Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gaming Time Awesomeness

I've been too busy playing GTA Online to write up my thoughts on the finale of GTA V. I figure I'd better do that soon, before all my memories of playing with Michael, Trevor and Franklin have been replaced with visions of Gallivanter Ballers.


So: yeah, the game is awesome. It's probably the best technical achievement to date: the scope of the world, the level of detail, the intricate interconnectedness of all elements are mind-blowingly well-done. I'm still getting amazed by all the things people are discovering about this game, like how if you get four people into a car it'll add more weight and noticeably ride lower; how it's actually possible to board one of those 747s that you see flying far overhead in mid-air; the way that crimes are reported, or not, depending on your policy for leaving witnesses alive. GTA III almost single-handedly created the modern sandbox game, and GTA V shows that they're still the best at building the biggest, most detailed sandboxes imaginable.

On the flip side, I think that the least-impressive aspect of the game is its story. I don't mean it's unimpressive, or bad, just that it doesn't excel in the same way that the game's mechanics, controls, characters, and environments do. I've been mulling over the reason why for a while. I'm still not completely sure why it doesn't connect with me the way that earlier games' stories did, but I think it might be an unintended consequence of the fairly revolutionary three-protagonist structure of the game. There are lots of really great gameplay consequences from having three PCs, but since each player is their own person with their own ambitions, history, and goals, it shouldn't be surprising that the plot takes a meandering route.

I feel like the prior games have an advantage in that their plots are organized around a central theme embodied in the main character, and the plot mostly exists to flesh out that theme. GTA III was motivated by revenge. Vice City was motivated by greed (for status, money, and power). San Andreas was a game about building an empire. GTA IV was a surprisingly melancholic tale of guilt and redemption. GTA V... is mostly a game about pulling off daring robberies. And don't get me wrong, they're fantastic! But the motivations for those robberies feel tenuous, partly because they're varied. Franklin wants to make some paper; he sees these big scores as a means of advancement, leaving behind the ghetto life and joining the slick world portrayed in the media. Michael starts out (well, restarts) due to financial needs, but is primarily motivated by the thrill of excitement, and pride in his work. Trevor, a pure anarchist, enjoys any excuse to shoot at things. With all those different goals in the mix, conflicts and tensions inevitably float to the surface; but while they made for a pretty good story, I didn't feel like there was the same sort of thematic coherence that characterized the earlier games.

None of this is to say that the plot itself is boring or anything. I think I've got it mostly straight now, so I shall recap it in these

MEGA SPOILERS

Working just from my own (very possibly flawed) memory, here's the outline of the story. This is told in chronological order, not in the order of revelation within the game.

Roughly 15 years earlier (so, circa 2000), there was a gang of robbers operating in North Yankton, a fictionalized upper midwest city. Major members of the gang included Lester, the brains of the operation, who helped research targets, plan the operations, and fence stolen goods; Michael, the leader of the gang, who recruited other members, made the key decisions on what targets to hit, and led each operation; and Trevor, a skilled pilot who was discharged from the US Air Force due to psychological issues, and felt incredibly connected with the other men helping him pull off crimes.

At some point, Michael was caught by the FBI. The young agent in charge of his case, Dave, made an unorthodox offer: Michael could go to prison, or he could help deliver the other members of his gang. Dave would become a hero and see a huge boost to his career, while Michael would be able to walk away with no jail time. Michael had recently gotten married and had two young kids, and was becoming aware that his life of crime would have no good ending. He took the deal, agreeing to set up a final job that would let the FBI capture the entire gang in a dramatic swoop.

Except, it went wrong. Lester didn't like the target of the job and advised them not to do it. During the operation, the police arrived too early, and so they ended up in a massive shootout. In all the chaos, both Michael and Brad (another member of the gang) were shot, and Trevor fled under heavy fire.

According to the media, Michael was killed in the shootout, while Brad recovered from his wounds and was sentenced to life in a federal penitentiary. In reality, it was Brad who had died. Dave orchestrated a coverup that hid his involvement in the sting, burying Brad in Michael's grave, thus giving Michael the new start he had been promised. So Michael was reborn as Michael de Santa and moved to beautiful, sunny California... er, Los Santos, with his family. He made monthly payments to Dave in exchange for his extended freedom; keeping a low profile, he was able to spend the ill-gotten gains with a very respectable upper-middle-class lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Trevor, already slightly unhinged, spiraled ever further out of control. He got involved in a large variety of criminal enterprises, eventually ending up in San Andreas as well, albeit in the rural Blaine County rather than glitzy Los Santos. Trevor is a bit of a svengali, bending weak-willed individuals to his desires, eventually building up a chaotic criminal syndicate populated by drug addicts, disturbed veterans, and juggalos. By the time the game starts, he's running a major meth cookery and distribution network, and rapidly expanding by ruthlessly (and very capriciously) eliminating his rivals.

Trevor is a fascinating guy. He's pure id, totally unhinged, with no filter whatsoever. He's also weirdly honest (well, much of the time), paying no attention to social norms and telling people exactly how he feels about them. He appears to regularly suffer blackouts, often regaining consciousness surrounded by dead bodies. He's a libertine, eager for any degree of sexual contact from anybody, of any gender, of any age. He seems to have a basic need for connectedness, and builds those bonds with shocking vigor; and just as quickly and shockingly, he can cast them off and destroy someone he once thought of as a friend.

Michael is aging poorly. The only thing he was ever good at was crime, and now he's constantly bored, with a wife who cheats on him and two children who don't respect him. He regularly visits a psychologist who seems fully aware of his actions and offers blase admonishments and pappy advice.

Michael's son Jimmy and daughter Tracey hate him, and feel no hesitation at stealing money from their parents or otherwise going behind their backs to further their own desires. Jimmy forges his dad's signature to buy a hot new car from a shady dealer named Simeon. He doesn't realize that he's fallen into an insurance fraud: Simeon has sold him an over-valued car, for which he will extract usurious interest rates, then repossess and sell again. Simeon relies on poor black youth to handle the repossession angle of the fraud, particularly two young friends who grew up on Grove Street (holla at me, families!) named Lamar and Franklin. Both want to be hustlers: Lamar is more tuned into the gang scene, trying to set up his own drug deals; Franklin is more skeptical of the thug life, and is looking for opportunities to leave that world behind.

When Franklin repossesses Jimmy's car, he's surprised by Michael, who quickly figures out exactly what's going on. They get to talking, and Michael gradually develops some fatherly affection for Franklin: unlike his own kids, Franklin appreciates his wealth and his capabilities. Having learned of Michael's past as a bank robber, Franklin starts encouraging him to start looking for new scores, and bring him in on it.

Michael resists, but after accidentally destroying a house owned by a Hispanic crime lord and falling into his debt, he needs to raise a large sum of money quickly. Michael locates Lester, who has also moved to Los Santos. Lester has gone off the grid, becoming a hacker promoting his libertarian philosophy. Lester is a little bitter about how everything went down in North Yankton - he was crippled in the aftermath of the incident, and lost all the money he had accumulated - but Michael agrees to help him out, and Lester eventually agrees to join. Like Michael, Lester is really good at what he does, and he gains more confidence and energy as he turns his attention back to planning heists.

With the help of a few local ruffians, they knock over a jewelry store and make off with over a million dollars. Most of this goes to paying off the crime lord, but they still end with respectable takes, feeling incredibly euphoric. However, Michael left a witness alive, and news stories go out reporting his perspective of the robbers.

Trevor, high on meth and trading drugs for sex with the girlfriend of a biker gang leader, overheard this report and immediately deduces that Michael is still alive. His world comes crashing down: he's mourned Michael for years, idealizing their time together, and now finds that it was all a lie. He consolidates his business concerns in Blaine County - wiping out the biker gang, wiping out an Irish gang, trying to line up a distribution deal with the Chinese Triad syndicate - before exploiting his followers' connections and descending onto Los Santos like a hurricane. He crashes into the apartment of a minion's cousin and immediately starts setting up his own scores, which are insanely ambitious, like stealing secret weapons projects from the US military.

Everyone starts freaking out a little. Michael knows Trevor well, and is worried what will happen when the other shoe drops and he learns that Brad is dead. Even before that shoe drops, though, Trevor is a violent, homicidal man with no filter, and is an enormous risk for exposing Michael's past and present misdeeds. Dave (from the FIB) is even more worries. Trevor has no love for his organization, and if Trevor figures out what's going on and spreads the word, Dave's career will end and he'll be sent to prison for life.

The middle portion of the game operates in this zone, with Trevor, Michael and Franklin pulling off various jobs for figures in government in order to appease them and stay out of prison. Many of these deal with internecine feuds between the FIB (FBI), the IAA (the CIA), and Merryweather (Blackwater and all other private contractors to the US military). The missions are very dark and slightly comic. It all comes down to funding: the IAA is pumping the threat of terrorism in order to increase their budgets, so the FIB wants to thwart them, and also find (or invent!) its own terror targets to convince congress to add to their own funding. Merryweather in turn is trying to replace the military, at enormous cost to taxpayers; and, unlike the US Army, they have received authorization carry out operations within the borders of the United States, so they are also interested in finding credible threats that they can bill for.

Along the way, Trevor helps torture an innocent brown-skinned man, Michael assassinates a guy because he has a beard and is smoking a cigarette, and Franklin is increasingly nonplussed by the idea that they're working for Uncle Sam instead of robbing banks. However, they're also following the traditional GTA arc of gradually getting introduced to more powerful and wealthy contacts. They meet Dave's FIB division chief, and a wealthy playboy with a fetish for fast cars and torture, and an aging film director. Michael is a huge fan for classic Hollywood (er, Vinewood) movies, and he starts to think that a career in film might be the one thing that could replace a career in crime.

Like all aging criminals, Michael has a dream: The Big Score, one big and final job he can pull off before retiring forever. He and Lester fantasize about robbing the Union Depository, where a major national bank keeps its gold reserves. Franklin has proven himself as a reliable ally. Trevor is... not so reliable, but determined to become a part of whatever Michael has going on.

Things start to come to a head. Trevor pieces together enough information to get a strong suspicion about the circumstances of Michael's miraculous recovery, and flies back to North Yankton with Michael in hot pursuit. Trevor digs up the grave where Michael was supposedly buried, finding Brad's corpse inside the coffin. He understandably flips out, leaving Michael with some huge problems to resolve. The work he's been coerced into doing for the FIB has made him an even bigger liability to them, so Dave reluctantly agrees to pull him in. Things swiftly grow out of control, though: Dave's superior decides to take out Michael directly, and then the IAA and Merryweather jump in as well, each eager to help take out a major domestic "terrorist." A four-way firefight ensues, with Trevor appearing to help out - his hatred of Michael is only exceeded by his hatred of the US government.

At last, they pull off the big final heist. I managed to do this fairly cleanly in my game. I'd hired the female hacker back for the jewelry store, and so she had achieved a maximum skill by this point. I also had two highly skilled gunmen by my side. The drivers had only middling skill, but still enough to pull off our daring caper, which included an incredibly high-tension sequence of trying to make Trevor act like a normal human being while, dressed as armored security car drivers, they rolled out hundreds of millions of dollars in gold.

That, in all honesty, was the highpoint of the game. Then comes the aftermath. They should be celebrating, but Trevor and Michael are still at each others' throats. Worse, Franklin is getting leaned on from two directions. Agent Dave and his allies need him to take out Trevor, who is uncontrollable and could bring down everyone around him. And Devin, the billionaire playboy, demands that Franklin kill Michael, who thwarted his attempts to rezone a Vinewood studio for lucrative condo developments, and incidentally (and accidentally) killed his vice-president in the process.

Not unlike the ending of Mass Effect 3, I was presented (as Franklin, and via the cell-phone interface) with three choices. Option A: Kill Trevor. Option B: Kill Michael. Option C: Death Wish. What to do?

Honestly, I hardly had to think at all before picking option A. Trevor was the most entertaining of the trio, but also by far the most disturbing. I'd been rather distressed by his sadism, and when you couple that with his total lack of control, he was just too big of a threat, both within and outside of the group. I do tend to prefer picking the diplomatic or peaceful choice when it's presented, but given all the people I'd already killed over the course of the game (most of them as Trevor!), it seemed hypocritical to spare him at the end.

Franklin called Michael and enlisted his support. Michael was filled with contradictory reactions. He knew that Trevor was a dangerous lunatic, but still, Trevor was also one of his oldest friends, someone who'd had his back and saved his life multiple times. As Trevor kept reminding him, Michael was the one who had lied, deceived, and betrayed. Trevor does monstrous things, but he does them forthrightly (at least where Michael & co are considered; he's less honest to his underlings). So, Michael was ultimately on board, but clearly conflicted about the whole thing.

Carrying out the betrayal felt a bit brutal. Trevor is understandably upset about the whole thing, and leads the others on a wild chase. He ends engulfed in flames, burned alive, defiant to the very end.

A pretty dark ending, kind of, but I think less dark than any in which Trevor had lived. I liked Michael, so was never tempted by option B. I'd initially assumed that the Death Wish option would result in Franklin's death, for reasons of symmetry. I've since learned that this is actually the "best" ending, in which you can fight off all your enemies and save all three protagonists. Still, I'm content with my choice, and sticking with A as my canonical ending. A world without Trevor is a less interesting world, but a far better world.

The game ends with a breathtaking cinematic, the camera sweeping through Los Santos and then all of San Andreas as cool music plays and credits scroll. Rockstar has been doing this at least since GTA III, but each outing is an order of magnitude more impressive than the one before. When I saw some icons hovering over a couple of the scenes, I realized that, nope, this wasn't a pre-rendered cut-scene: this was all the same gorgeous engine that I've been playing for the entire game. It made me want to go out and keep exploring, which I'm sure was their intention.

After this, you're presented with your Psychological Profile from Dr. Friedlander, which collates the decisions you've made throughout the game and gives you a unique psychiatric evaluation. I absolutely love this idea. I'm a sucker for post-mortems, like the ones that often adorn Civilization and other Sid Meier games: they give me more of a sense of achievement and uniqueness. They even upload the profile to the Social Club, so you can compare yours with others.

That said, I think it's flawed since it seems to combine data from all three characters, instead of just focusing on Michael or giving a separate profile for each protagonist. I actually played quite differently as each one: if you check my playtimes, I spent the least time playing as Trevor, yet he has far more kills than either Michael or Franklin. I was actually pretty invested in Michael's marriage, and kept him on the straight and narrow, even during his prolonged separation: I even made him get a "Michael + Amanda" tattoo during this period. In contrast, Franklin is a young, single guy, and so was more exploratory in his amorousness. I was a bit bummed to see Michael's faithfulness impugned by Franklin's seeking.

Some final random thoughts particular to the single-player game:

  • Favorite protagonist: Franklin.
  • Favorite radio station: Radio Mirror Park, with lots of competition close behind.
  • Favorite visual: Impossible to pick just one, but the sun setting in the Pacific Ocean is way up there.
  • Favorite environment: Again, impossible to pick one, but the Yosemite-ish valley (complete with a Wawona Tunnel doppelganger) is high on the list.
  • Favorite activity: Would you believe me if I said yoga?
  • Favorite line: Definitely one of Trevor's. A sample: "Lay off the weed, kid. Switch to meth! You get more stuff done!"
  • Favorite supporting character: Hmmm... Lester is pretty great, with the right mix of patheticness, humor, and talent. But, I really enjoy Dave - he embodies a world-weary man who has filled his life with compromises.
  • Favorite female character: Yikes, there really aren't many, are there? One of my biggest regrets about GTA V is how it steps back from the relationships of earlier games. I guess that Molly is probably my favorite, though she's pretty minor; Amanda is well-drawn but not very sympathetic, and Tracey is deliberately shallow. I wish that Tanisha had been a bigger part of Franklin's story.
  • Most missed feature from GTA San Andreas: Probably dating, although I also miss the systems of reputation, territory (though not holding it), recruiting followers, and morphable bodies.
  • Most missed feature from GTA IV: Maybe the comedy clubs. 
  • Most improved from GTA IV: This is a bit cliche of an answer, but I like the friendship system in GTA V much more, since it's driven by player agency and not reactive like in IV. It's still on you to fulfill your plans if you make them, so I also like that they didn't totally get rid of the sense of obligation. On the other hand, though, it doesn't seem like friendship has any in-game effect, other than the extra dialogue you can hear while hanging out.
  • Deadliest enemy: The police, as a unit. They feel way more relentless than in previous games, and escalate much more quickly.
  • Favorite weapon: Saying the minigun seems a bit obvious. I do love sticky bombs, so if that counts, then those. Otherwise, maybe the carbine rifle.
  • Favorite car: I exclusively stuck with the personal vehicles in the single-player game. I'm going to answer Franklin's custom white Buffalo, though it's hard to say how much is due to the car itself, and how much due to his driving skills.
  • Favorite air vehicle: Man, flying sucks. Or, rather, I suck at flying, and always have since piloting those dang RC planes in San Andreas. Any helicopter is 100 times easier for me to fly than any plane.
  • Best skill: Shooting is the most generally useful, with driving pretty close behind.
  • Worst skill: Lung Capacity was totally useless for me. As far as I can tell, it's only useful for people hunting for hidden packages, which probably only matters for the insane few folks trying to get 100% completion. The few times you need to go underwater, you wear scuba gear, so lung capacity doesn't even matter then.
  • Best villain: I actually think this area suffered in relation to earlier GTAs; the bad guys didn't seem particularly memorable (unless you count Trevor as a bad guy). I'd probably have to go with Martin.
  • Least favorite villain: Maybe Devin. He didn't have much of a personality, other than being annoying.
  • Most unintentionally hilarious radio commercial: The one extolling the virtues of The Cloud, and how you can lose all your data after you upload it. Whoops!
  • Slight regret over: Not being able to enter Burger Shot, Clucking Bell, or any of the other recognizable dining establishments that we've been able to frequent since GTA: San Andreas.
  • Most impressive animation: Gosh, there's lots of great ones. I'm mostly amazed at all the stuff that plays out in-game, without being framed in a cut-scene. The pole dancing is surprisingly well-crafted. Trevor has really distinctive ways of hurting other people. Oh! This might be a good place to note that I love how all three protagonists have different ways of breaking into a locked car that reflect their personalities. Franklin, young and self-conscious, furtively glances around, then moves quickly to try and get in before he's noticed. Michael, an old pro at crime, casually checks to see if anyone's watching, then carefully smashes in the window with his elbow, making an entry with minimal injury to himself. And Trevor, who couldn't care less about anything or anyone, even himself, just makes a fist and punches straight through the glass. Anyways, this is an animation that will play out hundreds of times throughout the game, and it was smart of them to work so hard to get it right.
  • Favorite missions: The heists, of course, including the preparations; otherwise, I enjoyed the mechanics of the Beverly missions (though felt extremely squicky doing them), as well as stealth missions.
  • Least favorite missions: Anything where I had to drive a large vehicle at 10MPH while evading dozens of police cruisers shooting at me.
  • Favorite past-time: I didn't do a whole lot of hanging out, but the movie theater was probably the most interesting. The bar was quickest, but I didn't want to take Jimmy there. Darts was kinda fun, but way too far out of town for most pals.
  • Best system adopted from Red Dead Redemption: The random mini-quests (robberies, stolen vehicles, etc.). I love how these can just pop up while you're headed somewhere else or tooling around; they're worth doing, but not so important that you'd feel bad ignoring them if you're busy doing something else.
  • Best company parody: They sure fit a lot in here! I think they really nailed the social network scene, particularly how Bleeter is coming up and threatening LifeInvader's market dominance.
  • Favorite radio DJ: Non-Stop-Pop, with Pam Grier a close second.
  • Favorite returning character: Maybe Fernando, though he only pops up briefly on the talk radio station. Lazlo gets a lot of screen time, but comes across as an even bigger weenie than before.
  • Favorite business: I actually hardly bought any. You'd need to play the game a really long time to make a profit on any of them, and the in-game benefits are pretty low. It would have been a bit better if you could share the benefits across all protagonists - for example, when I bought the Downtown Cab Company, I'd hoped that all three characters would get free rides, but nope, only Franklin did. That said, the cab company was still probably my favorite out of the handful I bought. 
  • Favorite dwelling: Trevor's final pad (especially the refrigerator), or Franklin's new house.
  • Favorite Freak or Stranger: Maybe the drug campaigner. The elderly British star-watchers were kind of amusing. 
  • Favorite outfits: I dressed Trevor up to look like Hunter S. Thompson, minus the cheroot, and he was perfect. I usually had Franklin in a casual jacket and jeans. Michael's stuff changed around a fair amount, but I bought him an olive suit near the end that I liked.
  • Favorite mechanic: The cover system is awesome. I especially like being able to navigate around corners without breaking cover. Stealth is also implemented pretty well in single-player, and I wish they would do anything with it online. Disguises are also a really neat idea.

END MEGA SPOILERS

Anyways! All of my quibbles really shouldn't diminish the impressive achievement of this game. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is that it was totally worth the five years this game spent in development: the level of craftsmanship is unbelievably high, and if I didn't have a ton of other games to play, I would be perfectly content playing nothing but GTA for years.

I was going to also provide an update to my Online experience, but this post is already Too Darn Long, so I'll save that for a separate entry. I'll just briefly note that things are much better than they were before; that there are still plenty of hiccups (I seem to have lost about four hours' worth of progress this weekend); and that's it a lot of fun when it's working. More later!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Burned

Well, after a long period of nervous, agitated fuming, the other shoe has dropped: Rockstar has apologized, but said that they won't be restoring any of the (many!) characters who were deleted from Grand Theft Auto Online thanks to their buggy game and servers. To their credit, they're acting contrite, and instead of doing the targeted work that would be required to make the victims whole, they are offering the broad conciliatory gesture of offering a substantial credit of $500,000 in-game dollars to everyone who plays the game this month.


I appreciate the effort, but still feel pretty mad, so I figured, hey, why not write a rambling blog post about it?

As noted in my first post about the online experience, GTA Online follows a dual-track system similar to that found in most free-to-play RPGs. There are essentially two currencies, one based on cash, the other based on experience. Cash can be earned through in-game play, or purchased with real-world money. Experience (RP) can only be earned through in-game play. So, if someone started playing GTA Online and was willing to spend a lot of real-world money, they could quickly buy the best apartment and nicest cars. However, they wouldn't be able to purchase high-level weapons, armor, clothing, tattoos, etc., until they had played the game for a while and leveled up.

The in-game financial compensation Rockstar is offering is quite large compared to the loss I suffered. I had earned a total of GTA$130,000 during the time I played, of which I lost all but GTA$8,000. So, they'll essentially quadruple my money, which is nice. Without any specific effort on my part, I'll be able to pick an apartment of my choice, and a nice car as well, while having plenty of loose change for mission supplies.

However, the problem remains of my lost character. I'm not a power-leveler, and had been enjoying undertaking a variety of missions, as well as exploring the online world, reaching level 13 shortly before it all ended. If I set my mind to it (and had the opportunity), I could probably regain that spot in a solid weekend of playing... but that would feel like work, not like fun.

Now, here's where it starts to get interesting. Rockstar will be offering currency packs that allow people to directly buy GTA$. Given their current exchange rates, the GTA$500k they are offering players is worth US$10. Depending on how they account for it, that's actually a very substantial real-world offering by Rockstar. I haven't heard any specific figures yet on how many players have gone online, but GTA V itself has sold north of 30 million copies; if just one-third of those have gone online, this payout is theoretically worth US$100 million. (In practice, of course, only a small fraction of players will ever spend money on in-game currency, so their actual loss is certainly much smaller.)

But, there's another factor to account for: how much time I spent playing my character before they were killed. If I were to apply my consulting rate to the hours spent building my character, the value of my time would be around US$3000. A far cry from US$10! And obviously not one that Rockstar would ever pay (nor would I want them to).

Once you start looking at this in dollar terms, though, it gets even weirder. If my time is so valuable, then why don't I just buy in-game currency myself? Well... because it isn't fun, right? It's playing the game that's fun, not having the things you can buy with money. I don't want to shortcut the game to get the rewards; the rewards are meaningless without the game.

What would it take for Rockstar to make me whole? My doomed wish was a return of my character: same appearance, same stats, same equipment, same possessions. Since that wasn't in the cards, though, could they have addressed it with a combination of the cash and the RP I had earned?

I've thought about that question far too much, and my eventual answer is "No." The reasons why mostly come down to the nature of the game. If a similar character wipe had happened on Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, then a combination of XP and Credits would have satisfied me. In that game, your character is defined by your class and your loadout, both of which are unlocked by purchaseable packs. There is a slight amount of customization available, mostly restricted to the colors you assign to a character, but it would take only a matter of minutes to rebuild a lost character, and it would feel like they're the same as the one you lost.

However, that's not the case in RPGs, and it's not the case in GTA Online either. Even if I try to recreate my lost character, they won't be the same. I'll never get them back; they're gone forever. And that sense of loss stings deeply. Like almost all humans, I'm loss-averse: the pain I get from losing something is greater than the pleasure I felt in having it. I feel much worse after having built up and then lost a character than I would have if I had never started playing in the first place.

It's not too unusual for me to get irritated when playing a game: if a fight is particularly difficult, or a puzzle seems too obtuse, or if a bug keeps crashing the game. It's much rarer for me to actually get angry, and in every case I can think of, that anger is the result of a loss of progress. GTA Online was rather painful, but even that paled in comparison to the robbing of my character in Dragon Age Origins (all the worse because, rather than having a character in the cloud who was abandoned by said cloud, that was a supposedly single-player character who was somehow hunted down and violated by the cloud). I think that this may be a specialized version of the sensation of "metaphor shear" that Neal Stephenson writes about in his excellent nonfiction book "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line." We're asked to buy in to the idea that we're creating characters, that our decisions matter, that the time and care we invest in growing them will have lasting benefits. Then one day, we blink and they're gone. We realize that these weren't the people we held in our minds after all: they were strings of ones and zeroes on a hard drive somewhere, and far more fragile and easily destroyed than a creature of flesh and blood could be.

So, why do I get so bent out of shape when this happens? Isn't it silly to get upset when something goes wrong in a game? The more I think about this, the more I think that the source of my displeasure is precisely the fact that it's "just" a game. Consider other sorts of losses. If I were participating in a sports tournament, and was prevented from competing in the championship, I'd certainly be upset; but I'd still have the benefit of all the physical conditioning that I'd built up over a season of training and competition, and thus be noticeably "better" than I was before. If I'd worked really hard on an art project or a novel, only to see it destroyed, I would feel devastated; but I'd have stretched my creativity along the way, and even though I could never regain the work that was lost, I'd have built valuable experience that would probably help make my next project even better. With a game, though, I don't have the justification of building character, or gaining valuable life skills. The entire purpose of the game is having fun, so when that's taken away, there's no ancillary consolation to cling to.

I don't know if it's exactly cognitive dissonance, but I think there's an unpleasant sensation when you're forced to confront the fact that what had seemed like a productive, fun activity was never productive and is no longer fun. We might be wired to go overboard in reacting against that feeling: if I feel this bad, it must be because Rockstar is evil, because they're trying to irritate people, etc., etc. Which obviously isn't true, but blaming a target might be easier than confronting one's own dawning awareness of the ephemeral quality of their pasttime.

Wow, that got real dark real fast! Sorry about that.

Anyways. Despite all the above, I still think GTA Online is a lot of fun when it's actually working and not chopping off your legs from under you. It's been several days since the latest patch came out, and player complaints have dropped off drastically, so it looks like they've finally fixed the most horrendous bugs. Things that used to irritate me, like how your character can suddenly turn bald if you start a mission with a mask equipped, now seem like quaint and pleasant quirks from a captor who is no longer torturing me.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Glitchy Troubles Abound

I was planning on starting this post later, but I find some unexpected free time on my hands since my online character has been deleted, so... here we go!


Needless to say, I am very bummed to have lost a character I have invested time and effort into. I've been pretty OK with the other problems plaguing the online launch, like periods where nobody can connect to the service, since those just stop progress. Actually losing progress, though, really stinks. I'll join my voice to the chorus of people recommending that you not start playing GTA Online until they finish fixing all their problems.

The whole situation is simultaneously familiar and absurd. There are always huge problems anytime a historically single-player franchise puts out an online component. The most obvious recent examples are Sim City and Diablo 3, but I still remember the howls of rage that accompanied BioWare's botched launch of Dragon Age: Origins.

At the same time, though... Rockstar waited a full two weeks after the game came out before enabling online mode. Even though the game sold better than expected, that should have been plenty of time to purchase additional hardware, run a closed beta test that could identify stresses on the system, and gotten stuff ready. Instead, they've been plagued by an array of problems, some their own, some the result of the Playstation Network or (less often) Xbox Live. (A recent theory I heard, which seems both like a tinfoil-hat theory and perfectly plausible, is that Rockstar deliberately postponed the online launch specifically to prevents review scores for GTA V from getting dinged by the online problems they knew would come. I can buy that.)

That said, in the time I may have wasted playing GTA Online, I did generally have fun. I've joined a small crew from a website I like; I don't know any members personally, but have run a few races with a couple of them and fooled around in the open world with another. I've always started up a private crew session, and I'm often the only person inside it, so I don't experience the full mayhem that a lot of folks are apparently experiencing.

Once the online game is worth playing, here are a few random tips from me:
  • You can start your own solo instance of the game by launching into single player, then choosing Online -> Play Online, then picking either "Solo Game" or "Invite Only". This might be nice if you want to get the hang of the slightly different interface, or spend time shopping, or just explore for a bit without worrying about other players.
  • Pressing "X" from the launch screen will put you in online mode, but this will always dump you into a public server. Not necessarily bad if you just want to tool around and have fun, just something to be aware of.
  • By far the best and easiest way to level up and get money is to run Races or Jobs with other players. Once you find a group you like, you can keep picking additional ones so they stack back-to-back. You get additional bonus RP (kind of like XP) if you're playing with a Crew. When racing, you can pick from a selection of vehicles, so this is very viable even for a totally-fresh character.
  • If you don't want to do Races or Jobs, then levels 1-5 will go rather slowly. You get a little RP from obtaining and then losing Wanted Stars, and more RP from robbing a store. Personally, I found robbing stores the most fun way to advance in solo mode. You get a decent payout for each (~$1k), plus some practice in working with disguises and evading cops.
  • Before your robbery, go to Vespucci Masks and buy any mask. If you don't already have a hat or glasses, go to any clothing store and buy one. Park your car close to the store's door, ideally with the driver's seat facing the storefront. Put on your mask before entering the store. Walk over to the cashier, pull out your gun, and aim at him to start the robbery. He'll start putting money in a bag; to make him go faster, you can shoot around him, but be careful not to hit him (you'll get less money, an additional wanted star, and be a bad person). Once you have the money, run for the door (some owners will shoot at you). Hop in your car and peel out. Once you get out of sight of the cops (wanted stars start flashing), open your Inventory, and put on your hat or glasses. (There's currently a glitch in the interface that keeps you from removing a mask; you need to put on other equipment instead.) Exchanging your mask will make you lose a wanted star, so you might be down to just 1 now, which is much easier to evade. Congrats! You are a small-time hood!
  • There's an option in Online Settings that lets you make your minimap an, er, maxi-map. It looks weird at first, but I really like it, mostly because it makes it much easier to see where the cops are. It also makes it easier to navigate without stopping to set a waypoint (again, there's no pause in online mode). One significant downside: the map draws over your health and armor bars, so it's very hard to tell how close you are to dying.
  • A long press on Select (on PS3) will open up a new quick menu for online mode only. This lets you quickly access some very useful stuff: quickly set a Waypoint on the current mission objective or other common destinations (AmmuNation, Mod Shops, Clothing Stores); access your Inventory (for switching disguises or eating snacks, more on that below); split up Cash with your companions, etc.
  • Unlike in single-player, where your character would immediately consume any food or beverages, in online mode you can purchase snacks or drinks and add them (up to a limit) into your inventory. Eating/drinking them will then restore a little bit of health. This is very useful if you're in the middle of a mission/job and want to get above the 50% auto-heal limit.
  • One of the best ways to make money in the game, which also works in solo mode, is to steal a car and then sell it to a Mod Shop. You can't sell super-high-end cars like Banshees, but can sell entry-level sports cars like the Buffalo. I find that I generally get good results with a nice-looking SUV, which can net over $6k. Note, however, that you can only sell one vehicle during any in-game 24-hour period. So, it can be worthwhile to spend a bit of time finding a good one.
  • Once you finally reach Rank 5, the pace of the game starts to pick up. You'll start getting Jobs from Simeon and, later, from Gerald. These jobs can all technically be done by 1 person, and that's how I do them, but I'm sure they go much faster in a team (plus you get more RP that way). You'll want a decent gun and armor for these jobs. The starting pistol is fine, but the Micro SMG that unlocks at Rank 6 is much better, so I'd save cash for that.
  • Most of Simeon's missions suck, while Gerald's are good. If you ever have the choice between the two, pick Gerald's mission. I find it impossible to finish Simeon's missions that involve apprehending a moving vehicle; it might be more feasible if you had another player running shotgun and aiming at the tires, but if it's like any of his other missions, even if you did beat it you wouldn't get much money from it. Gerald's missions tend to be relatively straightforward: drive peacefully to X, kill the gang members, steal the drugs, deal with the reinforcements that arrive (I typically hunker down and shoot them, but you can also try outrunning them), then drive back to Gerald.
  • One unfortunate thing I've noticed is that job payments don't appear to scale with your character's reputation level. You can run some jobs around rank 5-10 that pay out $5k apiece; I'm now (or, I was, before my character was deleted!) running different jobs at rank 13 that only pay $1k or $2k. Which is unfortunate, especially since you need to invest more in ammo and armor for higher-level missions.
  • Speaking of which: I almost never go to AmmuNation, unless I want to buy a new weapon I've unlocked. Before starting any Job, you can buy ammo for your gun and armor. There doesn't seem to be any markup on either one. 
  • Ammo in general is much scarcer in Online than in single-player. You can pick up some in the world, but only up to a limit, while you can purchase a much higher amount. 
  • I haven't totally figured out Armor yet. You can see it in-game, where it appears over your character's clothing. It will still appear even after you die, though, so I think it's possible to technically be wearing armor and not have any protection from it?
  • Most online guides will say to only spend money on certain weapons, and later on cars and property. I don't necessarily agree. Personally, part of what I (did) enjoy most about Online is the total customization you have over your character. It can be fun to check out new Clothing options that unlock as you play, as well as new hairstyles, etc. You don't want to go overboard, so pay attention to price tags - it's very easy to spend more than $1k on a single article of clothing, even at the start of the game - but in the big scheme of things, spending a bit of money on customization won't really hurt your long-term goals.
  • When you die in Free Roam mode (i.e., if you aren't on an active Job), you'll drop some of the Cash you're carrying. Not a big deal if you're playing solo, but with other players around, they'll probably take it. Unlike in solo mode, in online there's both Cash and Bank Account money. You can use your Bank Account for practically everything; the only exceptions I've found so far are vending machines and taxi rides, both of which are useless. So, any time you have any cash, put it in your bank. The game will tell you to visit an ATM to deposit your Cash, but it's almost always quicker to open your Phone, visit the Internet, then pick Money & Services and Maze Bank. Here, you can deposit (good) and withdraw (kind of pointless) your money.
  • You can also shop for properties and vehicles on your phone. For properties in particular, this is a great way to browse and see what's available. I haven't bought any vehicles yet, but this is the only way to hold on to a high-end premium car like a Banshee.
  • In Single Player, properties generate income. In Online, they are safehouses. You can only own one apartment at a time. The cheapest is $80k, the most expensive is $400k. There are a LOT, which I approve of; they can give more variety between player choices. More expensive properties have bigger garages, better locations, better views, and nicer interiors. Personally, my starter apartment (which I really hope wasn't permanently deleted...) was a $99k 1-bedroom in the north central area of Los Santos. It looks like it should give pretty good access to much of the city, while also being very close to the edge for quicker travel to Blaine County. There are a bunch of little activities available in apartments, similar to what you can find in single player: in mine, you can drink beer, watch TV, smoke a bong, sleep (doesn't save), or change clothes. There's also a shower, which can be used to remove blood from your character. Neat! I haven't checked this out yet, but apparently you can also tune into CCTV to watch footage from police helicopters, which will let you see what kind of mischief other players on your server are getting into.
  • Besides apartments, you can also buy garages. I haven't gotten any yet. They're much cheaper than apartments, but can only be used to store cars (and motorcycles and bicycles; garages can have an unadvertised number of bicycle slots in addition to the advertised car/motorcycle slots). Once you get a garage, either by itself or as part of an apartment, you gain access to a Mechanic Contact on your phone, who you can call to deliver a car to you. I think you can own multiple garages at the same time, but don't quote me on that.

One of the most pleasant surprises from playing GTA Online has been a noticeable increase in my skill at evading cops, which I'd complained about before. Partly this is because you never need to outrun them in a garbage truck, but there are other things I've picked up as well.
  • As noted above, in the specific case of robbing a store, you can wear a mask during the crime and then ditch it after to lose a star. I don't think this works for any other type of crime, but haven't tried it yet.
  • Helicopters only show up at level 3. If helicopters are in play, you may need to head underground to avoid being spotted. But, helicopters don't stay around forever; it'll eventually disappear, and possibly respawn later.
  • Unless a cop car is actively chasing you, they will never leave the main roads. So, once they lose sight of you (stars are flashing), try to get far off the road. This is fairly easy to do if in Blaine County. Once you're far enough from a road that they can't spot you, just wait quietly for the stars to disappear. In some cases, I've swum out into the Pacific to get the distance I needed, which works fine. 
  • The Expanded Mini Map works wonders for seeing where the cops are. Keep an eye on their position and field of vision. If you're on the freeway together, it can be effective to creep along behind them; they can't easily turn around, so you might lose your stars before they spot you. Otherwise, just keep paying attention and cautiously move away from them.
  • Speed can be helpful at first to get some separation from your pursuers, assuming you have a fast car. Once you're out of their sight, though, speed actually becomes a liability: if you move too quickly away from them, new cars will spawn that may be closer. I prefer to creep around while they're searching.
  • Don't be afraid to leave your vehicle while they're searching. Some of the best hiding places are behind houses, or other areas that are close to the road but out of direct line of sight. This can be very handy in areas like Chumash where there are only a few north-south roads and thus it's difficult to evade via vehicle.
  • I've heard that later on you can call a Contact who will remove your wanted stars for a bribe. I haven't gotten to that point yet, but love the idea!

 Phew! Man, I was having so much fun with this before it stopped working. Argh. That'll teach me for trying to play an online game shortly after launch.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

FTM

I'm having a blast so far with GTA V. According to the completion percentage, I'm a bit over 50% of the way through the game, so I figured this would be a good point to drop in and share my thoughts so far.


First, at a high level, the game is (so far) delivering on what I wanted: a fun, open, beautiful world filled with cool stuff to do and nice sights to look at, combined with a high level of detail like that seen in GTA IV. The plot is pretty engaging (though so far it isn't grabbing me quite as strongly as San Andreas' or even IV's), but the highlight for me has been exploring Los Santos and Blaine County, letting the sense of place seep into my bones.

Let me get my criticisms out of the way up front (there aren't many!), then I'll dive back into what I'm digging about the game. I have to admit that, while I vividly remember GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas, my memory of GTA IV is relatively sparse, so in some cases I'm not sure whether these were things that previously existed in IV or not.

In the "classic" PS2 generation of GTA games, wanted stars were a regular way of life. It has always been impossible to win a prolonged shoot-out against the cops: sooner or later, they will always bring you down. With discretion the better part of valor, I always try to lose my wanted stars as quickly as possible. (Of course, some people do enjoy seeing how long they can go while remaining wanted - more power to them, but it's impossible to do anything but evade the police while you're evading the police.) In the early GTA games, by far the most effective way to lose your wanted level was to high-tail it to a Pay-n-Spray, where for a cheap $100 or so, they would repaint your car and instantly render you unrecognizable.

At the time, I'd laughed at how unrealistic this was. There were multiple times when I would be pursued by multiple cruisers with flashing sirens, unmarked black FBI sedans, armored SWAT vehicles, and maybe even a tank or a helicopter, all converging on my position, sometimes even slamming into me from behind in the final moments as I slalom into the painting bay. The door would slide, down, then slide back up seconds later, and... poof! Everyone would instantly lose interest. "Huh, that guy who shot thirteen helicopters out of the sky with an RPG just drove in here in a blue coupe, and now a RED coupe is driving out! Nuts, we lost him! Okay, go home everyone."

While that wasn't very realistic, it was fun. Any encounter with the law would deliver a huge jolt of adrenaline, and lead to a very intense and very brief period of time where I raced to reach the nearest Pay-n-Spray before the authorities blew up my vehicle.

As part of GTA IV's reinvention as a more serious, more realistic game, they revamped this core mechanic of evading police. There are still auto shops (Los Santos Customs in GTA V, I forget what they were called in GTA IV), but they are much farther apart than in previous games, and are no longer realistic destinations in most pursuits. Even if you do reach one, you now need to be out of sight of your pursuers before you can enter (and, as in previous games, you can't get a re-spray if in a police car or other obviously improper vehicle). Instead, they've implemented a more nuanced system of diminishing heat. You need to get out of sight of your pursuers, and stay out of sight for a period of time - of course, greater wanted levels will require longer periods. You have several strategies available to you, including speeding away from them, or ducking into an alley, canal, or other off-road area and lying low until the heat dies down.

In theory, this is a more engaging system. In practice, it's awful and I hate it. For starters, GTA V has multiple missions where you're required to steal a big and insanely slow vehicle - like a garbage truck, or a dump truck. Trying to evade multiple cruisers when your speed tops out at around 40 MPH is the definition of futility. And you can't take out your pursuers, of course, because that would just add MORE wanted stars and more troubles. So, you end up spending 10-15 minutes driving around, your giant hunk of steel impervious to all the bullets and vehicles they throw at you, but helpless to ever achieve necessary separation. That's the opposite of engaging. That's boredom incarnate.

The situation's a bit better if you're in a vehicle of your choice, but even then, it sucks. The game will spawn additional police units directly in front of you, meaning that even if you succeed in evading a tight spot, you'll immediately run into more. I totally get why they spawn more, it would be too easy to slip a dragnet otherwise, but they should really come in from the edge of your map, not in the middle of your current block. They also continue sporting classic GTA nonsense like giving you a star when a cop car crashes into you from behind, then giving you a second star a minute later for no reason at all. It's getting to the point where I want to just reload whenever I touch off a chase, just because I don't want to waste another 10 minutes of gaming time dealing with this nonsense.

Wow, that was a much longer rant than I was expecting. It's by far my least favorite aspect of GTA V; fortunately, though, it's just about the only part of GTA V that I don't love. (Briefly, things I miss from San Andreas: dating, dancing, fat.) Let me enumerate my many praises!

Gorgeous scenery. This has GTA IV's detail, where you can stop at random on any street corner (or in the middle of the woods, or along the shore, or up on a hill) and have something intricate, interesting, and high-resolution to look at. You never NEED to do this, and will spend much of the game blasting past it at high speeds, but at any moment you can slow down and soak in the fantastically realized world. Last night, I saw my first sunset over the fake Pacific ocean. It was gorgeous, a fine match for the real one that I enjoy so much. Later the next (in-game) morning, I was walking along some dunes, and noticed a shadow rapidly receding from in front of me. I looked behind me, and noticed that the sun was rising over Mount Chiliad. I got chills - I've experienced the same thing several times, in the shadow of Mission Peak or Mount Diablo or any number of East  Bay hills, and it was weirdly thrilling to encounter the same thing, purely by chance, within this game.

Varied main characters. The prospect of multiple characters had seemed like a gimmick when I first read about it. Now that I'm deep into the game, though, I'm realizing that it's brilliant on multiple levels. First, on a pragmatic level, it significantly increases the odds that any given player will have someone they can really enjoy playing as. Historically, many GTA fans will identify their favorite title in the series based on how much they enjoyed the main character's personality. People who love playing violent, amoral psychopaths love Vice City mostly because of Tommy Vercetti. People who enjoy playing ambitious strivers with roots in the community are more likely to dig CJ from San Andreas. People who enjoy melancholic, reflective characters will like GTA IV's portrayal of Niko Bellic. Well, there's something here for everyone. Trevor is so insanely out there, a totally unhinged (and hilarious!) homicidal ball of quivering furious rage that he makes Tommy Vercetti look like Desmond Tutu. Michael captures the world-weariness of middle age, someone with the depth of experience of Niko, but with plenty of roots of his own. Michael is dumb but wise, sarcastic yet yearning, a nicely complex guy. And Franklin, by far my favorite of the crew, has several superficial similarities to CJ, but also a much more collaborative spirit and a deeper level of engagement with the people around him.
Having multiple varied characters also has another interesting side-effect: it lets you create some psychic distance between you, the person holding the controller, and the guy on the screen who is shooting cops with a sawed-off shotgun. I've been thinking a lot lately about character development in video games (no doubt due to my dabbling in writing a PC and NPCs for my Shadowrun missions), and have pondered a great deal about the relationship between a player and his or her character. Many people turn to video games for escapism, and delight in acting out in ways they could never get away with in real life: they might indulge in violent fantasies ("Kill pixels, not people!") instead of living a boring law-abiding lifestyle, or they might become gregarious and outspoken instead of an introvert. Personally, I generally try to make moral decisions in games in ways that are congruous with my "real-life" values, but enjoy the heightened stakes and extreme situations presented by such games (what if all of the galaxy was threatened by sentient synthetic lifeforms? what if zombies were killing everyone?). All that to say: personally, I am often uncomfortable when I'm playing a game and need to take an action that I disagree with. The silliest-slash-most-profound instance of this might be the murder of the Companion Cube in the original Portal; I spent something like twenty minutes trying to get out of it, and felt really bad when I actually tossed it in.
Wow, this is way too much text to put into a single bullet point! Bottom line: having multiple characters lets me see them more as actors in a play, and less as avatars of my own will. Trevor is a sick, twisted man, but I don't feel responsible for him in the same way I felt responsible for Tommy. I find that this even extends past the story and into the gameplay: when playing as Michael or (especially) Franklin, I make an effort to avoid unnecessary loss of life; when playing as Trevor, I just figure, well, yeah, he WOULD drive over all of those people. The end result is more fun, and also more interesting than a single static character would be: I get to see the different sorts of reactions you can provoke, without feeling like I'm tarnishing the soul of (all) my characters.
Finally, from a role-playing-game perspective, there are nice mechanical benefits to having multiple characters. In a way, this is kind of like a party-based game, except using an action interface for combat instead of an RPG system of menus or cooldowns. Franklin is a fantastic driver, so I'll rely on him when I need to complete a race or jack a specific vehicle. All characters drive sometimes, so they all benefit from increasing their driving stat, but I don't feel the urge to max anyone but Franklin. On the other hand, "lung capacity" is a borderline useless stat, and as far as I can tell is really only used if you're going to be diving for pearls. If you want to do that, you can build up one character's lung capacity, but there's no reason to increase anyone else's. Anyways! It reminds me well of building up a warrior's strength, a thief's dexterity, and a mage's intelligence.

Fun from the start. That sort of implies that previous GTA incarnations weren't fun early on, which isn't true... I've always enjoyed the early game. However, there has almost always been a progression through the game to reach the cool stuff: you start out driving crummy cars or bikes, traveling through an ugly crime-ridden neighborhood; over time, you gradually expand your world, eventually reaching the wealthier areas and gaining access to better stuff. Here, Michael is a pretty wealthy guy from the start, and Franklin has access to great sports cars (for good story-based reasons), so from the very beginning you can live in a nice big house, drive a good car with good handling, and have enough cash to buy the available weapons and gear without scrounging. Oh, and no areas are locked, so if you want to you can tool around pretty much anywhere you want in all of Blaine County from the start (though the game's story mode does have a nice progression for gradually familiarizing you with the geography).

Solid controls. Every iteration of GTA has significantly improved the feel of the controls. Trying to melee anyone in the early games felt like wrestling a waterfall; now, it's highly satisfying to land a punch or a well-timed kick. Cars tend to handle very well: yeah, plenty of crummy cars will lose traction and spin out, but you don't need to drive crummy cars! Even vehicles that used to challenge me have been significantly improved. I was always really bad at driving the Banshee, but its incarnation in GTA V handles extremely well, and has become my go-to vehicle for most road races. There are tons of other interactions that go into the game, too: managing your cell phone (complete with an Internet browser with streaming video!), switching between your vast arsenal of weaponry, moving into and popping out of cover... all of this stuff takes only a little time to learn, and quickly becomes muscle memory. Even goofy things like raising or lowering your convertible roof have dedicated buttons for quick access.

Music. This has always been a highlight for GTA, even in the comparatively low-budget GTA III when they couldn't afford to license any A-list bands. The depth of music in GTA V is insane. In previous games, I would typically find a radio station that I liked, listen to it until I started to get sick of it, and then have plenty of other stuff to listen to instead. In GTA V, I can keep listening to Radio Mirror Park, FlyLo, or Space, giving me a steady diet of awesome electronic-ish music. But, I can also drop in on any of a variety of hip-hop stations (we've moved far beyond San Andreas's two-station "Classic East Coast hip-hop vs. West Coast gansta rap" dynamic) which are spinning fantastic tunes,  the shockingly good Non Stop Pop station (I don't think of myself as a pop fan, but that station's making a convert of me), and even huge names from the expensive world of licensed classic rock acts (Queen, Def Leppard, Robert Plant, Chicago, Steve Miller Band, Stevie Nicks, etc.).
One of my favorite things about the music, though, is how it's layered into the fabric of the world. That's long been a hallmark of GTA: If you jack a low-riding gangbanging hoopty, it'll probably be tuned to a rap station; if you jack a self-righteous hybrid sedan, it'll most likely be tuned to public radio. Part of the fun of switching between multiple characters, though, is getting a feeling for their own musical tastes, independent of your own. These aren't particularly surprising: Franklin usually is tuned to a hip-hop station, Michael likes classic rock, and Trevor really, really likes the punk rock on Channel X. It does add flavor, though. I find that, while I'll generally tune in one of my favorite electronic stations if I've jacked a fresh car, I'll usually keep their favorites on when riding in their personal vehicles.
Heh, this is as good a point as any to describe one of my favorite little moments in the game thus far. As Trevor, I jacked a dune buggy, tuned it to Radio Mirror Park, and then started cruising down the highway, chilling out to The Chain Gang of 1974. Suddenly, I started to hear this weird rumbling sound. As it grew louder, I realized that it was a shout of disdain. Finally, Trevor shouted out, "This... isn't... working for me!!!" and flipped the station over to Channel X, where Black Flag was playing, and cranked up the volume. I was stunned and delighted. I've never had an in-game character criticize my real-world musical tastes before, and I loved it. (I also got a brief flashback to playing GTA III in college, when my roommate would do almost exactly the same thing as Trevor.)

Have I mentioned yet how dense the world is? It's pretty incredibly dense. Modern GTA games are partly defined by the insane breadth of stuff you can do, even if it's just sitting on a couch and watching TV. While waiting for the sun to rise, I watched a surprisingly long cartoon titled "Kung Fu Rainbow Lazerforce," just one of a large number of streaming videos available on your in-game in-phone web browser. I took a buddy to the movie, and sat through a fascinating, incomprehensible, amusing subtitled European art-house film about... uh... well, I'm not sure, but it was filled with fantastic imagery like a man climbing a ladder to nowhere. There's the usual vast assortment of races, including downhill bike racing and motorsports and ATVs and aeroplanes. They got rid of the much-hated bowling from GTA IV, but have darts, tennis, golf, yoga (surprisingly enjoyable!) and skydiving. In many cases, you'll have a single mission that requires doing one of these things once, after which they'll unlock for you to replay as much as you want (possibly increasing your stats or earning a little bit of money along the way). For the most part, though, I just love exploring. There's some incentive for doing this - finding scraps of letters, hidden spaceship parts, etc. - but I've never been a 100% Completion kind of guy, and just dig exploring the beauty of this fictional world.

Decent cinematics. The bar for these things keeps getting set higher and higher, so this is by far the most impressive in the GTA franchise yet, although in a few specific cases they are lagging a bit behind smaller studios like BioWare. (For example, I think that Rockstar is really good at making expressive eyes, but poorer at creating realistic mouth movements.) As in previous games, all cut-scenes are rendered in the existing game engine, which is a fantastic achievement on its own, all the more so when you have images like a teenager throwing a video game controller at their TV screen, or a middle-aged dude awkwardly sitting in a hip beanbag chair, or a character mournfully lamenting the passing of an ugly pottery sculpture.

Fantastic setpieces. If the cut-scenes are good, the actual gameplay scenes are incredible, which is an inversion from what you would expect. Without giving too much away, there are certain particularly dramatic sequences that involve a ton of simultaneous action by multiple friendly and hostile characters and vehicles at the same time; you're in complete control, so it all feels wide-open and can go in any of an infinite number of ways, and yet every moment feels like it was shot by Michael Bay for a summer Hollywood (er, Vinewood) blockbuster.

I could go on. I won't. At least, not until I finish the game's main plot, when I might duck back in with some spoilery thoughts on the actual plot.

Before then, though, I figured I'd leave a few brief impressions about online play. I wasn't even thinking about online when I pre-ordered this thing, and I'm famously pretty ambivalent/hostile towards multiplayer games in general. Since I've gotten so attached to the single-player game, though, I've correspondingly grown increasingly attracted to the prospect of carving out a piece of Los Santos for myself.


In many ways, the online mode feels more like a pure RPG than anything in the single-player game. This starts with character creation: you can customize the main characters to some extend by purchasing new clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, etc.; but in the online game, you can actually create a unique person. The way they do this is really unique and, in my opinion, rather cool. Most character creation tools use a slider system: one slider controls your skin tone, another the height of your cheekbones, another the width of your brow, etc. This gives a great deal of control over your character, but in practice, it's really hard to make anyone who looks good; in practice, you're generally better off using the randomizer or flipping through pre-created characters until you find one you like, and then just tweaking that one (maybe changing the hair style or eye color). In contrast, GTA Online uses an interesting two-pronged system that I think of as "nature and nurture". First of all, you pick your geneology: select your four grandparents, each from a pool of I think eight or sixteen choices. These cover a broad range of ethnicities and body types. Your parents will then be generated from those grandparents; for each parent, you select how strongly they inherit from their father and their mother. Finally, you select your own genetic closeness. I played around with the system a fair amount, and was impressed by how many of the people came out looking good. If you start with ancestors who you like, you're likely to end up with a decent-looking PC, without looking like a clone of them.

Next comes nurture, which is also done in a creative way. Instead of just picking a kit (Dwarf Commoner Rogue or Elf Mage?), or manually assigning stat points (STR 18+33, DEX 15, CON 14), it asks you how you spend your time in a typical day. You have 24 hours to assign, which you can distribute among Sleeping, Friends & Family, Legal Work, Illegal Work, Partying, Sports, and Sitting on the Couch. Each of these will modify your starting stats: If you do a lot of Illegal Work, you'll gain skill in Driving and Shooting, but lose points in Lung Capacity; when spending time with Friends and Family, you'll gain skills in Stamina and Driving, but lose points in Shooting.

It isn't a purely stat-based decision, though, and in fact the stats may be the least important part of this, since you'll always be able to level up later. The activities will also determine your character's starting look. Someone who focuses on partying will wear trendy clothes and a slick hairstyle; a primarily criminal person will have a leather jacket and a hard face; someone who spends all their time sleeping and lazing about will wear loose, comfortable clothing and look soft.

You can customize this a little, swapping out your starting hat and hairstyle and such, but it does a great job of starting to define you, not just as a bundle of stats, but as a character. (Oh, also: I was pleasantly surprised to see that they let players create female characters, who have their own options for customized clothing, makeup, hairstyles, etc. Given the all-male lineup of the single-player game, I'd assumed they would do the same thing for multiplayer, so it was nice to see Rockstar being inclusive here. Kudos!)

Online play has been notoriously buggy, so I haven't gotten a whole lot farther than character creation. I was pleased to see that they offer solo play, which allows me to explore this alternate game mode while continuing to cling to my misanthropy. There are also the customary settings to play only with friend, and/or invitation-only, and/or with members of your "crew" (the Rockstar argot for a guild). It looks like most of the most exciting content requires true multiplayer. The interesting missions, which pay real money and give RP (Reputation Points, kind of like XP that unlocks more character options, weaponry, etc.), requires multiple players to pull off. You can compete in races in single player, but after the introductory race, it will just be you all by your lonesome self off on the track, running laps and staring mournfully at the emptiness around you. I really wish they'd have an option for racing against NPCs in solo mode.

The main thing I've found that you can do in solo play while in free-roam mode is holding up convenience stores, which gets a bit repetitive but is still pretty fun. The payout is rather measly, especially compared to the big bucks I'm getting in single player, at just around $1500 a score; but you get some RP as well, and it's providing valuable practice in trying to get away from those dang cops that I was complaining about at the top of this post (written before I started trying online). I'm starting to get the hang of using masks for robberies, and diving for underground cover, which is helping a bit at evading the police, at least at the 2-star level.

So, yeah. I'll keep it up for a while; from what I understand, more gameplay options unlock as your online level advances, and I think I'd be more inclined to do most of GTA's mini-games as my own character than I would as one of the three solo characters, so I can see myself spending a bit more time with it.

And, really, that's what I keep coming back to whenever I wonder why I love this series so much. Everyone focuses on the violence and mayhem, but it was the first sandbox game to make a major splash, and it continues to be the state of the art in providing a fully-realized world, packed with all sorts of random activities to do for fun, filled with nooks and crannies to explore. And of all the worlds Rockstar has created, San Andreas remains my favorite by far.