realising you can manage 15 waves of baddies from behind a portacabin adds a unique irony to a mode presumably intended to inspire tight, tactical teamwork and manoeuvring. But this also brought in some unintended joys - the mad dash for newly-spawned weaponry between waves prompted me to find racing lines around the mode's arenas. Survival was a great grind for me, and a lot more fun than min/maxing private races.
With pals ahead and others behind, GTA Online seemed to find a unique rhythm. Helping lower level friends churn through easy missions was leisurely, while joining higher-level players in new, harder stuff kept up the interest to keep grinding on. But it was all about the context and the place this happens in - the idea of spending a weekend just hanging out in somewhere as detailed as Los Santos was seductive enough on paper. In practice (and with a protip to use an IM client on another device for group chat), you can easily chop and change around, spending an hour on XP grinding, another on cash. Then a solo sojourn into the countryside on a motorbike, then back home via the desert to take the car for some upgrades before all meeting up and going on some idle rampage or tackling one of the more complex story missions, laughing all the way.
The critical thing, of course, is that it was all fun with friends and we felt like we were together in this miniature California. The game's structure and pace, its attitude and semi-realism all gelled in a beautiful way. Competitive multiplayer and full-on MMOs never seemed to engender that idea of socialising with friends as well as playing a game, but GTA Online somehow did. For me, it paints a beautiful image of care solutions for the elderly in 40 year's time. We could all be in different care homes, infirm and unwell, but together and young in Los Santos at 12k resolution and 3000 frames a second with total photorealism. I don't think I'd be too miffed about that (as long as there were enough clothes to buy).
Eventually, as it is with all things, my love affair with GTA Online came to an end. There was always going to be a point where friends lose interest and the grind's steepness becomes off-putting. Part of this is down to me - I wanted more than GTA Online's content could offer, and even the beloved survival mode had taken on a certain monotony, but this doesn't diminish GTA Online's time in the sun. As a platform for simple digital leisure, GTA Online is perhaps the best attempt yet. It certainly seems it's more than brand superiority and graphical allure that's fuelling fervour for the new-gen releases. Sure, these upgrades might be bringing new content and the legendary multiplayer heists, but it's really about the place and the people.
It remains to be seen if a re-release on spangly hardware can tempt me back. I do get the odd twinge when I see the new goods that have been added, and there is a curiosity about cresting Mt Chiliad's summit on my beloved BMX with benefit of next-gen draw distances and graphical fidelity. Or maybe I'll just go back because enough of my friends have and they're having far too much fun without me.