Grand Theft Auto Online is About to Change Everything You Know About Online Gaming

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The Internet is alive with anticipation and the buzz is almost unbearably loud. Its a fan-boy’s wet dream, and its only going to get worse as we draw ever closer to September 17th. The imminent release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is shaping up to be the ultimate swansong for this generations Sandboxand more. gtaiii_3They’ve pushed the envelope of both graphics, storytelling, and the open-world concept.

Rockstar is one of the most, if not the most respected and revered publisher in today’s gaming world. Ten years ago they single-handedly redefined 3D game-play with Grand Theft Auto III, then promptly followed it up with the motorcycles, helicopters, and planes of Vice City. At the end of the Ps2’s life cycle, Rockstar released GTA: San Andreas, which featured a map that covered all of Southern California and Nevada from Los Santos (LA) to San Fiero (SF) to Las Venturas (Las Vegas). It was the pinnacle of the Playstation 2, and a game that millions devoted countless hours to the over-the-top gang warfare, character customization, gta-iv-san-andreas-03-700x466bicycles and jet fighters and parachutes that San Andreas brought.

Not to be out-done, Rockstar revolutionized the current generation as well with the brilliant and realistic Grand Theft Auto IV. Set in the same fictional Liberty City (NY) from GTA III, this time around the sandbox became highly detailed and realistic, shying away from the silly antics of the San Andreas days. GTA IV brought gritty, thought-provoking satire and offered the most realistic simulation of a city ever built inside a computer. Rockstar immediately followed that up with the expansive and ever-fun Red Dead Redemption, which brought the open world sandbox style of GTA to the old west… With what most consider to be the best western ever made.

You like what I did there?

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From all accounts they aren’t letting up. Grand Theft Auto V, which takes us back to a re-imagined San Andreas, comes out September 17, and its already being hailed as the next step in sandbox evolution. With Rockstar’s largest, most detailed map yet, this Oceans 11-type heist-fest is set to steal countless hours from you over the next few months.

But wait… Rockstar isn’t done.

gta1Over the past few days I’ve poured over interviews, read reactions, and soaked up everything I can learn about what is is going to be a total sea change in multiplayer gaming. Let me phrase that a little differently:

Grand Theft Auto Online is about to blow every other online gaming experience out of the water.

xl_GTA-Online-Screenshot-5-624In an interview with Rockstar’s Leslie Benzies, it was recently revealed that the game engine behind GTA V and GTA Online is fully expandable, meaning there is not limit to the size of the world that GTA Online can inhabit. He was quoted as saying that it was their ultimate goal to simulate The World.

So what started as a game engine to build the world of Grand Theft Auto V with quickly became the jumping off point for what is now looking to be one of the greatest achievements in online gaming history. So much so, that Rockstar has even pushed out the release date of GTA Online to Nov. 1st so that gamers can become accustomed to the single player world and the changes in game play. gtav2I’m blown away by the technical achievement here alone. For the head of Rockstar to say they can theoretically simulate the Earth, with cities and countries, people and all… The implications of that are just enormous. Benzies said that they wouldn’t stop until they’d simulated life.

For anyone that’s played Grand Theft Auto IV, that’s not too far a leap. If you’ve spent time in the living, breathing, bustling Liberty City, then you know how just standing on a street corner can prompt some of the game’s funniest mechanics. I once stood outside a cafe, letting the camera drift out over the street as I lay the controller down. Eventually there was a “crash” as an auto accident happened on the street in front of me, both drivers get out and start yelling at each other… Then one punches the other guy and hops back into his car and speeds off! This is exactly why GTA IV (and now V) are the most immersive experiences you can plug into. I mean come on, you can sit in your apartment and watch clever, satirical television programs made by the geniuses at Rockstar. The levels of GTA V are even deeper, and Grand Theft Auto Online brings it all live.

GTA_5_Multiplayer_13765788626619You can form crews, perform co-op heists, buy stocks, property, cars, insurance (in case some asshole steals your ride), the amount of detail put into this world is mind-boggling. There are the regular Deathmatch modes, other co-op missions, races on land, air, and sea, military jet dogfights above the city, air-support for elaborate heists that you and your friends (or strangers for that matter) can pull off for more cash. There are ATV races, jet ski races, launching-off-mountains-on-motorcycles-then-opening-your-parachute races, there is tennis, sports, gambling… Rockstar went ALL OUT this time… There are nearly 500 different missions that mix and match each time to create the most fun you can have online with both hands on the controller.

grand-theft-auto-v-91Now there aren’t any specific plans to release GTAV or GTA Online for next-gen consoles as of yet, but with Microsoft and Sony both set to release their next generation consoles this fall, it’s only logical that they will. Rockstar has built this all-inclusive simulated world, and they intend to keep it, expand it, and let it evolve as the years go by… So it’s no stretch that they wouldn’t force people to play on their Ps3’s and Xbox 360s five years from now. That means it’s perfectly safe to get the game if you’re planning on upgrading to a next-gen console this holiday. Just don’t throw out your old one yet, cause if you’re like me, a guy who still plays GTA IV to this day, you’ll be playing GTA V and GTA Online right up until it’s released on next-gen consoles.

fake-gta-v-hud-display-by-bones2When GTA Online releases, it will be seamless. There’s a wheel on the game’s heads-up-display that allows you to switch back and forth between the single player’s three main characters… And on Nov. 1st a fourth character will simply appear. You’ll be able to click on it and as the camera pulls back, up into the sky and then back down again on another portion of the map, it will drop you right into multiplayer mode. It’s all controlled from the in-game iPhone knock-off, and then loads during the character-switching animation. That means no lame party lists, no waiting in lobbies for other players to join, no countdowns while you furiously try and select your loadout, none of the old-school multiplayer annoyances.Grand Theft Auto V Rockstar has made the transitions in GTA V and Online as immaculate as possible.

You’ll first appear at the airport, a fresh face to San Andreas, and be guided by some of the single player’s characters through the first couple of missions, to give you a feel for the set up. In Online, just like the campaign, the game is all about money. There’s a real, fully functioning economy in San Andreas, where you can purchase stock, real estate, and different houses, condos, cars, and more. You can customize every aspect of your character from clothes and tattoos, as well as your vehicles- paint jobs, rims, convertibles!! gta2Each multiplayer mission nets you more cash, which you’ll need to remember to drop off at the bank, cause if you get capped out on the street by another person, they can steal it! That means once you get going, you’ll have to go to ATMs and such to keep your daily expenses paid (weapons, cars, etc) without carrying enough to make yourself a target for other players.

From planning elaborate heists that require multiple people, to simply robbing a liquor store while your buddy waits in the car, GTA-Online-Pictures-313Rockstar has made the criminal underworld simulation as detailed and as realistic as it can be. They’ve also re-done the combat mechanics of GTA, no more run and gun and try to not get shot. They’ve simply taken the cover and combat system from last year’s masterpiece Max Payne 3 and transplanted it into GTA. That means no more clunky gunfights… We get a true cover system, aiming, and even slow-motion bullet time for some instances! They’ve kept the driving mechanics from GTA IV (where the cars feel real because they have weight), and refined them. Better camera angles, more responsive steering and brakes, and the best of all? Slow-motion bullet-time driving in some cases as well!

GTA_V_Online_2All in all, it would appear Rockstar listened to the fans. Gone are the days of drive here and kills him missions, now everything ties into the heists, their planning, execution, and fallout. They took the great start they had in GTA IV and expanded it, making every single aspect of game play as good as it could possibly be… And I can’t explain in one post the extent to which they have gone to simulate a detailed and changing world in GTA Online. Even long after the single player campaign has been finished, people will be logging into GTA Online for years to come. If everything I’ve seen works are well as they say it will, one day you might log into GTA Online and start the game in your actual hometown, then travel out into the countryside to wreak havoc and mayhem from there.

This world is gigantic, it’s layered incredibly from the clouds to the bottom of the ocean, and it’s designed to expand well beyond the borders of Los Santos. This is the future of the sand box, and Rockstar has done it again.

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the Pinnacle of Play: GRAND THEFT AUTO Returns to Westside

For some of us, playing video games is more than fun… It’s an obsession… but it wasn’t always this way, I swear.

I am a child of the Commodore 64 generation. Growing up, my friends all had Ataris, and SEGAs, and ColecoVisions, and while I might’ve been the last kid on the block with a Nintendo Entertainment System– we did always have the latest and greatest of the home computers. From the Commodore 64XS in all its color glory, to the green lettered IBMjr with its giant floppy disks, the Amiga, and CGA graphics (a milestone in computer gaming), in the Toomb household there was always a newer computer.

Enter the golden era of adventure gaming, and a little company called Sierra. I booted up King’s Quest for the first time in the 4th grade, and was immediately transported into every fairy tale I’d ever read. What I remember as brilliant color graphics and a fully-realized 3D world is mostly sentimental memory, because looking back now the graphics and game play are almost embarrassing. If I showed my kids these games, they would think there was something wrong with me… But I spent hours and hours glued to the mouse and keyboard- frantically typing in commands like “use hammer on door.” Those early adventure games were like an extension of my imagination, where the characters could go anywhere, explore anything, and complete some quests along the way. Sierra put out a slew of these Quest games when I was between the ages of 8-12- ranging from Police Quest to the extremely inappropriate and revolutionary Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Now, my parents weren’t the most censoring parents in the world, and while letting your 10 year old play a game where the sole purpose is to get laid might sound like fun, it’s sad to say that I learned a lot about the birds and the bees from ‘ol Larry (I will never forget the first time I saw digital breasts in VGA… all those pixels… wowza).

As I got older and Nintendo took over the world, I spent hours guiding Mario and Luigi through countless levels and machinations, from Yoshi’s Island to Mario Kart, Mario 64 to Street Fighter II. I also logged countless hours on the computer with flight simulators and open-world driving games like Test Drive, but something was always missing. Call it my young initiation into the Land of the Lounge Lizards, but video gaming was entirely too safe. By the time I was in my late teens, early 20s, the Playstation I had introduced me to blood-splattering fun games like Resident Evil and Siphon Filter, but they were all just plug-in-and-unwind kind of games. To be played with friends on a lazy afternoon, not to be immersed in. I always longed for those days of open-world adventure, where exploring a digital landscape was part of the fun. Nothing matched King’s Quest or Leisure Suit Larry.

Enter Grand Theft Auto III. The game that literally changed the way my brain was wired. In the video game world there is everything before GTA III, and then there is everything after. Before GTA my video game playing was a hobby, an escape, something fun to pass the time.

Grand Theft Auto puts the player into the shoes of a criminal who has just escaped from prison after being betrayed by his bank-robbing ex-girlfriend in the New York-esque town of Liberty City. I cannot impress the impact that this game had on me enough. It was as if every game I’d played in the past was really just building up to this particular game. It had everything I ever wanted in a video game: an open-world with tons of stuff to do besides the missions, a real soundtrack with real music instead of digitally produced noises, and a sense of humor- I repeat- a sense of humor. Until GTA, video games were all “hero this” and “save that,” but suddenly game play was wide open. I could steal cars, drive them at high speeds into oncoming ambulances, I could run from the cops and shoot my way out of going to jail, and most controversially: I could pick up a hooker, have implied sex with her, and then kill her and get my money back. A long way from Mario and Luigi, but not so much from that first game of Leisure Suit Larry.

Over the years, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has evolved- every time taking place in a new locale based on an American city. This is the key point to the GTA games… American popular culture is truly what’s being lambasted in these games. Sure you can sneak up construction cranes and snipe random people on the sidewalk, but it’s really our society’s ridiculousness that’s being assassinated. The games mix satire, social commentary, criminal fun, and whimsical amusement perfectly. Leave it to the British (Rockstar Games North) to skew American culture in such a brilliant “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” kind of way.

From Vice City (Miami) to San Andreas (Southern California) and Las Venturas (Vegas), Grand Theft Auto has clung tight to the criminal mythologies of America while offering up a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek comedy, mostly missed by critics. Grand Theft Auto eventually became sillier, wilder, and yes, funner as the years and locations progressed- culminating in what most see as the height of the series GTA: San Andreas. Taking on the role of CJ, an “LA” gang member, the bustling cities gave way to freeways and landscapes, deserts and ghost towns alike. San Andreas was the first in the series to incorporate 3 major cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas) into the game. San Andreas was a sprawling epic, with almost too much to do. From working out at the gym to become a hulk, or gorging yourself on fast-food until you grew fatter and fatter (even a little binge and purge at the “Burger Shot”). CJ could sneak onto an aircraft carrier and fly a Harrier-like aircraft (complete with missiles), he could even steal alien jet-packs from Area 51. GTA: San Andreas had it all… including base jumping from the Transcontinental Building and Golden Gate. Uh, yes please.

The outlandish qualities of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were eclipsed (much to the chagrin of those who fawned over giving their characters different haircuts and tattoos) by Rockstar Games‘ reboot of the series, Grand Theft Auto IV. The only game I have ever waited in line until midnight for. Boy was it worth it. GTA IV, in my opinion, is simply the greatest video game ever made. Rockstar took a step back from the silliness of some of its previous titles, incorporating more dramatic aspects, free-form storytelling, and cranking up the social satire. Rockstar did this by creating the greatest video game character ever made: Liberty City. Based on New York’s Burroughs and New Jersey, Liberty Cityis a living, breathing monument to what can be done with a video game. When I first got the game I would get lost for hours, looking at scenery, following random street people as they go about their days, watching two drivers duke it out after a fender-bender… I mean,  for all intents and purposes Liberty City is the greatest simulation ever made public. From FoxNews pundits spouting fire and brimstone to reality TV (yes, there are in-game channels to actually sit and watch), GTA IV has it all- especially when combined with the two add-ons Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

But that was almost four years ago.

Rockstar has released Red Dead Redemption and LA: Noire in the meantime, both of which are quality games of the highest marks, however still fall short of the bar set by GTA. Yes I said it, Red Dead isn’t as good as GTA. I know this is camp-splitting issue, and I don’t want to detract from the open-world awesomeness of Red Dead, but it didn’t have city buses I could drive down the sidewalks of Times Square at high speeds, killing hundreds of innocent bystanders while laughing maniacally… ok?! No amount of standing up to zombie bears with a flaming torch as a weapon can match that feeling.

However the wait (or should I say, the initial pre-announcement-wait) is finally over. On November 2, Rockstar officially kicked off the hype for Grand Theft Auto V with a teaser trailer featuring none other than a brand-new, re-imagined San Andreas (specifically Los Santos, the GTA version of Los Angeles). That’s right folks, GTA is returning to the West Coast with a bang.

From jets to jet-skis, the great outdoors to inner-city struggle, Grand Theft Auto V sets its sights on American culture and Hollywood lifestyles. The economy is also a big player in the latest in this franchise, as the trailer contrasts movie stars and mansions with homeless camps and soup kitchens. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to get my hands on Rockstar’s latest opus.


LA Noire: First Impressions

Rockstar Games has consistently provided some of the most original, ground-breaking, and just all-around-good-times video gaming in the last decade. Did you know the Grand Theft Auto series alone has sold over 124 million copies? Since Grand Theft Auto III dropped on the Playstation 2, 10 years ago this October, the concept of the “sand-box” game has reached a pinnacle of graphics, gameplay, and story with LA Noire. Gone are the free-floating weapons, the killing-sprees are reserved for off-screen, and this time, Rockstar takes us into the mind of a straight-laced gumshoe circa 1947.

Los Angeles in 1947 was a beautiful place, a land of hopes and dreams, Hollywood promised fame for every boy and girl that stepped off the bus from where ever… however more often than not those promises we only weighed with blood, sweat, and tears. From the first scene we are placed in the perfectly shined shoes Officer Cole Phelps, a war “hero” who was a Lieutenant in the Pacific theater, and now believes he must atone for his sins in the war.

Now, believe me when I say, that Team Bondi (the Rockstar division responsible for this iteration) has faithfully recreated the Los Angeles of 1947. I’m talking, exact model here. Robert Spence is a photographer who in his 50 year career, took over 110,000 aerial photographs of Los Angeles. Team Bondi used Spence’s photographs to  recreate traffic patterns, public transport routes, and the locations and conditions of every building in the greater LA city boundaries. These are the mean streets, truly. Whether you choose to play the game in black and white mode, or regular color, it is simply amazing to drive around this town (even though our camera angles for driving are now firmly constricted to behind-the-car irritability… some of us need to drive from inside the car, like normal!).

One of the longest complaints about video games’ “sense of reality” is the lack of distinction when it comes to the face. Recent games have managed to make some of the greatest characters, levels, and beautifully drawn landscapes in history, so why haven’t they been able to nail the face?

Well that’s all history now, LA Noire brings the face. Not only can you tell when a shifty gaze means a suspect is hiding something, but most importantly the mouths match the dialogue. You could really turn off the sound and read lips (if you knew how) in this game, it’s almost on par with anything going on in Hollywood. While it would take an Avatar budget to get Avatar-like animation, this game really gets it right when it comes to motion-capture… Grand Theft Auto IV and the penultimate Red Dead Redemption have brought something new to the video game arena: reality.

In fact, it’s hard for a player with a large amount of imagination not to simply fall into the game. Especially in GTAIV, with it’s immaculate recreation of New York City in Liberty City (on the whole, and in my belief) is the greatest character ever created in a game. From the skyscrapers down to the pollution-filled rivers, the burroughs to Times’ Square, Liberty City is flawless. I have started GTAIV many times with the intention of completing a few missions, only to get lost in the scenery… watching drivers crash, get out, and have screaming matches, homeless street-preachers spouting an endless tirade of biblical paranoia… It’s enormous.

Officer Cole Phelps is easy enough to navigate through this alternate reality of 1947, you can feel his weight when you push the controller’s stick, he doesn’t “spring,” he leans. If you push the stick, he’ll begin to walk, then trot, then run (if you hold R2)… as the characters in GTAIV do… the realism is there.

As you guide Phelps through his career, he’ll encounter many people, places, and things that he can interact with. Whether it’s interrogating a suspect, questioning a neighbor, or interviewing another policeman… running after an assailant and finally being able to pull your gun (no draw-and-shoot capabilities here, you’ve got to wait for the computer to draw your gun for you) everything a cop can and will need to do in the line of duty is mapped out in LA Noire. Through the cunning use of a notebook Phelps keeps clues, locations, suspects, and information organized for each case.

The interview process is heavily mapped out, and despite initial feelings that I was going to botch an investigation due to ineptitude, it’s thankfully idiot-proof. If you mess up a line of questioning too bad or accuse someone without proof, you’ll hear about it, but it won’t change the final outcome of the case… it’s going to get solved.

In fact that might be one of the biggest downfalls of the game: that even if you blow every question in an interrogation, ultimately the case will be solved. I think it would’ve been better to simply fail the case and have to start over than be poked and prodded along through police work. There’s no way to change this either.

All-in-al my first impression of LA Noire is amazing. It’s not as much fun as GTAIV or Red Dead Redemption, simply because it’s too much fun to kill the innocent and destroy the environment around you. So as a square policeman, life can be dull in Los Angeles. The ability to answer any police call while driving, is fun… stopping off to chase down perps or shoot it out with bank-robbers keeps things fresh… but I simply haven’t played enough to see what the world is like post-homicide cases (I’m still mid-way through solving some of the most gruesome murders LA has ever seen).

Rockstar and Team Bondi have brought us another winner though, I can tell you that. LA Noire is addicting, clever, well-written, and well-acted. Pick it up and check it out for sure.