I had to step over a corpse the first time I approached the brand new Diamond Casino & Resort in Grand Theft Auto Online. Two cops were nearby, investigating her body. One of them shook his head, and then a sports car sped past me. It barely missed me, but slammed into both cops and the corpse, sending them flying into the air. We were then all encased in fire from a series of molotov cocktails.
GTA Online has changed dramatically since its rocky launch in 2013, which was plagued with complaints about a lack of in-game content and constantly crashing servers. Those problems have been addressed, but the core of the gameplay is still the same. Acquire cars, cause mayhem, earn money, blow people up. The Diamond Casino & Resort lives up to that ideal, from the war zone outside the resort’s doors to the missions and games within, promising fast cars and cash rewards.
But the gaming landscape has changed over the last six years, and now the long-anticipated casino comes across as awkward, and maybe only arguably legal, depending on who you talk to.
But here’s the thing about it: The casino is also the update that may convince you to give this game another shot. Casinos and gambling can’t exciting in a purely lawless world, which gives Rockstar Games an excuse to enforce some basic rules that help this update shine.
Getting back into the game
The casino — and my deadly encounter outside of it — is the most Grand Theft Auto that GTA Online has felt in ages.
GTA Online is a sandbox in which you build wealth instead of castles. The goal is to get rich. Not just well-off, or comfortable, but rich. Rich enough to be able to buy a new wardrobe, a fast car, a shady business, or to kill and walk away from it without concerns. Why wouldn’t the game include the experience of being rich enough to enter a casino and not have to worry about the month’s budget or gambling addiction?
The casino is one of the most interesting environments in all of Grand Theft Auto, because it’s primarily about engaging with a particular environment as a patron, not as a criminal, forcing players into non-violent interactions. I spent a lot of time people-watching before I spun the great big wheel that offers a random prize, or tried to gamble with virtual money at one of the many gaming tables.
One nervous girl just sat and watched the festivities, while a bachelorette party comprised of a glum bride and one bridesmaid was taking place at the bar. Failed gamblers hung out near the bathrooms, sitting in suits and staring at the floor. Tourists gathered in their own little flocks.
The campaign that comes with the Diamond & Casino Resort is simple: You own a luxury penthouse. You lose that penthouse if the casino goes under. It was easy to go back to GTA Online now that I had such a simple goal with recognizable stakes if I failed. I had to keep my sweet new penthouse! It was all suddenly fun again!
Wait, why wasn’t it fun before?
I’ve been spending my time in Red Dead Online, which is a much simpler game. I have a big stupid horse, a six shooter on my hip, and a frontier to explore. But why would I choose to play a game with fewer updates, less content, and fewer toys to play with compared to the more-developed world of Grand Theft Auto Online?
Players start as petty crooks in GTA Online, performing smaller jobs. I still fondly remember saving up for my own apartment while driving my midrange car around Los Santos.
Since then, our characters have climbed the game’s ranks to become proper Grand Theft Auto protagonists in their own right. Rockstar has built on that core concept with illicit business transactions, shell corporations, motorcycle clubs, flying DeLoreans that shoot missiles, Hot Wheels-style races in the sky, asymmetrical horror murder, and random world challenges.
I walked away from GTA Online when I was given a mission to steal an antique car from a collector. Another player called in his tank as I was pulling out of the driveway with my loot, and then camped me for over 20 minutes, using a wild arsenal of unstoppable military tools to keep me from finishing the mission.
The world had become so lawless, and the players so powerful, that it no longer felt like a world. It was more like playing GI Joes in the sandbox, until another kid came in and poured cement over everyone’s stuff. Sure, they won, but at what cost? Now no one is having fun.
Turning it back around
By contrast, the casino update is a dream. It only costs $500 in GTA dollars to join with a membership, so even players that are barely scraping by can experience it. The campaign itself is a whole lot of fun, with interesting missions and colorful characters.
When I’m inside the casino itself, I cannot pull a weapon or cause any chaos. I can simply walk around, hang out with my friends (and random strangers), play games, and people watch. The big prize is a really nice sports car — not one that can fly, or shoot missiles, or run over lesser, weaker cars. It restores the fun of just racing through the streets of Los Santos, and lowers the stakes.
Does this totally transform the game by itself? No, but it comes with anti-griefing measures that make escaping the chaos easier (and exploiting passive mode harder). It’s an update that steps away from the ever-escalating arms race, and the most dangerous toys still stay locked behind a cash wall.
But, of course, there’s the casino itself, and that has to be addressed. Buying fake money with real money that you can then use to gamble feels out of a step with an industry in which loot boxes, microtransactions, and addiction are finally being discussed in a serious manner.
I have struggled with serious addictions in the past, including one to gambling. I skimmed through the casino, bet on a few horse races, and paid for a few pulls on the slot machine. This was a virtual casino, not a real one, so would I be mostly immune to its charms? I wasn’t actually that interested in finding out. It’s hard to even say that gambling is an essential part of the update, since that feature is unavailable in 50 countries due to differing online regulation of virtual gambling.
The game tries to seem friendly to would-be gamblers. The odds are shown for each game and those odds are better than what you’ll find in Vegas. The chips that you use to gamble with are a new currency, and you can buy them with real money, but you can’t cash them out to gain more real-world money. The transaction only goes one way. Players get a set number of free chips every day, along with a free spin of the mystery wheel, and they can earn more chips by completing casino missions.
Ironically, I ultimately found the Grand Theft Auto casino far more honest and safe than the grind of previous expansions, where enormous cash requirements stopped my progress until I could grind for more money … unless, of course, I bought Shark Cards with real money.
I like to cause mayhem, but it’s much more fun to do so in a city that resembles an actual, functional place. After launching orbital strikes, it’s hard to keep escalating the narrative. But the casino keeps things exciting while keeping everyone, more or less, honest as they play their way through the experience. We’re all out to beat the house, not each other. Well, not just each other, at least.
But what does it mean to exist in the world of GTA Online? Is it a lawless sandbox dedicated only to spectacle, with enough content that players stay on a constant grind, unless they decide to drop real cash to get what they want? Or is it an actual Grand Theft Auto-style world, where I’m meant to root for my character and her allies as we work through our murderous mayhem?
I couldn’t deal with GTA Online for a long time because it felt too much like that lawless, spectacle-ridden sandbox. The casino update is audacious, and it comes at an awkward time due to its themes of gambling and big-money wins and losses … but it also takes a huge step towards revitalizing the game for me and my friends.
When it comes to giving players new toys, sometimes simple and relatable is better than big and flashy. The update that asks questions that the industry and the laws around it aren’t quite ready to answer yet may be one of the best things to happen to Grand Theft Auto Online in some time. Not because of the freedom it offers, but because of the limitations it imposes.