Booting up Grand Theft Auto 5 for the first time in a couple of years, and I have to wonder who is still playing this game in 2021. Well, as it happens, a lot of people. A quick check on player statistics, and the numbers are as high as they’ve ever been.
Still, I can’t contain my cynicism. Surely Rockstar should pool their resources into the series’ next instalment. Indeed, GTA 6 still hasn’t been officially announced, despite rumours of its development gathering momentum. There’s an increasing number of players growing impatient, weary of GTA 5’s bloated online experience. Seriously, Los Santos is practically crumbling under content.
Of course, it’d be nice if some of their earnings went into refining GTA 5’s clunky core gameplay mechanics and dated world building. Enter Dr Dre, whose appearance in the all-new expansion story The Contract is generally quite good, despite more than a few ramshackle missions.
On the plus side, The Contract sees the delightful return of original series protagonist Franklin and wannabe bad boy Lamar. The banterful interplay between Franklin and Lamar is as comical as ever, with Franklin still the subject of a frequent roasting.
Now the owner and proprietor of a ‘celebrity solutions agency,’ Franklin employs you as new employee-cum-business partner, tasked with maintaining the faux-glitz and glamourous veneer hiding Los Santos’ underbelly. Contracts include rescuing wealthy clients from hitmen, protecting expensive stock from gunmen or evading gunfire whilst retrieving expensive items; sadly, they’re all essentially missions stuck in the mould of tired fetch quests. Meanwhile Franklin works on harpooning the big fish clients, so it’s not long into the story before you get to work on VIP contracts, and the opportunity to save Dr Dre’s blushes as the linchpin requires safe return of his prized cell phone containing unreleased music.
Now, full disclosure: I’ve never played GTA Online before The Contract. Having completed 5’s story campaign a few times, I’ve never felt the urge to dive into multiplayer. See, I can’t overcome my cynical, pre-conceived disposability of it all; Rockstar’s frequent updates to GTA Online fall too far towards the game existing as purely a vehicle for commerce. To compound my pre-conception further, playing the game in 2021 makes clear that GTA’s once sharp-witted commentary has dulled in the 8 years since release.
That being said, the city of Los Santos is still as vibrant and exciting as ever. It’s remarkable that a game with such deep wrinkles exists with a world so immersive, so rich and detailed. As Lamar scoops my freshly created avatar – a much cooler version of myself, of course – from the airport in Online’s epilogue, taxiing along the highway towards downtown LS amidst bejewelled city lights and pink gradient sunset, I can’t help but smile. The city feels alive; it’s concrete bursting with stories yet to be told. Kudos to Rockstar then. Their attention to detail and physical world building is still second to none.
After completing the handful of acclimatising missions, I’m dropped into an alleyway alongside two players already brawling. Explosions rumble in the distance as helicopters whir overhead. In my first trip to Los Santos customs – a requirement to progress the story – a sedan randomly spawns atop of my muscle car whilst I’m choosing a respray colour. I’ve no idea what’s just happened. No matter, a guy wanders in and grenades my new car anyway.
Putting the frustration caused by other players aside, The Contract missions themselves are unlocked once you’ve purchased an agency. The cheapest is just over $2 million, so quite affordable for seasoned players. For a newcomer like me though, it took a bit of legwork to acquire the funds. My cynical brain is tingling again. It sadly feels as though Rockstar earns as much as they do with Online because its systems are designed to squeeze as much cash out of its players as possible. Everything revolves around money, and everything’s so damn expensive. As fun as customising your avatar is with clothing, tattoos and hairstyles, $975 dollars for a t-shirt is criminal. If you’re not prepared to grind for the cash, then in-game funds are available to purchase with real-world money. It’s precisely this pay-to-play tactic which understandably puts a lot of players off.
Also, for a game famed for its tangible, breathable environments, I’m left frustrated by Rockstar’s stubbornness to evolve beyond linear mission design. Frankly, it feels lackadaisical in 2021. For instance, the culmination of a VIP contract to recover Dr Dre’s phone data from the FIB headquarters requires you land a helicopter on your agency’s helipad. It made sense to me to end the mission by entering the rooftop door to head down to your office inside. What Rockstar actually wants you to do is parachute down off the building, to the main entrance. Failing that, you’re landing a helicopter on the street. In moments like this, where player choice is eliminated by strict parameters set by the developers, immersion is ruined.
The heavy gunplay and clunky driving mechanics – with cars akin to handling a rogue shopping cart – could have used a tune up too. It’s almost tortuous completing some of The Contract’s missions. Confused AI often run amok but your crosshairs are too slow, your gunplay too sluggish, resulting in clumsy attempts to shoot them down before they return to cover.
An unfair difficulty spike in certain missions is noticeable too, although to be fair this might be down to me being a fresh face in Los Santos and thus only able to purchase light armour due to being too low a player rating. I’m frequently gunned down as soon as I break cover; presumably this is because most GTA Online players are equipped with unstoppable armouries. Certain missions are possible to complete playing solo, but they’re mostly designed for teams, meaning you’re relying on other players to join in. In my admittedly limited experience, other players either don’t show up or quit as soon as the mission loads. When I’m fighting solo with only light armour, I stand a greater chance of failure than success.
I don’t want to paint a picture of GTA Online being impenetrable for newcomers. The Contract expansion is likely a great place to start if you’re new to GTA Online. Your agency itself comes with a few cool conveniences included, like a multi-space parking garage, a safe for your hard-earned dollars and an affordable armoury. And whilst you need to be at least rating level 5 to purchase property, levelling up doesn’t take too much time.
The majority of criticism in this review can be set aside as minor gripes though. At the end of the day, the fundamental question is always: is this game fun? Am I entertained? And, despite all of GTA’s shortcomings, I’d have to say yes. There is nothing quite like the freewheeling experiences on offer in GTA 5. Cruising through Los Santos in a muscle car tuned to West Coast Classics’ new Dr Dre playlist is a blast. It’s wish fulfilment to the max.