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GTA IV: Flawed, Frustrating, but still Habit-Forming and Fun

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageCC2k Video Game Editor Big Ross has jumped on the bandwagon and is playing GTA IV.  What he has found is a game that is far from perfect, but so fun it should be illegal. 

In the event that you reside under a rather large igneous formation, let me fill you in on something.  On April 29th Rockstar games unleashed the fourth in their hugely popular Grand Theft Auto series, Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV).

This video game was greeted with much rejoicing on the part of gamers and much consternation on the part of, believe it or not, movie producers.  Apparently they were grinding their teeth with worry that it might cut into ticket sales of Iron Man and Speed Racer due to gamers (mostly composed of that highly coveted male demographic) opting to stay home with GTA IV rather than venture out to the box office.  They may have had good reason to worry.  GTA IV has broken sales records, making $500 million in its first week alone, breaking Halo 3’s record by $200 million.  It has received nearly universal praise with both IGN and Gamespot giving it 10/10 scores, and Gamespot calling it the best game in the series and IGN going so far as to say it’s a “masterpiece” and “the best game since Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”   

OK.  Reality check.  GTA IV is not a perfect game.  There I said it.  I am prepared to get flamed for this.  Flamed?  More like incinerated – BTW my email is bigross [at] cincity2000 [dot] com – bring on the heat.  But first, a brief overview.  In GTA IV you take on the role of Nico Belliq, a recent immigrant to America who has a troubled past and little compunction when it comes to violent crime, as long as he gets paid for his “services.”  Hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to read my criticisms, which I will get to after discussing my praises for the game.     

I may sound crazy for saying this, but I love the paper map included in the game box, and I’m guessing it was not  by accident that it got packaged on top of the instructional booklet, so it’s one of the first things you notice.  The last game I played that I remember having a paper map was TES IV: Oblivion.  It speaks both to the sheer size of the in-game environment as well as the attention to detail by the game’s developers.  GTA IV is set in the fictional Liberty City, which is modeled after real-world NYC.  You quickly realize Liberty City is almost dauntingly big.  Maybe not as intimidating as actually stepping off a ship and into real-life New York City, but for those used to the gaming equivalent of a “Keep Off Grass” sign, GTA IV douses said sign in gasoline and sets it ablaze.  In other words, you can go just about anywhere, and with the world Rockstar has created, who knows what you will encounter. 


What a difference. . .

That’s another thing that delights me about this game.  I mentioned it before and I’ll say it again.  The attention to detail that has gone into the creation of Liberty City is amazing.  For me it began with something veteran GTA gamers may not have even noticed: the instructional booklet.  Rather than the usual boring fare that *might* succeed at being informative, GTA IV’s booklet is both interesting and useful.  Modeled after a city guide you might get at your local AAA, it offers insight into basic elements of the game as though you’re a tourist on your first trip to Liberty City.  It was a great, creative touch.  And the more you explore the city, the more details and creative touches you find.  What makes them all the better is they add color to a vision of a major metropolitan area in present-day America seen through the eyes of satirical anarchists.  What do I mean by that?  Somehow the developers have managed to target almost everyone and everything with their Mock-O-Matic 3000, mercilessly deriding liberals, conservatives, rock music, rap music, reality television, celebrities, the beautiful, the ugly, the rich, the poor, and seemingly all facets of pop culture.  In a game centered on breaking the law and committing all manner of crime, this ridicule seemingly without rhyme or reason just adds to the spirit of things.  Some of this is transmitted through the plethora of radio stations you can listen to while driving a (boosted, natch) car, but a lot of it comes across from the variety of non-player characters (NPCs) you meet.  Example: I went into a diner and bought a hamburger, and the waitress gleefully informed me she had just picked it up off the floor as my character ate it in front of her.  This next statement may be obvious, but half the fun of GTA IV is tapping into that spirit.  Sure you can follow the rules of the road and obey stop lights and such, but we do enough of that in real life.  How many times has someone done something completely idiotic in an automobile and you’ve wanted nothing more than to smash into them demolition derby style?  Of course you don’t because it’s wrong and illegal and costly, but in GTA IV, who gives a sh*t? 

The NPCs are good for more than just quipping one-liners.  The AI they've been programmed with, and the sheer number of NPCs is pretty incredible if you think about it.  As one example I was walking down a street when a hoodlum (he did something illegal but I missed exactly what) took off across a street with a cop in pursuit.  The cop darted in front of car, took a glancing blow and yelled, “Ah just great!  Now he’s getting away!”  Again, great stuff.  This stuff is completely unnecessary to the core of the game; it only serves to enrich the gaming experience, in which case it becomes vital.

Getting into the game’s actual story a bit, there are some who have criticized GTA IV for it's opening 20-30 minutes, claiming it's a fairly boring way to begin and had them wondering when things were going to liven up.  Here is one place where I disagree.  I'm guessing that gamers who felt that way have been playing GTA since its third iteration on PS2 if not earlier and so are well-versed in the game mechanics and such.  For GTA virgins this admittedly slow introduction is a welcome way to have their GTA cherries popped, if you'll allow such a colorful euphemism.

Strangely, that's pretty much all of the specific, positive things I have to say for this game.  On to the criticisms and the Hellfire of scorned gamers that is sure to follow!

Where to begin?  I'll start by stating that I had never played the GTA games prior to this one.  Well, let me qualify that.  I do vaguely remember playing the original GTA on my PC back in '97 or so, but the mechanics have changed so much since then it might as well be an entirely different game.  While it could be argued that some of my complaints have more to do with my lack of familiarity with these games than with the design itself, I reject that argument.  Surely the developers didn't rely solely on fans of previous installments for projected sales of GTA IV, just as movie producers refuse to green light a film for production based solely on the enthusiasm of fans of its source material (given that material is, for example a comic book).  My point is I believe many of these complaints to be valid, and should have been foreseen and addressed by the developers.  Enough banter, let's get into specifics.


. . .a decade makes.

The player controls in GTA IV are, at times, atrocious and for the rest of the time vary from acceptable to mildly annoying.  The driving is especially difficult to get the hang of, and I still have yet to become proficient at it.  That slow opening sequence is a nice way of getting introduced to driving a vehicle, but very early on there are missions requiring you to chase down a person by car, and while I was floundering around the streets they were cutting corners like a Grand Prix qualifier.  Additionally, for the first several missions you are sans firearms, so you rely on hand-to-hand combat to take down foes.  Unfortunately the combat system felt sluggish and slow to respond, if at all.  These kinds of problems invariably led to mission failures that required multiple attempts to finish successfully.  Adding to my frustration is the save system, or I should say lack there of.  The game is designed so that you have a safe house where you can save your progress; however, this is the *only* place you can manually save.  Yes, the game autosaves on occasion, but this happens only after the successful completion of a mission.  There are no checkpoints.  If you’re trying to complete a long, difficult mission, be prepared to swear vehemently because if you die or fail in the process you have to start that sucker over from the beginning.  This was and is all highly frustrating, so much so I have wanted to stop playing on more than one occasion.  Developers: Making a game that players want to quit within the first several hours of starting is not a good thing

Also, this game is played from the third-person perspective, and you’re able to rotate the camera 360o around your character.  Yet the camera has a mind of its own, and to say that the camera “AI” is on the level of a mentally retarded 5th grader is an insult to mentally retarded 5th graders everywhere.  The camera, particularly while driving, is constantly trying to adjust to an angle it deems appropriate, which I find at the very least is not what I prefer and at the most annoying completely stupid.  Example: Why in the world does it seem like a good idea to pan down to a pavement-level close up of my car’s rear bumper when I come to a stop and just as I accelerate again?  I’d kind of like to see where the f*ck I’m going, thank you very much.

Finally, I'd like to address GTA IV's storyline.  Granted, I have yet to finish this game, but from what I've experienced so far I take exception to major gaming sites (mentioned earlier in this article) making claims such as GTA IV “elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama” and GTA IV has a plot that features “a new level of sophistication in the characters and the game world that raises the story above the norm.”  A guy who knows more about quality writing than I do once said that a good story should contain characters that make interesting choices, not "pinballs" (if I may steal his term) that do nothing interesting and simply bounce from one crisis to the next.  

Maybe there's a hugely interesting plot development forthcoming that I have yet to encounter.  Maybe Nico or one of the supporting characters in GTA IV is going to do something really interesting.  But it has yet to happen.  As far as I've experienced as Nico you are nothing more than a "pinball", bouncing from one nefarious character to the next, some offering jobs for money, others holding some kind of leverage against you to coerce you into working for them.  Bounce, bounce, bounce.  

I know what you're thinking.  "Video games inherently have these kinds of 'pinball' characters at their centers.  In the end you can't make interesting choices, because you ultimately have no real control over what your character does, because a game programmer can't foresee *every* possible outcome a person might make if truly given free regin to do whatever they want."  That's true; it's all highly structured and regimented, but there is still room, I think, for interesting choices to be made.  Look no further than Bioshock and the choice made by Andrew Ryan to prove the player's nature by ordering the player to kill him (Ryan).  One of the more shocking, interesting character choices I've encountered in a long while.

No game is perfect.  Still, in spite of flaws, whether real or perceived by this gamer alone, I can't deny that GTA IV is a great, fun gaming experience.  I mentioned I wanted to quit.  On several occasions.  But I didn't.  This game's strengths overrided it's weaknesses and kept me playing.  For the GTA veterans out there, you probably bought this game on the day of release, so really this review isn't so much for you.  If you're new to the GTA series, as I was, I still highly recommend GTA IV.  But don't buy into all of the hype.  Be prepared to curse a little.  Get in the spirit of things.