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It's the third national lockdown in the UK, and my current game of choice is GTA Online. According to Steam, I've poured 243 hours into Rockstar's open world multiplayer game (with maybe a few in the singleplayer, which I finished on Xbox 360), and right now, it's a great distraction. Last year, I had a similar relationship with Apex Legends and Destiny 2. They're all live-service, multiplayer-centric games – always evolving in some way so you have new reasons to revisit them, and doubling up as good hangout spaces to enjoy with my regular gaming chums.
GTA Online is also extremely confusing if you're a new player. On paper, it's the dream of all GTA games realized in an online space – up to 30 players share a server, roam Los Santos, and can hijack cars and murder each other at will. What it often amounts to is a griefing simulator, as you try and earn money by completing tasks around the map, before a total bastard in a flying motorcycle blows you up before the job is done. This happens all the time.
In the PC version, too, you never know when someone might hack the game and, say, drop a submarine into the middle of a Californian highway:
GTA Online is so old, so popular and so overloaded with different types of content that I often wonder if anyone but devoted YouTubers truly understand it. After all these hours playing it, however, I now get how to make quick money at any time, and how to actually have fun with friends when I want to. I've gone from being unsure about GTA Online to enjoying it a lot, and then back again. Right now, I'm semi-permanently between those two.
Crime and punishment
Not all content is made equal in GTA Online – some missions are way too hard. Others are overly long and give you frustrating objectives. And some are terrific fun, without actually rewarding you that much in terms of in-game cash and experience for playing them. It's the ultimate mixed bag of an online game, and it could probably use a revamp with some of the older content stripped out, a la Destiny 2 last year.
I also wish the loading times weren't so bloody long. Hopefully the PS5 version will fix that.
My advice, if you're starting out now in Los Santos, is to bring friends. Without them, GTA Online can feel like a slog, and teaming up with strangers is fraught when many missions require careful co-ordination and teamwork. Driving or flying around the city with pals is also inherently great fun – the basic act of hanging out with friends in this open world is pure magic.
Then, if you have an Amazon Prime account, I recommend hooking it up to your Rockstar account to get $200,000 of handy in-game cash every week. It's not worth getting Prime just for the cash – but if you know someone with an account, the money does make a difference.
Prime sort of turns GTA Online into a subscription MMO, and that injection of cash lets you more freely enjoy the game, allowing you to save up for the weapons and vehicles you want. Buying an office and a vehicle warehouse is an easy route to regular cash in GTA Online beyond Prime – but I'll leave this excellent Reddit guide to explain all of that.
Still, money stuff aside, the best content in GTA remains the heists. You'll need three other players to truly get the best out of them, but they essentially work like GTA singleplayer missions, except each of the four players gets a specific task to perform in a mission. You might be tasked with stealing a package, while a couple of other players are waiting on a nearby rooftop with a sniper rifle.
After completing a string of setup missions, you get to pull off one big score together – netting yourself a whole wad of cash, particularly if you're playing these through for the first time.
Heists are the ultimate team-building exercises, and give every player a moment to shine, whether it's arriving at the last minute to fend off cops in a military helicopter, or parachuting onto a beach in the closing moments of a mission. I've played through them a few times now, and it's a treat to take new players through each one.
Acknowledging that heists remain the most compelling content in GTA, Rockstar has subsequently added three more over the past few years: the Doomsday Heist, the Diamond Casino Heist and the Cayo Perico Heist.
That last one, added late last year, sends you to a new location away from Los Santos. You can even enjoy Cayo Perico in singleplayer – and this week, it's paying out bonuses for completing it. In truth, it's a bit of a flawed addition to the game, relying too much on GTA's not-particularly-refined stealth mechanics, with much of the heist spent sneaking around an island.
Meanwhile, I'm the kind of guy who prefers to turn up to a GTA situation in a flying car and start firing rockets at stuff. Like I did here:
Never gets old. pic.twitter.com/oj349m7uwmFebruary 1, 2021
Still, Cayo Perico pays well, and Rockstar's move to make content aimed at singleplayer folks is promising. The more people can treat GTA Online like a regular solo campaign, the more the developer will attract those who prefer to stay offline in Los Santos.
My life in GTA Online, though, is now spent accumulating sillier and sillier toys – I've bought everything that can generate cash in the game that isn't a total pain in the ass to manage, and now I just count the pennies, saving up for the daftest vehicles possible.
Is it fulfilling? Is it good? At some point during the first lockdown, I stopped delineating between games that are compulsive and games that I actually enjoy. Now, all games go into a big black hole of time, an endless pursuit for trace amounts of pleasure until I can safely go to a restaurant or bar again without the fear of a deadly virus.
So, yeah, GTA Online is good, I guess.
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Samuel is a PR Manager at game developer Frontier. Formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor, he's an expert in Marvel, Star Wars, Netflix shows and general streaming stuff. Before his stint at TechRadar, he spent six years at PC Gamer. Samuel is also the co-host of the popular Back Page podcast, in which he details the trials and tribulations of being a games magazine editor – and attempts to justify his impulsive eBay games buying binges.