Ok, here's your headline: You can't play Grand Theft Auto V online at launch. In fact, GTAV doesn't have a multiplayer mode at all. What GTAV does have, is your invitation to GTA Online - and that's what leads us to Rockstar North for a 50 minute demo of, arguably, the most exciting development in GTA history.
GTA Online is something different. Something bigger. Something that changes the way we play GTA forever. The clue is in the wording: GTA Online. GTAV is the launching point, but this is no regular multiplayer mode. GTA Online is an entirely new product - a service, even - and the biggest shake up in the series since GTA III.
Crudely, GTA Online is a persistent online world for 16 active players, with all GTAV's single-player features and more. Looting, co-op heists, deathmatches, races, gang attacks, crew vs crew playlists, sports (like tennis, BASE jumping, golf and more), plus 'ambient' events like armoured van robberies, crate drops, import/export car acquisition, bounties... more. Not to mention the implicit morality and social dynamics, or the really mad stuff like the ability to insure your car or play the stock market. Rockstar uses different language, but to all intents, it's GTA: the MMO Action RPG.
GTA Online is free for anyone who buys GTAV but it doesn't unlock until around two weeks after GTAV's September 17 launch. Many will find this surprising, and others might demand to play GTA online at launch becauseIpaiddforitthanksverymuch, but we suspect you'll be grateful of the delay. GTAV is a sprawling offline game and Rockstar hopes to give people time to explore and learn its mechanics.
Once online, 16 players are active at any one time but you're part of an online universe of hundreds of thousands, if not more - all jostling for Reputation Points (RP), cash and almost limitless material acquisition. Remember the penthouse at the end of the GTAV gameplay trailer? You can buy it, complete with working CCTV, home entertainment and a deluxe garage allowing storage of 10 customised vehicles.
In truth, it's a lot to take in, which might explain why we were invited to the Edinburgh home of Rockstar North, creators of the GTA series, to see GTA Online played in a live 50-minute demo. We also discussed it at length with Rockstar North president Leslie Benzies, who gives fewer interviews than you can count on a Yakuza's fingers.
GTA Online takes some explaining, so we'll start by running you through what we saw. Sat in a demo room at Rockstar North's swish open-plan HQ, we sat in front of a row of four HD TVs. The action focused on a central screen, but played out from multiple angles as new players entered the game.
Good news: GTA Online looks like GTAV. No compromise. As we waited for the action to begin, the streets of Vinewood were buzzing with traffic and neon just like the trailers. Suddenly, a Rockstar developer sat next to us starts chatting into his headset and his on-screen character does the same, lip-synching broadly in time.
"Ready guys? Let's go". The developer's online persona opens his in-game smartphone (with a 3x3 grid of 'apps', although different phones have different layouts...) and taps on 'Contacts'. He scrolls through a list of in-game characters, before settling on his online friends list.
At any time during GTA Online, you can pick up your phone to 'ring' friends in single player and invite them into your world. You can leap into GTA Online at any time during GTAV's solo campaign using the character selection wheel and selecting your online avatar (in the bottom quadrant, next to Michael, Franklin and Trevor).
After a brief chat, the friends agree to meet at a waypoint marker on Vespucci Boulevard. Like traditional single player GTA, you can place markers for meet ups or key locations. A Vapid Dominator pulls up (we can see it winding through the streets on a screen to our left), and he jumps in. "What's this?" one character asks, as Waylon Jennings plays on the radio. The passenger can change channels, acting as in-car DJ.
The duo agrees to hold up a gas station. "Masks on, yeah", one character says, before cycling through the Interaction Menu where you can select glasses, hats, masks etc. The masks are more than cosmetic: ditch it after the hold up, and you'll lose a wanted star. He dons a gorilla mask and bursts into the store. "Put the money in the bag. This is a stick up! Come on! Quicker!" At first we suspect the shouting is for our benefit, but AI characters will react to the urgency in your voice, stuffing money more quickly in the bag.
The police arrive as the duo dash to their getaway car with a two star wanted level. Police cars have a 'cone of detection' visible on the radar and you need to stay out of their sight for a number of seconds - or simply out-distance them - to lose the wanted level. After a heated pursuit, sirens melting into ambient traffic, the duo escapes. Whoever does the job gets the cash and can choose how much to share: a sure-fire source of arguments. "I'll give you a little more, it's OK", he says.
They head to a character's apartment, with a high-end ground floor garage with space for 10 customised cars. Like single player, car modding is extensive, but don't fear losing your cherished vehicles. You can take out insurance and ring for a replacement car if yours get destroyed. Your custom cars show as markers on the map and get impounded if you leave them too long. Simply pay to retrieve them.
The garage looks like a minimalist, gleaming white Apple showroom. You can pay a personal mechanic to fix your cars automatically, or deliver them to any location. As you ogle your motors, you can see their stats for speed, handling etc, before making your choice. We're ready for an impromptu street race through the Vinewood (GTAV's Hollywood) streets at night.
You can set the race marker where you like, and the action unfolds like Midnight Club. At one stage, a car flies past us at a junction being pursued by the police - another human player in trouble, since you exist in the same world. Winning the race nets a modest $80, logging your times to the Social Club and boosting your RP.
"GTA Online looks like GTAV. No compromise. The streets of Vinewood were buzzing with traffic just like the trailers."
If this wasn't enough, Rockstar will constantly add missions and content to GTA Online, plus players can create their own missions using the Creator tools. The long-term aim, as we understand it, is a vibrant self-sustaining community like LBP, but initially the tools will be more limited - like the mission creator in Infamous 2. You'll only be able to make races and death matches at the start, but multi-stage DIY heists should appear at some stage.
The duo head to a glowing blue mission marker (called a 'corona') for the 'Maibatsu Factory Steal' mission. They need to hijack a shipment of bikes from a heavily guarded factory, so call in two online friends to help: "Hey Shaun. Hey Ross. We're going to steal some bikes. We need a lookout, a sniper and some transporters". You can assemble a team from your friends list, or recruit according to specialist skills. For example, some players are better at shooting, driving or flying, while others have access to unique vehicles.
As GTA Online develops, it's sensible to expect the 'Whales' to rise to the top - players with more time and skill with the highest levels of RP and cash. However, it's possible to spread the wealth by sharing cash, weapons and ammo among your team. In turn, they can 'defect' and try to steal your cash so, like life, GTA Online is an exercise in trust and social dynamics.
The four-person team head to the factory, scoping out sentries from afar. The scope for teamwork and co-ordination is impressive. "All clear. Let me know when you're in place", whispers one player. "I've got a guard here", says another, "I'm going in close and personal". He creeps us behind the guard, sinking a knife into his neck - presumably a new close-combat move. We also see some new clambering animations, plus a 'shin slide' down a ladder. GTA Online detects how noisy you are, so you could shout or open fire to distract a guard while a friend sneaks by.
In no time, it all kicks off. "I need covering fire!" a player barks. We see a flurry of sniper and machine gun shots from all angles on multiple screens. In truth, the visuals look a bit less polished than the trailers have led us to believe. Not hugely, but it's noticeable when viewing a guard from distance - they're not as hi-res. To be clear: GTA V and GTA Online look fantastic for PS3 / 360 titles but this is the reality of seeing a game in action, not its manicured trailers.
Eventually, they take out the guards and steal the 'Big Rig' of bikes. The 'transporter' drives the truck while his team follow in cars. "I can see you now. Watch out", calls one player. "We've got an SUV on our tail. Take it out!" The support cars fire at pursuing SUVs as they weave through freeway traffic - the scene has the feel of a Michael Mann movie, only with that unpredictable edge fallible, creative human players provide.
The mission ends as the truck pulls into a dirt road and everyone goes separate ways. You earn $25k and 1250 RP. "Give us a lift into town!" asks one player, as his friend pops down the automated hood on his two-seater Lampadati Felon GP - only to flip his pal the bird and speed off laughing. You'll be able to set custom animations a bit like - whisper it - PlayStation Home. You won't be left stranded, but can call for taxis or your private garage pick up.