This is my third review on the escapist forums. I've also included links to the other two at the bottom. I'm pretty sure that Grand Theft Auto IV has been reviewed to death, so I hope you'll at least forgive it for that if you don't enjoy it. All the same, I hope you like it.
Grand Theft Auto IV
There have been several titles over the last decade or so to bare the Grand Theft Auto name, yet for some reason we're only at the fourth incarnation of the series. It all started with the original Grand Theft Auto years ago, a game I never actually played but apparently isn't very good, and an expansion pack that brought the game to London. GTA2 came out in 1999, and was my first experience with the franchise. I distinctly remember coming home from school at lunch time to play if for a half hour on the computer as I devoured scrambled eggs and toast. Sure, the game was controlled from the point of view of God in a helicopter and it wasn't very refined, but I found it hard to pull myself away from it once I discovered the tank and cop cars inexplicably burst into flames as the pigs threw themselves at my treads. My brother had GTA3 on his PC which I would always sneak into his room to use while he was at work. GTA3 was a brilliant game released in 2001 that had a full 3D world to explore, and the vehicular mayhem was better than ever. Poor fire arm controls didn't break the experience for me because I was too busy racing around in fast cars and popping heads from the rooftops with my sniper rifle. GTA3 was pure mindless fun with memorable characters, scenarios and radio stations. That was all that mattered. I largely ignored the Vice City and San Andreas incarnations of the series because Scarface was a shitty movie and I never watched 80's cop shows, and San Andreas just looked visually ugly and dated. I played both games a few times at my friend's house, but they were no where near as enthralling as GTA3. After seven years of distractions, we've finally reach GTA4, and frankly I find it very difficult to care all that much.
The difference between the numerical sequels and the thematic indulgences is the city. Every GTA with a number at the end takes place in the fictional Liberty City which is heavily inspired by New York City. Vice City is inspired by 1980's Miami, and San Andreas is inspired by 1990's Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas. GTA4 marks the fourth time we visit Liberty City, this time through Niko Bellic, a fresh off the boat immigrant in pursuit of the American Dream and revenge. Par for the course, Niko makes his way to the top through dead bodies, stolen cars, and questionable company (same city, new story).
Yours to discover...
GTA4 continues the series' proud tradition of turning the player into the bitch of every mob boss in the city by kicking things off with you arriving in America with only $20 and the clothes on your back. From this point on, and indeed for the remainder of the story, Niko is quite literally a tool, specifically one of those fancy ones that can accomplish almost any task while still fitting snuggly into your back pocket. Niko is relied on to do so much yet there are only a few things he does particularly well.
The first half of the game is essentially a series of configuration instructions disguised as missions. You need to learn how to drive cars, how to drive motorcycles, how to fire from cars, how to change weapons while driving, how to enter cabs, how to change weapons while running, how to reload, how to climb ladders, how to climb walls, how to pick up garbage, how to toss garbage through a window, how to toss garbage through a window while climbing on a motorcycle, etc, etc. You're never not learning how to do something, which is annoying for a variety of reasons. For one, it ensures that more than a few of the dozens of things you need to do are poorly integrated into the game and feel tacked on. For two, the game very patronizingly always tells you what to do no matter what the circumstance, which I often times took to heart. In lieu of an intelligent in game configuration map, we're given one that is incredibly difficult to take in because there are so many commands to learn that the map flashes between two or three lists. I found it very annoying that I had to strain my eyes in order to remember how to free aim.
In addition to the long list of commands you need to master for just the core game experience, there are a variety of other distractions inside the game itself complete with their own very detailed and superfluous instructions. This is exemplified with the "[email protected] interweb", Liberty City's very own fully functioning web browser. GTA4 has its own internet which you can use for dating and missions in the game which I avoided like it were a homeless homosexual with the plague (except when the story demanded that I use it). There are also television shows that you can soak up for no apparent reason, which I again avoided like a busted bum-raping beggar. Such needless accoutrements serve only to distract you from playing the actual game which I found to be rather odd. The television, internet, radio, and fictional ads, are all at odds with each other when it comes to the game finding and maintaining a tone. I personally find that a double entendre titled web browser versus satirical radio shows kept the mood inconsistent, and thus partially defeated the goal of immersion. I can appreciate the addition in order to create a certain degree of engagement, but I have no idea why anyone would want to indulge a scenario which allows your avatar to watch television when there's people to murder and shit to blow up. If I wanted a game that lets me watch TV, I'd play The Sims.
On the tangent of inane roadblocks that impede your progress through the story, you have friends to take care of from time to time. Friends who will call you when you're in the middle of a mission or friends who want to hang out when you're on the other end of the fucking city. A good percentage of my game was spent indulging the whims of people who wanted to go bowling or drinking or play darts. This involved driving to their house, picking them up, partaking in the activity, and driving them home. Whenever I had the choice of where to go, I opted for the restaurant since I didn't have to engage in a crappy mini-game like bowling or pool. Drinking was also high up on my list because simulated drunk driving is surprisingly fun, and come to think of it the comedy show had some genuinely funny acts by Ricky Gervais. But no matter what the outing, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't just wasting several hours of Niko's life, but my life as well.
I must admit that the characters are very well acted and personified across the board due in large part to a strong script. In fact because the characters end up becoming likable overtime, I found myself crafting some very amusing and memorable situations with them. For example...
Niko had just taken his girlfriend who is the sister of Irish mobsters out on a date. On the way to the restaurant, she was bitching and complaining about her horrible family which Niko found very difficult to tolerate. The ungrateful nag complained through the meal about the food and service, and Niko figured that the only way he could start enjoying himself would be to start drinking. So Niko and Kate (her name's Kate by the way) head to a bar where they both get hammered. The mood is certainly lightened and the conversation becomes more laid back and less stressful, but as Niko beings to drive Kate home, he realizes just how drunk he is. Niko starts swerving in and out lanes, crashing into mailboxes and lampposts, until the car is on its death throes and catches fire. Thinking only of himself, Niko abandons ship and dramatically leaps from the burning vehicle as Kate and the car coast down the road. Niko stumbles to his feet and brushes himself off, just in time to watch the car explode a few dozen car lengths in front of him, taking the poor lass' life, and his credibility with the Irish mafia.
But there's only so much fun to be had exploring the sandbox world of Liberty City because the game's futile predilection to realism almost completely destroys whatever fun there is to be had. I have no problems with realism just so long as it's consistent. In defiance of this, most cars are front heavy which makes high speed turning nigh on impossible and indeed more lifelike, and it's difficult to drive on grass, sand, and wet roads, yet cars still flip and float through the air magnificently after hitting a small garbage heap or slight curb at a moderate speed. You also have to drive motorcycles rather gingerly because Niko goes flying through the air if you so much as nick any obstacle in excess of 3km/h. Realism is a noble thing to aspire for providing a characters herculean physical tenacity doesn't bother you, but if there are gaps in the consistency of the application of realism and vehicle physics, it becomes more of a buzz-kill than anything else.
Brushes with law have also been reworked in that you have to break out of the cops' search area (the size of which depends on the crime) and stay undetected for a few in game minutes. I have a love/hate relationship with this system because the persistence of the cops is never constant. In general though, a wanted level beneath two is embarrassingly easy to lose while a wanted level above three requires you to scramble to a pay'n'spray if you don't have time for the rampage. One last gripe about this system, and indeed the game in general, is the punishing lack of urgency Niko asserts himself with. The same handful of animations is used to get Niko in any car no matter what the circumstance. If there are dozens of cops and robbers emptying bullets into you as you frantically run up to a car to make good your escape, Niko waves his gun around the same way he normally would as if he had all the time in the world instead of cutting to the chase and hopping in through the window (or doing something equally awesome). It's frustrating enough to make me wish the developers spent more time streamlining the gameplay than putting unique graffiti tags on subway cars and under bridges that I'll never see.
High speed chases are visually terrific.
GTA4's sandbox might as well be a lye pit for me, and when the initial selling point of the game turns out to be dull, it's hard to rate the product favourably as a whole. GTA4's only remaining vestige of greatness is the story, which I happen to like despite it's loathing for immediacy. Looking past Niko's Hamlet-esque quality of seeking vengeance only when it's convenient, the character is rather likable. He's occasionally witty, oftentimes captivating, and generally well rounded. Roman is effective as a dense and obnoxious comic foil, Packie and the Irish gangsters get creative with their insults and banter, Peggorino is funny when he acts condescendingly to his thick henchmen, etc. etc. The worst part of the story is the irony obsessed ending, but that's a matter of taste. In general, it was compelling enough to keep me interested from one mission to the next, which is really the best I could hope for given how clumsy some of the core gameplay mechanics are.
GTA4 is indeed a remarkable accomplishment, but the misplaced emphasis on detail and realism instead of fun comes dangerously close to ruining the game. There's a well executed 40+ hour story to play through which guarantees your money's worth, but inconsistencies and occasionally sketchy gameplay make it hard to come back to once you're through with the main story.
Other reviews I've written...
I appreciate any and all comments. : )