Heists have been a long time coming - the promised land of GTA Online, no less, the missions that would bring the Heat vibe to Los Santos with style. They are two-to-four player scores consisting of multiple missions and a finale, where players assume different roles on the team - one committing to be a rooftop lookout, for example, while another goes inside a building. Such scenarios have always been common in GTA single-player missions, where Rockstar can control all of the other participants, but got a little lost in the transformation to multiplayer.
It's not hard to see why: giving players defined roles works easily in a single-player game, because the set-up will be the same every time with only one variable. In multiplayer, with up to four players responsible for their own part in each job, there are simply many more variations to run through - especially when you want to keep each player occupied, as is the driving force here. The Heists abound with minigames to be played by those in the passenger seat, small crises that flare up for one or two of the team while others are isolated, and ambient chatter.
Unfortunately it is worth stating at the outset that the Heists in GTA Online suffer from the same issues that plague the vanilla mode - the loading times can be extraordinarily long, and checkpoints are often set before unskippable cutscenes or waiting periods. The first of these can be just about excused: that GTA Online works at all is a magnificent technical achievement, so it's hard to grouch about the fact it takes time to set up. The second is just bad design, and disappointing in such a flagship Rockstar product.
I don't want to overstate that aspect of GTA Online, because ultimately it comes down to whether you want to play it or not. I do, but playing GTA Online for say an hour and actually playing the game for half an hour - which easily happens with all the initial loading, setup screens, players dropping, cutscenes, and unnecessary replayed cutscenes after restarts - is less than ideal.
Heists have an interesting structure in that one player fronts the money for the job, from which pot all the supporting players are paid through the set-up missions. The leader is then given the opportunity to divide the pot on the last job, which is where the real money starts flowing, and can either take a big cut or spread things evenly. Though my inclination is always to be a good communist, this is far from the pattern online.
With the cash fronted your team then has to execute some minor jobs - casing the joint, stealing getaway cars that can't be traced, acquiring special hardware, and arranging meets. These missions are kept winningly short, 10 to 15 minutes long, and offer short bursts of the skills that the finale will eventually call upon - not such a big deal when talking about driving, but worthwhile practice if you have someone who'll have to play a mini-game under time pressure in a later round.
I've played up to the third heist and each has had up to five set-up missions, most of which can be tackled in a preferred order. The first heist, knocking off a small bank called Fleeca, is relatively straightforward work for any GTA player - there's a minor shootout with the cops, and a high-speed escape, but this is bread-and-butter stuff. It's when the heists begin to really test co-ordination as a group that things get interesting.
GTA Online's 'normal' missions tend to work like this: four of you clump up in one or two cars, drive somewhere, spill out and shoot people, drive away. It's the deathball in open-world form. By forcing players to adopt different starting positions for each minor and major engagement, which is basically what the roles in each heist come down to, the developers have managed to add a layer of strategy that wasn't there before - and one that is quite brutally rammed home by the no-deaths rule. That's right. Heists start putting you and your crew in serious firefights, and one man down is a wipe.
If there's one general rule for GTA Online it is that players die a lot. This applies in heists, too, and so it becomes essential to be on voice comms and to actually play a role - for example the opening mission of the Humane Labs heist has you picking up some documents in a parking lot. Spoiler alert: when they're handed over you get swarmed from three directions by FIB agents and have to take them down. Four headless chickens in this situation die, as I discovered many times.
But as soon as my team stopped after one restart too many, planned out our responsibilities and divided the 'map' up we got it right. It takes faith to stay focused on an empty alleyway when you're being shot in the back, and know that someone else has to take out the shooter - but someone else did. And a few seconds later another wave ran into the alley and straight into my Bullpup's sights. This feeling of camaraderie existed in GTA Online before now, but only with three good mates on a favourite mission. One of the heists' achievements is to focus players towards this kind of criminal discipline.
One thing that is managed superbly, thus far, is giving the finale a special touch. There's little reason to enumerate exactly what happens, because everyone should have the chance to play them, but an ambition here was clearly to give each heist a big finish of some kind - you're not just parking a car in a garage. This means the heists do have something of the TV arc to them, self-contained and satisfying, though they really could have done with shorter cutscenes. Rockstar as a rule is OK at cutscenes, but they really drag in a multiplayer game where you're going to see them over and over. Which makes it all the worse that the humour here, which starts with Lester's awkward sexual metaphors and goes downhill from there, isn't really funny the first time.
The problems, though, are outweighed by the game itself. GTA Online is simply one of the best experiences video games have to offer, and the heists do a great job of pushing a strong angle - the good old crime caper. Planning and executing a bank robbery is a popular fantasy because we all love the idea of it. And no matter how tightly aspects of the heists are choreographed, they do great work in building up towards that kind of final objective - giving your team a togetherness and tension it wouldn't otherwise have - and then delivering a spectacular payoff. GTA Online isn't wildly different because of heists. But it already feels much better.