When Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick, who’s well known for making courageous – and often unpopular – statements, claimed earlier this month that GTA 6 would set a new “creative benchmark for all entertainment,” many folks were quick to dismiss such claims as Take-Two and Rockstar Games’ hype machine derailing way too early. But what if he’s right?
The thought of Rockstar setting a new bar for interactive entertainment isn’t an alien concept. In fact, we’re still trying to figure out how the hell GTA Online keeps printing money at such an absurd rate in spite of years of complaints about a broken in-game economy and unbalanced updates. And maybe the answer is simply that Rockstar did in 2013 something that other triple-A developers are still struggling to figure out. It hasn’t been an easy evolution, but the UK-headquartered company has always been ahead of the curve.
To this day, we’re still talking about GTA 3 like the first proper 3D open-world game (sorry, Daggerfall). That’s canon now. Claude Speed’s hijinks in Liberty City set the stage for arguably the most famous structure used by modern action-adventure games. And while developers all over the world were trying to adjust to such a radical change, 2002 brought forth Vice City, which is a “magical place” for diehard fans – no matter when they first played it.
It’s important to underline Bethesda Game Studios’ kinda cracked the code when it came to fully realized 3D worlds inhabited by “complex” NPCs – The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind (also 2002) is undeniably a more technologically advanced game than Vice City. That being said, Rockstar set a golden standard for sandboxes – with unprecedented freedom of movement – that could house high-speed chases and ludicrous amounts of mayhem; GTA 3 and Vice City weren’t a bigger take on an already existing formula, but a new beast altogether.
On the matter of smart NPCs, Rockstar Games is rumored to be pushing the envelope with GTA 6 after years of dull pedestrians that were lively, nonetheless, thanks to funny lines of dialogue and genuine animations. You can only do so much with open-world and mission design before the inhabitants of your world start lagging behind. The generational leap seems like the perfect opportunity to try new things and maybe grab a few pages from Bethesda’s AI book.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (2018) already pushed last-gen hardware to its limits and featured a handful of nifty little details and design improvements that helped sell the overall realism of the game, but still, NPCs didn’t feel as entirely natural as Skyrim’s (2011). We’re reaching a point where video games don’t feel more modern because they look better, but because of how they play – and more importantly – react to us. It appears that Rockstar has noticed a big internal jump was required to fully wow us with the next Grand Theft Auto. And yet, I’m convinced that, once again, the game design tying everything together won’t feel like a carbon copy of what everyone else is doing.
A crap argument which has seemingly taken over the GTA 6 conversation is the one pushing the idea that Take-Two and Rockstar are in no rush with the game because GTA Online is making them so much money nine years later, so why bother? I mean, we’re pretty sure they’ve been able to take their sweet time with both RDR2 and GTA 6 because of the financial stability such a massive hit gave them, but that’s good for what ultimately hits shelves. In an industry where nearly every studio is on the clock, having such a massive and well-established triple-A developer getting medium-shattering projects out whenever they’re ready can only be described as a luxury.
There’s always bickering over whether the latest big release was ready for launch or not, and it appears to be happening all the time regardless of the actual state the games launch in. We’ve been burned (and therefore traumatized) too many times – those Cyberpunk wounds will take some time to heal – so why are we mad about GTA 6 keeping a low profile until it reaches the final stage of development? It’s worked great for everyone involved in the past; GTA 5 and RDR2 turned out that ridiculously good and future-proof because Rockstar Games hunkered down and ignored external noise (and trends) for as long as it needed to. Moreover, it appears mandatory crunch and toxic workplace culture aren’t on the table anymore.
The disastrous launch of the GTA Trilogy remasters isn’t a worrying sign either, at least not when it comes to Rockstar’s internal development efforts. The project was outsourced, like most of their previous port releases, and the cock-up sounds like the product of higher-ups trying to rush out the door something “cheap and enticing” in post-COVID times. Investors aren’t gonna please themselves! We’ve seen this happen before.
A sadder matter is the essential death of RDR Online in order to keep the GTA Online community well fed until GTA 6 (and probably GTA Online 2) arrives. RDR2’s multiplayer offering had a slow launch, and cowboy roleplaying understandably isn’t as attractive for the average player as robbing banks and building up a criminal enterprise. Fancy cars are cooler than ultimately frail horses, I guess. The point of this small divagation? That future GTA endeavors are getting as many resources as they need.
GTA 6 will be shaking up its narrative if rumors are to be believed, too. Recent reports are saying players will be controlling a bank-robbing duo this time around, including GTA’s first-ever female protagonist. If that pans out, two of GTA 5’s biggest shortcomings will be fixed from the get-go: the missed opportunity of having a woman even out the frustrated macho energy of its main storyline, and a slight lack of focus during its first half because of the three separated POVs. Don’t get me wrong, I love GTA 5 and think its narrative doesn’t get nearly enough recognition, but there was room for improvement.
Even though RDR2 once again missed the opportunity of giving Rockstar veterans a playable female character (Sadie deserved better), it definitely told a much more concise and mature story. I don’t believe the latter is a must for this game series – GTA IV’s darker tone only worked half the time in my opinion – but more precise and slow-burn storytelling might just be what the next GTA needs, especially if we’re following a problematic couple.
I haven’t even touched upon the discussion surrounding the game’s location and time period – I think all of that warrants its own piece – but sign me up for Vice City if we’re going to be stuck revisiting and upgrading old places. Just make the countryside more interesting this time around, please.
Well, sorry, but I do have one thought regarding the setting: recent socio-cultural and economic worldwide events are simply too good to pass up, and I really think having Rockstar’s riff on all the shit going down would be immensely more satisfying than going nostalgic just because. But hey, who knows, maybe they can make both things work in unison. After all, Rockstar knows how to make the impossible possible.