Tested: Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, no question. Unfortunately, it’s not as great as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
Reviews hailed Rockstar’s latest installment as revolutionary and more or less bought Rockstar’s own talking point about it – that it was as much a step as from GTA 2 to GTA 3. This is simply not true.
It took about 10 hours to really get into IV, and at that time (around about when I posted this first thing ) it was really blowing my mind. But my continued efforts saw diminishing returns. With a nod to Game Intestine –
But, before that. Let me digress.
Let me crow mildly about the benefit of having foolhardily marathonned through the bulk of the GTAs . While we didn’t come close to finishing any of the games, I have finished them before (GTA 3, Vice City and San Andreas anyway), and the marathon freshened my memory of each chapter.
GTA 3 was the move to 3 dimensions, to a full narrative complete with cutscenes, and to a scope as yet unseen in the franchise or elsewhere. Since there were so many things you could do, the freedom that had lain dormant in the previous two games was finally unlocked.
Vice City and San Andreas fleshed out characterizations, both of the protagonists and of the cities that are the true lead characters of these games. But San Andreas is to me the peak achievement in the series. Where Tommy Vercetti is a cruel sociopath, Carl Johnson is a sympathetic, well-rounded character, thrust into crime unwillingly from the first cutscene. And San Andreas the state is three masterful parody cities, surrounded by lushly rednecked countryside – a free-roaming paradise perhaps only rivaled by Oblivion’s Tamriel. Or Morrowind’s Whatever-It-Was. Of the GTA settings, San Andreas is the largest, most diverse, and most impressive.
On What is New in GTA IV
What, exactly, does GTA IV add? Nothing revolutionary, rather incremental improvements in various areas. One of Rockstar’s catchwords for this iteration is of course detail, and you do see it everywhere. The drive to realism is stronger than in previous games, empowered by the current-gen hardware, mostly manifested in the realistic physics, but the realism of character is presaged by San Andreas’ CJ. The presence of huge reams of parodic content on television and on the internet feels new, but is generally an extension of the parody featured since GTA 3 on the radio, so again, nothing new. The combat system is improved by the addition of cover, which adds to the realism (if that’s the right word for assault rifle shootouts in the heart of NYC).
Liberty City: an impressive achievement in games realism
The phone interface is new too, but you’ve probably read enough about that elsewhere.
The ‘friends’ system is an expansion of the dating minigame from San Andreas. The intent must be to add realism to the game’s simulation; I’m not sure it’s a success. It fails because there is no interactivity to the friendships. Having friends isn’t about unlocking some bonus. It isn’t about throwing darts or getting drunk, it’s about the conversations you have while doing so. With no way to actively partake in those conversations, Niko becomes nothing more than a sounding board and chauffeur, and the player becomes bored. The activities themselves become dull after the second time or so – no, Roman, I don’t want to get drunk again. Stop calling me.
One new thing is the addition of branching storylines. At certain moments, Niko may choose whether to kill someone or let them live; the story will branch accordingly. We should welcome any steps toward non-linear storytelling, but this is more like My First Branching Narrative – while the choices Niko must make are more interesting than the good-bad bifurcations of Bioware games, the results of the choices are at times minimal changes, at other times a little too arbitrary and frankly similar in terms of gameplay. You’ll see what I’m talking about, maybe, if you go back and replay. Especially the ending.
Niko, likable guy (mostly)
Rockstar has moved away from the outlandish satire of earlier games and toward a more somber tone, at least where the main story is concerned. You will have your laughs, but the game is definitely trying to make you sad, vengeful, and even reflective. I think the shift in tone was a good idea, but it falls short in many areas. Niko as a character is generally likeable and devoted to his friends, until he suddenly explodes in self-destructive rage. It conveniently results in the classic Rockstar first-act exile to a newly unlocked area, but it also weakens the characterization no small amount.
Rockstar felt a little unsure of themselves in another area as well. You wind up doing missions for New Jersey mobsters who operate out of a strip club. But they stop short of outright Sopranos references, perhaps fearing it might mess up the somber tone thing they were going for. The net result is you see the similarity and find GTA wanting. The second half of the game is dominated by these guys, some Italian New York mobsters and the drunken, emotional Irish family of thieves, none of whom feel like more than pale shadows of greater characters in films and TV shows past. In other words, clichés.
A nondescript Jersey gangster
There’s also, you know, multiplayer. I’m not the man to ask about this; I tried it a handful of times and wasn’t thrilled. The co-op type missions were buggy and confusing, the free-roaming was okay. What I really wanted was a Crackdown-esque “drop into a friend’s game and play the missions or just tool around” option. But I suppose what we got was certainly better than the weak-sauce multiplayer in San Andreas.
On What Is Missing
Many gameplay elements that were gradually added to the formula in Vice City and San Andreas have been removed from this outing. Gone are the role-playing elements like leveling up skills. Gone also are the management-game aspects like buying real estate, businesses and controlling territory. This leaves Niko with a ballooning sack of cash and naught to spend it on but guns, burgers and hookers. Some GTA3 standbys like the outrage-magnet ‘rampages’ are gone too, although those might have been dropped in San Andreas for all my forgetful brain knows. Given the detail of Liberty City, it’s a damn shame San Andreas’ camera and associated photo collection quest have been scaled down to a camera phone that doesn’t save pictures.
The significance of the smaller map should be further considered. As I mentioned before, the settings of these games are their true main characters. The games are about freedom, really; since the beginning the series’ maps have expanded outward like the historic American frontier. The smaller map is like a resignation that you can no longer go west and find freedom – you’re stuck in the relatively constrained, relatively homogenous, more realistic but less fun Liberty City. It could just be me: I favour exploration over most any other form of gameplay. But I miss the hoods, jet packs and rolling hills of San Andreas, high resolution textures be damned.
World maps of San Andreas and IV, scale comparison (source)
On What Is the Same
Short answer: everything else. The shooting and/or driving gameplay, while tweaked, is fundamentally the same, and the general flow of the game is identical to previous outings. There is a strong contrast between mission and non-mission: the missions are quite specific about what they need you to do and are linear as a rule; your non-mission time unstructured, exploratory and is where the magic tends to happen.
a world worth exploring randomly
My enthusiasm for the missions waned as the game went on. The bank heist mission is great but in retrospect, too much too soon, as following missions all start to blend in to each other. It’s
- drive to point A to meet mission-dispensing character A
- watch cutscene
- drive character A to point B
- fetch object and/or car, kill someone, chase someone, or get chased
- drive character A back to point A
There’s no ‘trip skip’ this time. If you fail the mission, you repeat all the steps except the first one. Unfortunately, since the driving parts of missions are subject to the whims of fate (you know, you miss the turnoff, or crash into a bus, and your target gets away), and the shooting parts are characterized by difficulty based not on enemy AI but on surprise enemy positions (you go through the door or move up the staircase and five mobsters are firing shotguns at you – FAIL), you will repeat missions frequently. The repetition adds to the repetition already built into the missions, i.e. driving out to get the mission in the first place, driving the guy home. It basically becomes a pain in the ass. Taking cabs instead can help since you can skip the cab trips, but you never know when the mission will involve chasing someone and if you don’t bring a tight ride, you may only be able to grab a clunker when the time comes and thereby increase your odds of having to replay the whole damn thing.
An improvement would be to simply call your boss of the moment and have him assign the mission over the phone, as the phone interface basically obviates the Rockstar trope of driving to a letter on the map indicating where you get missions.
If I was handing out stars here I’d still give this game four. Who’s kidding who – it may not reach Sopranos-level drama and the missions can get repetitive, but it’s still heads above 90% of the games that will be released this year. That said, this is just wrong. IGN in their Metal Gear Solid 4 review asks, “Is it possible to give a game an 11? If so, this would be the game that would merit that score,” thereby revealing mainstream games journalism as a Spinal Tap-esque parody of itself, clouding the relative value of games in a haze of 10s. We should consider GTA IV relative to the other GTA games, and in that context the game is no revolution but an evolution, and perhaps a mild devolution from the scale, diversity and freedom of San Andreas.