GTA Online Drug Wars update takes us back to basics with a dizzy Hotline Miami feel

GTA Online
(Image credit: Rockstar)

In the GTA Online Drug Wars update I'm tripping balls on LSD. I've never tried the psychedelic in real life, but my mate once did in Thailand and became totally convinced someone had painted his face like a circus clown and dyed his hair blonde like Eminem for 12 solid hours. That's at the lighter end of the hallucination spectrum, for sure – I've heard horror stories of folk being chased by imaginary killers, or thinking they've murdered someone themselves while off their heads on acid. But it's all peace and love here in Los Santos, baby. 

Well, sort of. We did slaughter a lot of rival motorcycle club gang members in the previous First Dose outing – the first of six new GTA Online story missions that feature a cast of juggalo-inspired characters, led by Dax and known collectively as the Fooliganz. In this current 'mission', I'm wearing a gorilla mask and driving a go-kart down a sloping, strobing rainbow-colored vortex in the sky at a snail's pace. In a few moments, I'll hunt rabbits wearing what looks like a Civil War-era soldier's uniform, and will soon parachute from a cargo plane in nothing but my underwear. 

Later, once the LSD wears off, I'll be back to murdering Lost MC gangsters, breaking into high-security labs, derailing freight trains, and laying the foundations for a mobile acide-selling drug empire in a series of high-speed, ultra-violent set-pieces that are GTA Online at its most simple and most entertaining. With an absolutely banging background soundtrack engineered by Belgian electronica duo Soulwax (independent of the outfit's pre-existing Soulwax FM in-game radio station), there's a distinguished and streamlined Hotline Miami feel to it all – and I am not complaining.  

Out your head

GTA Online

(Image credit: Rockstar)

GTA Online's bumper December updates have always impressed with new weapons, cars, missions and game modes, but 2017's Doomsday Heist multi-stage foray raised the bar of prestige significantly. In the final stretch of 2019, we got to live out our wildest Ocean's 11-shaped dreams via the Diamond Casino Heist update. The following year, deep in the throes of the global pandemic, the Cayo Perico Heist gave us a whole new island to plunder and explore; whereas December's GTA Online The Contract update last year brought back GTA 5 story mode protagonist Franklin, alongside rap star and music mogul Dr Dre, to the shores of San Andreas.    

In the build up to the latest GTA Online December update, with Rockstar having officially confirmed that GTA 6 not only exists but is being actively worked on earlier in the year, the suggestion that it might be more modest in makeup wasn't unreasonable. I'm no game developer, but in the same way staff were reorganized to focus their attention on Red Dead Redemption 2 in the run-up to that game's release in 2018, it surely isn't a stretch to assume the same is happening behind the scenes right now with Grand Theft Auto 6. The massive in-progress GTA 6 leaks that surfaced in the summer probably confirm this, and the fact that GTA Online is rolling out its latest Drug Wars update in stages between now and next year – a first in structure terms – might suggest we're edging closer to a bigger reveal of sorts. 

That's conjecture on my part, of course, but what the latest update definitely does do, is let GTA Online focus on what makes it work. The humorous acid trips, the overanimated banter between new character Dax and your mute avatar, the new lucrative business venture – they're all great, but what makes Drug Wars shine is the simplicity of its six First Dose story missions. The absence of dedicated single-player DLC for GTA 5 has long been a sticking point for many players, and while 2019's Cayo Perico became the first GTA Online heist to allow solo play, the island itself was brimming with so many baddies armed to the teeth that doing so was more stressful than satisfying. Franklin's Contract missions last year were much more approachable to this end, but Drug Wars' First Dose missions are, for me, what we've been crying out for the entire time.

Often, your remit is simple. You start at point A, then travel to point B. You get in, you kill, you collect something important, and you flee the scene. You shoot, you ward off pursuers, you return to where you started, and you collect a figurative bag of money. If you want to buddy up in teams of four, fair doos, you absolutely can. But doing so in single player is everything I want and need from GTA Online in 2022, and with Soulwax's electro-techno beats fueling the flames of war, less in this instance is definitely more.

No frills

GTA Online

(Image credit: Rockstar)

"It says a lot for how far this game has come when an update that sends you on a literal acid trip is considered tame, but I'm psyched for what's in the pipeline in the coming weeks and months for that very reason."

I've now finished all six of Dax's First Dose story missions, and already want more. As a chiseled Los Santos-ian, I'm at the stage now where I'm less phased by GTA Online's superficial additions in the way of new cars and new weapons, and find myself spending the majority of my down time in San Andreas cycling through older missions solo, or lending lesser-ranked players a hand to complete supply runs while being hounded by opportunist griefers. I, like every other GTA Online old-timer, spring to life when a big update comes along, and to this end, Drug Wars is right up my street. It says a lot for how far this game has come when an update that sends you on a literal acid trip is considered tame, but I'm psyched for what's in the pipeline in the coming weeks and months for that very reason. 

To that end, Rockstar promises more from the Drug Wars update in the shape of new vehicles, world events and the usual slew of festive-themed features. Among the most interesting incoming additions is the introduction of the Downtown Cab Co., as well as a traveling Gun Van – partial details of which already appear to be cropping up unofficially on social media. And while I claim to be uninterested in new firearms, I do love the sound of the oft-rumored rail gun in practice. Who knows, by the time we've got that one in our hands, perhaps we'll be shooting for an official GTA 6 release date. I guess time will tell, and I look forward to the trip. 

Fed up with Los Santos? Check out the best games like GTA out there right now

Joe Donnelly
Features Editor, GamesRadar+

Joe is a Features Editor at GamesRadar+. With over seven years of experience working in specialist print and online journalism, Joe has written for a number of gaming, sport and entertainment publications including PC Gamer, Edge, Play and FourFourTwo. He is well-versed in all things Grand Theft Auto and spends much of his spare time swapping real-world Glasgow for GTA Online’s Los Santos. Joe is also a mental health advocate and has written a book about video games, mental health and their complex intersections. He is a regular expert contributor on both subjects for BBC radio. Many moons ago, he was a fully-qualified plumber which basically makes him Super Mario.