In one of the opening missions of GTA Online's latest update, heist aficionado and lovable oaf Lester talks about how he was a good kid before he played Street Crimes Gang Wars, the in-universe version of Grand Theft Auto. As the bassline hums in the background, he starts to ramble about the gun-toting opportunists trying to lift your cargo, a set of arcade cabinets necessary to kickstart a run-down arcade business, a front for the game's latest (and greatest) heist. "They must be gamers," he says.
A walking parody of all things but especially itself, minutes later GTA Online treats me to a radio advert for Shark Cards, the game's infamous microtransaction system that has made it the most profitable entertainment product of all time. Shutting my car door after a successful delivery, I get my usual daily text from Agent 14 about purchasing a million-dollar Mobile Operations Center to help with the efficiency of my Gunrunning business, one of many plates that need spinning if I'm to stay afloat in this demanding second life. I don't even want the unnecessary vehicle but my brain, falling prey to the marketing machine, wonders whether completing this latest big score will afford me the currency necessary to get him to stop nagging me.
A packed-out patch for a six-year-old live service, The Diamond Casino Heist is designed to turn heads, all the way down to the balance tweaks that players have been begging for. The greatest issue addressed concerns the most hated (and loved) vehicle introduced in Online's history, the Oppressor Mk 2.
For the uninitiated, the Oppressor is GTA Online's forbidden fruit, a piece of powerful technology introduced to this virtual society without proper consideration, one that Rockstar can't take back now that players have adopted it. A gateway to sin and loss of naivety, this flying motorbike can cross the map in minutes and has homing rockets bolted to the front, making it a virtual nihilist's wet dream. It's a four million dollar chrome-wrapped beacon of wealth and power that makes most of Online's most difficult missions laughable.
Rockstar has stuck a five-minute timer on summoning this griefing machine, as well as supposedly reducing phone notifications (I haven't really noticed) and limiting the 'Kill Yourself' command, making it harder to leave this late-capitalist dystopia on your own terms. This is for your own good though - it's to address a common phenomenon where griefers would kill you and then shoot themselves to balance out their K/D and avoid punishment from Rockstar's all-seeing eye of Sauron. At this point, it's impossible for Rockstar to cut out the bad behavior at its root, but a few slaps on the wrist might refocus players into less trivial pursuits.
Speaking of which, now that the Arcade is set up I'm able to start preparing the heist, an innovative, multiple-phase ordeal that is nearly 20 missions long if you fulfill every optional detail. Crews will have to first scope the casino to see what information they can glean on a time limit. You can take photos of entry and exit points, security details and suspicious items, sending them to Lester who will respond with new methods of approach and optional side missions to make the final heist more creative.
This isn't just the illusion of choice either - the number of security shipments you damage in one mission will directly affect the number of guards in the casino underbelly. Similarly, if you scope out the secret sewer exit you'll be able to dart away from the cops through a series of subsurface tubes, Italian Job style.
As you may be able to tell, this latest heist is designed to be completely adaptable. One of the most infuriating aspects of previous heist missions is that if you fail a single objective you'll have to start again, even if in reality it wouldn't result in the end of the road. With The Diamond Casino Heist, you can switch tact on the fly and dip into three separate styles of approach if somebody drops the ball - disguised, sneaky or aggressive. This means all is not lost on a single missed headshot or dodgy pathing, you can just brandish a machine-gun and go guns blazing. It feels more reactive, the gameplay reflecting the tense, dynamic approach to heisting seen in Overkill's Payday 2.
This adaptive style doesn't transfer to the setup missions, however. What I liked was the space Rockstar allows for you to experiment and come up with your own canon, where I'd have my friends try and cut enemies off at certain map landmarks - one example involved heading to the airfield to steal a dodo to crash into an unruly helicopter that was leaving the mission area. Yet despite probing your imagination, almost all of the prep missions devolve into 'Lose the Cops', a crescendo that Rockstar loves to lean on.
There's an economic angle to the bloat here in that Online enables those with more means to have far superior efficiency. If you're lucky enough to own an Oppressor, some missions are a joke, asking you to simply race around the map, lock on to a set of targets and tap a button to win, whilst the mere mortals on terra firma have to suffer. The free arcade property you receive for having a Twitch Prime subscription is a welcome gift, especially given that it's essential for starting the heist proceedings - but it's also only available as a rebate, which means if you don't have the million and change upfront you're going to have to grind or buy a shark card. It's also in Paleto Bay, a good six and a half miles from the casino...
It's the litany of long drives to and from the property to the casino that takes the absolute Michael De Santa - even if they inevitably lead to moments of unpredictable candor. There are precious few games where a crew can cruise in a rental sedan and wail their way through the frisson bridge of "I Want It That Way" by The Backstreet Boys. Not even the rotting corpse in the trunk can dampen that kind of team spirit.
We were on assignment to burn a rental car in exchange for disguised casino access from Yung Ancestor, a successful walking satire of a new-wave Soundcloud rapper played by living rap legend Danny Brown. Brown (as himself) also hosts iFruit Radio, a new radio station lampooning Apple Music's Beats 1. This follows Frank Ocean's very own Blonded Radio which launched in-game in 2017 - itself a designated radio show on Apple Music. Ain't it funny how it happens?
Brown waxes about the healing power of Psilocybin with UK grime hero Skepta as a rogue's gallery of modern musical talent call in to introduce their tracks. Kenny Beats, AJ Tracey, hell even Slowthai makes the cut, the fired-up Northampton rapper who brandished a decapitated bust of Boris Johnson's head on-stage at this year's Mercury Prize. By carefully tapping chart-storming artists like DaBaby, Shoreline Mafia and Headie One, the curation team has managed to cram an absurd amount of pop culture catharsis into a two-hour show - the cherry on top of this iFruit salad being a set of exclusive tracks from Denzel Curry and Bauuer that are only available in-game.
Earlier in the week, I wrote about how by completing a quest in GTA Online you could conduct some cross-game archaeology and excavate a revolver in Red Dead Online's Moonshining update. Further study has revealed that there is even more bleed between the Old West and the new - you can purchase a fortune-telling game for the arcade property that bears Madam Nazar's likeness and name, the mysterious herald of the Collector role in Red Dead Online.
A lot of her predictions are tongue-in-cheek allusions to community in-jokes, duplication glitches and unsolved Red Dead Redemption 2 mysteries (namely "Where's Gavin" and the mysterious time-traveler Francis Sinclair) but it turns out there's actually some feasible bait for the Chiliad Mystery masterminds hiding behind the riddles. If you keep filling it with coins, you'll eventually hear Nazar make mention of three sets of numbers, which when combined give you a number to call her through time and space in GTA Online, where she responds in even more cryptic terms.
Once you pull on the Emoji masks and embark upon your custom caper, The Diamond Casino Heist quickly proves itself to be the most exciting experience available in GTA Online. Whether you're using stolen trash to infest the casino with cockroaches or tranquilizing guards with drones, you'll make it to the vault with your heart in your throat. I've always thought that half the magic of a good Rockstar mission is the pulsing score, and this is no different, elevating the tension to almost feverish nausea, where all you care about is getting your cut.
Once I finally overcame the heist I felt a mix of relief and pride. I spent my hard-earned money like a true mark - on retail therapy. I'm the proud owner of one of Rockstar's ripoff A Bathing Ape hoodies and a fancy new livery for my death bike. Come to think of it, Agent 14's Mobile Operations Center never even crossed my mind. Maybe I'm the problem.
GTA Online is a game that demands more of its players than most, with layers of loading screens, nagging notifications and Daedalian business management systems refusing to let your attention wander. This noise can act as a smokescreen for new players, obscuring the satisfying content available to those who are yet to fight through the game's service jank. But if you're on the fence and you have some friends on-call, I honestly urge you to jump back in. Whether you're a veteran who took an extended vacation from Los Santos or a rookie with a set of Twitch Prime rewards it's still the most dynamic and limitless multiplayer open-world on the market.