GTA's aircraft have always been fun to fly but oddly underused in Rockstar's series. Stealing a military jet is still one of the most fun things you can do in GTA V, and in GTA Online's heists make for the most memorable moments of those mission strands. Smuggler's Run is a whole expansion themed around planes and helicopters, adding hangars that let you run smuggling operations across the skies of Los Santos. Structurally, it's pretty similar to running businesses in past updates like Gunrunning—obtain goods, then sell them in delivery runs—but these supply missions are some of the most fun GTA Online has offered yet.
I needed a break from driving across Los Santos over and over again, and these are mostly respectful of your time. They lean on plane functionality like carpet bombing, using chaff to throw off enemy fire, or simply piling rockets into groups of AI jets. Activate a mission using the computer in your hangar, then the vehicle required to perform the task will be right outside. Barring a crash, too, or a run in with enemies, you'll usually end the mission in the same vehicle back at your base, ready to start another. There's less drudgery than I'm used to from GTA Online.
To start a smuggling enterprise, you need to buy a hangar. The cheapest one is $1.2 million, which is not too bad in GTA terms. If you can stomach some grinding, though, you should look to get the cheapest Fort Zancudo hangar, 3497, which costs a not-terrible $2,085,000, as it grants you access to the military base without men in uniforms opening fire on you. This means you can just grab a military jet at any time without being shot down, if you fancy throwing some rocket fire down onto the streets of Los Santos.
While the ultimate aim is gathering enough supplies to sell them and make more money, I think the reason it's worth playing Smuggler's Run is just to sample the varied mission types. Destroy three cargo planes defended by squads of jets, for example, or defend a supply plane while one of you pilots an aircraft and a friend mans the turret, or carefully balance a chopper while your friend takes sniper shots at men guarding a base.
You'll also fight off jets in GTA's versions of spitfires, and even pilot a stunt plane to earn the respect of spoiled teenagers. They're terrific fun in almost all cases, whether you play by yourself or with friends. The only one I'm less keen on is the bombing run: it feels great to carpet bomb the supply vehicles below from a hatch in your aircraft, but the targets are always so spread out that the mission just drags on.
Instead of waiting for a bar to tick up like in Gunrunning, the supplies you gather can be sold immediately. Collect enough of the same type of supply, and you can sell them at a bonus. Delivery missions aren't as interesting as the supply missions, sadly, which is inevitable on some level. I didn't mind piloting ultralight aircraft and dropping packages off around the map, though, since the challenge is to stay close to the ground so your position isn't revealed to other players on the server. Given how ludicrous these planes look (see picture above), flying these while dropping illegal supplies with PC Gamer's Phil Savage felt like playing a particularly stupid episode of Breaking Bad.
Three of the hangars are in Zancudo, so naturally, this has turned the base into a PvP hotspot. I love starting my GTA Online games there, after hours spent in the desert and city, where me and my friends' bunkers and biker hideouts are. It's one of the few remaining areas of Los Santos I haven't explored dozens of times, so it makes a nice change.
In one great moment while finishing a supply mission, I was being chased by armed choppers, and the army opened fire on my pursuers as I sped through Zancudo in a sports car. This sort of AI interaction is something I always want to see more of in GTA, and it felt like it happened by accident.
Of course, playing in a populated server is as fraught an experience as ever. You never know when some jebend hacker/modder might follow you around the map in their teleporting flying car, for example:
I wish it felt like GTA's cheating problem was getting better, but last night myself and PCG contributor Tom Hatfield switched servers twice in the course of playing six or so missions to avoid this guy, and another who circled Zancudo in a teleporting military jet. I hope Rockstar has a long-term plan for combating cheating on PC, especially when all of the delivery missions that bring in big money require you to be on a public server. That's a nice design idea that can create real tension, but only if everyone's playing fair.
By now, you know if you're the type of player who'll ever put down real money for a shark card in GTA Online. Unless you're willing to spend real money or don't mind a long grind, I don't think the customisation options or owning aircraft are quite worth it in Smuggler's Run. A workshop required to make modifications costs $1,150,000, which is almost as much as the cheapest hangar. The interesting new aircraft alone cost over a million: the spitfire-esque Rogue is $1.2 million, and the V-65 Molotok is $3.6 million, which you're going to struggle to unlock unless you play GTA constantly, or you're willing to buy shark cards (that particular one will set you back £31/$50 of real money for $3.5 million, which most people just aren't going to spend).
The customisation options are pretty neat, though, even on low level planes, plus each hangar comes with a Cuban 800, which you can outfit with bombs. You can change the paint job, add armour, switch the type of bombs your plane has equipped (like poison gas and clusterbombs), and the customisation options vary depending on the plane. Ultralights only cost half a million, but you can spend a lot more to fit them with a turret, a better engine and altered handling. Still, the substantial money required for a workshop and tweaks could just get you closer to owning a nice aircraft instead.
That said, I don't think owning vehicles is at all important to enjoying Smuggler's Run. Just get one of the cheaper hangars and enjoy the mission design—the fun toys are so easily accessed, and the quick turnaround of most missions means you're constantly doing different things. This is more generous in its time investment-to-fun ratio than almost anything else I've played in GTA Online to date (the heists still being the best for that). Getting massive payouts is the often tiring end goal in these expansions, but just being able to knock about in the skies with friends in these fancy new military aircraft is rewarding in itself.
So what's next for GTA Online, after Smuggler's Run? The vehicles that are dropping as part of this update , including an homage to Tim Burton's Batmobile and the return of the Hunter helicopter from early GTAs (again, though, the tentative prices look incredibly high in most cases, especially for the Lazer). I've seen that a naval-themed DLC might be on the cards, but I can't say I've ever found boats or the water to be that interesting in GTA.
What this expansion tells me, though, is that GTA Online is at its most exciting when it's showing you something the series has never properly explored before.