Slagging off Grand Theft Auto Online's big December updates can feel like a bit of a liberty, because they're essentially free, and free things in the year 2020 are few and far between. For me, the crime sim's blockbuster updates are mostly good, sometimes great, other times frustrating, but the fact that I still get so much stuff today having paid 40 quid for a base game five years ago pleases me to no end. That's not to say Rockstar's end-of-year rollouts are beyond reproach, but I do feel obliged to qualify my criticism, in the same way I might critique, I dunno, the UK's National Health Service: it's not perfect, but it is good and I'm glad it exists.
On paper, what the Cayo Perico Heist promises sounds fantastic: a new, explorable island off the coast of the well-trodden San Andreas sprawl, unprecedented single-player options, and a new multi-faceted stick-up job—the game's biggest open design, mass-scale robbery to date. In practice, it's sadly a little less endearing, the fault of some weird design decisions, a focus on tedious stealth set-pieces, and drawn out processes which fly in the face of past updates' better, more streamlined fare.
Like the Diamond Casino and Doomsday before it, the end game heist is the jewel in this venture's crown, with additional sparkly features including a treasure trove of new guns, vehicles, music, and customisation options. There's even a neat, if brief, cameo from Dr Dre and Interscope Records head honcho Jimmy Iovine. Those are on top of celebrity credits like international techno DJs Palms Trax, Berlin trio Keinemusik, and Moodymann, who spins the wheels of steel in The Music Locker, Los Santos' newest nightclub. The Cayo Perico job means business from the off.
It's inside The Music Locker where you meet Miguel Madrazo, son of offline antagonist and online mission-giver Martin, who details plans to infiltrate a desert island owned by a drug lord named El Rubio, who just so happens to have dirt on the Madrazo family. After some arsing around in the club's VIP area with Miguel, you're tasked with retrieving the incriminating files and returning them to Los Santos, claiming any other illicit goods which take your fancy along the way. For the first time in GTA Online heist history, the whole operation can be undertaken from beginning to end on your lonesome, which means more work but, naturally, more potential earnings: $1,078,000 net for the heist alone, and upwards of a few million dollars more, depending on how much secondary loot you decide to hunt down.
Accessing the archipelago requires you to buy one of the game's coolest vehicles, not just of this update, but in GTA Online's seven-year existence: the Kosatka, a Soviet-era submarine and in-game mobile base of operations which gates entry to the latest big job. It'll cost you $2.2 million for the bog standard version, but, if you opt to upgrade with the likes of guided missiles, sonar, a weapons workshop, an on-board Sparrow helicopter, or a Kraken Avisa submersible, you're looking at the best part of $10 million. For my money, the Sparrow is the only must-have here, lest you rely on rented rubber dinghies to shuttle you back and forth between your vessel and the mainland shore—something you'll tire of fast when working through the heist's multiple prep and scoping missions.
These endeavours are a mix of clumsy, mandatory on-foot stealth sections on the Cayo Perico map, and fetch-and-retrieve errands in and around Los Santos, both of which have their merits and pitfalls. Stealth is not GTA Online's strong suit, for example, and remains unintuitive and irritating, which makes dodging the island's reams of militia a bit of a pain in the arse, no matter how much of a Phantom Pain/Far Cry feel the island-set adventure tries (and mostly fails) to evoke. It doesn't help that you're unarmed. Exploring a new landmass of silver sands and leafy jungle greens in GTA Online does feel rather wonderful, however, especially after spending so much time in the concrete hustle and bustle of the city. Unfortunately, you can't explore the island in Free Mode at the moment.
Combing Cayo Perico from corner to crevice can help uncover key items such as bolt cutters (which allow you to open fences undetected), discover new entry points to the island's central complex, and pinpoint the locations and patrols of enemy soldiers, all of which can in turn make the ultimate heist finale easier to untangle. Get spotted at any point during these reconnaissance duties, however, and you'll be forcefully escorted back to the other side of the enclave and made to start over. Back in Los Santos, undertaking certain prep missions lets you do cool things like disable your enemies' armour supply and access to helicopter attacks down the line, but these tasks are hamstrung by the fact they feel like time spent not exploring your new surroundings, even if they do prove to be helpful.
All of which leads us to the Cayo Perico Heist finale. Having only managed to finish it once in single-player mode, no other approach bar stealth has worked for me so far. I've tried and tried and tried to use force, subterfuge and a combination of the two, but I've been repeatedly, systematically and unceremoniously torn a new one. The roughest bouts came in the form of the odd juggernaut arms dealer, who I set alight with molotovs before picking them off from afar. I don't doubt buddying up with crew members and/or randos will make things easier—2017's Doomsday Heist is responsible for some of the best fun I've had in GTA Online while playing with pals and strangers alike—but given one of the selling points here is the fact you can go it alone, I was keen to adopt a hybrid approach while flying solo.
Instead, what I wound up doing was switching to first-person mode and pegging it around the grounds of the complex, rushing baddies before they could alert their pals and corner me, spamming super heavy armour and health-replenishing Ps and Qs while enemy fire rained down on me during my last sprint to the getaway chopper. Honestly, it felt a wee bit cheap. Maybe I just need more time to iron out the creases in my battle plans, to work out new routes into El Rubio's digs, and to learn fresh ways to cope with the game's enduringly tedious stealth mechanics.
Away from the Cayo Perico Heist itself, there are a number of other things to enjoy in GTA Online's latest update. As a lapsed raver, I've been fortunate enough to frequent outdoor techno parties in places like Ibiza, Thailand, Australia and Berlin over the years, and Keinemusik's virtual DJ set when you first arrive on the island rivals anything I've experienced in real life.
Back in Los Santos, a new radio station hosted by electronica colossus Joy Orbison, and another led by The Strokes' Julian Casablancas and Arrested Development's David Cross, are top class. Mucking around in the Kosatka, firing torpedoes at other players a third of your age in the lobby while screaming YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP like Jasper from The Simpsons is also, obviously, great fun. This is also a pursuit which couldn't be further removed from stealth, which I actually think is pretty telling. I prefer my GTA Online experience to be more balls out of the bathwater than burying myself in the bushes.