In Grand Theft Auto Online, Rockstar has built an elaborate theme park around the fantasy of being an unchained rich criminal. Players can pull off daring heists in heavily guarded casinos and on private islands rich with cocaine and gold; they can buy expensive sports cars and race them on Hot Wheels-style tracks; they can also hang out with Dr. Dre. It’s a picture of avarice, wealth, and stability that feels downright surreal in 2022.
On a purely technical level, GTA Online still looks great, and with tools like the flying Oppressor motorbike and the nuclear-powered Koastka submarine, Rockstar is able to keep players focus on new content over the old. There’s just one noticeable exception: the feel of the world itself. Every Grand Theft Auto game is packed full of references, commentaries, and jokes that are appropriate to the period in which the campaign is set. But while Grand Theft Auto 5’s single-player story remains comfortably wedged in the 2010’s, GTA Online clumsily marches forward.
Some of this isn’t Rockstar’s fault, because 2022 is a hellscape that none of us could truly have predicted. But other parts are very much Rockstar’s fault, like the ambient atmosphere of the city itself.
The running joke of a proposition to legalize medical cocaine still hits just fine, even though it’s not particularly funny after seeing it for nearly a decade. Other things, like the vast majority of civilian barks and idle lines, were already awkward and uncomfortable at launch and have stubbornly remained in the game. Women on the street make casting couch jokes, and chatter excitedly about all the hashtag selfies they love to take. Fat pedestrians brag about how much they love lying to their doctors about what they eat, and talk about the next culinary adventure they’re planning. A prominent delivery brand is ‘Post-Op’ with taglines like ‘No longer just mail.’ The brand name of a set of silly scooters? Faggio. Do you get it. Do you get it?
Playing GTA Online feels like the hideous experience of sitting at a table with an edgy guy who would like to tell you all his terrible jokes, peppered with assurances that he’s not bigoted — he hates everyone equally.
Meanwhile, the GTA Online main story missions seem aimed at getting the player to care about the characters and the stakes of the world. Lester, a supporting character in the main game, features prominently in GTA Online. He helps the player character set up their criminal empire, provides tons of useful utility (like clearing off wanted levels, for one) and is later the primary logistical force behind the Diamond Casino heist. He is refreshingly one of the few visibly disabled characters in the Grand Theft Auto canon, using both a cane and wheelchair as mobility devices, and it’s actually pretty nice getting to hang out with the guy and see a side of him the campaign never shows off. The player even plays matchmaker between him and investor Georgina Cheng.
Our protagonist in GTA Online is silent; most of the modern storytelling and texture of the world comes from hanging out with characters like Lester, Georgina, and Dr. Dre. This already stretches immersion, as our protagonist just kind of watches and gestures at all of the animated, over-the-top personalities they encounter. Other characters even comment on it, talking about how creepy and silent we are. The player can read it as their character being gobsmacked by the ridiculous antics, or role-play as a quiet and professional mercenary. But when you get out of a cutscene and into the world proper, which is stuffed full of cruel jokes and immature punchlines, it’s hard to really give a shit about the world, let alone saving it from doomsday, financial collapse, or Elon Musk-style supervillains.
At this point, GTA Online feels like falling into some weird alternate history loop, where few of the world-shifting historical events over the last decade or so actually came to pass. Instead, it is set to be a forever-land of plenty, where little people can still be the hero by becoming the outlaw in a corrupt and broken system. It’s just a shame that the world itself is so interested in punching down, as the atmosphere of shitty, petty jokes makes any gravitas or weight GTA Online can muster largely inconsequential.