10 Things You Want to Know About GTAV

I feel like I learn more about this game every day. Here’s a short list of 10 noteworth things you want to know about GTAV: 

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1. Rampages Are Back

Rampages are back. GTAV accommodates the senseless violence by attaching it to a character that is the most unstable; Trevor. Each of the five rampages all follow the standard GTA format, unlimited use of one weapon against an infinitely spawning enemy. Trevor’s uncontrollable rage actually makes this exercise in destruction sort of make sense, especially considering each rampage now comes complete with a brief and funny backstory. Kudos to Rockstar for preserving GTA’s sadist roots. Again, this is only possible because each character seems to bring something to the table personality-wise that is different, but still ultimately identifiable as classic GTA.

2. Missions Now Have Checkpoints, Are Not Part of Busted/Wasted System

This is a huge improvement that makes the missions significantly easier. When you start or accept a mission, failure, either due to missing a key objective or by death, results in a replay or quit option. Although this sounds fairly straightforward, it’s a first for the GTA series. Previously, when you were killed during a mission or missed an objective you would need to start all over. At least GTAIV helped mitigate this inconvenience of having to drive back to the start point by having a cab parked outside the hospital or police station. Still, multi-part missions were very frustrating. There would be missions where you would have to drive somewhere with no time limit, then kill 100 gang-members, then evade a NOOSE Team (GTA’s own version of SWAT). One of these things was not like the other; there were lulls or portions of the mission that were just filler between harder portions. Obviously I can do the driving part where there is no time limit and nothing to chase or evade. It made the action sequences repetitive, especially considering how bad the shooter mechanics used to be. GTAV abandons this format and puts frequent checkpoints into each mission, and keeps you out of the hospital if you die. It’s a huge improvement that makes things flow easily. 

Does this ruin the experience by making it too easy? Not really. Passing the missions is no longer the only objective, getting all the subsidiary objectives for a “Gold” trophy adds replay value here. In other words, it accommodates two different styles of play. The missions are so diverse and generally do not lean heavily on exactly the same mechanics over and over again that I think I’ll probably replay all of them at some point. Still, I appreciate being able to move along without being bogged down with a lot of busy work in between story segments. I can always come back later if I want more trophies.

3. Auto-Aim

Auto-aim is back, although there are multiple settings where it can be completely disabled. Despite looking very different from GTAIV, the auto-aim functions essentially the same. Aiming for a new target sets you up at center of mass, and fine tuning the controls sets up a headshot. Likely the online version of the game will force you to use free-aim entirely. Other aspects of the HUD are also customizable (always a good move in my book). 

Aiming is now a lot more precise as well, and is accomplished with a very tiny white/grey reticle. Functionally it works a lot like Resident Evil, only without the laser pointer assistance. Although higher levels of play are clearly possible now (the sensitivity can also be adjusted), the reticle is way too small and frequently blends into what you’re shooting. In a nutshell, I don’t see how the free-aim mode would ever work well. I mentioned Resident Evil because the laser in that series lets you very easily mark up what you’re shooting without having a cartoony bullseye logo on your target. It looks realistic while aiding the player effectively. I honestly think that’s the gold standard in 3rd person shooters right now. If a laser-sight isn’t an option for at least the pistol or carbine rifle in either DLC or future updates, I would be EXTREMELY disappointed. It seems like an especially natural modification as a number of guns have the option to attach a flashlight already. 

You can’t see where you’re shooting at all right now. This is the only genuine thing that’s irritated me about this game so far. 

4. Hang Outs Far Less Annoying

One frustrating aspect of GTAIV was that you were constantly being interrupted by calls from friends to “hang-out.” The hang-out and social function in GTAIV was integral to the spirit of GTAIV, although ultimately you didn’t need to spend time with your friends, and if you did, you didn’t get much out of it. I thought it was a good feature in GTAIV because it helped develop the characters more. It also gave meaning to a convoluted moral tale about revenge and loneliness. After all, most of the sites and sounds of Liberty City only existed when you shared them with a friend. Maybe there was a deeper meaning there for the sandbox genre. But at the same time you constantly had five or six people calling you and interrupting you from something you were trying to do. Worse yet, if you declined a hang-out, you would lose respect and potentially abilities from your friends. It’s like you had a gun to your head to waste time doing the same task over and over again. It was a good concept that was poorly executed. The only thing worse in this series to date has been GTA: San Andreas’ requirement that you eat periodically (despite not having any grocery stores in the game). 

GTAV does not do this to you. Although you’re bombarded with text messages and emails from properties you own, the gun store, and parts updates from the customization shops, you never are forced to address these until you want to. Although calling people and setting up hang-out trips to bars or tennis outings is still possible, it’s only under your own initiative that these things happen. You’re not constantly being solicited for activities. And there’s good reason for this; each of the three playable characters will have at least 20 names in their contact list half-way through the story, including multiple copies of the same contact for the other player. It would be overwhelming to keep track of these. Even without the hang-outs, there are plenty of other things to get distracted about in GTAV as it is.

5. Cars Are On Point Clones

There was an article in Forbes about this already, but I think it really downplays the fact that MOST of the vehicles in the game are direct clones of actual vehicles. Rockstar has even gone so far as to make very obvious knockoffs of corporate logos. The GTA series has always had cars that could be mistaken for real life models, or were two models glued together into some sort of vague resemblance, but there are so many in this game that are spot on that it stands out. There are both the new Taurus style cop cars in addition to the classic Crown Victorias (in the more rural areas only). There is an identical Town Car. The new Corvette is in there as well. And I mean the Corvette that was just revealed a few months ago. It’s not just the cars either; it’s right down to the actual logos (see below).

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I’m wondering if there is some sort of backdoor advertising deal in here. Certainly that’s not an alien concept to Gran Turismo 5. On the other hand, you’d figure if you were a carmaker you wouldn’t want people using your car to mow down pedestrians or pick up prostitutes. And especially you wouldn’t want to be GTA’s own Vapid Motor Company; there is a mission where you have to assassinate the CEO. 

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6. It’s More Amoral Than Ever

As soon as the general public catches up to the middle of the story in GTAV, there is definitely going to be some controversy. Aside from the pervasive swearing, there is a good deal of sexual content that isn’t that far from the whole hot-coffee incident that really hit GTA:San Andreas. In addition to the strip club content though, there are also some disturbing instances of violence (aside from committing literally hundreds of murders of course).

One thing that especially stood out for me is a mission where you have to torture a suspected terrorist to get information. The mission setup and resolution offer incredible commentary to the way we’re doing things in a post-911 America (“I got him, I think?”), but the actual mission itself is disturbing. In torturing the target, you the option of using pliers to remove a healthy tooth (it’s a mini-game where you have to use the joysticks), and also engage in waterboarding (I don’t mean surfing either, I mean the bad kind). Granted GTA has always been a lightening rod, but I can’t remember doing anything like this before. It honestly made me a little uneasy. As did murdering a kidnapped celebrity locked in the trunk of a car who was pleading for his life. Torture is not a common part of GTAV from what I’ve seen in the other missions, but it’s in there in a key story mission you need to complete. Absolutely this is one game that is truly M for mature. If you have younger kids in your house it would be hard justifying access to this game. 

7. Drafting and Driving

The driving really works well in GTAV. I’m not sure if I’m getting so much better at it, or if the driving skills of my characters is helping as well, but the movement and physics (including collisions) are greatly improved. In addition to tweaking, a slip-stream system has been added, although most missions are not straight-forward enough for you to really feel the difference because you’re swerving through congested traffic or bounding up the side of a desert dune. 

Driving is also greatly aided by the fact that the map is gigantic. It’s good fun running a super-fast Infernus or Comet car through traffic, but it’s a lot more fun to be able to get onto the highway and actually speed over to another county. I would actually like to see some straightforward racing missions, other than the racing around obstacles that the game normally presents. GTAV could be a competent racing game if it were setup for that though. 

8. Car Customization Is Comprehensive

What’s great about the car customization features is that it’s not limited to fast cars only. There are speed and cosmetic upgrades like tinted windows or turbocharging, but also upgrades for suspension, armor, and even roll-cages. Other obvious upgrades; brighter Xenon headlights.  

Car customization is aided by a design decision to create certain “owned” cars by the main characters. You start out with a ride that will follow you around on missions, whether it’s in your garage or not. The mods you put on this car will stay. There is also the ability to park cars in a central garage. Obviously dropping $100,000 worth of car modifications on something that doesn’t stay with your character wouldn’t make sense. 

9. Stats Less Invasive

I mentioned in my post last week that San Andreas-style stats have returned. What’s great about these stats is that you probably won’t know they’re there. Only after upgrading a full 20 points out of a maximum 100 will you be given an alert that your stamina or shooting skills have improved. It’s less invasive than in GTA:San Andreas where minor updates were constantly being dropped.One small gripe though; I’m not sure how much these levels are actually influencing game play.  

10. No Bugs or Updates So Far

A major, major launch and there have been no updates in the first week of play. I’ve never seen this before in a big game. Usually somebody has found a bug by now. I haven’t had any hangups of freezes on this game. And this is exactly the type of game that should freeze. It’s got a pervasive world with all these things going on and all this data being constantly loaded and dumped. Bethesda would be wise to learn a thing or two from the gang at Rockstar. I’ve never seen a game that is so hard on the PS3 (as I mentioned last week, the optical disk is constantly being read), but without any problems. 

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GTAV(PS3): Spirit of San Andreas Alive and Well

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First Impressions

I’m unlikely to find a spare week lying around anytime soon, but I managed to get in on the launch here and play GTAV for a few hours. GTAV is already getting strong reviews on MetaCritic, but considering the breadth of the endeavor, there is a risk that preliminary reviews might be a little misleading. I’ll try and give my thoughts as they develop.

First off; great work by the Rockstar folks. GTAV looks to be the real deal. The game functionally looks like a heavily updated GTAIV, but feels like the spiritual successor to GTA:San Andreas. By that, I mean the RPG-style elements of play and crazy emphasis on customization have been reintroduced. Driving, shooting, and strength stats have been added for each of the three playable characters, and all are increased through player utilization. Customization doesn’t just extend to cars and clothes, but also to weapons. There also seems to be the return of endless mini-games and odd-job type ways of making money, in addition to completing missions. This is on top of the GTAIV “hang-out” features. Finally, the internet is back, but this time it’s accessible on the go through the character’s phone.

Other common sense updates have been made. Returning home to save is no longer required; outside of a mission you can do a quick-save on your smart phone. Also, as predicted, health below 50% now replenishes over time. There is less invasive auto-aim system now, and shooting mechanics make action scenes feel like an actual game. The “Wanted Level” system has again been modified, this time relying on line-of-sight as a prerequisite for escape, as opposed to just outrunning a radius. Action cut-scenes also have an actual score, in addition to the ridiculous amount of traditional radio station content. All these are really good tweaks.

In a nutshell, everything from prior GTA games is here, but then was multiplied again by 100. It’s really amazing. It’s also what the company promised to deliver. But more volume of content isn’t the only way replay value has been upped. Completing missions now gives the player a rating, and reveals additional bonus objectives at the end. Why this is significant is because there is FINALLY the option of replaying missions. GTAV does everything the other games did well (great characters, story, expansive content; extreme player freedom), but also focuses on the aspects that rewards skill and higher levels of play. No doubt the deficiency in requiring players to have a lot of skill was identified as a problem for a company that wants to base a significant part of this franchise’s future on multiplayer online content.

Other Neat Stuff

GTAV is a serious multimedia effort. In game content can be added or unlocked by downloading the “iFruit” smart phone app on an actual phone. There are also invitations for players to join the Rockstar Social Club to continue modifying endeavors. Finally, the connection to the wired world appears to be pervasive in the story mode; go to an Ammu-Nation and there is an option to go to the PlayStation Store. Although as of this morning there was nothing in there, I am excited that there will be some great updates down the road (although I’m also a little fearful Rockstar will introduce some “free-to-play” dynamics in).

And of course the strip club is back. Interacting with strippers can be increased by flirting, adding a challenge element to the outing (try your luck too hard and you’ll get booted out by the bouncer).

Problems

I’d be hard-pressed to find any real problems with this game, but I have noticed the PS3 really seems to be stressed running it. The optical disc is constantly being read and it’s loud. Some menu inputs also look a little sluggish. I’m wondering if it runs better on the XBox360. This is in addition to a solid 30 minute installation that takes up 8gb of HDD space. Given the amount of content, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the best expression of the limits to the current console generation.

Finally, the additional features added to both car and on-foot mechanics are a little overwhelming. In either case, the D-Pad is used to add a whole bunch of actions that are introduced gradually during the story missions. The tutorial isn’t overly paternalistic, and clearly a significant part of the story is going to be dedicated to getting all the basics down. But now there are a ton of additional options. Guns can be equipped with flashlights which have to be turned on and off, stealth elements have been brought back (arguably a little clunky), and there a whole bunch of new things to do in cars like lower the top or flip on the lights. These are all welcome elements, but at the same time there doesn’t appear to be a logical road map as to how to do some of these things with the controls. I just know I’m going to forget how to do something on the D-Pad at some point with the way it’s laid out.

All in all, my first impressions are that Rockstar has delivered even more than it promised to.

Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 1 of 2)

I feel a little nostalgic talking about Gran Turismo again; my first posts dealt with that game (and it’s significant shortcomings) way back in 2011. I’ve played all the main Gran Turismo titles and I’ve already come to the conclusion that I will almost certainly be playing GT6 when it comes out in December. Maybe it’s some sort of battered-gamer syndrome I’ve developed, but I’ll keep coming back to this franchise. Rest assured though, come December 6, 2013 I won’t bullshit you if this falls short of what it should be.

And GT6 SHOULD be Sony’s hallmark game.  Polyphony Digital is Sony.  It’s a subsidiary. So this is what Mario is to Nintendo. It’s a flagship franchise. It’s also coming out on a console that’s mature. There’s no reason to have a chunk of coal here. With that said, here’s what I think are the top “needs improvement” areas for GT6 (the usual five items turned out to be woefully inadequate unfortunately).

1. No Misleading Advertising

There’s a good chance you didn’t read about this in 2010, but the marketing with GT5 was incredibly misleading. Take a look at this commercial I managed to dig up on YouTube.  See that Subaru spinning out?  Super cool!

Here’s the problem though; that’s not in the game. At least it wasn’t when GT5 was released. The Subaru’s in the game, sure.  But that door coming off, the car spinning out like that? Not so much. There was basically no cognizable damage system in GT5 at launch. The fact that the commercial says there is “realistic damage” is a huge stretch. Here’s a video of some car crashes I found. You can be the judge as to how good the damage system works.

The problem is compounded by the fact that GT5 actually hides the damage features until relatively late in the game. Damage isn’t turned-on until level 20, a feat likely to take at least 50 to 60 hours to reach. It’s not fully turned on until level 40 apparently, an amount of time commitment likely to rival most part-time jobs given that the levels are usually exponentially apart from each other. Without the aid of Google, the conclusion for most players is that damage just isn’t in the single-player game until you’ve sunk in significant hours. Considering how long it takes to reach level 30, level 40 is just simply ridiculous.

Occasionally, and unpredictably, visible damage would pop up on a car after a bad hit. This is usually a hood dent or messed up lower spoiler. But GT5 doesn’t kick you out of races if you slam into the wall at 200mph. It arguably should; by not punishing huge mistakes the game doesn’t force the player to develop the driving skills you actually need to advance (regardless of whether you are “leveling”). I can remember an old Playstation 1 Need For Speed having both a comprehensive damage system for each car, and a cost of repairs deducted from each race winnings after every run. Although this was frustrating, it’s certainly doable.

I obviously understand why there is no comprehensive damage system in GT5, at least for non-standard cars (I’ll talk about that below).  Such a system would significantly increase the amount of work per car and would never be perfect. That Need for Speed game was able to get away with it because it had 10 or 15 cars and PS1 graphics. Certainly this falls short of Gran Turismo’s 1000 car standard. The cost of repairing the cars would be oppressive in a lot of instances too, especially during the Ferrari, Formula 1, or NASCAR events. I can remember having to an awful lot of farming in that Need for Speed too. These are legitimate design decisions here to leave these features out. What’s not a legitimate design decision is to put into advertisements a feature your product doesn’t have.

I think the gaming review industry really screwed up not calling out Sony on this back in 2010. It’s not like this was a feature in the game that everyone was excited about because of a press release or Q&A session at E3. It’s in the commercial! It’s not ambiguous as to what they’re showing. Polyphony put this issue front and center. I suspect that part of the reason the damage system is hidden is to cover up the fact that maybe it doesn’t work so well, and instead reflect the blame onto a player who hasn’t invested the time. It was obscured and basically unavailble at launch, and didn’t seem to work right after. The “you’re not ready for my game” attitude is paternalistic nonsense. This was both a bad design decision and a really bad marketing decision that the franchise managed to avoid being stained with. Honestly, I could care less if the door falls off my Subaru. Just don’t tell me that it might if it won’t.

2. No Imports

No, I don’t mean non-Chevy/Fords/Dodges, I mean imports from PS2. Part of the amazing roster of modeled cars in GT5 came from the fact that 3D assets were imported from prior Gran Turismo installments. Given that this was the first PS3 Gran Turismo (I think it’s fair to exclude the essentially incomplete version, Prologue), I can see that maybe the number of assets to be produced was burdensome. Would fans criticize GT5 if it had only 200 cars instead of the normal franchise setting 1000? To be honest, I think there’s a chance they might.

The solution that was developed was to recycle old body graphics, which clearly have lower resolutions and look out of place. What bothers me the most about this is not that Polyphony did this, but that they did it in a half-assed way. Key races needed to advance the main objectives in single-player mode restrict the player to the use of certain makes or models of cars. Take the “Tous France Championnat” for instance. At the early parts of the game there are only a few cars that are reasonably affordable that you can get to do this race. All are “non-premium” cars, meaning they have these terrible graphics. It’s jarring to buy this game which is supposed to be a quantum leap in graphics over the last installment, and be back to PS2 graphics that just look out of place. The pixels don’t look good and don’t respond to the lighting effects and other environmental image factors the way the premium cars do.  Simply put, GT5 delivers you GT4 graphics in instances you can’t avoid. These non-premium cars also have lame damage modeling (already a pretty low bar for GT5).

There’s some sort of tension with the Gran Turismo series as a whole as to whether it wants to be a complete car encyclopedia, or whether it wants to deliver a stock experience. It’s cool having the car you drove in high school in this racing game, even if its not very good. But at the same time, does it really add anything? Is driving a souped-up 1991 Accord or 1986 Corolla anybody’s fantasy? I don’t know. My only point here is that if you want to be known for doing a great job, you can’t do a great job half the time. Again, Gran Turismo got a pass on this. Those non-premium cars look terrible though.

3. Better Menus

A cardinal sin here. Thou shalt not have terrible menus! There are two huge problems with the menus in GT5: 1. They’re too slow, 2. They’re poorly organized.

In typical Japanese fashion, GT5 with all its statistics, custom-tuning options, and general philosophy of any-way-you-like it, means that Gran Turismo must be stuffed to the brim with menus. The load time on these menus takes forever though. It’s not so bad individually, if it wasn’t that you’re required to change so much at the higher levels in between races. Most importantly though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense as to why the response time is so slow. The graphics in the menus aren’t why people are clamoring to play Gran Turismo, and they’re not that impressive anyway. The slow speed makes the tedious process of buying each racing part option on a new car in the tuning menu excruciating (why can’t I just buy the car with the race parts on it to save me 15 minutes?).

A problem that is compounded by the slow load times on the menus is the fact that they’re poorly organized. Granted a home button has been added so you can get back to your digital garage if you’re trying to enter a race with the wrong car, but it’s a tedious process to have to go back to the start and then have to drill down all over again. Please, if you really can’t make these things faster, at least let me switch cars without having to go all the way out of the menu first. The menus become oppressive in late game where settings need to be adjusted with every different leg of a series of races. I honestly wouldn’t be so bothered by this if there was some sort of obvious reason why these menus are so slow. But they’re just menus. They should do their job well.

4. Improve Collision Physics

Gran Turismo has always really tried to pride itself on being a great simulator for all things driving. But one key area that this racing series has always consistently under-delivered on is car crashes.  GT5 is no exception.

You will know something is wrong the first time. Do these car crashes look right? There’s no way you can say yes to that. What that means is that GT5 is a great simulator, provided you don’t hit anything. The real problem I have with collision system is the lack of penalty imposed by making mistakes. Mistakes aren’t tolerable in the license test portions of the game, they probably shouldn’t be in the Formula 1 races or NASCAR races either. There’s no real downside to being super-reckless in these races. Moreover, multiplayer updates after the initial launch actually had to be aimed at introducing driver penalties because the administrators felt that players were using barriers in order to actually increase their lap speeds in some instances. In other words, the pinball physics were being used to cheat.

If there is any indication that the modeling isn’t right, it’s when causing an accident can be used to create an advantage. If Polyphony Digital wants players to earn the right to have damage and real consequences, it needs to impose at least some sort of penalty early on to prevent bad habits from forming. The lack of cars flipping over, catching fire, or otherwise being disabled is a gigantic blind spot for this series.

5. Dull Environments

I wish I could find a blog post I read back in 2010 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Pausing the game during the very long straight-away on the track, a blogger took some images of the bushes on the side of the track. Now this is a real track in France. Sarthe is where they hold 24 Hours of Le Mans. The photos clearly show the same bush has been copied and pasted over and over again along the side of the straight. This is straight-NES BS. Granted, this a portion of the track you’re likely to be topping out at +200mph, but the poor attention to detail was right there in the photos.

It’s not just that bushes look bad, it’s that stands look empty, that crowds don’t come out for Grand Prix races, and that the environments look soulless.  There’s no activity going on in the background. Pit stops to change tires and refuel are uneventful. The AI doesn’t get desperate. There’s no sense of drama or urgency being conveyed to the player outside the ever-ticking clock.

I can remember the game Pole Position for Atari having a little blimp fly over head announcing race updates. And the Nintendo series Cruis’n’ USA game having scantily clad bikini girls wave the starting flag. This is the playboy lifestyle that’s obviously part of what we think about when when think about auto racing. Professional racing is a brutal meritocracy; a high-stakes game the well-off play that’s akin to professional football for the less physically inclined. The dangerous celebrity lifestyle of a dare-devil race car driver is drilled into our consciousnesses by mass-media. We think of superstars like Senna or Michael Schumacher. It’s inescapable when we see a $250K sports car drive by.

Gran Turismo has always eschewed from having any sort of excitement other than what happens on the track. I can remember the same kind of blandness from the Microsoft flight-simulator, or alternative from Jane’s F/A 18. There’s just no sexy in GT5, other than the beautiful cars. Gran Turismo doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, it makes you feel like you’re grinding away in a basement playing an MMORPG hoping to get some magic sword. It’s all just stat tracking and leveling. Maybe the concern is that fans or funny pit crews would be distracting, or alternatively would sap precious processing power from the actual driving. These are fair points, but Gran Turismo is supposed to be fun and it often makes simulating a race feel like a desk job.