Tag Archives: GTA Clones

Grand Theft Auto V

Well, what I’ve actually been playing for the last few months is Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first game, and even dipped my toes into GTA V when my partner would occasionally recruit me to help her with her playthrough years ago, so I knew I’d be playing it eventually. Despite owning an Xbox 360 copy of it for years now, it showing up on Game Pass at just the right time inspired me to finally take the plunge and install the Xbox One version. Of course, it was removed from Game Pass well before I was finished, and by then purchasing it was incredibly easy to justify. Congratulations Microsoft, your insidious plot to make us buy games by giving them to us for free totally worked! *shakes fist*

Back behind the wheel again!
“Back behind the wheel again!”

I’d say it should be no surprise to readers of this blog, but honestly, my game logs from GTA IV (along with The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) weren’t really as positive here as they are in my head. Perhaps I focused a little too much on my criticisms? To save you some reading and myself any further explanation, let me just summarize by saying that I loved GTA IV. It wasn’t without its flaws, not by a long shot, but it was an amazing game. Thinking back to almost 10 years ago when I first played it, here are the prevailing impressions it left, in no particular order: the absolutely incredible job Rockstar did on Liberty City and its various simulated systems; the numerous improvements and additions to the series’s core gameplay systems (the cell phone, the GPS, improved combat, better mission checkpoints, etc.); the brilliant Niko Bellic and the noticeable “Ludonarrative Dissonance” around his story; the weird, weighty physics to everything, particularly when controlling vehicles; and the busted pacing of the story, which sometimes felt a bit aimless and certainly seemed to fail to really push most players through to the end. Obviously, those aren’t all positives. There I go again!

Well, I’m happy to say that it’s follow-up addresses or otherwise enhances every single thing on that list, and much more. I think that Rockstar might have literally bulleted every major complaint people had about GTA IV and used that list as the foundation for their design documentation. Really! It would be incredibly blatant if they weren’t improving what was an already great game.

GTA V's San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.
“GTA V’s San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.”

Going back through my list, to start, GTA V’s San Andreas is just as incredible as Liberty City was, and for every one of the simulated systems that’s been slightly dumbed down, another has been added. Plus, we have the expansive desert area to the north of the city, and even the underwater areas of the map (and keep in mind San Andreas is a coastal city) have been fully fleshed out. It definitely takes some cues from Red Dead Redemption, with more scenic outdoors areas, better natural lightning, and more wildlife than ever before. While I wouldn’t call it perfect, it is without a doubt an astounding technical feat. While I may not end up having the same long term emotional associations with San Andreas as I do with Liberty City, I’d chalk that up to my personal connections with the real-life locations those in-game cities are based on and not any fault of the games themselves.

Systems wise, pretty much every last thing I complained about from GTA IV has been “fixed” in GTA V, and even the major improvements GTA IV introduced have been yet further improved. For instance, the cell phone is less intrusive and more usable, the GPS is less finicky and much easier to read, the combat is even smoother, with things like targeting and the cover system being a lot easier to use, and mission checkpoints continue the trend of GTA IV’s DLC episodes (and the later Red Dead Redemption) of being more conveniently placed to make failing and/or dying on a mission way less of a headache. Every mission is also scored and easily replayable, not to mention better integrated into the open world in the first place. Perhaps my only real complaint in this department is that more and more of the side systems have become buried as the series has gone on. As an example, I didn’t even realize I could “hang out” with characters in GTA V until near the end of the story because it simply isn’t a feature that factors into the core gameplay. This has always been a thing in Grand Theft Auto though, and maybe it’s better than the alternative of the game forcing these little fun diversions on you by awkwardly shoehorning them into story missions.

Trevor being... Trevor?
“Trevor being… Trevor?”

While I wouldn’t claim there’s zero story and gameplay segregation issues with GTA V, Rockstar largely solves this problem by giving you three characters to play with their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, all of which can, to some degree, justifiably engage in those classic Grand Theft Auto open world rampages. This certainly helps avoid situations like Niko complaining about how he just wants to live in peace and start a new life sandwiched in between the massacre of hundreds of cops and the slaughter of half of Liberty City’s gang population. Hell, the infamous Trevor Phillips seems to be largely designed to represent that most chaotic side of player tendencies, and they even brought back the old “kill frenzy” system in the form of side missions for him. These new player characters are a little divisive it seems, but I can’t really relate to most people’s criticisms of them and their particular parts of the story, as I found them all perfectly enjoyably, even if Trevor’s violent insanity sometimes slips from being hilarious to feeling genuinely disturbing. Hell, you’re introduced to him brutally beating Johnny from The Lost and Damned to death in probably the series’s most WTF moment, at least for fans of that story.

GTA IV’s weird take on “realistic” physics are, for all intents and purposes, totally gone. The game still feels a bit more grounded in reality than previous GTAs which is probably necessary to maintain Rockstar’s priority for strong player immersion with this engine, but driving feels more like an arcade racer yet again, and it really seems like everything has been repurposed with a focus of being, you know, actually fun, in mind. What a concept! Speaking of which, planes are back! There’s even submarines!

But there's still a bit of moody crime drama too...
“But there’s still a bit of moody crime drama too…”

Finally, the story definitely meanders a lot less than GTA IV and doesn’t run out of steam before the end despite being around the same length overall, if not a tiny bit longer by the time you throw in a healthy heaping of side missions. No, it’s not flawless. Everything you’d been doing in San Andreas comes to a screeching halt as you end up in a new setting and with a new cast of characters when Trevor’s first introduced, for example. Still, it didn’t feel like it dragged on anything close to as badly as GTA IV did. Despite being able to swap between 3 protagonists at will, the mission structure is more linear which helps a lot with this, and the missions themselves tend to be much less linear as a nice trade off. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Ballad of Gay Tony than GTA IV proper, which is to say a little more action movie than moody crime drama, though, in keeping with that similarity, the missions are a lot more over the top (and a lot more fun) as a result. Besides, Rockstar has Red Dead Redemption for that mature, serious storytelling stuff now, right?

In the end, GTA V feels like a great summation of the entire series, with the best overall versions of almost all of its systems, a ton of throwbacks and references to earlier games, and quite a lot of fun to be had. I could go on and on about this game. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the new first person mode, the excellent soundtrack and radio stations, all of the new side activities, or hell, GTA fucking Online, but I’ll just finish up here by saying that I absolutely love Grand Theft Auto V!

PC screenshots car jacked from random Steam Community users! Braaap braaaaaap!

Ruffian

Over 10 years after my interest was first piqued by it, I finally loaded up Bully: Scholarship Edition for Xbox 360. While yet another GTA 3 style open world game, I thought the unique tone of Bully would offer me a nice change from what I’d been playing lately. After researching it a little, I decided to play it using Xbox One’s backwards compatibility which I’m happy to report worked great, suffering no performance issues and only a single freeze up (which was likely unrelated to backwards compatibility, though who really knows.) Anyway, on to Bullworth Academy!

Our hero, Jimmy Hopkins. (Yeah, don't ask!)
“Our hero, Jimmy Hopkins. (Yeah, don’t ask!)”

As a fan of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Bully is an interesting title. Coming out between GTA: San Andreas and GTA IV, it runs on the same RenderWare based engine as the GTA 3 series and definitely shares a lot of its design aesthetics as well, from the wacky character designs to the loading screen artwork and even the UI. In fact, having been a while since I’ve played any of the three games in the GTA 3 series, I was taken aback by the familiarity of being back in that engine again. Even keeping in mind that the Scholarship Edition is a remastered version of the original Bully from the end of the previous generation, it was a bit like stepping into a time machine, despite being a totally different game.

Gameplay-wise, it’s obviously a different coat of paint on the same old GTA 3 formula. While there’s a valiant attempt to change its scope a bit by focusing more on smaller areas and more on-foot interaction, the structure of the storytelling, the missions, etc. are all pure GTA 3. I recall more than one person referring to Bully as “Grand Theft Auto: Schoolyard” or something similar back in the day, and that doesn’t feel too off the mark, honestly. Sure, you might be running around on foot, or riding a BMX or a skateboard around the relatively small town of Bullworth instead of stealing sports cars and gunning it through the streets of Vice City, and of course you’re giving wedgies instead of mowing down your enemies in a hail of sub-machine gun fire, but it is GTA 3.

Welcome to Bullworth Academy! It only gets worse from here...
“Welcome to Bullworth Academy! It only gets worse from here…”

Therein lies the charm of Bully, though – by taking the parody heavy humor and oddly jaded worldview of Grand Theft Auto and moving it into the much smaller world of private school drama, the game manages to capture a lot of the real (and much more so, totally fictional) nostalgia of growing up, all with a wink and a nod that feels very, very Rockstar. This really is Bully’s main strength and what sets it apart from GTA, and likely why many people rank it above any of the GTA games. Maybe if I had played it back when it was released I’d feel the same way. I did enjoy the game, overall, but I can’t say I absolutely loved it or anything. My issues?

Well, first of all, as mentioned, the gameplay and mission design is absolute GTA, but this is pre-GTA IV GTA, meaning many of the mechanical improvements that occurred throughout the development of the franchise are either absent or in a very early form here. Most notably, the inability to quickly retry a failed mission drove me just a little crazy the handful of times I failed a mission. What can I say, I suppose I’ve been spoiled by more modern, friendly game design…

The load screens also get the GTA 3 treatment.
“The load screens also get the GTA 3 treatment.”

Then we have the whole “school day” structure. At first I found this to be an interesting and even appealing mechanical twist, but after hours having to keep an eye on the clock to make it to classes, having to take note of the nightly curfew, having to devote half of my day to attempting to pass classes, and of course, having to sleep, it felt more restrictive than anything else, and it did nothing to help the feeling of repetition already present in the GTA mission formula. I guess feeling limited by school hours and a curfew, and the repetitiveness of school life, are quite accurate to the experience of being a high school kid, but it’s not exactly fun (again, like being a high school kid.) I also found the mini-games that represent each class largely more interesting of a concept than in reality, sadly.

Another difference from the proper Grand Theft Auto games that I found to be a negative was the soundtrack. I had noticed at some point during my playthrough that the lack of GTA 3’s awesome radio stations was noticeably detracting from the experience but when I went online to see if others had similar complaints I discovered that Bully’s soundtrack seems to be almost universally lauded. Some of the tracks are kind of neat, sure, and it’s definitely unique, but largely I found most of the songs on the original soundtrack to be a little simple, overly repetitive, and often didn’t quite fit the tone of the game. I guess I’m alone on this point?

Well of course there's racing!
“Well of course there’s racing!”

I also had some issues with the story. I appreciate how concise it is, that was one of the selling points to me in fact, but it felt like there might have been some missions and cutscenes left on the cutting room floor. In the fifth and final chapter Jimmy’s attempts to win over (and thereby take over) the school have progressed very nicely resulting in Jimmy ending up on top. There’s a major tonal shift, as all of the sudden everyone loves him and everything is going according to plan. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, everyone hates him. Like, really hates him. I almost got whiplash from that alone, but some of it can be explained away easily enough by pinning it on Gary manipulating everyone and general resentment from your peers, but then who the hell are the townies and why are they going through such extreme efforts to screw with Jimmy? Surely the original version of the script had several more missions, or maybe even another entire chapter or so to flesh this transition out. Maybe I’m blowing this particular issue out of proportion as I found only a few people discussing this issue online, but it really stuck out to me regardless.

Gym class!
“Gym class!”

Admittedly this is all a bit nitpicky. Overall, I’d say if the idea of a nostalgic journey back to the mid 2000s era of GTA appeals to you (or if you can stomach, at least) and you like the idea of playing a mostly likable teenage troublemaker raising hell in a stuffy private school, it’s likely you’ll enjoy the experience. I certainly did even if it did fall a bit short of my expectations.

All screenshots stolen from users on the Steam Community, which means they’re obviously from the PC version rather than the Xbox 360 version. Close enough!

Fall Update

It has been an incredibly long time since I’ve posted one of these, hasn’t it? Well, I’ve definitely played some games in that time. If anything, it looks like I’ve been a little restless for the last few months, though in addition to everything mentioned here, I’ve also played through an entire, lengthy single player game and been working my way through another classic DOS game, both of which I’ll dedicating separate posts to soon.

My crew about to head out on another raid.
“My crew about to head out on another raid.”

Continuing to play through Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds with friends, I really wanted something of a similar vein that I could play solo. I recall hearing discussion about it on some podcasts and was intrigued, but at some point more recently I stumbled upon some YouTube footage of Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and I was instantly hooked. I’ve been a fan of Ghost Recon since the early days, and while installments from Ghost Recon 2 onward have lost me more and more, it seemed like Wildlands was taking some of the best parts of those newer games and applying them to a big budget, open world shooter.

It turns out that my decision to hop into Wildlands was (mostly) a good one. While the gameplay quickly felt much more formulaic and repetitive, and a little bit more like GTA 5 with a Ghost Recon skin, than Ghost Recon with an open world, than I was hoping for, the main elements that drew me in remain compelling: playing dress up with the huge (though far from exhaustive, unfortunately) amount of customization options available for gearing up your character and your squad, taking that squad into whatever objectives you might want, whether the single-player campaign missions, or just randomly chasing new weapons and other upgrades, and finally, pulling off a coordinated, Tears of the Sun like stealth assault on an enemy position using silenced weapons, drones, and synchronized, long range shots.

A quiet nighttime op suddenly heats up.
“A quiet nighttime op suddenly heats up.”

The game world is awesome, the action, at its best, feels extremely satisfying, and the customization combined with the open world gameplay leads to a certain immersive quality that practically had me roleplaying the scenarios I’d bring my squad into. I’m 100% sure the game would have been even more enjoyable played cooperatively, but sadly none of my usual crew was very interested in checking out Wildlands for one reason or another. Even though I’ve mostly fallen off of the game by now, I’m keeping it installed for now in hopes that another one of my friends might eventually pick it up. That, and I’ve recently started watching Netflix’s Narcos, which the game seems to be undeniably inspired by, and I’ve already been feeling the urge to jump back in as a result. Wildlands definitely seems like it will be best enjoyed when viewed through the lens of that kind of on-the-ground, legally questionable operations where coordinating with “indigenous forces” is perhaps more crucial than more conventional small squad military or law enforcement direct action. While I personally rarely call on rebel support myself, there are certainly plenty of systems in place to play that way.

While it doesn’t seem like Wildlands is very popular (despite some stubborn attempts to foster an online, competitive community) reviews were generally quite positive so maybe there’s some hope for Ubisoft to justify developing a sequel. I’m sure everyone who still plays would love even more customization options, and maybe they could even throw a battle royale mode in to help boost sales the second time around. Oh, and including the PVP mode from the beginning would probably help get those numbers up too.

At around the same time my hype for World of Warcraft’s new expansion, Battle for Azeroth, was building. I decided to play a little catch up and play through the last expansion, Legion. The last time I took an extended break from WoW was just as Legion was being released, so I’d missed entire thing and really hadn’t spent any time following it. I went in more or less blind.

The Battle for Azeroth login screen looks like something of a throwback.
“The Battle for Azeroth login screen looks like something of a throwback.”

I ran my Dwarf Rogue through Legion’s single player campaign and I found the new zones and their associated storylines and quests to be quite enjoyable. I also enjoyed the whole artifact system and class hall/class quest system much more than I thought I would. That said, as a solo player, I was extremely frustrated by how much gating I encountered. Forays into dungeons and even raids for questline progression, in particular, were the worst offenders. There have always been items and recipes that you could only acquire as part of dungeon and raid drops, or deep rep grind purchases, but in Legion I found my leveling of Alchemy to be completely halted due to some of these non-solo friendly quests. This was the first time since classic I haven’t had my alchemy maxed out. I didn’t have much time to dwell on this for too long, as Battle for Azeroth came out almost as soon as I finished the core Legion campaign. This means only a few dungeons, no raids, not even any PVP (which is usually my primary activity in WoW’s endgame.)

With Battle for Azeroth, the zones are probably even better than in Legion. It impresses me how good Blizzard has gotten and how they continue to improve at world design, though I have to say that questing in World of Warcraft STILL feels a lot less compelling than games like my beloved Star Wars: The Old Republic or any number of single player RPGs. At least, outside of some vicious reputation grinding, the gating from Legion seems to be largely gone. Oh, and I need to give a shout out to the soundtrack, as this one might be the best by far, which is saying something after just playing through Legion.

The only issue that I feel strongly enough to really complain about is the change to the way the global cooldown (“GCD”) works, which I can sum up simply by saying that more (most?) abilities are now tied to the same timer, which means you can’t “spam” them out (or particular, between them) too quickly. What seems like a small change on paper can actually really change the feel of certain class specializations radically. For me, as an aggressive combat rogue, I feel like it makes combat feel noticeably clunkier, and I feel less capable as a result. I really don’t like it.

Gulgrim, my main, hanging out wherever I abandoned him months ago. Poor guy.
“Gulgrim, my main, hanging out wherever I abandoned him months ago. Poor guy.”

Anyway, I don’t have much more to say about BfA for now – I played through ALMOST all of the Alliance campaign, maxing my character’s level far before finishing, before getting distracted and falling off the bandwagon. I’ll definitely go back to World of Warcraft to finish the single player content and hopefully check out PVP and some of the other new systems, though for now I’m waiting to see what the upcoming 8.2 patch is going to look like.

I have to say, moving between WoW’s expansions back to back like this really serves to highlight the unfortunate cannibalistic nature of them. Warlords of Draenor’s central feature, the garrisons, were completely abandoned once Legion came out. With Battle for Azeroth, the artifacts and class halls we spent so much time leveling and working with? Abandoned. I’d really like to see expansions that change and build upon existing content in a less destructive way, personally. Maybe if expansion content were developed this way we wouldn’t need silly things like World of Warcraft Classic.

I finally feel like I’m getting close to closing this chapter of my life. While I’m still very much a fan of Warcraft and enjoy dipping back into it every couple of years, it’s the lore more than the gameplay keeping me around. With that in mind, I’m really looking forward to playing through the recently announced Warcraft 3: Reforged. I hoping that the whole generation of gamers who only know Warcraft via WoW will jump on it and enjoy it as much as I did back in 2003. I would have rather had Warcraft 4, but I’m interested nonetheless.

Back on the shooter front, me and my normal PUBG crew were definitely being tempted away from PUBG by the promise of battle royale modes in both Battlefield V and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Unfortunately, I and most of my friends were totally disappointed by the direction it seemed Battlefield V was going, and interest in that very quickly fizzled. BO4’s battle royale mode, Blackout, on the other hand, was looking fucking sick, and quite a few of us hopped into the Blackout PC beta weekend in September with most of us agreeing that it might very well take our interest away from PUBG.

Finishing off the boss of a public event. I've loved this system since WAR.
“Finishing off the boss of a public event. I’ve loved this system since WAR.”

Finding myself not wanting to give up the highly polished, smooth gunplay of Call of Duty to return back to the clunky, sometimes buggy feeling mess of PUBG, I decided to dust off Destiny 2, particularly because everyone had been talking about the pre-Forsaken expansion 2.0 patch, which made a number of much-requested tweaks and balance changes. I ended up playing through the single player campaigns of both Curse of Osiris and Warmind expansions. I had fun with both despite feeling a little bit like “more of the same” campaign content. Still, that content was pretty enjoyable to begin with, and neither it or these expansions overstay their welcome with too much unnecessary grind.

The 2.0 patch made plenty of other changes to the game though, most pretty positive. I strongly dislike what they did to the infusion system, changing it from an easy, convenient way to cash in your junk gear drop to keep your favorites useful, to making it quite cost prohibitive, meaning you’ll only want to keep your absolutely favorite items upgraded, and even those, probably not too often. I know that it’s viewed as a very positive change, but I also had a very hard time getting use to the new, lower TTK (“time to kill”) in PVP. I’d often find myself rushing into situations where I’d normally survive long enough to get a kill, or pop off my super, only to get mowed down without achieving anything but an embarrassing death. It was rather demoralizing, and despite quickly realizing why it was happening, the adjustment hasn’t been easy for me.

My poorly geared Warlock main hanging out with The Traveler.
“My poorly geared Warlock main hanging out with The Traveler.”

I fully realize I somehow never posted about my (relatively brief) time with Destiny 2 when it launched in 2017, somehow. I’ll leave the in-depth Destiny 2 analysis to the more hardcore players, but the short summary of my experience is that it’s the type of extremely polished AAA shooter experience that you’d expect from Bungie if you’re a Halo veteran, and the single player campaign and PVP modes are both quite a lot of fun. Tie that in with a loot drop system and a heavy focus on multiplayer, and it’s easy to see why people got so addicted to the franchise.

It’s far from perfect, however. I, for one, expected Destiny 2 to be more like the Destiny that Bungie was rumored to developing in the early days, rather than a polished up rehash of the first game, somehow including less of the features that kept players hooked during the later phases of that game’s life. In any case, with no investment in the first game, I feel like I got my money out of it and will be returning soon enough to play through the Forsaken campaign. With no group of friends dedicated to it (interestingly, most of friends who were hopelessly addicted to Destiny 1 bounced off Destiny 2 hard!) and no huge attachment to the endgame systems, I can’t see ever treating it more as just a fun single player campaign set in a multiplayer world at this point, however. I’m fine with that.

Parachuting down in Blackout!
“Parachuting down in Blackout!”

Finally, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launched and, as planned, I played the absolute hell out of it. Much to my surprise, Blackout mode wasn’t actually where I spent my time though. While I stand by my opinion that this new battle royale mode is quite good and a worthy addition to the franchise, I found it somehow much less forgiving than Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. In PUBG, it was always fairly easy to drop into an area and get looted up before having a conflict with the enemy, and those conflicts were usually fairly tactical when they did happen, but in Blackout I feel like I’m usually finding myself in furious engagements almost immediately, often before I’ve even found a firearm, and they often feel desperately frantic (and not in a good way.) Solo mode feels fairly good in this respect, though I much prefer playing battle royale games with a group, and squad mode feels far, far too hectic. Duos seem to be the sweetest spot to me. The biggest issue though, is that somehow the draw to hop back in and try again, especially after a terrible, frustrating loss, just isn’t there in Blackout, while being one of the most interesting parts of the PUBG “special sauce.” I’m not quite sure how to explain this, but it’s not just me – almost all of my group has also bounced off of Blackout, and from some posts I’ve read, we don’t seem to be alone in this. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher.

On the flip side, I got utterly hooked on playing through the normal multiplayer modes, especially team deathmatch. I don’t think I’d played Call of Duty multiplayer since Modern Warfare 3 in 2011 and I still find the multiplayer of Call of Duty to be quite a lot of fun, with the progression system giving me just enough of a carrot on a stick to keep me addicted to leveling up my character. This time around, I’ve actually stuck with it long enough to max out quite a few weapons and “prestige” my main account at least once now. I’ve even taken to playing in “hardcore” mode which eliminates most of the disparity between different weapons and weapon types (I fucking HATE getting “shotgunned” with a “no scope” 50 caliber sniper rifle shot… ffffuuuuu!) and changes the balance of firefights quite a bit in general.

Lining up a kill shot in Hardcore.
“Lining up a kill shot in Hardcore.”

While I did eventually grow tired of the churn of Call of Duty’s multiplayer, as I always do, and I’m finally considering returning to the slower, more tactical gunplay of PUBG, I legitimately hadn’t been this addicted to a “normal” deathmatch type gamemode in PC game for so long I can’t even recall when it might have been. All in all, despite not dedicating my time to Blackout like I’d planned, Black Ops 4 has still been money well spent.

It was a busy several months of game hopping, and every game I’ve mentioned I’ll definitely consider going back to at some point in the future. For now, I’ll likely dedicate my time to more and more single-player experiences, particular those that have been stuck in my backlog for far too long, while desperately being on the look out for the next multiplayer experience I can hop into with my crew.

By the time I finally got around to editing this and posting this, I hadn’t played any of the games mentioned in quite some time. I had to begrudgingly re-install Destiny 2 to get screenshots, which means I’ll probably be heading back to play Forsaken much sooner than expected. On the flip side, hopping into Black Ops 4 to play a few more rounds of multiplayer for screenshots felt great, and I was a little sad to have to resign myself to uninstalling it. That’s possibly the best complement I can give it.

Side note: New year and a new, slightly larger thumbnail image size! Rejoice!