first launched shortly after Grand Theft Auto 5, it was an unstable, bug-riddled mess. Players lost progress, even entire characters, and that’s if you could actually log onto its oversubscribed servers. Seven years later and those launch woes are a distant memory. It still draws in hundreds of thousands of players and, despite its development stretching over two console generations – three if you count its imminent release on PS5 and Xbox Series X next year – it attempts to stay fresh with regular updates.The Cayo Perico Heist is the latest of these additions and according to Rockstar it’s GTA Online’s biggest, most ambitious heist to date. It’s also the first GTA content to be set outside of the US for over 20 years, and adds a first, much-requested new single-player experience since GTA 5 launched.
Set on a paradise island owned by cartel drug lord El Rubio, Cayo Perico is built on the foundations of the heists that came before it and is the culmination of years of evolution. Heists were first added to GTA Online in 2015 and brought a taste of GTA 5’s much-loved multi-part missions to Los Santos’ ever expanding multiplayer mode. Since then, the addition of the Doomsday Heist in 2017 and the Diamond Casino Heist last year have iterated on the formula; Doomsday introduced free-mode prep missions, meaning the equipment runs made prior to the finale could be disrupted by other players in the world. The Diamond Casino Heist added more freedom still, by allowing teams to choose one of three ways to tackle the robbery – stealth, all guns blazing, and somewhere between the two.
However, Rockstar had bigger ambitions for heists, as Design Director Scott Butchard explains: “Casino was a great Heist, but we were still limited by the sort of choice, the approaches that we did. We wanted to go that step further and just make it a lot more open.” Like the Diamond Casino Heist there are different ways to tackle Cayo Perico, but now you’re not locked into doing it one way or another. You can prep to go one way and switch tactics part-way through if things start going south. “Rather than a focus on picking an approach to the finale, everything you do as part of the preps, optional and mandatory, is in service to the finale itself”, says Tarek Hamad, Director of Design for GTA Online. “Everything affects how the finale will play out, so you don’t necessarily pick full-frontal high action assault as an approach, or a stealth approach. You just have so much choice and freedom to choose how you want to prepare for the finale.”
I got glimpses of how these choices might present themselves during a brief showcase of the heist, and one of the ways to get onto the island is by being airdropped at night by a stealth jet. Of course, you need to actually get the plane first, which presents its own challenges – we saw a lone protagonist infiltrate an airbase under the cover of darkness, silently taking out guards with a silenced rifle, but there are many more ways to achieve the same goal. “You can select one vehicle and land on the island almost undercover,” explains Butchard. “But on another approach, you can grab a weaponised boat and just go on full-on assault. You can also come in from the air. There’s not just the simple choice of, ‘how am I getting to this island?’, but also, ‘where do I want to arrive on this island?’ Or, ‘how do I get into the more secure compound within it?’ There’s a lot of variation there, in how you do it.”
They’re not always obvious decisions you have to make either, and sometimes smaller details that can easily be overlooked can make a big impact.“You might not scope a pair of bolt cutters in the scoping mission but they’ll still be there for you on the finale, to pick up and break your way in a lot more quietly, or to grab secondary loot”, reveals Butchard.
Importantly, these choices are present throughout the entire heist, not just in the prep phase, and if you make an interesting discovery you’re free to change tack at any point: “When you’re actually in the finale, you can continue to pick things up that affect how it’s all going to play out,” says Hamad.
GTA Online Cayo Perico Heist – 26 New Screens
One thing that is crucial is to prepare for all eventualities, because even the best-laid plans can fail, as Butchard reveals. “I tend to try and start the finale stealth, but I’ve always purchased the airstrike ability in case it all goes wrong. I’ve got a back up, to chuck in an airstrike to kick off some chaos. You can definitely plan for things going wrong or going right!”
“I’ve got a really itchy trigger finger,” admits Tarek. “So the moment me and the team land there on the island, I just can’t resist! But you can replay this, as with the previous Heists, and really sculpt out the optimal route, until you find yourself absolutely nailing the stealth.”
There are other factors that can impact your approach to the heist. According to Butchard, “If you own the penthouse, it slightly changes one of the preps. Or if you’ve got access to Chester McCoy, the weapons expert from before, he gives you extra abilities.” These links with previous heists are threaded throughout Cayo Perico and long-standing players of GTA Online will be rewarded with countless nods to the past, as well as perks similar to those as outlined above.
However, one thing that is a dramatic departure from what’s come before is the location of the heist. El Rubio’s Caribbean island is a long way from the familiar vistas of Los Santos, so much so the only way to access it is through the heist – you cannot hijack a helicopter and fly there in free mode. “You’re essentially leaving Los Santos. It’s that nice feeling you have in single-player, when you finally returned to North Yankton with Michael and Trevor”, says Butchard. “It’s that [feeling] of going to the airport, getting on the plane… You’re leaving Los Santos behind and then arriving on this new sort of tropical island.”
After years of Rockstar filling every last inch of Los Santos, the idea to move to somewhere entirely different was one that came from an unexpected inspiration. “The map is so dense with content we were like, ‘We need to kind of find somewhere else. What else can we do in Los Santos?,” explains Butchard. “And then that’s when the idea came up – music. And then we came up with an idea of islands and music on islands, and then that’s when it kind of moved to the idea of this heist on this amazing sort of tropical island.”
Music is at the heart of the Cayo Perico Heist. Firstly, the addition of the Music Locker nightclub underneath the casino is how the heist is triggered, introducing you to Miguel Madrazo, the son of a powerful kingpin tasked with taking down El Rubio. From there you buy a second-hand Russian submarine and it’s off to the Caribbean we go.
And what a place Cayo Perico promises to be. From golden beaches dotted with palm trees to swathes of jungle covering chunks of the island, it’s the kind of place you’d go to relax and unwind rather than take down a criminal overload. Luckily, you have all the time in the world to look around, providing you don’t get caught. “There’s a lot to explore beyond the Heist,” says Butchard. “There’s no time limit when you’re there scoping, so you can spend as long as you want on that island. I hope it feels to players that we’ve left Los Santos behind. And it feels like… not alien, but this new something you’ve never seen before in GTA.”
7 New Vehicles in GTA Online’s Cayo Perico Heist
It’s a huge island and, like Los Santos, is teeming with life. But rather than folks cruising the sidewalks and going about their everyday lives, Cayo Perico is an island that has a hidden side. On the surface it’s a paradise where renowned, world class DJs play all-day beach parties (acting as a roadie for techno outfit Kienemusik is one of the ways to sneak onto the island, incidentally), but the guard towers and patrols covering the island’s dirt tracks hint towards a darker side of Cayo Perico.
Exploring the island is essential if you want the best chance of reaching El Rubio. There are weapon caches you can raid or destroy, and obscured areas of the island that, if you spend the time looking, could have an impact on how the heist unfolds, as Butchard explains: “You might scope an area that’s hidden away, and that will trigger a prep to collect a helicopter you can stealth land in this area because it’s sheltered.”
At the island’s heart is El Rubio’s mansion, which is in the centre of a heavily guarded compound. I only got a brief look at what awaits anyone who gets this far but it’s fair to say El Rubio’s army is larger than that of a small country, and a team of four – or one player alone, as this is the first time GTA Online’s heists can be played in single-player – is certainly going to have its work cut out making it to the end. Thankfully, there are more than enough ludicrous ways to have a blast on the island, whether it’s raiding El Rubio’s secret caches for valuable works of art or simply putting the job on hold and chilling out at a beach party.
After seven years, GTA Online continues to surprise and evolve. When heists were first released they were fresh and exciting, but their separation from the rest of the online experience was a little jarring. Cayo Perico is a step closer to making the whole experience more cohesive, and at the same time it takes bold steps to introduce a new setting and ways to play. The underlying tech might be beginning to show its age, but GTA Online continues to prove that good ideas and a commitment to excellence are forever timeless.