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18 May 2015

Grand Theft Auto Online: The Completely Sublime and the Slightly Ridiculous

The PC version of GTA V is without any doubt the most technically accomplished video game ever made. And yet, it still has flaws.

By Phil Hartup

The word was that there was a submarine in a warehouse on the docks and I figured that, if I stole that submarine, that it might help me find the whale. I wanted to find the whale. I still want to find the whale. I’m not sure that the whale is where the guy on that Youtube video about the whale said that it would be. I’m not sure that there even is a whale.

But why did I want to find the whale? Well, there lies the nub of this particular story, because when playing GTA Online, the multiplayer sandbox version of Grand Theft Auto V, doing a thing, searching for a thing, investigating things, for their own sake, it seems to make complete sense. It feels like swimming with a whale, clambering around atop a moving train, or driving up a mountain on a dirt bike, is worth doing just to do it, for its own sake. No experience points necessary, no achievements to be unlocked, just going up to a whale and looking at it, because it’s a whale.

Or it would be if I could find the great hooting joker. The docks were huger than I expected – a nest of warehouses, railway lines, cargo containers and ever so convenient ramps. After much searching and the occasional road traffic accident I found the submarine. I bobbled along around the coast in it like a crap Troy Tempest and I searched lazily around the area the whale was meant to be. I saw shipwrecks. I saw big blobs of kelp. I saw the waves rolling in above me as night turned to day and the seas turned rough. I didn’t get to see the whale, but I regret nothing.

This is a rare experience, even in a modern game. As the visual fidelity of game worlds improves and the scope for what can populate them grows in complexity it is still rare to find a game with a world that can be really striking. A world that makes you feel like your character is walking around in a colossal piece of art. GTA V has such a world, although I didn’t see it at first.

The reason I didn’t see it is because it’s a huge open world sandbox and we’ve all seen them before, often two or three different ones a year. Getting into the world of San Andreas, where GTA V is set, it doesn’t seem so striking right off the bat, even in the PC version. With the benefits of optimisation for the PC (something that was notably lacking from GTA 4) and a much higher ceiling for the graphics settings the game looks amazing, but this isn’t about mere hardware horsepower. The artfulness of GTA crept up on me slowly, absorbing me, because, the longer I played it, the more I realised I hadn’t spotted a fault. No digital equivalent of the Styrofoam rock or the wobbly piece of scenery. This is a world that seems to work, to live. A world that feels so detailed and textured that you can almost imagine getting into a plane and going there. Of course, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t live and you can’t go there, but when you’re playing the game you can easily forget that.

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Arguably it is also less of a sandbox and more a theme park. A sandbox game implies something like Minecraft, where you can build sandcastles and dig holes and change things. The world of GTA has always been extremely resistant to the actions of its protagonists outside of scripted events. You can go to war on the streets of Los Santos and minutes later everything will be cleaned up just as it was. But even if San Andreas is merely a theme park, it is the best yet created in a video game, a digital Westworld without scary Yul Brynner.

In some ways the visual presentation of GTA V is similar to that of Elite: Dangerous insomuch as it understates itself, creating a sense of wonder as everything all comes together, rather than simply throwing things at you which are designed wholly to be visually striking. These two contrasting approaches can be seen in Far Cry 4. The game possesses incredible visuals, conjuring up this faintly fantastical Himalayan kingdom, but the moments when it looks most alive and interesting are when you see the organic elements playing off each other – elephants running wild tearing up an enemy camp, or tigers and bears knocking the stuffing out of each other (it is a telling limitation of the Far Cry series that the only moments of spontaneity tend to involve animals attacking things). The thing with a video game is we know none of it is real, so the spectacle of any single component will always be limited, but pulling components together organically can still be striking.

GTA V doesn’t have Himalayan vistas or space stations and it doesn’t need them. Indeed no part of San Andreas is welcoming up close but this doesn’t dilute the sense of spectacle it generates. The game creates and flits between scenes of crushing poverty, rusting heavy industry and vacuous luxury with aplomb. There are areas of great natural beauty too, in the valleys and the coastline, contrasting strongly with the manmade elements.

The general effect of this aesthetic is extremely powerful and fits with the sense that Los Santos is a city of fakers, frauds and their victims. Alas though it is when you get up close to GTA V’s world that you start to see the another side of the design equation at work, the self-satisfied fly in the ointment, feet sticky with fresh cowpat, that famous GTA sense of humour.

Here lies the dichotomy of the modern GTA game. On the one hand you have, in the world-building, some of the finest games design work that has ever been done. There are areas in the city of Los Santos and the expanses of Blaine County that are unbelievably well made, not just visually, but to play in. Places to hide, things to climb up on, places to jump cars off, it’s all there without compromising the sense of place.

On the other hand you have the crude, primitive comedic sense that permeates much of the presentation. It’s part South Park, part Carry On film and yet failing to be as funny as either. Many people have lamented the many types of “ism” that infect the humour of GTA, how it tries and fails to offend everybody equally, but for me the greater crime, from my comfortably privileged position, is the unapologetic laziness of it all. The clearest example is that there is a brand of beer in the game called Pißwasser. That’s the joke. Because it’s beer, and its name contains the word piss. Get it?

This is typical of the humour in GTA. It aspires to work on only one basic level and it usually doesn’t reach that. These feeble sight gags littering the game world feel as out of place and pointless as if somebody ran around an art gallery writing the jokes from Christmas crackers on the masterpieces with a marker pen.

Now the thing is GTA V is a very funny game at times, not because of the writing, but because of the violent physical nature of the action. A game in which so many things can potentially happen, accompanied by strong visuals and a somewhat overenthusiastic physics engine is ripe for physical comedy. Whether it is watching a character face-plant after a misjudged jump, or get knocked over by a car they were trying to get into the game can easily, if the timing is right, be laugh out loud funny. As banal as it might sound, physical comedy of that sort is vastly superior to simply cramming rude words into the names for things. The world of GTA V will throw up things that make you laugh, but they won’t be its jokes.

The crap sight gags of San Andreas are by no means a deal breaker to the quality of the world itself, but they are a sad reminder that, for all the brilliance that has gone into GTA V and the genius of its world, the heart of the game is puerile and faintly embarrassing.

This embarrassment is best exemplified by the sex workers that litter some of the game’s grubbier districts. I can understand that content is content in a game like this and why not add more of it if you can. The developers would always have wanted to cram the game with interesting things to see and, umm, do. But I’m genuinely wondering how anybody successfully pitched the inclusion of sex workers, in the manner that they are included, as a positive feature the game needed. Even if we ignore the claims of misogyny levelled at the game, on what level is a stumbling, presumably intoxicated streetwalker meant to be entertaining to a player? What are they there to do? Are they supposed to be erotic? Are they a satire of miserable people living in poverty?

What irks me is that all the time and energy that must have gone into the inclusion of these characters could really have gone to much better use in a myriad of other places. The menu system for a start is a nightmare on the PC version, which it absolutely doesn’t need to be. The juggling of loading screens, the systems to group up with your friends for missions and races, the inventory system, these are all terrible. They’re not end of the world terrible and in context they’re not even uninstall the game and go outside into the sunshine terrible, but they’re pretty bad. Lesser games have done this better.

The controls can feel similarly unpolished too. Although the general controls are much more responsive than GTA 4 and the cars handle very well the devil is in the details. For example the inventory system doesn’t let you dump redundant weaponry, which isn’t a big problem in the single player game where the game slows down when you access the weapons or radio, but in the multiplayer game it can be needlessly fiddly. The only solutions in multiplayer are to either drop off unwanted guns temporarily (because they’ll always come back), or start a new character and only buy the bare minimum, because when a weapon is bought, it stays bought. For a game that at its core is about action these are the controls that need to be sharp.

Such criticisms might seem trifling and in the context of GTA V as a whole they kind of are. We are talking about a game that is a monumental feat of design and software engineering, a towering titan that leaves comparative titles like Sleeping Dogs, Saints Row 3 and Watch_Dogs looking very small. To complain about the weak jokes or the less than perfect interface feels like moving into a vast apartment on the two hundredth floor of a fantastical skyscraper only to bemoan a mysterious smell and the rooms being the wrong shape.

What makes these complaints important, however, is that so much is done well that the pain of messing up this close to perfection hurts much more. Nobody cared that Watch_Dogs had crummy combat, because in the critical paddy wagon with the game’s other flaws it was a comparatively minor offender. But for GTA V to raise the bar as far as it has and yet still have flaws that seem so elementary? It’s frustrating. The game can carry its flaws, it has so much going for it in so many ways you can be happily entertained by it for hours on end without necessarily having to encounter anything it does badly, but it will always have those flaws.

Oops, I nearly forgot, there’s also single player story mode, about these three guys who do crimes. One is a bisexual psychopath, one is a youngster getting started as a criminal and one is dragged back into the life after his family life falls to bits. I could take or leave the story, but it would feel remiss not to mention that it exists. According to the time spent in game measure on Steam I’ve clocked a hundred and fifty hours in the game and I’ve spent maybe six of those in the story. The story is there when I get bored of looking for whales and as I said at the start, I haven’t even found one whale yet, so that’s not likely to be any time soon.

It is fair to say that the PC version of GTA V is without any doubt the most technically accomplished video game ever made. The sheer scale of it, the attention to detail, the versatility of its mechanics, there’s just so much to it that is so good that it can comfortably absorb the flaws. Attempting to list everything the game tries to do and does right would take forever. Yet the flaws still exist, so there is still work to be done and, ironically, all the more reason to look forward to whatever GTA 6 turns out to be.