The road to Rockstar's nihilistic online paradise has been full of potholes. But, with enough prayers to Kraff, it is in fact possible to connect to the online version of Los Santos. When you get there, you'll want to find your friends and do stuff together. Figuring out how to do that is damn trickier than it should be but worth all the trouble.
I've been playing GTA Online on Xbox 360 since Tuesday night but, really, it's been an oddly lonely mixed bag up until last night. The insane amount of tutorial/tip text flitting by on the screen in the early going does not help things at all. Thursday evening is when I actually started having fun.
On Tuesday night, my first interactions with real-life humans were knocking out one male character in a fistfight — hey, he started it! — and then getting shot by another unseen dude. As funny as the weird Epsilon resurrection was, I wasn't too keen on just being a practice dummy for other players. Ok, so Passive Mode, then.
Passive Mode is a great option for people who just want to be voyeurs but it's actually a little too inactive. I wanted Passive Mode to let me do all of the game's stealing and shooting without having to worry about other players but it doesn't. It essentially turns you into another pedestrian but one driven by a human not AI programming. For better or worse, if I wanted to see the best of GTA Online had to offer, I was going to have to submit myself to the occasional random assault.
Drive-by shootings and sporadic muggings didn't happen that much. But the problem is, hardly anything else did either. The Quick Job option did reliably connect me to mission instances initiated by other players but then I either got kicked or lost connections. When I did play through the missions, things felt clumsy. In one instance of the Welcoming Party team escort job, it wasn't clear who was going to drive so there was a brief series of a clown car/Keystone Cops seat-shuffling before we hit the road. Then, after a few minutes of conflict-free driving to the location, the Loser text suddenly popped up on my screen. I had no idea why my team lost when the businessman we were driving home was safe and sound in our limo. You know how it is playing with strangers. There's that internal battle of how greedy/altruistic you should be, even when you're on the same squad. You get sick of giving people you've never met the benefit of the doubt. I was clear: I needed my friends.
My first GTA Online epiphany happened last night when I finally started playing without people I knew. But getting to the point where I could reliably jump into their game worlds took some doing. It took almost 30 minutes of screwing around with options and invites in both the Xbox menus and GTA phone contacts before Stephen Totilo and I figured out that that friends don't spawn into your world, even after they've accepted Xbox invites. The best way I've found so far to connect with a friend has been pulling them into your session with a job invite. What's hard to tell, though, is if this is the result of launch-week network wonkiness or a quirk of the system as it's meant to work.
So far, I've never seen more than 16 people at one time in my GTA Online world. The same was truehen I joined Stephen in his session, only the names of the players were completely different. That's a standard number for multiplayer match types but wound up feeling a bit underpopulated for a GTA game. That dissonance makes me think that the big promise of GTA Online — getting to wreak havoc in an online Rockstar universe filled to the brim with other humans — isn't being delivered on yet.
Nevertheless, getting into trouble with friends has been worth all the trouble so far. One repo mission that I did with another player was really fun. After reclaiming a pricey sportscar from the tonier sections of town, we went our separate ways to lose the cops. He returned his ride back to the dealership quicker, while I fell into a chain of cat-and-mouse chases. The cops were on my tail for what seemed like an eternity, and my erstwhile partner came back after he'd made his drop-off to try and get them off my tail. The cop AI seems a lot more aggressive in Online than in single-player but I finally shook them right by the dealership.
At this point, I'm a level 6 (I think) Thug and I've seen a fair amount of repetition in the available Job types. Lots and lots of races, deathmatch and team deathmatch events. Yes, the sports and activities can be good, time-wasting diversions but the most interesting missions seem to be the ones given by characters from the main game. Still, you wind up trying to generate some kind of amusement while waiting for those to pop up.
In its first few days, GTA Online feels like a tangled mess of systems that don't seem to be talking to each other right now. You and your buddies need to be in same session but it's not apparent at first why you can't see friends on map or when you can invite players to jobs. It's a big open world but one that feels under-populated when compared to its offline counterpart.