MMO Burnout: Two weeks in the valley with Multi Theft Auto

MMO Burnout - Multi Theft Auto
OK, you know that guy who's always going on about how bloody awesome it would be if someone ever made a working multiplayer mod for Skyrim? If you don't know him, well, you do now, because he's me. Back before I was bitten in earnest by the MMO bug, I spent quite a lot of time messing with private servers of both the Jedi Academy and Neverwinter Nights persuasions. And when I say "messing with," I don't mean I logged into them, I mean I hosted them, made mods and skins for them, and generally wasted significant portions of my youth serving as a GM.

Needless to say, it was a blast, and the thought of having that experience again in a larger game world is just short of orgasmic. Alas, no one has made much of a multiplayer Skyrim mod yet, and while private servers for NWN and Neverwinter Nights 2 are still running and serving their niche communities quite capably, those are topics for another edition of MMO Burnout.

I'd like to tell you about something similar that I've been playing lately, though. It's called Multi Theft Auto.
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Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas box cover
I'm assuming you've journeyed through a Grand Theft Auto title in your travels as a gamer. If you're lucky, you spent some time in 2004's San Andreas, because it's one of the best (games, that is, not just GTAs). Fittingly, it's also the subject of a spectacular open source mod that transforms the single-player streets of Los Santos into a 32-player sandbox that's so much fun it should be as illegal as, well, grand theft auto.

Now, 2004. And yes, the game looks its age. But dudes... moddable multiplayer GTA that you and your friends configure, control, and conquer! For free!

The game

For the three of you out there whose only memories of San Andreas involve Hilary Clinton and Hot Coffee, let me do a brief recap. San Andreas originally put the player in the shoes of Carl "CJ" Johnson, a former gang member recently returned to his 'hood in south central Los Santos (which is basically Los Angeles, if you're keeping up with GTA's riffs on real-world cities). The game also expanded the series' ginormous open world gameplay palette to a staggering three towns instead of GTAIII's one. San Fierro serves as our pixelated San Francisco and Las Venturas fills in admirably for Vegas.

Gameplay is Rockstar's usual mixture of third-person combat, mission-based objectives and the ability to free roam your way through a variety of side quests, vehicle challenges, and two dozen flavors of rip-roaring antisocial mayhem.

San Andreas even sports a few Sims-like touches. Carl can have a girlfriend, for example. You can send him to the gym and actively work out as part of your character development. And of course, there's a pro narrative underscoring all of this, as well as a period soundtrack and plenty of A-list voice talent including Samuel L. Jackson, Ice-T, Chris Penn, and others. Basically if you've ever wanted to play the lead in a John Singleton movie, look no further than GTA:SA.

Multi Theft Auto - Carl's house spawning area
The mod

All of that is really background noise today, though, and I distinctly remember thinking during my original San Andreas playthrough how much fun it would be to share the game world with a gaggle of friends. While I still recommend you pick it up if you're interested in either video game history or open world titles, the real reason to give it a(nother) go is the Multi Theft Auto mod.

Multi Theft Auto - Player bikeAs you might imagine, the mod doesn't apply to the console versions of San Andreas, so you'll need to either find yourself a dirt cheap PC box on Amazon or grab the digital download from Steam. Setup is relatively straight forward -- and fully documented on the wiki -- and I was up and running with the Steam version in under 20 minutes.

In terms of gameplay, I could go on for pages here, but suffice it to say that there's a GTA:SA multiplayer server for nearly any taste. And if for some reason you can't find anyone who shares your affinity for riding bicycles between Los Santos and Las Venturas, setting up your own server is as easy as pressing the "host game" button on the mod's main menu.

Be a good GM and take the time to familiarize yourself with the toolset, though. It requires a bit more research than just logging in and playing MTA, but the sky is the limit in terms of what you and your test subjects mates can do (as the host you can of course choose who to boot and who to keep, and persistent servers are doable).

Whether you want to roam around blasting the stuffing out of each other Just Cause 2-style or you want to organize street (or boat or jet) racing, it's all here. There are also dozens of roleplaying servers (yes, really! the MTA website even mentions it prominently on the front page!), and there are plenty of mod tools that allow for in-game jobs including policeman, pilot, trucker, taxi driver, and more. Visual customization options abound for both characters and vehicles. I even spotted a racing server dedicated to modding GTA:SA's cars into their real-world equivalents. Still other servers feature MMO-like XP and progression systems.

MTA's player community is considerable, particularly given the age of the underlying software. I've been dabbling with the mod off and on over the past two weeks, and no matter the time of day (or night), I was always able to find a hosted server with a handful of people actively playing.

In fact, right now as I'm typing this, at 2:30 p.m. EST on a Wednesday afternoon, the server browser is showing 7,386 players on 1,882 servers. The MTA website spells it out even more clearly. "Did you know that MTA is played by 45,000 unique players every day," it asks. Well, now you do, and no, that's not a misprint or a meaningless MMO public relations metric.

There's also an active forum community and an exhaustive wiki that's quite indispensable whether you're a player, a server host, or a potential modder/developer.

Multi Theft Auto - Downtown Los Santos from the air
The conclusion

To be frank, I was blown away by the amount of work that's gone into Multi Theft Auto, as well as how much fun it is in spite of the dated visuals. That said, the mod's public servers are not for everyone. The GTA series has always been pretty polarizing due to its no-holds-barred depictions of violence and various forms of anti-social behavior. That irreverence is of course magnified by a factor of a thousand without the Xbox Live or PlayStation Network censors lording over the community.

MTA is well worth putting up with the occasional nutjob, though, and it's definitely a title I'll revisit time and again over the life of this column.

Ed. note: The Just Cause 2 multiplayer mod mentioned above is hosting a rare open beta event this weekend!

Burned out on MMOs? That's OK; there are tons of other titles out there featuring MMOish open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, or a combination of all three. Massively's MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems, not to mention a healthy dose of the best mods.

This article was originally published on Massively.