My favourite mission in GTA Online to date was one that'd my friends and I would always make sure we'd include in our weekly play session.
It was jet theft job, requiring a trip to the beach, a coordinated assault on the suit-clad heavies guarding the plane, and then a two-way split. One of us would take to the skies and cruise towards Blaine County airport with the others jumping into vehicles and racing along the motorway to get there first. The reason? In order to clear rocket-wielding cads from the landing strip and provide a safe landing zone for our stolen jet.
It was a mission the success of which hinged on cooperation. That whatever role you played offered something fun to do diffused any squabbling, and the objectives - and how you achieved them - played into the rich diversity of GTA's gameplay landscape.
After four hours plus on just one of the five new online Heists that are being rolled into Los Santos next week, it's great to see those qualities repeated, and magnified. Because as with the single player story campaign, Heists are where GTA Online goes big.
Online Heists have parallels with their offline cousins; the crew, the cut, the setup, the job.
Each has multiple setup missions - five in the Heist we played - to get things aligned so the actual job can be pulled off. For example, during our run we had to steal an EMP and sneak it into the Lab we'd be hitting from another front. Two objectives, two meaty missions. The other three were equally robust, and you've some choice in the order you do them in. Once all are completed, you're good to go on the Heist.
Own a Level 12 character and a high-end apartment and you're free to instigate a Heist, though as Heist Leader you've to pony up the funds upfront to bankroll the operation. While you won't get the cash on completion of setup missions that your crew will, you </i>will</i> earn a 10% RP buff, and come the Heist's completion, it's your call as how much of a percentage you and each of your crew get. Get back your initial investment and then some.
You're free to keep, swap or boot crews as you see fit from mission to mission, and neither are you forced to run all setup missions and the Heist in one sitting.
But after playing through the Humane Labs Heist over one afternoon, there's definitely an organic escalation that works beautifully when chaining the missions together one after another. Finish any and you're back into Free mode, awaiting a shortly-arriving phone call to cue up the next mission. Fire an invite to your chosen few and you're back on the job.
You'll be driving or flying across a good portion of the island - impromptu races again mini-events to enjoy the cruise from A to B - but checkpoints are generous if you fail, dropping you back near the action. I'm reminded just how much there is to this sandbox world as we take in new locations and whizz though familiar chicanes over the few hours the Heist missions last.
As with other joint missions there's a shared pool of Lives and a completion timer when engaged in a job.
Cooperation is essential, tag-teaming Merryweather soldiers on foot or in vehicles while escaping with a machine gun-packing jeep, or putting down covering fire to open an escape for fellow crew members boxed in by authorities in a hand-off gone wrong.
Communication is important, even vital come one standout moment in a half day's worth of them: working as a coordinated sniper team during a nighttime infiltration of the Lab. If any guard or lab assistant is alerted, it's mission over. Cue timed simultaneous takedowns of patrols and witnesses.
This last mission plays differently from the rest, yet fits in perfectly with the more bombastic beats that pepper the setup missions: duelling jets, storming aircraft carriers, stealing experimental weaponry.
It's a ‘Best Of' that doesn't feel a retread of past exploits thanks to different locales (that you'll have never seen or just driven past before) new rides (the hovering Hydra jet, a four person Valkyrie helicopter with two gatling guns attached) skills (hacking terminals) and heavily-armoured, sharpshooting enemy soldiers.
It's tough stuff, and even with a generous weapon load-out we get occasionally get on the wrong end of a bullet barrage. Nicely we start adopting team tactics immediately, taking to higher vantage points to play sniper, with someone else detailed to blowing up trucks and choppers with RPGs, while the others engage with hostiles on the ground. You're given the entry point and the objective point, but as with most GTA missions, it's up to you as to how to proceed.
Equally GTA continues to casually toss in pop culture references via iconic imagery and music, the kind that'll have you grinning from ear to ear and going off mission parameters just so you can revel in the moment with your crew.
And that's still an important factor in these Heists; precision's needed to survive and thrive for higher scores and rewards, but you're still going to howl with laughter when someone stacks it. For us, it was the accidental parody of Planet Terror's chopper blade decapitation which diced team members waiting to get to the chopper. Or a neck and neck race for pole position during an impromptu race ending in explosive carnage due to an (im)perfectly timed train rolling across the road.
The stakes may have been raised, but dicking about still comes with the territory. That said, Rockstar has bundled some added challenges into Heists, such as not losing a life, for those that want to their Heist to be like Heat rather than The Heat.
The Heist itself separates our foursome into pairs: two parachute into and blast their way through a darkened lab with night vision activated, while the others hold off incoming enemy waves outside from an attack helicopter. The on-foot dynamic duo need to escape via an underwater sewer system and get picked up by the others, then mount gatling guns and hold off pursuing choppers on the run back to base.
It's fast, thrilling stuff, and as we head back homeward and watch the sun set over Los Santos, we soak in the fact that we've been touring this world for a couple of years now, and we're still enjoying being here.
While the pre-existing missions and events in GTA Online felt somewhat scattershot in their delivery and petered out over time, Heists, as well as the other Adversary modes being rolled in with next week's updates, feel akin to a proper multiplayer endgame.
But at that, it's not highest Level entry only. They're drawing players together for an explosive finish, that just happens to have an entire world's worth of other diversions to kick back to once the last Heist is over.
Given the size of just one of them, and that this update is free to any owner of the game, there's enough here to pull anyone with a copy of GATV back to Los Santos.