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Review – Grand Theft Auto IV

posted on June 20th, 2008 by christian

When it comes to reviewing GTA IV, I am not even sure why we bother. We all know the game is going to sell more than anything else in 2008. We have all decided whether to buy it before reading reviews. Grand Theft Auto is such a part of our industry and pop culture in general that discussing it seems to be a waste of time, like discussions of each season of American Idol.

These discussions are also worthless because GTA IV just isn’t that good. Rockstar made a great game with GTA III, and managed to woo us yet again with the blue skies and 80’s schtick of Vice City. Since then they seem to have lost the point of it all, burrowing further and further into a hole of wrong ideas, all the while convincing most of the gaming world of their supposed genius. If the problem with San Andreas was that there was too much to stomach, then GTA IV is a case of there not being nearly enough. It is a miserable retread, both in its missions and its humor.

These statements are sure to draw ire, and an explanation is in order. As the first new-gen entry, GTA IV tries to be hugely immersive, offering almost every conceivable activity in Liberty City. The hustle and bustle of each neighborhood is real, and you can find all sorts of small touches, like suicide victims and tourists taking photos. The most important thing that you must realize about all of these inclusions is that they are absolutely worthless. None of them feel natural. Each is another bullet point for a review, a triggered moment to get your attention. Liberty City is little more than a theme park.

As for the activities, I question why anyone would want to watch parody television channels or see a rendered Ricky Gervais perform comedy when you can see him for real on the same television. It seems that everyone wanted to praise Rockstar for the simple fact that they included these things, but it is clear they added them just because they could. I am willing to give them praise when they actually make the extraneous features worth my time. Until then, they will be ignored.

I wish I could ignore the friendship feature, in which characters can be taken out on dates to boost Niko’s relationship with them. It is easy to ignore friends, especially when they start to call less and less. Of course, doing so makes your relationship go south. Rockstar doesn’t force you to participate in their monotonous playdates (and the stupid minigames and scenes that they spawn), but they will express their dissatisfaction in your decision, to which I present a firm middle finger.

The humor this time around is so unbelievably crude and obnoxious that I cannot imagine it was penned by the same people who placed such excellent satire into III and Vice City. Jokes about reality TV, HMO’s and Fox News are retreads of late night comedy monologues, and the amount of unnecessary swearing and jokes at women’s expense are about on par with what you will hear among college students playing the game together in a dorm room.

It doesn’t help that so many of the themes that are parodied seem to have been done in past GTAs, and to better effect. I have strong memories of Vice City’s jokes about Florida Real Estate scams and the excesses of 80’s hair metal bands (one of these themes is reused in GTA IV, the other is far too clever for it).

Grand Theft Auto has thrived on a handful of mission types, and they all come back here in full force. The impressive new physics engine and sheer detail of the city initially makes missions feel fresh. Unfortunately the game also has a mammoth story that goes on far longer than it should. In past games, a character arc would often be quick and dirty; a few missions until it was time to work for a new character. This structure remains in IV, but the number of characters, as well as their tendency to pop up again with more missions later on, cause the story to drag on. There are only so many chases and shootouts one can play, especially when they are so repetitive.

Liberty City is a large city filled with many unique areas. The game has the potential for brilliant firefights and chases, but the virtuosic scenes of past GTAs are few and far between. Perhaps it has less to do with what the game presents and more that I have done this so many times in the past. It doesn’t try to expand on its previous limits, unless you consider the improved gun controls to be innovation.

The number of bad decisions made during the design process is staggering. Yes, the driving physics are more realistic, but realism is not always better in our forms of escapism. The number of things to do and locations to visit causes the game to run in semi-tutorial mode for several hours, slowly introducing you to new activities, unless you want to use the fold-out map and find them all on your own. Rockstar may have trimmed the fat from San Andreas, but it still feels like an experience ready to collapse under its own weight.

Most importantly, GTA is no longer about freedom. It can’t be about freedom when certain characters are invincible until you chase them to a certain destination, or you kill them in just the right way with just the right weapon. There is an endgame mission about which I heard some brilliant solutions, none of which worked because Rockstar had already made a cutscene that showed how the rest of the scene is supposed to play out. If it were about freedom, then the new friendship implementation would allow me to choose which characters I even associate with, or if they really wanted to be violent and edgy, Rockstar should give us the freedom to kill characters (I’m looking at you Brucie).

But it isn’t about freedom any longer. Just image. Rockstar mouthpieces like Dan Houser can spew bullshit about how they want to give the player freedom, yet actually deliver a failed piece of wannabe Hollywood cinema. Everyone eats it up, writing essays about how deep and meaningful it is and how the driving is “flawless“. This in turn allows high schoolers to write their grammatically horrid rants at dissenting reviews like this one all the while assuming calling GTA their favorite game gives them some semblance of cultural superiority. And all of these folks are able to wake up and look at themselves in the mirror with a straight face.

I’m done with this franchise. I have given each one a chance, but after this and San Andreas it has two strikes too many. I’ll stick with the original, and hell, even Liberty City Stories. At least that one remembers the simple controls and manageable cityscape that made GTA III a classic. In the past, I always found that GTA was fairly harmless and its fanbase made it look worse than it is. This time around all parties are to blame.

Wake me up when junk like this doesn’t pass for Game of the Year material.

7 Comments

  1. AK said on June 20, 2008:

    Agreed.

    Every generation of consoles has left developers scrambling to take advantage of “new features.” Often they loose sight of what makes a game enjoyable. It used to be that the first 1-2 years of games on a console were hit-or-miss, with things improving after that — but with this generation the curve appears to be taking much longer.

    Just as bad, the game industry has followed Hollywood’s lead and over-hypes everything, often misrepresenting the actual content. The gaming media doesn’t help by over-exposing new game titles, overlooking flaws, and generally behaving as though they are the game publishers’ marketing department.

    No wonder retro-gaming is so popular. Some may play older titles because of nostalgia, but I think many do it because many new titles just aren’t as fun. Mastering a game takes effort, but it shouldn’t feel like work. GTA4 feels like work to me. I get paid for work, whereas Rockstar wants me to spend $60 for the “privilege.” The game designers must be laughing their asses off, because they’ve pulled a joke at the expense of everyone who buys this game.

  2. Golden Jew said on June 20, 2008:

    “Grinding” is an aspect of gameplay that is far too common these days. I’ve obsessed about it in MMOs, but in a game like GTA, why would you make the user suffer through repetitious, monotonous “missions” to keep people happy?

    In smaller doses or simplified doses, it might be a neat feature– but not in the GTA4 format.

  3. Christian said on June 20, 2008:

    Another point I should have made in the review. The game gives you a firearm fairly early into the story, but in GTA 3 you could find a piece on random gang member NPCs two three blocks from the first safehouse, in Hepburn Heights. Finding weapons without going through the storyline of IV is far more difficult than it should be, so anyone who just wants to run amok for a while are going to be limited in what they could do.

    I yearn for GTA 3’s spinning piles of cash and simple destruction.

  4. bruce said on June 20, 2008:

    I’ll admit first that I’ve never been a huge fan of this series. But it’s not that I even think the game concept has any failings. I played and enjoy Vice City quite a bit, but there it was as much for the way it pulled on nostalgic strings as anything (child of the 80’s). The relationships thing and watching fake TV on your TV in the game…on your TV…kinda left me with the sense they had shifted direction for the series, in a direction I was even less interested in than before.

    This series has always been a strange dichotomy of on-the-rails story mixed with open world sandbox do what you want play, and it sounds like this installment veers more toward the former than the latter.

  5. Vaxadrin said on June 20, 2008:

    Why would you want to kill Brucie? He was the only redeeming character in this whole turd of a game. :(

  6. Christian said on June 22, 2008:

    Vax – your question is a very good one. I agree that Brucie was hilarious and entertaining. My desire came after you finish doing missions for him, after Niko figures out his motivation. It made me more than a bit angry, and while Niko makes the right decision himself, the entirety of his character is not determined by the game. You can still, to an extent, choose how violent he is and to who. I thought, if this game was truly about freedom, imagine being able to just pop Brucie, right then and there. A cold, bold statement about just how violent and brutal the world of crime can be. He may not be the most deserving character, but choices like that would allow the player to paint their own tale and create truly powerful moments themselves.

    I suppose that isn’t what Rockstar really cares about, and I suppose I am still too spoiled by Fallout.

    Again, thank you for the great question.

  7. Wesley said on June 24, 2008:

    I noticed you don’t mention the multiplayer at all in the review.

    To me, that’s where alot of the sandboxness has gone. Jumping into Free Mode with a bunch of friends rekindles the “hey let’s try this wacky thing and see if it works” spirit of past GTA games. We would always be trying things like flying groups of people up to the top of a skyscraper, then having them jump off the side into the helicopter propellers. We even found a glitch where driving into a swingset launches your car 500 feet into the air and across Brooklyn.

    Unfortunately, the netcode and online lobby are SO bad, I couldn’t play team deathmatch as often as I wanted to without getting frustrated. I would either repeatedly get booted out and forced to reload the entire single player game, just to choose multiplayer from the phone and reload the entire multiplayer game. After 10 minutes of this back & forth I’d end up finally connecting to a match, and the host would grief everyone by selecting something like knives only in Manhattan, then quitting as soon as the game starts.

    If they had polished up the multi alot more and put more thought into balancing weapon placement and not allowing griefers to fuck with ranked lobbies, I’d still be playing it now. The combination of multiplayer gang warfare in city streets with drivable vehicles everywhere is a ton of fun…it’s just that that fun is lost when you unload an entire clip into somebody and they run around a corner, then you both die simultaneously.

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