Grand Theft Auto 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2 look and feel like money. Rockstar's attention to detail is unmatched, and every new game the developer releases feels deeper, broader, and more intricate than any other open world game of the era. Each makes a statement when it lands: This is what you can achieve today with a thousand people and a budget of half a billion dollars.
Grand Theft Auto Online, the multiplayer counterpart to GTA 5, makes a very different statement, which I will now sum up with a gif:
Seven years after it first released, Grand Theft Auto Online continues to make crazy amounts of money for Rockstar and publisher Take Two. Playing GTA Online while knowing that it earned $600 million just in microtransactions in 2019 gives it the opposite feeling of Rockstar's singleplayer games, where you can see and feel every dollar of polish. How is GTA Online this rickety, this confusing, this full of cheaters, this slow? To play Grand Theft Auto in 2021 is to wonder continuously how a game so profitable, played by millions of people, could basically be The Homer.
In December I started playing GTA Online because I wanted to do all of its heists with my co-op group. They're elaborate missions that require real teamwork, and like the heists in Grand Theft Auto 5's singleplayer campaign, they're easily the best part of the game. But actually getting to the good stuff requires dodging cheaters, dealing with not one, not two, but three separate menu systems, comically long load times, and some other bullshit, too. Consider this a 2021 tour of what you have to put up with to try to enjoy GTA Online.
Just normal GTA Online things, like a boat landing in the middle of the city and my jump button breaking
I'm sure GTA Online has some sort of anti-cheat system, but in practice it seems to be about as effective as someone holding up a sign that says "Don't cheat, please." Odds are good that you'll end up on a server with at least one person who can blow you up from across the map whenever they feel like it. Or they have a modded SMG that fires rockets. Or they spawn in tanks emblazoned with the Nazi flag, which our writer Morgan has run into. Or they latch onto your back and ride you while spawning clones of themselves.
Because I don't spend a ton of time in GTA Online just messing around in the open world, cheaters haven't totally ruined my experience. I spend more time in missions with my friends. But if you're interested in doing any of GTA Online's "free roam" activities, like running a drug business or buying and selling goods as a CEO, you're at the mercy of other players on your server.
On the bright side, one of my friends was chased by a modder who made collectibles rain from the sky, and each collectible gave him a healthy chunk of RP (GTA Online's experience points). He leveled up about 20 times in a minute or two and hasn't been banned, thankfully. On several occasions, cheaters in Morgan’s servers have made bags of money fly out of his butt for an hour. Cheating is rampant in GTA Online, but at least it's sometimes ridiculous and funny.
Three minutes and 15 seconds. That's how long it took me to load into my GTA Online apartment from Windows last night, as Steam first opened the Rockstar launcher and then spent a short lifetime loading me into an online session.
For a developer with Rockstar's resources, GTA Online's load times are genuinely mind-boggling. The initial load into the game takes ages, but it would be more tolerable if you didn't have to worry about more loading once you made it in. Sadly that isn't the case. Loading a mission is also slow, and when you finish a mission and decide to return to free roam, you're going to be stuck loading for another minute or two. This is exacerbated by the clunky mission system (more on that later) and connection issues that can kick you out of a session; if you're playing with friends, you'll have to wait 2-3 minutes to load a session just to open the menu to rejoin your friend's session with another 2-3 minute load.
I will say that despite the wait, GTA Online's loads are impressively seamless. You enter an online session with 20-30 other players, without any visible strain on the server or disruption for other players. It's all pretty invisible. But the extra wait time involved in joining friends and loading in and out of missions totally negates the benefits of this design. Being able to choose a session to launch together without first sitting through an exhausting load would be so much better. (It is possible to launch the singleplayer, then start a private online session where some of the open world online features are disabled, then invite friends, but you're still facing long loads with this method, anyway).
THERE ARE THREE MENUS!
Did you know there's a hidden minigame in GTA Online? It's called "Remember which menu" and I hate it. For reasons I cannot fathom, Rockstar decided to split all of GTA Online's functionality across three separate menu systems: the overarching system menu (Esc), Interaction Menu (M) and smartphone (Up arrow). Maybe they thought it would simply be too much for these to all be in one menu system. Maybe the Interaction menu was a bolted-on solution to add more capabilities in GTA Online that you don't have in singleplayer. I don't know. I do know that using them in maddening.
More GTA 5 and GTA Online
The smartphone is the worst culprit, because it's unclear what stuff you can only do on the phone, and how much of the phone's functionality is just adding an in-universe skin to stuff you can control from another menu. For example, on your phone you can pull up the contacts list and call NPCs to request jobs. They'll also call you, a lot, because of how popular that was in GTA 4. But you can also launch missions from the main menu, though it's annoyingly buried: Esc > Online > Jobs > Play Job > Rockstar Created > Missions (phew). Despite using the main menu to launch missions, you join them by accepting an invite through your phone. Even though there's a tab in the main menu specifically devoted to your friends list.
Other activities are confusingly spread across different menus. For example, you use the Interaction menu to register as a CEO and invite people on the server to join your company—but you receive those invites on your phone, in a particular app. (The invites disappear quickly, which makes it easy to think you're looking for them in the wrong place). It took me days to realize there's a subsystem in the Interaction menu for equipping spare body armor, eating snacks to replenish your health, and buying more ammo.
Perhaps my favorite bit of WTF menu design is that GTA Online tells you to deposit your cash at an ATM to prevent other players from stealing it from you, and you can find an ATM by selecting it from an Auto GPS list in the Interactions menu. Alternatively, though, you can pull up the web browser on your phone, go to the bank website, and deposit your cash from wherever you are. I couldn't tell you why the game only recommends the slower, more complex option, but it's a very GTA Online thing to do.
The lobby system is obnoxiously limiting
My friends and I don't spend a ton of time in GTA Online's open world. Because again, cheaters, but mainly because we can level up and make money more quickly by doing jobs. I'll pick one from the main menu, invite my friends, and we'll run through it. After the job, it takes us to a lobby screen where we can vote on what to play next. But this screen is clearly designed as a matchmaking experience for people who don't really care about sticking with their group, or don't really care what they play next as long as they're playing something.
There are hundreds of GTA Online missions, but it only surfaces a few of them on this screen. If you choose to refresh the options, which it only lets you do once, it then loads up totally different types of missions—usually PvP races, or deathmatch, or horribly boring parachuting. If you don't want to choose from the options presented, you have to go back to free mode—which means about a two minute wait as you rejoin the online session, only to then launch a new mission lobby from the menu. It's agonizingly slow.
Letting me select from the entire list of missions while hosting a lobby seems like a pretty simple ask. Instead, we probably spend 3 minutes loading to every 10 minutes we spend playing.
Oh, and for some reason, GTA Online only gives me the checkmark that indicates I've done a mission before about half the time, which is honestly just baffling.
You can't disable text chat
I guess the idea is to guarantee every player gets to experience at least a little racism?
Missions are full of dead driving time
How many GTA and Red Dead missions start with a long drive or ride to an objective while an NPC talks your ear off? About 90 percent of them, right? GTA Online's heist missions are no different, but I'm fine with that, because they actually have stories attached to them. The random jobs you launch from the menu don't, though, yet they're full of the same looooong drives, often halfway across the map, and it feels completely arbitrary.
Instead of having a set spawn point somewhere vaguely near your objective, jobs just start you wherever you were in the open world at the time. And when choosing a job from the menu, there's no way to tell where the objective is going to be. That means you'll often fire up a job and then discover you have to drive to the opposite side of the city or way outside the city to do a mission that takes all of five minutes.
Maybe the goal was to preserve some sense of immersion by not teleporting you, but that went out the door with the three menus. And if you fail a mission, the quick retry option actually spawns you really close, which means Rockstar did set spawn locations for every single mission but makes you drive to get to them anyway. What a waste of time.
Years of expansions make the new player experience overwhelming
Every time I load into GTA Online, I get calls about doing the Doomsday Heist and the Casino Heist, even though I'm still working my way through the original set of heists released in 2015. I get notifications about this demo derby called Arena War and vehicles the game wants me to buy. I get text messages about bounty targets and cars I should steal.
Most of these things can't be turned off and will absolutely inundate every new GTA Online player, especially those who buy the Criminal Enterprises starter pack to avoid the grind necessary to get to the heists. It's exactly what it feels like—years of updates piled onto a game with no changes made to smoothly integrate them into progression.
It's not like other games haven't figured out how to do this right, either. Warframe added a new tutorial a few years in to reflect all the changes to the game over its life. Destiny 2 streamlined its onboarding last year, ditching the whole vanilla campaign. Final Fantasy 14 overhauled and compressed its entire first campaign to help players get to the expansions faster. Heck, even TF2 figured this out, years ago. But GTA Online, one of the most successful and lucrative games ever made, is both stuck in 2013 and burdened with seven years of baggage.