Top 5 “Needs Improvement” Areas for GTA

As details are being slowly released to the public, we’re seeing a lot of the GTA that we’ve come to know and love since Vice City.  These include neurotic  characters, Hollywood-caliber action stunts, and the poppiest of pop music samples.  But this is only half the story of GTA.  On top of all the glitz and glamour is a game with some consistently poor controls and messy design layout. Here’re my thoughts on what needs to be fixed to make this great franchise even greater.

1. Replay Value

There is always a tension between the free-form aspects a sandbox world presents to a player and the structured, mission-oriented approach.  The GTA series since Vice City has understood that it needs to provide high-quality cut scenes and story in order to effectively compete with other media.  The problem with over-engineering the story is that it homogenizes the player’s experiences.  Fundamentally, this is what a sandbox game ISN’T supposed to offer a player; a homogeneous experience.  The more it’s like a movie, the less it’s like a game.  By having one story so central to so much of the game, GTA4 felt done once Niko Bellic’s story was resolved.  All the other neat things to do in Liberty City then felt pointless.  GTA needs to represent both a quality experience and player freedom.

Part of this has to do with the removal in GTA4 of some of the goofy and game-like aspects.  These included ditching large brightly colored neon icons for items for something a lot more subtle.  But little touches like stealing an ambulance to make deliveries from the hospital were taken out.  GTA4 made normal social interaction a bigger deal, as opposed to being some sort of crazy fantasy.  Taking some of these objectives out made the sand box part of the game feel hollow.

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Fortunately, this area of weakness seems to be something GTA 5 has locked down.  From what I’ve been reading, the emphasis on three characters, and the fact that time is passing for all three regardless of whether the player is controlling them or not, is probably a huge step forward in solving this dilemma.  If only 1/3 of the story is being viewed by the player at a time, then logically there are two other stories and missions running around at the same time, meaning that a full three runs will be necessary to wrap everything up.  This should hopefully go a long way in improving replay value.

2. Inventory System

One glaring hole in the the GTA franchise is the lack of any sort of inventory system.  Part of this seems to be some sort of hatred of menus or minimalist philosophy on the part of Rockstar.  But on PS3, the fact that weapons and ammo can’t be bought separately seems kind of pathetic.

The famously inconvenient weapon selection process is parodied here in some sort of horrible resolution.  Some improvements have been made over the years, like eliminating the ability to carry 20 different weapons around at a time.  But there needs to be some sort of faster weapon selection process.

Another huge problem is the lack of storage.  If I have 10 RPGs, I want to hang on to them.  I don’t want to carry around everything I have on me like some sort of hobo-mafioso.  It would make SO much sense to be able to take additional weapons and drop them off at a safehouse.  Likewise, maybe my safehouse should have some body armor in the closet, as opposed to a bunch of sets of nonfunctional clothes.  Certainly with $1,000,000 floating around over head a reasonable gangster would be able to procure this.  GTA5 simply doesn’t have any excuses for not introducing some sort of storage system.

3. Health System

We were still scrounging for health packs in 2009, will we be doing it in 2013?  In the past two years I’ve definitely seen a consensus form in shooting games that health should regenerate over time, and that a “health pack” system should be phased out.

The health system in GTA4 introduced first aid kits hidden in long missions.  These were always placed in areas where a first aid kit would probably be found in real life, like in an HR office at a warehouse.  It made sense, but it’s arguably antiquated.  Then again, automatically regenerating health feels a little cheap in a lot of newer games.  I see room for reform here though.

4. Something to Do With the Money

“What can I do with the money?”  That was always the first thing someone would ask after playing GTA3 for 10 minutes.  Surprisingly, after using a similar format for the past decade, Rockstar has done very little to answer this question.

Obviously you can use money to buy weapons and ammo, but generally you get plenty of this by just outliving the guys shooting at you during the missions.  You can buy clothes, but frankly the fact that each item needs to be tried on one at a time makes this feel feature feel like a chore.

Originally, in GTA3 money was a bizzaro fiat for score.  Players accumulated money through the game’s missions, but also by moonlighting as a taxi driver.  Causing general mayhem by blowing up parked cars and gunning down cops, or going over crazy jumps also caused the player’s money to increase.  Money was like a rating of how cumulatively awesome you were.  Unfortunately, in real life it’s not quite that easy to earn money.

In Vice City, dollars were needed to make investments, both creating a feeling of running a criminal empire, but also were key to advancing the main story.  San Andreas had some of these features too, although they were inconsistent in the availability (I think there is a car dealership in San Francisco you can buy or something).  Buying fancy suits naturally fits into the crimelord motif.

GTA4 for some reason took a step back from having some actually useful things to do with the money.  I’m not sure why, but I half suspect this to be a deliberate statement about Niko’s journey; Niko was never in it for the money, but was instead singularly focused on revenge.  Then the inability to use the money could be viewed as some sort of personal condemnation of the things Niko has done.  Or maybe they just didn’t have enough time before it was released to get creative enough.

GTA5 needs to figure out some sort of way for a player to enjoy themselves that grows in proportion to the amount of money they have.  Sure there’s a strip club, but not a high end strip club for millionaires.  What about high-end escorts?  Bring back buying up property, even if it doesn’t do much.  Would it really be so crazy to create a legal title system and actually let a player purchase a car? (yes I realize you could just steal one by hitting the triangle button)

5. Better Menus/Customizable HUD

The year is 1986 and I don't know how fast I'm going.

The year is 1986 and I don’t know how fast I’m going.

The beauty of the menus in GTA3 is the simplicity.  In most games, getting into a car means populating all sorts of dials and gauges.  After all, this is what happens when we get into a car; we’ve got a speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, clock, climate control, radiator temperature.  Driving a car has just as many stats in real life as it would in a Japanese RPG.  Arguably top speed in GTA isn’t really relevant, you’re never on a race track and the only relevant speed metric is whether you can get away from the cops.  But still, shouldn’t a driving game give you some idea of how fast you’re going?  Initially I assumed GTA3 omitted the speedometer in order to emulate an earlier favorite of mine, Driver.  Driver was great because it was the first driving game about getting away as opposed to straight up racing.  It was also a lot more fun than other races out at the time.  But now I wonder why I can’t find out fast the Infernus is actually going on that straight-away. Interestingly enough, a speedometer is built into the game and your top speed stats are tracked, but you can’t look at it in real time.

It’s almost like Rockstar thinks menus don’t fit into what they’re trying to show you.  Kudos.  But when trying to get away from a police helicopter, a speedometer surely is more useful than an ever-present floating personal wealth statistic.  Driving is inherently based on collecting and digesting a ton of data.  Give me something here.  I think the best approach to addressing the stylistic rift is giving the player the ability to add or delete display items.  If I want to clutter up my screen with junk, let me.NOTE: I omitted the shooting controls from this post.  Third person shooters are becoming an endangered genre and I’m not sure I’m qualified to explain why or what Rockstar should do to make the experience better.  Ever since GTA3 the shooting system has improved though, and I’m optimistic it will someday be good.  GTA4 reminded me a lot of the James Bond Everything or Nothing game, but that’s not really a bad thing.

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I'm going?

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I’m going?

 

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GTA 5: Expectations

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

Will Michael and Rockstar pull off the biggest gaming job ever on September 17, 2013?

My last post had a lot more views compared to other ones I’ve had recently, so I decided to get a poll going.  So, what does everybody think GTA5 is going to do in September?  Is this game going to be break Rockstar’s long streak of outdoing itself?

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.