Note: This write-up is based on Sam Barsanti’s experiences in the well-established neighborhoods of Grand Theft Auto Online on Xbox 360. Players of Grand Theft Auto Online for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, which hit stores yesterday, won’t necessarily see the same stuff, as their communities are starting fresh.
Grand Theft Auto games have always been full of virtual people, but when Grand Theft Auto V came out last year, its new online mode introduced a ground-breaking concept: actual people. Now, there’s a chance that the pedestrians you run over while driving a tank down a crowded sidewalk are being controlled by human players instead of the computer. This makes the game’s setting of Los Santos—a veiled parody of Los Angeles—into a living, breathing city. Well, a living, breathing city with only 25 citizens at a time, at least. Just like a real city, though, when a large group of people starts congregating in one area, they naturally start to split off into their own neighborhoods. The neighborhoods of Los Santos are nothing special on their own, since they’re just geographic locations drawn out by the developers at Rockstar, but they take on new life in Grand Theft Auto Online—which is to say that they actually take on life, since real people start choosing to live there.
Grand Theft Auto Online has a real-estate system of sorts that allows players to “rent” apartments in the city and its surrounding areas. They don’t really do anything other than act as a central hub where players can change their clothes, store their cars, and begin to play when logging in, but because of that, a player is free to choose any apartment they can afford. There are no specific requirements on where players can “live,” so that means most will end up choosing the one that best suits the way they play the game. That results in similar players moving to the same areas, and thus, the neighborhoods become something significant. In order to properly explore the way the neighborhoods of Grand Theft Auto Online naturally evolved, I decided to take a tour of the city in my fabulous Gameologicar—the official car of Gameological, seen above—and examine Los Santos’ various neighborhoods to see what they say about the players who live in them. Along the way, I learned a lot about life in the most dangerous virtual city in the world, but mostly I learned that the more money you can afford to spend on bullets, the more bullets you’re going to fire at people. And no, that’s not a metaphor.
Before I talk about Los Santos’ residential options, I need to discuss the Burton area. Nestled a few minutes southwest of the famous Downtown Vinewood area—see what I mean about veiled?—Burton is home to the most violent block in the entire city. That’s because it contains the most centrally located Los Santos Customs, which is an in-game store that allows players to customize their cars and sell certain stolen vehicles for quick and easy money. This being a game called Grand Theft Auto, that means the Los Santos Customs is very popular. Also due to this being a game called Grand Theft Auto, when locations are popular, they become hotbeds for violent behavior. Case in point: Here’s a picture of what happened while I was taking that last picture:
That’s the Gameologicar on the left. I think. Either way, two other players drove by and noticed that my car was unattended, so they threw a grenade at it.
Some players might not be interested in making Los Santos their permanent home, so they can choose to buy a simple garage instead of an entire apartment. For these people, the best choice would definitely be the La Mesa or Cypress Flats neighborhoods. Tucked underneath an array of shining freeways and surrounded by the loveliest warehouses in town, these areas are notable in Grand Theft Auto Online for basically being the worst parts of the city. Very few players will go to them willingly, which makes them two of the safest areas in the entire game for people who just want to collect cool cars and avoid rampaging idiots.
In fact, in my trip to the area, I only ever encountered one other player. He was being pursued by a bunch of cops and—very politely, I might add—he purposefully avoided running me over. He wasn’t interested in dealing with me because he just needed some open roads to try and lose the police. La Mesa and Cypress Flats are utilitarian neighborhoods: They’re not for anyone who wants something with more charm or style, but they do their job and they do it well.
There’s a huge economic disparity between the people who live in Del Perro and the people who live by the Vespucci Canals. The former contains the second most expensive apartment in the entire city, and the latter is a crappy shithole that would probably be full of 20-year-olds who just got kicked out by their parents if that were a thing that happened in this video game. However, they’re both equally far from Burton, the city’s violent epicenter, which makes them almost as secluded as La Mesa and Cypress Flats. They are beach-adjacent, though, so players looking to rabble-rouse by the ocean will almost certainly pass by and stir up some havoc.
Speaking of stirring up havoc, while I was admiring the Vespucci Canals apartment’s gross turquoise exterior, another player in a smashed-up sports car came speeding around the corner and quickly turned me into a bloody smear on the streets of Los Santos. Actually, you can see him coming on the far right in the photo above. Though this event ended in my untimely death, it was a good learning experience. It taught me that people who live in Del Perro and the Vespucci Canals are basically just targets for the city’s more well-off players. That’s what they get for settling for the second-most expensive apartment and an ugly turquoise dump.
Players will need to throw on a virtual scarf if they want to kick up the heels of their virtual Converse in Hawick. The radical apartment pictured above is for hipsters only. No, it doesn’t turn its nose up at the bands you like or use mustache wax, but it’s crummy in a cool way and it has a sick half-pipe. Grand Theft Auto Online doesn’t have any skateboards, so people can’t relive their Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater glory days, but living in an apartment like this is just as much of a statement in this game as driving a hot pink supercar. Plus, the area is relatively cheap, so it’s a good choice for people who want to inject a little personality into their experience.
While I was in Hawick, I decided to take the Gameologicar up and down the halfpipe to see of I could pull off any sweet spins or backflips. I couldn’t, but while I was causing more damage to my once-proud automobile, another player showed up to see what I was up to. Rather than shoot me outright, though, he simply stood off to the side and pointed his rifle at me until I left. He could’ve easily killed me, but he chose not to. It’s almost as if he was “too cool” for senseless murder. What a hipster.
For the highest rolling of Grand Theft Auto Online’s high rollers, only the most unnecessarily expensive bullshit will do. That’s what Rockford Hills is for. It gives the rich kids in Los Santos a place where they can show off just how rich they are. The neighborhood’s Eclipse Towers apartment building sits at the top of a steep hill, overlooking all of the rancid scum of the game’s lower-level players, and it features the most expensive apartment in all of Los Santos. So what do these Scrooge McDucks get for their money? Well, did I mention the steep hill overlooking the rancid scum? Because that’s about it. Rockford Hills offers virtually no advantage whatsoever over the cheaper apartments, other than the fact that it’s a status symbol for the obscenely rich.
An interesting thing happens when people get rich in this game, though: They embrace the violence. Random shootings and bombings are significantly more common in the more affluent areas like Rockford Hills because the people who hang out there can afford the better weaponry. I experienced this firsthand when I visited the Eclipse Towers. As I drove past, a bikini-wearing player was standing outside, waiting to see what I would do. After determining that I wasn’t a threat, she took out a machine gun and unloaded a few hundred rounds into the side of my poor Gameologicar. I had done nothing to provoke her, but she still wasted ammo on ventilating my car. The reasoning for this is simple: She could afford to do it. That’s what makes a wealthy area like Rockford Hills such a good neighborhood for the people who play Grand Theft Auto Online like maniacs. They’ve put in the effort to buy the game’s best and most violent toys, so they’re going to take every opportunity they can to play with them.
A few recent updates to Grand Theft Auto Online have made some small-yet-important changes to how its real estate works. One introduced the ability to own multiple apartments, but that’s really just an expensive way for fat cats to own more than the 10 cars allowed by a single garage. A different update, though, added purchasable homes in Paleto Bay and Sandy Shores, the two other towns that make up Grand Theft Auto V’s world. The houses players can buy are small and ugly, but they offer something that none of the apartments in the city can match: peace. In the time I spent touring Paleto Bay—with its fabulous bank and lumber yard—I didn’t encounter any other players at all. Nobody tore past me running from the cops, nobody ran me down while I was taking a picture, and nobody dared put a scratch on my new-and-improved Gameologicar—which you can marvel at in the photo above.
However, the best part of this suburban patch of sanctuary is that Paleto Bay has all of the comforts of the more populated areas, including its own Los Santos Customs. If players choose to spend time in this small town, they could conceivably avoid ever having to deal with other players and just be free to explore the nearby mountain or drive their cars down the game’s facsimile of the Pacific Coast Highway. They’ll be mostly alone, sure, but they’re also safe. Nobody will be there constantly trying to kill them. That might not seem like the “right way” to play an online multiplayer game, but that’s the beauty of Grand Theft Auto Online’s diverse group of neighborhoods. If you find yourself in one that doesn’t fit how you want to play the game, move somewhere that does.