November 2, 2011. That’s when the first GTA 5 trailer appeared out of the ether, giving us our first taste of Rockstar Games‘ overhauled San Andreas. It doesn’t feel real that the GTA 5 10-year anniversary has arrived, but several console ports later, here we are. The game’s enormous reputation continues to cement itself in the annals of gaming history, but Grand Theft Auto 5’s legacy is a double-edged sword.
It can be easy to dismiss just how impressive GTA 5 was back in September 2013. Pushing the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to their absolute limits, it wouldn’t be long before both players and critics would accept it into the ranks of the best open-world games out there. Somehow, it felt impossible that the immersive worlds of GTA 4 and Red Dead Redemption could be evolved upon. Yet, Rockstar Games delivers a world succinctly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
In many ways, the representation of Los Santos and its society feels ahead of time and also still relevant to this day. Opulent areas like Rockford Hills (aka Beverly Hills) are populated by vapid civilians, spouting out lines of dialogue pertaining to their social status. A trip further into Downtown Los Santos finds a bustling conveyor belt of NPCs, all portraying heightened personalities that wouldn’t feel out of place on TikTok. Rockstar marries the ideals of these personalities with the game’s narrative, a tale of searing satire delving into financial woes, corruption, and in true Rockstar fashion – the ‘American Dream’.
That’s all upheld by the game’s performances, with the trio of Michael, Franklin, and Trevor forging their own iconography well after the credits roll. GTA 5’s usage of its diverse locations and characters shines across the story. Looking past this, though, the one element that you and I now associate GTA 5’s legacy with is GTA Online. It is the best and worst thing to happen to GTA 5, and potentially to GTA 6.
At the time of GTA Online’s launch, it was very disappointing. Arriving post-launch on October 1, 2013, the hype was high. While GTA 4 had somewhat limited multiplayer, there were hours of fun to be had. We’ve all spent hours having a firefight at Liberty City’s airport. Could GTA Online capture that again? Not immediately, launching with heaps of bugs and not that much to do when the issues subsided. That’s if you still had your character, as losing data was prominent at this time. Los Santos somehow felt empty too, bereft of any life that was functioning in the single-player mode.
The multiplayer spin-off’s true potential eventually came to life, with new jobs, activities, playlists, and criminal ventures to become ensnared by. When GTA Online is good, it can be really fucking good. Coordinating heists with my friends scratches my itch to feel like I’m in a Michael Mann film, as we decide on the best strategy to avoid bloodshed or law enforcement. Of course, that all goes out the window no more than 2 minutes into any heist, putting Rockstar’s RAGE engine to the test with hard-hitting gunplay. For a while, it seemed like GTA Online could continue to reach new heights and offer deeper levels of immersion.
PC players can get more in-depth with GTA Online through GTA RP (roleplaying) servers. Everyone has a role, from mundane jobs to enforcing the law for other players around the map. It highlights that GTA Online has the tools available to become something fresh, offering a level of engagement otherwise untenable in the console version. It is fascinating to see the lengths players will go to to keep the illusion strong, going as far as to learn actual police crime codes and procedures.
GTA Online at present feels like a bad omen for what GTA 6’s equivalent could be. Progression is incredibly slow, and unless you’re in it for the grind, it can be hard to incentivize yourself to keep going. If you’re pooling hours of repetition into completing the same jobs for your nightclub or drug labs you could see some of the benefits. Cash is king in GTA Online, and you need heaps of it to truly explore the finer things in Los Santos. That includes having fun. There’s a clear divide in GTA Online between players with high levels and tons of cash, and those trying to accumulate anything they can.
Players with more resources often resort to ‘griefing’, turning lobbies into an explosion fest, as you’ll likely be destroyed by an Oppressor MK 2 within seconds of joining. The solution to join in on the action? Your wallet. Microtransactions are everywhere, and we all like to indulge in skin bundles or desirable items from time to time. GTA Online can make it feel like there isn’t any other option but to dive into your own pocket if you want to get ahead, often verging into pay-to-win territory. It highlights how stagnant the content has become for GTA Online too.
To celebrate this monumental anniversary for GTA 5, you might expect Rockstar to deliver some elaborate celebration in GTA Online. Instead, players can collect some new outfits, vehicles, and a bit more XP when playing certain playlists or doing specific jobs. A very underwhelming gesture considering how important GTA 5 is for the developer, as a game, and as a gigantic revenue source. The coffers are deep thanks to GTA 5 sales, with over 185 million units sold for the game alone as of August 2023.
With the GTA 6 release date still a mystery, I can only hope that the multiplayer component can learn from GTA Online’s mistakes. Despite all these frustrations, I can’t help but still be in awe of the overall picture when it comes to GTA 5. I’ll always look fondly at memories of getting home from college on release day to ride down the Los Santos highways, blasting Sam Flax’s Fire Doesn’t Burn Itself. The cultural impact of GTA 5 is immeasurable.