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. 

Rockstar Games: Masters of Suspense

I’m late to the game writing about the GTA:Online game trailer that dropped some time back, but I’m kind of glad I went over to Rockstar’s GTA5 launch site because they are apparently adding content on a regular basis.  Masters of suspense as always, the seven remaining tiles of content boasting as to the unique culture of the game remained locked, presumably unlocking one by one until the launch  slowly creeps closer.  The added content is much in the GTA style of humor is present, complete with riffs on California politics, legalized pot, new-ageism, and country club exclusivity.  I really hope they bring back the huge fake internet featured in GTA4.

But what does the GTA:Online trailer do?  Most impressively, it resolves all the obvious issues with the GTA franchise and promises to bring it back to the forefront of gaming.

First off, the trailer demonstrates exactly where Rockstar is on the spectrum of player control and narrative integrity.  The stories of the three main protagonists (as much as there can be a protagonist in a game that revolves around car jacking) appear to be well thought out.  But having great characters with personalities runs afoul of mass-customization.  These characters are maybe  so well thought out that that it threatens the very soul of the GTA:San Andreas legacy; the any-way-you-like-it style of game play.  GTA:Online is the missing link between this rich story mode (which also could cleverly serve as a very entertaining tutorial) and the RPG elements that GTA:San Andreas was based on.  GTA:Online is the Skyrim and open world aspect that the games have always, at least theoretically represented (although maybe with less clunky menus and a bloated inventory system).  Focusing on all the mass customization elements, it’s goal is clearly to have players addicted to playing the game long after the three main stories are completed.  And some sort of persistent online world clearly is critical to growing the franchise.  Having a character that is your own creates some of the incentive to continually improve (and therefore play) enhancing replay value.  This is the breakthrough the series needs; to separate the funny, satirical stories about lovable antiheroes from the otherwise king of the world sandbox experience.

The trailer also clearly shows off that GTA knows it needs to get with the times in terms of player interface.  The perennial third-person shooter looks a lot like an FPS during shootouts, complete with a weapon selection wheel.  Is this game finally going to bury auto-aim?  I certainly hope so.  The action appears more fluid, and as always seems to integrate shooting with some of the other mobility elements like parachuting or dirt-bike riding.  The menu interface seems to be intentionally minimalist.

One thing is certain: Rockstar is intent on making Online a phenomenon separate from GTA5.  It has its own trailer and is being prominently advertised separately on the PS3 home menu.  The trailer straight up tells you that in addition to custom player-created content, they are intent on updating regularly.  This could be another leap forward for an already well-storied franchise.

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?

 

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.

 

Watch Dogs

Second or third post I’ve seen on WordPress talking about Watch Dogs.  Take 10 minutes and watch this video.  It looks like it’s a missing link in bringing the sandbox genre to the next level.

Adding an open world aspect into a game obviously is a prized element because it has the potential to draw the user in, and create greater number of user experiences.  Why program objectives when you can let the player create their own?  I think this feature is generally done poorly in a lot of sandbox type games though.  Sure GTA is great, but does anybody remember True Crime, Streets of LA?  A bland world, or one where all of the encounters are scripted, and therefore limited, sets a winner apart from a loser.  More often than not the people are just in the game as animated shrubbery.

Where I see the real potential with Watch Dogs is that the world is both very organic in that it exists outside the player as a being in of itself, and also offers a more fulfilling connection through the hacking concept.  The character derives power from the access and control of information, not through a magic artifact or radioactive deus ex machina.  The impact of exploding digital information on our lives, and how it has changed our world really has taken place outside the game design sphere.

Take this bloggers observations for one:  http://zoyastreet.com/2012/07/26/phantasy-star-online-2-a-glimpse-of-the-future-through-the-prism-of-the-past/  A million years in the future and no Wi-Fi?  Please.  For god’s sake, the U.S. military has more advanced weapons than the Terrans.  Not that a video game ever will, or even should be realistic, but creating some sort of demi-god through the manipulation, disruption, and control of communication is an interesting paradigm.  Not necessarily because it’s realistic, but because it says something about our actual world.  I’d really like to see what the developers do with this great concept.