It’s pretty staggering to think that GTA Online will be celebrating its ninth anniversary later this year. In that time, it’s jumped across three console generations and been bolstered by nearly 40 updates. As such, it’s a very different experience to when it launched, back when the term ‘games as a service’ was still a relatively new idea and Skrillex reigned supreme. Fundamentally, though, GTA Online is still the same game you will have played all those years ago. The shooting is clunky, the characters still control like small shipping frigates, and there’s a general toxicity to its online community that harkens back to the dark days of Modern Warfare 2 lobbies (my mother is a saint, I’ll have you know).
GTA Online in 2022 is a particularly strange thing then, and it’s also much unlike anything else in gaming. Its foundations are old, ancient even, but with the sheer barrage of constant updates from Rockstar, it manages to straddle new and dated ideas simultaneously, to predictably mixed results. The sheer breadth of things to do is where it thrives, however. Whether you want to run drugs around the city, roleplay as a business executive, or simply tune-up your cars and take them along to meets, there really is always something to keep you busy.
Perhaps the most pressing question surrounding GTA Online is how friendly it is to new players. There’s good news on this front, in that Rockstar recently streamlined the onboarding process, with a set of flashy new menus serving as a gentle guiding hand, shepherding the player through the opening hours.
Whereas a couple of years ago you would load in, pockets filled with little more than pennies and moths, and stand still while you received 200 emails and texts from characters you hadn’t met yet, in 2022 you have a much easier landing. For starters, you’ll get an instant cash injection of $4 million dollars. You can then use the career builder to pick a lane. Gunrunner, biker, executive, and nightclub owner are your main options, with the game also nudging you through your first real estate and vehicle purchases.
This overhaul of GTA Online’s first few hours was undoubtedly long overdue, but it does immediately highlight one of the main issues with the game in its current state. Before you’ve even loaded into the map you’re asked to pick a career, and will have spent almost all of your money doubling down on it. From this point on, more money is needed for literally everything, from ammo to business startups or clothing. You’re constantly on the back foot in this regard, with much of GTA Online’s impressive swath of activities locked off until you’ve earned the capital to even give it a go.
Money makes the world go round in GTA Online, to a degree that has become increasingly more exploitative as the years have gone by. Being a new player can still be a miserable experience, with almost every road leading to an in-game pop up attempting to sell you Shark Cards in exchange for real money. This is further exacerbated by the fact pretty much everyone else you’ll meet is already stinking rich, and won’t think twice about blowing up your car, barely sniffing at the small hit to their wallets brought on by insurance fees.
Progression is closely tied to cash in GTA Online, so much so that the weight of your wallet heavily dictates the types of interactions you are likely to have with other players. It’s frustrating to spend your time grinding it out on the mean streets, only to have groups of posh boys in top hats practically burn piles of cash in front of you before promptly kicking you to death. Simply by being poor and low-levelled, you instantly become a target.
There’s a part of me that understands griefing to be a necessary evil in online games such as GTA Online. It’s a series built on a tongue-in-cheek sense of anarchy, with players practically encouraged to interfere with each other from the get-go. There simply aren’t enough measures for players to keep themselves out of harm's way, however. You either go passive, and lose out on much of the experience, or spend your first 20 hours having your deliveries interrupted by teenagers on flying motorcycles that hurl heat-seeking missiles at you. And let me tell you, trolls on Oppressor MK IIs litter the skies like gnats these days. I can’t count how many times I’ve been shopping for ammo, left the store only to find myself staring down the barrel of another player’s shotgun, unmotivated and ill-equipped to fight back.
Playing with pals or starting a solo lobby can help to alleviate the constant threat of class-motivated griefing, though, and it’s when things quieten down that GTA Online starts to reveal its strong points. GTA Online in 2022 is packed full of excellent distractions. Heists are exhilarating, multi-stage missions that can be a blast with a good group of friends. The most recent major update, The Contract, sees the return of Franklin and Lamar, and even ropes in Dr. Dre for a bombastic update to the game’s overarching narrative. Having the actual Dr. Dre send you out on heists is the type of scenario that could only happen in Grand Theft Auto, and in that respect, once it's got out of its own way, GTA Online can be capable of truly great things.
In many ways, now is as good a time as any to get into GTA Online. It’s been an extremely hostile place for new and even lapsed players for the last few years, but at least now there’s more direction in what you should be doing when logging on. You’ll need to know exactly what you want out of it however, which is a shame for a game with such a diverse and expansive breadth of things to do.
Money is simply too hard to come by to risk experimentation, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. If anything, it’s a problem that has only become worse as the in-game economy has expanded and shifted under inflation. There’s absolutely fun to be had, but you'll need to have one eye looking over your shoulder to have it - and the other reading a guide on how best to spend your time and money.
For my part, given how unbelievably expensive everything becomes whenever I return from a break, I tend to end up focusing almost entirely on user-generated content. The price of admission is low, and the Cunning Stunts races are a particular highlight. There’s cheap fun littered here and there in GTA Online, if you know where to look. But that shouldn’t be the case, surely? Should I feel locked out of the fun of the Casino update, or a new career path, simply because I don’t want to buy more Shark Cards and roll the dice? Rockstar sure doesn’t make it easy to enjoy its game at face-value.
GTA Online will likely be updated for years to come, and at present seems to be serving as a testbed for ideas that could end up informing whatever GTA VI Online may be. Recent additions like GTA+, a £4.99-per-month subscription that gives you $500,000 a month of in-game cash, have attempted to bring the game into the modern era, at least as far as monetisation is concerned. But there’s a feeling that much of the experience is still irreparably rooted in 2013.
This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how they're getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.