Rockstar remains one of the classic innovators of gaming, letting loose an expansive, free-form-mission mentality that would pioneer the success of the “open-world” genre. Grand Theft Auto is the crown jewel of that kingdom. It’s an international phenomenon and one of the most important game series of all time. With Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar made the biggest open world of its kind, but despite its commercial success, the developer is simply giving into its own very hazardous addiction. Grand Theft Auto V simply exacerbated the recurring issue that has been plaguing the series since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, an issue that is continuing to drain the studio’s credibility in making top-shelf open world games.
Open-world games have become the realized vision of gaming’s steady growth. The original top-down Grand Theft Auto on Playstation was one of the first games to implement the open-ended, free-form-mission structure that would later become the series’ trademark feature. While Grand Theft Auto II made steady improvements, Grand Theft Auto III on Playstation 2 was lauded for its 3D exploration and expansive nature. GTA III became the grandiose innovator of the series and the benchmark by which open-world games would later be judged. Vice City followed that idea, adding unique style and more cosmetic creativity thanks to its Miami Beach-inspired setting.
But once San Andreas was released in 2004, Rockstar adopted a mentality that ended up damaging the vision of an open-world. Unlike Vice City, San Andreas expanded the world size considerably, encompassing three major cities instead of just one. It was a technical endeavor for the Playstation 2, no doubt, but it also drew upon a number of issues that have made the open-world setup more problematic than it did back in the day. Making a world bigger requires many more activities to keep things interesting. Otherwise, you’re wandering around from mission to mission with barely any sort of activity. It might as well be empty space. Changeable topography, different challenges that appear while moving from location to location, these types of things keep that lull between missions away. San Andreas didn’t suffer from that too much, but it brought to light the idea that spreading something out can leave plenty of weak spots in between.
Grand Theft Auto IV was an even bigger offender. The re-designed Liberty City was able to be bigger and more expansive than ever, thanks to new consoles’ horsepower, but once again, Rockstar’s vision of vastness ended up making the game more tedious than it should be. Traversal was slow and cumbersome, thanks to messy, “realistic” physics for vehicles, leaving the entire game feeling restrictive. Sure, there was a lot to do, but the downtime between missions was more noticeable and intrusive than ever. What especially makes this such a problem is that open-world games’ major flaw, that downtime where you’re traversing from activity to activity, was solved. Open-world gaming had moved into other franchises like Assassin’s Creed (which offered a parkour traversal system that was smooth and acrobatic) and InFamous (which had a ton of fast, action-based missions that required mobility). Even licensed properties like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction solved the problem of boring traversal with a fluid and momentum-driven way to get around the city (and that appeared in the generation before GTA IV). In that light, Grand Theft Auto IV was slow and fragmented, and with the world growing larger and larger with each new installment in the series, this problem was sure to escalate into downright tedium.
Lo and behold, Grand Theft Auto V. If there was any game that realized Rockstar’s fetishism toward wanderlust, it was this game. Man, was it big. Really big. Too big. With a world so massive in scale, Rockstar had to introduce more things to do to keep things from feeling pointlessly vast. These activities ranged from towing cars to video darts. Now, Rockstar does deserve credit for finding so many things to do in such a big game. However, the fact that these activities are so trivial and ultimately meaningless to the player is Rockstar’s self-induced punishment for making the world so enormous. There is a very strong chance that you haven’t seen everything in GTA V and you probably never will. It’s that big. But there are other methods to reach your destination. Call a cab to take you to where you want to go. Well, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of that expansive world? That whole chunk of time you would’ve spent running thousands of meters away is now completely meaningless, which essentially means that Rockstar designed the game that way for no reason whatsoever. It’s dysfunctionally optional.
But there are games that are stupidly huge with slow traversal that are great. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the perfect example of a slow trudge through a huge world, one that works fantastically. Skyrim dodges GTA’s pitfall because of how the open-world is set up. If you leave a town and find that you’re approaching a landmark, you’ll more than likely want to go there and mark it on your map. The landmarks and activities are spaced just far enough apart that they aren’t overwhelmingly close (ultimately feeling like busy work), but far away enough to be enticing and worth going after. And those brief periods between the activities are filled with enemies to fight, ingredients to gather, or even NPC’s to help. These things are good because they have inherent and meaningful value. Enemies to fight mean potential for experience. Ingredients to gather mean new items to craft. NPC’s to help means more missions or secrets. This is a pitch-perfect way to make a world big, but not empty. Bethesda intelligently placed each valuable thing in Skyrim to offer tantalizing reward, but a good enough distance to make the world big and full of expansive promise.
I find GTA V’s issues especially interesting because Saints Row IV released barely a month before it and Saints Row IV succeeded in every aspect that GTA V failed. Fast, exciting transportation? Check. Lots of missions that are close enough together to reach? Check. Varied challenges that offer inherent value to improve your character? Check. 1255 clusters in town to improve your skills, carefully placed to catch your eye. Lots of wacky and entertaining missions that use the game mechanics in smart ways. Unique topography to keep missions engaging on a design perspective. All of these things made Saints Row IV a prime example of open-world gaming that not once felt like padding or busy work.
Rockstar’s mentality of “bigger is better” is what is making Grand Theft Auto less interesting of a series than it should be. For such a maverick of a series, one that broke ground for gamers, critics and politicians alike, it sure hasn’t been as ambitious as its peers these days. While Skyrim was displaying a smart array of carefully placed activities and Saints Row was slowly chipping away that obnoxious padding between missions, Grand Theft Auto was just putting on more and more unneeded pounds. I like the idea of big games with lots of stuff to do, but simply making a game bigger and smugly putting down your competitors for their “lack of ambition” isn’t a good way to evolve your series, especially when your game is big and empty enough that you need to include yoga as a legitimate side mission.
Grand Theft Auto is now the Dragonforce of gaming, a series where “more, more, MORE!” is the mantra, slowly wasting away the substance and precision the series had achieved on Playstation 2. Rockstar, please think about what you’re doing before the inevitable GTA VI is released.