Eight years ago, I ventured into the then-new digital world of Grand Theft Auto Online to see what it was like to live in a crime-ridden capitalist paradise where your ability to have fun is directly tied to how much money you have… as opposed to how things work in real life. I did this by exploring the great unifying aspect of GTA Online: The thing that everyone in the game needs to own in order to do anything. No, not guns. No, not cars. No, not jets or boats or bombs or anything else fun. It was real estate. Apartments, garages, high-rise lofts, suburban homes, anywhere you can park a car and stash your weapons—because that’s how GTA Online works. You have to pay to get cars and guns and the various trappings of the GTA lifestyle, and you also have to pay to have somewhere you can put your feet up, safe from the madness and mayhem on the streets.
My theory, then, was that you could tell a lot about a GTA Online player by the kind of home they chose to live in. City apartments off the beaten path are crummier, both aesthetically and in terms of the gameplay options they offer (smaller homes have less room for cars and no area for planning big multiplayer heists), but they’ll have fewer players running around nearby causing chaos. Bigger and more expensive homes let you do more stuff, but also every other player will want to live in a bigger and more expensive home, which means you might run into them more often, which mean they might try to murder you more often.
Since I last explored the streets of Los Santos, GTA Online has been regularly updated, adding new modes and cars and weapons, but it wasn’t until now—with the game’s big Series X/PS5 upgrade—that GTA Online has really changed in what seems like a substantial way. For new players entering the city for the first time, the game now eases you into different career options.
Based on what you pick, the game will provide you with some cash and a chance to buy some starter vehicles, weapons, and real estate so you can jump into playing the way you want to play. Having already put time into the original incarnation of the game, rising up the ranks from “nobody with a car” to “nobody with an apartment,” I decided that the life of a GTA crook had lost its appeal to me. Shooting people? Stealing their money? Crashing cars? Yawn. No, if I was going to return to Los Santos, it wasn’t going to be as a criminal. It was going to be as a kingpin. I chose the Executive option, gave my character a top hat, and became Mr. Businessman—violent defender of high-class society and the scourge of GTA cops and lowlifes alike. (As if the cops aren’t also lowlifes, am I right?)
But the thing about living in GTA Online now as opposed to then is that location doesn’t matter as much. When the game launched and everyone was on slightly more equal footing in terms of money and the destructive options available to them, it was really about racing cars and shooting guns and the complicated process of breaking into the airport, stealing a helicopter, and then trying to pull off a HALO drop to get into the military base and steal a fighter jet. Now, with bank accounts in the tens of millions for players who keep up with every update or blow real money on fake money, the old lifestyle of buying a car and a downtown apartment is gone.
That doesn’t mean that real estate is less important than it used to be, though. If anything, it’s more important—just in a different way. As Mr. Businessman, I began my kingpin career with the cheapest office space and crummiest illicit smuggling headquarters, believing that my rise to the top would be sweeter if I started from the bottom. But when I spawned into Los Santos, I realized that my career aspirations were misguided. I don’t need a corner office to rule the city; I need a nuclear bunker, or a Jeff Bezos mega-yacht, or a spy agency hidden under a nightclub, or a Bond villain’s evil lair.
So, in lieu of looking at more shitty apartments and suburban oases, I decided to limit my search for a new GTA home to only the most absurd (and absurdly expensive) offerings.
I decided to buy a bunker near the boring small town of Paleto Bay, since that’s where I concluded my last journey into GTA real estate. All of these high-level living solutions offer unique commodities and the ability to customize weapons and vehicles without having to venture outside, and the big gimmick of owning a bunker is that you can buy a Mobile Operations Center. The MOC is a gigantic armored semi truck that you can park a car in the back of or mount turrets on, meaning you can do all of the standard GTA stuff (owning a car, shooting people) without leaving the freeway. You can also, if this matters to you, paint it to look like Optimus Prime. Obviously, that matters to me.
The downside is that the MOC is absolutely ridiculous, and too wide to really take anywhere. That might be a plus, actually, since you don’t spend millions of fake dollars on an armored semi-truck so people don’t see you coming, but maneuvering the thing through the city is just such a pain that it might not be the wisest investment. Then again, in an example of the complicated nesting investments of GTA Online in 2022, owning an MOC also means you can buy and customize a flying car with stainless steal bodywork and gull-wing doors that is absolutely not from any popular ’80s comedy movie.
Bunkers are aesthetically boring underground caves, while facilities are slick corporate lairs with receptionists, meeting rooms, and two gimmicks that put the bunker to shame. One is called the Avenger, and like the MOC, it’s sort of a command vehicle where you can store a car and customize weapons. Unlike the MOC, it’s very fun to use, since it’s a silly tilt-rotor airplane/helicopter thing that you can fly like an airplane or a helicopter (giving you more options to… carefully and politely escape violent interactions with other players. You can also put guns on it, if that’s a thing you’re interested in.)
The best part of owning a facility, though, is getting access to the Orbital Cannon. For a significant amount of money, plus how much it costs to “install” in your base, you can fire a gun from space at anyone else on the map that instantly kills them, and you see it all happen from the cold, emotionless lens of a satellite. I’ve done things in video games that I don’t feel good about, like throwing a Blue Shell in Mario Kart or having to kill The Boss at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3, but nothing has made me feel more like a worthless shell of a person than choosing a random name from the list of players online in GTA and paying the $750,000 or so to have them instantly obliterated. (For reference, you can buy $500,000 of in-game money for $10.)
They didn’t do anything to me. They probably didn’t even know that my name was Mr. Businessman. I could’ve found them and apologized, I could’ve explained that I was an aspiring criminal kingpin and that I just wanted to see what the best use of my money was, but I didn’t. I hit the “fire” button, saw the little explosion from my comfortable point-of-view beyond the atmosphere, and then silently logged out of GTA Online in shame. Mr. Businessman lost part of his soul that day, if he ever had one at all. It was awesome. 10/10, would kill someone from space again.
Yachts were the first major piece of real estate offered to high-rolling players in GTA Online, and while they don’t offer the gameplay possibilities of the MOC or the Avenger, they remain a popular choice for big shots with too much in-game money. I, however, have an irrational fear of video game water, especially in Grand Theft Auto games. The ocean in GTA Online has cool secret stuff, and these days you can buy personal submarines and a transforming car that is absolutely not the Lotus Esprit from a certain spy movie, but I would rather find myself on the bad end of an Orbital Cannon than see any of that. There’s just something horrifically unknowable about the darkness of video game water.
So I didn’t buy a yacht. Too scary. This photo, where I am standing safely on the shores of a beach, zooming in as far as my in-game cellphone camera will go, is as close as I was willing to get to another player’s boat. Similarly, the game’s last major update, “The Cayo Perico Heist,” introduced the ability to buy a full-on military-style submarine. I did not buy one of those either. Much too scary.
Now, you can’t talk about GTA Online in 2022 without talking about the Oppressor Mk II, a vehicle that has changed the landscape of the game so dramatically that anyone playing as a historian in GTA Online (this is not an official career path, but you could just tell people that it’s what you’re doing) would split the timeline into the “Pre Oppressor” and “Post Oppressor” eras. If you’ve played GTA Online at all in the PO era, you know what this thing is. You’ve probably cursed whatever poor excuse for a god would allow such a monster to exist.
For those who don’t know, the Oppressor Mk II is, essentially, a rocket engine with handlebars that can be loaded with missiles that automatically target the vehicles of other players. It’s very fast, it flies, and it can easily kill anyone and everyone you care about… provided they’re characters in GTA Online. Its power is, thankfully, limited to the game world. (For now.)
The catch, such as there is one, is that getting the full experience with an Oppressor requires an enormous investment. In order to load it up with missiles, you need to own a vehicle called a Terrorbyte that you can park the Oppressor inside of. The Terrorbyte is like a smaller and more practical version of the MOC (think “evil UPS van” rather than Optimus Prime), but with some anti-air rockets and the ability to release surveillance drones. To buy a Terrorbyte, you need to own a nightclub, which is a whole secondary gameplay system with its own missions.
But all that matters is the Oppressor, and once I officially signed the lease on my club, I parked my Terrorbyte in the middle of a busy street and launched my very own Oppressor. Like a nervous baby bird, I hesitantly hit the throttle button and soared into the air, shedding off the last of my human skin and becoming reborn as a graceful dove, gently soaring above the city I’ve once again fallen in love with.
I think of the old house in the suburbs that I bought eight years ago. I think of the criminal empire that I forgot to build or maintain. I think of the various cars I bought that are definitely not related to a thing from a movie. I think of the guy I killed with the Orbital Cannon and realize I should’ve written down his name for a funny specific, but I accept that forgetting his name is more fitting anyway. Then I look down and see my Terrorbyte below. Another player is hammering it with some kind of laser gun in an attempt to knock it over. I wonder why I don’t have a laser gun as I swoop down, morphing into a dove with auto-targeting missiles as I line up a shot with the cars surrounding him.
With a press of the button, I become the terror that I so feared before I had an Oppressor of my own. What is it they say about absolute power? Is it that it’s super fun and it makes you feel good? Because it does.
See, it doesn’t matter where you live in GTA Online. Not anymore. What matters is how you live. You can choose between Executive, Gunrunner, Nightclub Owner, or Biker when you make a new character, and the game will guide you through living that life, but the real choice is a moral one: Will you kill someone with a rocket-powered motorcycle or will you be killed by the rocket-powered motorcycle?