Sunday, May 11, 2014

I want to love GTA Online.

I really do, but it's so very hard when the game seems more interested in frustrating me. Today, for example, I had just figured out how to obtain a helicopter for a mission that pretty much requires it (you could possibly parachute out of a plane, but that would require some serious precision). I had obtained the helicopter, and was just positioning myself to land to pick up my co-op partners. My screen went black, and GTA Online informed me that my connection had just timed out.

Six months on from the launch of GTA Online, and technical problems still run rampant. That was not the only instance of being "timed out" today. It happened at least four other times. I know it wasn't just me, because on almost every occasion I was immediately able to reconnect, and within a minute or two I received invites from the session's original host restarting the same mission. Apparently they had been disconnected as well. Also worth noting, on one mission I was resurrected from the dead as an invisible, bullet-firing ghost. I was unable to move, but I shot a few baddies in range and then promptly "died" again. Don't even get me started on all the weirdness that AI cars get up to when the game's even a tiny big laggy.

The problems don't stop at the technical issues, unfortunately. There's really no semblance whatsoever of mission balance, and the problem is often exacerbated by some truly obtuse objectives. Some missions I barely survive, and wind up expending hundreds of dollars worth of ammo only to be rewarded with a payout that barely covers my expenses. Other missions can be ridiculously easy and offer massive payouts. A handful of missions seem to offer a good balance of risk/reward. You'll never know until you do it, though. I keep a mental list of missions that I instantly quit if they come up on the quick job matchmaker, which I'm sure many GTA players do. Some missions are so ridiculously imbalanced towards the "risk" side that they're not even worth doing. I have absolutely no clue how Rockstar balances missions, or if they even bother.

Every so often, though, you'll get a mission that wants to show you what GTA Online is supposed to be. One such mission involved Trevor's airport out in the desert. There were three planes which needed to be delivered to the docks. Of the six people in the mission, four got slaughtered within the first two minutes. It wasn't their fault... the mission spawned the baddies right on top of us. Even this example has a major design problem. However, by some miracle myself and one other guy got out of the mess alive, and cleaned out enough baddies to get one plane in the air. I thought about taking a second, but the minimap was showing approaching helicopters, so I took one of the armed helicopters instead.

It was a good thing I did, because I wound up shooting down about six enemy armed helicopters that were intent on shooting my co-op partner in the plane out of the sky. I circled the docks as he made a pinpoint landing in the maze of containers, and then landed myself because there were two more planes to be escorted back, and he needed a ride. On the way back he took the guns and we shot down another three helicopters in an aerial dogfight. We landed, took out a couple of stragglers on the ground, and flew the remaining two planes to the docks. Mission passed, and the payout was worth the effort.

That's what GTA Online is supposed to be. In one mission I had multiple ground firefights, escorted a plane in a helicopter while shooting down other helicopters, had a helicopter vs. helicopter dogfight, and then made a pinpoint landing in a maze of cargo containers. Twice. In different types of aircraft. It was challenging and required a lot of different skills, but holy hell was it fun. And the reward made all the effort seem worthwhile. Why can't all of GTA Online be like this?

Only Rockstar can answer that question. I sure hope the eventual "heists" update brings some major fixes, and a much-needed infusion of player control in the mission design. There is a brilliant, organic, emergent multiplayer game desperately trying to shine through a mountain of technical bugs and design problems.

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