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Beginning my life of crime in Grand Theft Auto Online

Xav de Matos, @Xav

This is the first in what we hope are many entries exploring the online component of Grand Theft Auto 5. For details on the game, read Joystiq's review.

Lamar picked me up from Los Santos International Airport early this morning, as I exited the "create-a-character" menu in Grand Theft Auto 5's online mode. GTA Online went live today as a free update on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

According to Franklin's fast-talking, hustler buddy, he's been chatting it up with my online avatar on LifeInvader - the game's Facebook parody - for too long and it's about time I've made my way down to Los Santos. Here's where dreams are made, he promises, dropping names like anchors in water that are meant to impress but only stop me dead in my tracks. Names like Simeon, a notorious "bullshit artist" whose credit scams bring Michael's life crashing into Franklin's.

First order of business, though, is protection. Lamar has me covered, handing over an untraceable handgun as a welcoming gift.

"There's all kinds of opportunities in Los Santos," Lamar says. "I mean, that's if you got the nuts to pull 'em off." This is the promise of Grand Theft Auto Online.

Beginning my life of crime in Grand Theft Auto Online
The create-a-character process is a little clunky and difficult to grasp at first. To decide your character's physical appearance, you must select their heritage. You select from an assortment of grandfathers and grandmothers on both sides of your family. Using a slider, you select whether your mother and father more resemble their pre-made mom or dad. My process was made slightly easier, by being able to select John Marston as my father. I have no idea why that's an option.

The online mode started with a mandatory racing mission, where I would square off against Lamar in a selection of awful rental rides. I had hoped that since I had manually adjusted my stats to give myself an advantage behind the wheel, I'd be able to keep a ride under control. The whip I selected cracked under pressure and I was spinning out everywhere.

When I was able to explore the world on my own, I saw a handful of other GTA Online hopefuls populate the area around me. Without provocation, I was shot by another player immediately. Upon respawn, I was blasted again.

It was my own personal Dark Knight Rises, "So, that's what that feels like" moment.

I ran like hell when I spawned a third time, jacked a car and made my way to Ammu-Nation to stock up using the $9,000+ the game started me off with. Like any modern game with progression, weapons and gear are locked to levels. Some of the gates are silly: You can't buy even the most basic armor until level five. Parachutes are locked to level eleven. It seems like a very gradual release of content for players, so they don't get burnt out too soon.

Some of the content is locked based on funds. I stole a vehicle and made it my own, by purchasing a GPS tag and insurance for the ride. But if I want to save multiple rides, I'll need to purchase a garage. Other properties are also available, but are extremely pricey. Playing the game will net you the necessary funds over time, but you can always speed the process with micro-transactions, if that's your thing.

Beginning my life of crime in Grand Theft Auto Online
Locking content based on rank is standard, but it does mean hardcore players will be the most powerful players in the world. Grand Theft Auto's free roaming nature means those powerful players could zero in and attempt to make your experience frustrating. Getting ahead of this possibility, Rockstar is combatting trolls with a "Good Sport" or "Bad Sport" system. If you keep your aggression in check and don't troll players at random - focusing instead on bringing the fight to them during designated missions - you're a "Good Sport" and will be given "periodic rewards," which the game did not detail. "Bad Sports" will eventually only be able to play against other trolls. Those just looking to go from one point on the map to another without incident can activate a "Passive" mode: You can't harm other players and they can't harm you.

Major heists aren't available, but there are an assortment of missions to complete with the game automatically pairing me up with players looking to finish the same quests. I ran drugs for Lamar, I raced for Hao, I held up clerks at gunpoint with other players and rode away from police at high speeds with partners. It was very Grand Theft Auto. This could be a very exciting mode, and even a few hours in I'm anticipating how it will evolve.

Like any good session of the maniacal franchise, my gameplay devolved into committing heinous crimes and running away from the law. I, too, enacted random acts of violence against unsuspecting players, who dropped some of their on-hand money (and probably a lot of F-bombs).

Beginning my life of crime in Grand Theft Auto Online
The first few hours of the mode seems like the set up with a promise to offer players the emergent gameplay possibilities they expect and crave. Some of the features weren't working properly just yet; I had issues with the stock market and iFruit app integration, for instance.

My goal going forward is to rob every store available in Los Santos while wearing a hockey mask I purchased on the game's boardwalk and then returning sans mask later to double up on my earnings by hitting them again. I'll partake in more multiplayer missions, and attempt to stave off trigger-happy players. And I've got to get in some activities: a round of tennis and holes of golf are in my future ... and if I lose, I'll run down my opponent in a golf cart for thinking they can step up to me on the green.
The online component of Grand Theft Auto 5 has been added to the game, offering players the option to explore the Los Santos and Blaine County regions while crafting their own story. As we're considering "GTA Online" a piece of DLC - and since Rockstar bills it as an evolving world - the mode will not affect the review score for GTA5.

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