Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Thought is barred in this city of Dreadful Joy. - Aldous Huxley, on Los Angeles

I am so tired of trying to like this game.

There's your review.

Everything, and I mean everything, can be found inside this game: freedom, constraint, brilliance, stupidity, immersion, detachment, laughter, frustration. It’s all there. It’s both exhilarating and shitty, often within seconds of each other. It’s fantastically creative and entirely undisciplined.

That’s Grand Theft Auto: a gaming Rorschach. It’s everything and it’s nothing at all.

The environments are phenomenal. The controls are lousy. The radio stations are unbelievably funny and brilliantly done. The mission difficulty is totally unbalanced. There are more things to do than in ten other games combined. The A.I. is horrific.

See what I mean?

Forty hours of my life I spent playing this game (fifteen on PC, twenty-five on Xbox). Ten of those hours I wouldn’t trade for anything. Thirty of those hours I want back.

It’s become fashionable to speak of GTA and Quentin Tarantino in the same sentence. It’s art, the critics say.

Please. Quentin Tarantino is the Lenny Bruce of violence. Grand Theft Auto is Benny Hill. If you want to make Tarantino comparisons, Mafia or Max Payne are far better choices. If anything, GTA is a hugely undisciplined, contemporary version of Clockwork Orange, but again, it’s misleading to speak of them in the same sentence. This is a game of brute size, not of cleverness.

In truth, it doesn’t really matter how much I like this game. It’s already sold what—five million copies? So instead of rating this game, which is impossible, anyway, I want to talk about how it could be improved. I mean, this series has grossed well over half a billion dollars—we should expect improvement.

The feeling I get from GTA: SA, though, is not one of refinement. New elements get cobbled on in each game of the series, but those elements are never refined in succeeding games—they’re just retained, and new unrefined elements are added.

So let’s talk about how this series could get better. What needs to be done to make this game as great as it should be?

Improve the Visual Aids For Driving
Driving is a huge part of this game. The sprawling, detailed environments are fantastic. Driving at high speed, just heading down the highway, is a wonderful feeling.

Unfortunately, it’s a feeling you don’t get for long. The camera angles for driving are so low that it’s impossible to see upcoming turns unless you’re going downhill. So you spend a huge amount of time staring at the little 2-D circle in the lower-left hand corner of the screen, which has an updating map. You’re in this fantastic 3-D environment, but you’re spending much of your time starting at a 2-D map that occupies 5% of the screen.

Bad design.

It’s an easy fix. Either offer a custom height for a driving camera, so that everyone can reach an ideal solution for themselves (the best option), or elevate the driving camera so that turns are visible.

Here’s something else. Let us plot courses on the large map (not part of the HUD—it has to be accessed separately). So if we have to drive from one end of the map to the other, we could plot a course, then we’d see arrows guiding us along our route. They can be modestly sized, only appearing in advance of turns, but we would spend our time looking at the world instead of a 2-D map.

It’s also unbelievably annoying to get hit at an intersection by a crossing car because you just couldn’t see it. Put a visual indicator at the edge of the screen when approaching an intersection—if a car is close on that side, the indicator would be larger. It’s not disruptive and it gives the player information that they need.

The reason they need that information is because the damage model for cars and larger vehicles is just stupid. Tap another car at five miles an hour and watch your bumper fall off. It’s idiotic. That’s why everyone stops driving cars (unless they’re required for missions) and starts driving motorcycles. Motorcycles, bizarrely, can take a huge amount of damage without their appearance changing, and as imprecise as the driving controls are, the extra margin for error is very important.

Improve the A.I.
Some of the worst A.I. I’ve ever seen is in this game. What happens when you run past people carrying a sub-machine gun in each hand? Well, nothing--even if it’s a policeman. If you manually aim, you can brandish two sub-machine guns, walk right up to someone, blow them away, and they won’t even blink beforehand. If you auto-target someone, they’ll have a response (raise their arms, run, or draw a weapon), but you don’t need to do that until you’re a foot away, so they pose absolutely no threat. That’s not a game mechanic—it’s just pure laziness.

There are so many examples of horrible A.I. in this game that it’s hard to even pick the worst offenders: citizens who get out of their cars and ignore you while you carjack them when they’re standing five feet away, police helicopters who are absolutely befuddled when you hide under a ledge—in general, just assume that any NPC outside of a mission is going to be remarkably stupid.

That, in essence, is the fundamental conflict in this game: a brilliant environment undermined by embarrassingly bad A.I. No worries, though—we can find fifty horseshoes scattered through Las Venturas, or fifty oysters underwater, or OMFG we can do a triathlon! Meanwhile, the core gameplay, which is really not very good, gets totally ignored. Nothing is refined.

But it’s huge, right?

Yes. Huge and stupid is still stupid, though. So you get to experience stupid for a much longer period of time.

Improve the Mission Balance (and add levels of difficulty)
The missions are incredibly uneven in terms of difficulty. Some missions are almost impossible to fail, while others will be repeated over and over again. Even worse, missions are unbalanced inside themselves. Many missions have multiple phases, and often every phase except one will be very simple, so you have to replay the easy sections over and over to get to the five or ten seconds that will determine whether you pass the mission. Again, that’s bad design.

That wouldn’t matter so much if the game had levels of difficulty, but it doesn’t. One of the fundamental principles of good design is that players must be allowed to experience the game, but GTA is as close to hostile in that regard as any game I’ve played in a long time. I know over five million people bought this game, but how many do you think quit in frustration in the first ten hours, before they even got out of Los Santos? And how many people actually finished it? One percent? Two?

What’s the point of that, really? Rockstar takes the time to film hundreds of cut scenes and create an actual story arc, but most of us will never see it. With the option of selecting levels of difficulty (and changing them at any time during the game), more people would see the entire vision. Isn’t that the point?

And give us multiple options for difficulty. Driving, combat, flying—they all need their own selectable difficulty levels.

Unlock the World
The idea of just being in the game world and experiencing everything instead of following the mission structure is a very enticing idea.

Too bad you can’t do it.

I know, I know, everyone talks about the huge amount of extra content in the game, and there’s a ton, but most of it is locked away until you’ve completed a mission that triggers its availability. You’re forced to go through the missions in order to unlock everything else.

Here’s an example. There are triathlons in the game, which usually evokes an “OMFG! I can do triathlons!” response. It’s a very fun idea, and the hints to their existence are cleverly implemented. So I figure this out and go to a spot on the beach (a red circle, only available on the weekend). I step into the circle and get a message that the race isn’t ready.


Even more of a bummer, it’s not ready all weekend, and there's absolutely no clue as to why. After some time spent at Gamefaqs, I found out that the triathlons aren’t available until you have access to Las Venturas, which is the last major area of the game. In-game, though, there’s absolutely no way to know that. None. Which is very, very bad design.

What makes it even worse design is that it’s entirely inconsistent. The series of vehicle-based missions (ambulance, fire truck, etc.) are available from the beginning if you just steal the right vehicle. That’s the right way to do it. So it’s done correctly at times, but other times the content is locked. That’s what happens when more and more things are cobbled onto the game—the consistency of the vision starts to fragment.

Let us play the game the way we want to. If we just want to drive around the see the whole world, let us. Don’t make us play fifty hours of missions (many of which are totally pointless and do nothing but pad the length of the game) just to open up a mini-game. If you want to keep things separate, have a game mode called “free world,” but don’t keep things locked up.

Design a New Save System
The save system is, in a word, awful. Adding “safe houses” that can be purchased is just a half-ass fix to a serious game design problem, and it’s not even a fix, really. Why should I have to spend my in-game cash to buy houses as save points because the designers are too lazy to create an effective save system? Safe houses are a good idea, and it should be possible to heavily customize them with all kinds of outlandish purchases (which, surprisingly, can’t be done), but that’s a separate issue from the save system.

There are over a hundred missions in this game. There should be an automatic save performed at the true starting point for each mission, and if it’s a multi-stage mission, there should be an auto-save at the beginning of each stage. It’s not that hard. Finding a place to save the game should never become more important than playing the game.

That’s not rocket science or anything. It’s Game Design 101. I’d be fine with re-driving and replaying missions over and over again—if this was 1985.

It’s not.

Stop Adding Things and Start Fixing Things
This game design is absolutely, totally out of control. It’s this bastardized, scotch-taped conglomeration whose entire justification is size. There are so many loose ends in this game that it’s constantly unraveling. I love detail as much as anyone else, but detail should not constantly be increased at the expense of core gameplay. It’s great that C.J. can get his hair cut thirty different ways (and affect his respect and sex appeal with each), but that’s far less important than the incredibly imprecise controls, which haven’t been improved since Grand Theft Auto 3--four years ago.

It’s fun in theory that you can play arcade games. It’s fun in theory that you can work out. It’s fun in theory that there are dozens of mini-games. However, and this is the important—quite a few of these things are boring as hell to actually do. Working out, as an example, is mind-numbingly boring. Mash on those buttons, man, and keep mashing.

If the series follows its current form, all of these elements—even the ones that suck—will be retained for the next iteration of the game, and a ton of additional elements, many of which will suck, will get added. At some point, Rockstar has to start evaluating this gigantic array of features, get rid of the ones that suck, and refine the ones that don’t.

Conclusion? Hell, I can't even write one. This game is so sprawling and unfocused that it defies a tidy conclusion. It seems clear to me, though, that Rockstar has pursued sheer magnitude at the expense of everything else. I think the incomprehensible size of the budget has allowed the developers to entirely indulge themselves while ignoring gameplay refinements that are desperately needed. Using Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Officer Tenpenny was brilliant--inspired, really--but in the end, isn't it really more important to be able to drive the car?

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