"Is that GTA Online still?" my girlfriend asks. Her choice of words is telling, because while she often laments the amount of time I spend dodging housework in favor of terrorizing the make-believe streets of Los Santos and Blaine County, in this instance she can't quite fathom who's on-screen in a game she's watched over my shoulder for a decade. "And that's Dr Dre?" she asks again; surprised, almost incredulous. I nod. "And that's… oh, what's his name again? The bald guy from that Netflix documentary."
Despite trivializing Jimmy Iovine's entire storied career in one swoop – not least as a music industry mogul and co-founder of Interscope Records – my girlfriend is not wrong. It is west-coast rapper, lyrical genius and mastermind producer Dr Dre, and that guy from The Defiant Ones, strutting around a golf course in Grand Theft Auto Online. She's unsure why either of these famous men are here in the first place, granted, but that's besides the point, because the game's stellar The Contract update of December 2021 epitomizes how far the multiplayer crime sim has come since launch in 2013.
Today, GTA Online is so big that – alongside its base game, GTA 5 – it has become one of the highest-selling entertainment products of all-time, meriting advertisement screens at Times Square in the heart of New York City, and the inclusion of celebrity talent of the highest order. It has a library of music that's chock-full of chart-topping artists, nightclubs whose residencies are filled by real-world superstar DJs, and a suite of vehicles that mirror everything from high-end super cars to weaponized Apache helicopters, the Batmobile, and Back to the Future's flying DeLorean.
On its 10th birthday, it feels reasonable to ask: how is all of this possible, and why have players flocked to the game's pseudo slant on Los Angeles, California in their droves for such a sustained period? The answer is pretty simple. It's because GTA Online is a bloody good game.
GTA Online is not perfect, far from it, but no game is – especially one that exists in the ever-evolving and constantly shifting live-service spectrum. Now 10 years in, some of the game's core mechanics haven't aged brilliantly. Its controls are a wee bit tanky against its contemporaries, for example. Its load times on PC are still too long, and its duck and cover system can be as unpredictable as an old supermarket trolley.
The game's Shark Cards – a form of microtransaction that lets players pay real money to access in-game cash that can be used to buy better properties, cars, cosmetics, guns and more – have come under fire throughout their existence. PC players, including myself, have long-lamented the ubiquitous presence of hacking that exists on umpteen servers, where griefers can ruin entire sessions in a matter of seconds. And, having recently started a new profile on PS5, I can't quite believe how many game-spoiling trolls exist in the console's public spaces.
All of this said, GTA Online is still one of my favorite video games of all time. Its most recent iterations on PS5 and Xbox Series X are stunning by anyone's standards, and its penchant for inadvertent, player-driven chaos is second to none. The variety in clothes, apartments, businesses, cosmetics, cars, vans, helicopters, planes, boats, and even submarines on offer is unparalleled, and its scores of missions and jobs – both player-created and Rockstar-designed – pose so many different challenges that push the game to its limits in a range of ways.
Streamlined by its new Career Builder feature, you can build an entire criminal empire by way of stealing and selling illicit goods, manufacturing and selling drugs, running guns, owning and operating a string of shady nightclubs, and/or joining a motorcycle gang. If racing's your thing, you can earn cash on the streets with somewhere in the vicinity of 450 official Rockstar-created races, with countless player-crafted courses available too. And, to the latter end, the recently rolled out Community Series spotlights a number of player-made adversary modes, survivals, missions and more.
Short of sounding like Rockstar's PR department here, I suppose the point of underlining everything GTA Online packs under the hood in 2023 is that it's sometimes easy to forget just how much this game has changed in 10 years by virtue of complimentary updates, assuming you splashed for the base game – or indeed paid the standalone one-off fee that was introduced last year.
Stick 'em up
Of course, none of this even considers the game's coup de grace: its blockbuster heists that are among the most fun I've ever had while playing a video game in my life. As bonified Heat, Goodfellas, Casino, Training Day, Ocean's Eleven, and/or The Sopranos power fantasies, these mic-dropping showpieces are a huge part of GTA Online's enduring appeal and continued success. The game world itself – the fictional state of San Andreas, comprising Los Santos to the south and Blaine County to the north – is a timeless masterpiece too, which you may have spied me waxing lyrical about recently.
But beyond the structured activities the game affords, I'm constantly inspired by GTA Online's performance culture, powered by the Rockstar Editor. I'm never not impressed by its high-flying stunting community – shoutout to Ash Skyqueen. And I've lost hours to its fun and fascinating roleplaying scene, within which inventive players and modders have rewritten the rulebook and turned the familiar formula on its head. To the latter end, Rockstar's recent acquisition of FiveM bodes well for the future of the Grand Theft Auto series, and seeing job adverts tailored to the development of FiveM itself pop up on the official Rockstar careers website is hugely exciting for whatever shape and form roleplay takes in GTA 6.
And so, who knows what GTA Online will look like whenever the next mainline game lands, and who knows if it'll have the same staying power that generates such powerful conversations in a decade's time. One thing's for sure, though, GTA Online has set its bar for accomplishment so high that GTA 6's online component now has a mountain to climb. As a player, that's exciting and daunting in equal measure, but if anyone's up for it, I reckon it's Rockstar. And I'm curious to see which famous faces might tag along for the ride next, following Dr Dre and that other bald guy.
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