I’m crouched behind a gravestone, clinging to a sliver of health, with more holes in me than a teabag. To my right lies the lifeless body of a Vagos soldier, his legs poking out from beneath a bush after I smashed him over the head with a hammer. To my left is another corpse, another by my hand, literally, after I battered the victim to death with a knuckle duster. Ahead of me are two more Mexican gang members—one behind a tree, the other hugging the exterior wall of the Hill Valley Church—locked, stocked and on the cusp of unleashing two smoking barrels.
How do I know the next moves of the AI-controlled baddies before me? Because this is my fifth straight shot at the penultimate phase of Funeral Party, a low-ranking Grand Theft Auto Online mission assigned by Lamar Davis. Once again, we’re on our team’s last life, I’ve been responsible for each restart to this point, and my flustered teammates are at their wits’ end.
« Dude, pull a fucking gun, » cries one frustrated peer down their headset, momentarily breaking their own cover to head-shot an advancing gangbanger.
« YOU. ARE. BRUTAL, » types another in the text bar. To be fair, this one doesn’t call me out explicitly, but I’m pretty certain it’s aimed at me.
In any event, I ignore both, strafe left and make a beeline for the thug on the right. I cycle my arsenal mid-stride, settle on a baseball bat, and heave the hunk of wood at my enemy’s face. He folds like a deck of cards, the desired effect, and I straddle him, arms aloft, poised to finish the job. And then, BANG, I’m hit with a bullet to the back of the head. I crumble. Fade to grey. Slow motion. Wasted. Mission failed. Again.
« Ffffuuuu, » goes the cry. Which is totally fair enough. Out of respect for my ex-teammates, I don’t attempt a restart. They’ve suffered enough, and, to be honest, so have I. I’ve started a new GTA Online player profile from scratch and I’m playing the game in a way it is not intended to be played: without firing one single bullet, relying exclusively on melee kills. And wow, is it tough—for everyone involved.
Why, you may ask. Good question. I’ve died so many times all over San Andreas that at this point I’ve almost lost sight of my original vision: to approach a game I’ve been playing for five-and-a-half years, which is still getting substantial updates and shows little signs of slowing down, like never before.
When Grand Theft Auto 5 landed on PC back in 2015, it added a first-person camera perspective, and, having already finished its third-person story mode on PS3 two years prior, playing through the eyes of Michael, Franklin and Trevor felt like a new game entirely. This challenge is sort of similar—to reach Kingpin status at level 100 without pulling a single trigger—in that every mission, every set-piece, and even every set-to in Free Mode requires a new approach.
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Shelving snipers and shotguns in favour of melee fare in a game predicated on explosive firefighting is difficult enough, but relying on getting close to enemies, close enough to kill them in close quarters, inside a game whose stealth mechanics are notoriously pants, can be mind-numbing.
Imagine embarking on a naked, melee run in Dark Souls, reaching Ornstein and Smough, and then discovering the guardians of Anor Londo are tooled up with Special Carbines and Bullpup Rifles. This is a wee bit like that, I reckon, only harder. And while keen to avoid hackneyed Souls-like comparisons, the level of satisfaction derived from overcoming seemingly impossible face-offs with brains and brawn is in turn pretty similar—as are the moments of blind agony when you get so close yet so far in the heat of battle.
Driving missions are naturally great for climbing the ranks early doors (I’ve never been so happy to endure tedious fetch and retrieve quests), as are jobs in tight spaces that favour close-quarters combat. In Meth’d Up, an early mission assigned by Gerald, for example, you’re tasked with stealing a Breaking Bad-style RV meth lab that requires you to kill 15 or so enemies before driving to the drop-off point.
After dying a bunch of times, I worked out that if I used the RV as cover, I could off my pursuers one-by-one as they lined up for the slaughter on the camper van’s passenger’s side. Working out wee quirks like this in any mission is time-consuming, but oh-so rewarding when you a) uncover a strategy that works, and b) see it through to completion.
The most frustrating moments in a melee-only GTA Online run, then, aren’t when locked in perpetual death spirals, but when the game makes a gun-less approach impossible on your lonesome. When faced with the Wasted screen for the umpteenth time on the umpteenth attempt at any given mission, it’s almost always due to human error, which makes the urge to Quick Restart and go again irresistible. But when an enemy is out of reach—i.e. atop an inaccessible balcony, or fleeing the scene in a chopper—the need to call in human reinforcements can be soul destroying, depending on the amount of work which led you to that point.
In Hard Labor, for example (another of Gerald’s jobs; unlocked at rank 17), you’re sent to take out a mob boss and a squad of his associates scattered around multiple floors of the La Puerta Apartments construction site. Once you clear out floor one, you progress to floor two, then onto the roof, before the boss man takes off in a Maverick helicopter. Under normal circumstances, I’d have picked off the henchmen with a spray of Combat MG fire, whipped out my Homing Launcher and taken down the gaffer before his mechanical bird had even taken off.
But here, I’m torn: do I fight the goons one-by-one, knowing there’s a good chance their boss will escape? Or do I ignore the goons and risk getting dropped as I retreat, legging it across the car park to chase the chopper in my car at street level?
Like a Far Cry or Metal Gear series base raid, every melee mission requires meticulous planning and savvy strategy, a process which can be as exhausting and exhilarating as the jobs themselves. Every red blip on the micro map demands its own tactics, and the threat of fluffing your lines halfway through a mission that’s otherwise going well is equal parts thrilling and terrifying. I’ve invested several hundred hours of my life into GTA Online over the last five years, and while I tend to spend my time routing around in its roleplay scene these days, my latest obsession has left me yearning for the base game on a level I haven’t felt in half a decade. It’s a bummer knowing some missions can’t be completed with a strict melee-only approach, but I suppose that’s where Organization associates come into play—where other players can work for you in exchange for a nominal fee.
As for Hard Labor, I’ve still not managed it. I’ve tried and died, died and tried somewhere in the region of 30 times. And now I’m standing opposite the store assistant in the Ammu-Nation round the corner, stocking up on armour while whispering under my breath this is the one. The clerk tells me I’ve earned store points by virtue of repeat purchases, and, just for a brief moment, I hover over a Compact Grenade Launcher and ponder what could be.
But I decide against it, I head back to the La Puerta Apartments and, after a couple dozen more attempts, I prevail. Boom.
Na, just kidding. I found that image on the GTA Wiki. I’m still floundering on that abandoned building site at rank 20, a lowly Hustler. Only four-fifths of the road to go. Melee Kingpin or die trying—both activities of which I’m now very, very well-versed in.