Review by Dark_Advocate72
"GTA IV - overrated - graphics over gameplay?"
The GTA series has been through a number of changes since its top down debut way back when on the PC. But most noticeably, the transition from top down hi-jinx to full on 3D was the pinnacle of progression for the series and for the generation of consoles at the time (the PS2). GTA III brought the series into the mainstream for all the right reasons, and had something for everyone to enjoy and marvel at, whether you wanted to headshot pedestrians from far away with a sniper rifle, or run over hookers in a firetruck, it was all there in the highly detailed sandbox world Rockstar had created.
GTA Vice City and San Andreas, built on what GTA III has paved and added several new gameplay features that gave the player even more options to cause mayhem. San Andreas went the extra mile in terms of character customization, and simply offered the player a world full of features that would be loved or hated by gamers. I think in San Andreas' case the leading character CJ was perhaps a bit too stereotypical and easily disliked due to the whole gang culture flavor portrayed.
Cue 2008 and here we are again with GTA IV on current generations of consoles (Xbox 360/PS3). With Xbox 360 at least, we were promised fully detailed explorable worlds when the console was in its infancy and I guess since then, we've had our fair share of games that have offered this, such as Elderscrolls IV Oblivion, Saints Row and Just Cause, to name but a few. With said games offering different slants on the open world genre GTA IV had a lot to live up to especially if it were to stand out. Expectation for the game has been very high and naturally some gamers would expect the best thing since sliced bread.
GTA IV is as you would expect from a GTA game and follows the tried and trusted formula of the previous games. You have an open world to explore on foot or in a vehicle and can pretty much do as you please as long as you avoid the gazing eyes of the law. Liberty City ( the game's locale) is a recreation of NYC and featured in GTA III and so it's kind of nostalgic to visit this location again.
Things are very different this time round though because rather than play as a mute character as seen in GTA III, we're offered the wise and hard talking Niko Bellic as the main protagonist. I think what's instantly seen from the off is how much personality he has. You'll either warm to him or start to loath his demeanor but never really hating him, because he's you in video game form. You control his actions, you determine what he does and how he does it, and therefore the bond you have with him is unbreakable - until you turn your console off, or it crashes out on you or suffers the dreaded RRoD if you're an Xbox 360 owner.
Liberty City is a full on living breathing city, to a degree and let's not get too hyped up in this statement, because actually it's a living city with zero purpose. In game if you follow any pedestrian, you'll notice that they have no where to go and nothing to do other than provide and aesthetically pleasing layer to what would be empty streets. The same can be said for the game's many motorists that seem to just drive around with no real aim other than providing you some traffic jams or cars to steal if you need one. The only characters who have a purpose in the game are Niko himself and the characters he meets throughout the story aspect of the game.
This is all stuff we've seen in previous games and yet this is supposedly next generation where developers are adding new stuff to make us go "wow". Of course on technical standpoint the game's characters look more lifelike than ever before due to some neat animations and lighting effects. Yet when games like Shen Mue have people going to places in game (like shopping) then going home at night and you wonder why things like this can't be included in this game. Granted, Shen Mue had far less people and felt more rigid but this is the next generation and if I wanted to play out being a stalker of a random NPC then having the choice to do so would be brilliant. Sadly you'll never feel an attachment to any of the NPCs, maybe because there are so many that you'll never focus on any particular person. Sue they will react to you if you push into them or start shooting, but they are just sheep and a means to providing a gameplay element that lacks any real emotional attachment.
GTA IV does offer some very nice vehicle physics which for the first time means you'll notice some real differences between the various cars. However having, better physics makes driving a little more difficult and for some gamer will take a bit of getting used to, especially if your car spins out on a corner because you're going too fast - or used to being able to turn on a dime. So does offering a more realistic driving experience equals more fun? I guess the answer to this question is subjective. For me I love just cruising the streets and trying to obey the traffic system as best I can. Sadly and like the NPCs, there's no real attachment to the game's vehicles. Fine, you can grab a sports car and tear around the streets like a maniac, but on the other side of the coin you'll care not if the car gets totalled, because finding another identical car is easy. A lack of car customization really hurts the game in my view because there's no incentive to look after the cars you steal. The game is called Grand Theft Auto but this surely shouldn't be the whole point of the game. Stealing cars to order or occasionally stealing off a passer by are all worthy gameplay elements but let's remember that in the real world you're not going to get too far if you do this every time you step outside and need to get somewhere. The game does offer alternatives, in that you can hop into a cab for a quick drive to where ever you need to go, but this in itself is misses the point of having an open world to explore. It's like the fast travel in Oblivion or Fable, it kind of takes away the adventure of being in the open world. OK, it's all optional but I bet a lot of gamers use the taxis to get to far to reach places more than if they were to drive there themselves.
GTA games have always included combat and in this case the whole system has been revised. It's a lot more engaging due to being able to use cover and pop out and shoot - something the enemy AI does as well. Gun battles are mainstay of the missions, whether on foot or in vehicles and if you venture out unprepared then you're going to get blown away and have to restart (which could mean a lengthy frustrating drive to the starting location again). The auto lock on is still a feature, and with a free aim incorporated into the standard controls as well means that gamers can pull off fancy shots and act like Dirty Harry. It's good and a major improvement from previous game, although the cover system can get a little fiddly as can the pop out and shooting move, which moves your cross hairs away from where you were pointing it from within cover.
Liberty City is full of life and activities , and with a new system of gaining an actual friendship with the game's leading characters adds some personality to proceedings. You can go out on the town with these characters, and with your cell phone being the main interface with these guys, it's all very simple and lifelike. Sadly there's only so many times you'll be excited to go and play pool, or watch a comedy show before the activities fall into the realms of repetition. There's no real variation, and when the game asks you to continue doing theses tasks, it can become tiresome. Why not offer a little more interactive competition here, like doing missions/activities and making bets or something to make it a little more interesting?
This brings me onto another issue with the game, and maybe there's a ploy here with the planned new content (great for Xbox 360 owners but what about PS3 gamers)? Money is never really an issue in the game despite the whole premise of the story being based around acquiring it. Eventually you'll have too much money and nothing to spend it on. Heck you can't even buy new properties or exclusive cars , so you don't have to steal em. And why would you continually steal cars when you've got half a million in the bank? This aspect of the game hasn't properly been thought out, and seems weird when early on in the game you're loaded but the story seems to suggest that you're a poor soul with nothing. Perhaps this is the problem when you tie an in depth and rigid story into a free roaming sandbox game.
GTA IV offers a fun online multiplayer mode for an additional layer. This new feature for the series is a welcome one, to those gamer who have Xbox Live. There's certainly a lot of scope here for mass mayhem, although sadly the activities from the single player are absent. This could have added even more variety to proceedings (8 player bowling matches would have been great). Part of me feels that the time and effort spared to creating the multiplayer has meant those gamers who are after GTA IV for the single player experience are short changed. There's less single player gameplay but a multiplayer mode instead - seems to be something a lot of developers are doing nowadays. In some respects this is OK but having a single player experience that suffers as a result is certainly not good in my view.
GTA IV is obviously the best looking of the series to date, but this is to be expected. The main problems I have here is that although we have a very nice looking game world, that's full of neat touches here and there; we're lacking in the gameplay department. Elements from previous games have been left out, when they should have been refined and incorporated somehow as optional elements to please those who expected them and cater to those who weren't so keen the last time. The key word here is refinement. It's almost as if Rockstar have focused on making a beautiful looking city and then ran out of budget/time to add gameplay features.
Isn't this the story of current generation games? We're getting the same games with a makeover with little new features being added. We're expected to wet ourselves at how lovely these games are looking. In GTA IV's case its sad that the new features added to make a more realistic world don't really count as much in terms of actual gameplay. How many times are you going to watch the same TV programs in game or get the same lap dance animations before you tire of it and never bother with them again?
GTA IV isn't perfect as you'll notice a some pop ups, dips in frame rates and graphical hic-ups from time to time. In fact my game has frozen on me several times and is highly frustrating when you are in the middle of a mission. Luckily the auto save feature does a reasonable job. These issues, do not really affect gameplay too much (other than the freezing) and can be forgiven, but it's certainly a black mark on what is predominantly a grand looking game.
GTA games have been renowned for their soundtrack, which encompass the time period the game is set in. GTA III had the modern mix down to a tee and GTA Vice City captured the 80s perfectly. Sadly GTA IV is a mix and match of radio stations that play music from across the board. To me this loses a lot of potential identity with the game world and to be honest there are few recognizable tunes on offer for my tastes (Alexander O'neal - Criticise, anyone?) The ambiance of the city is very good and you'll feel immersed into the game world even by standing on a street corner and hearing the NPCs go about their aimless activities. It's all very alive in this respect.
The voice acting is also of a very high standard, although this is something we expect when we've had great performances in the previous games.
I've not really gone into too much depth about the game, but I must say that after spending lots of hours in Liberty City I'm not left overly excited like I was prior to the game's release. Yes, that sounds weird , but perhaps my expectations were a lot higher, especially after already being spoiled with Crackdown, Saints Row and to a lesser extent TESIV Oblivion. GTA IV has tons of gameplay features stripped away and although we're left with a technical marvel, when we look at what really counts (the gameplay) we're left short changed. The new additions don't really carry much weight and we're kind of stuck in Niko's shoes without ever being able to deviate too much. This is the game's biggest shortcoming and feels restrictive even though it shouldn't. Rockstar's striving for realism has left us in a full but empty world devoid of stuff to do once you've beaten the story or spent a while exploring off the beaten track. There's no alternative purpose to the game and this is a shame. On a technical level GTA IV is awesome with all those neat details, but really this is to be expected from this generation of consoles. There's nothing here that really does scream at you - that's amazing! Maybe my expectations of something amazing has got the better of me, perhaps Rockstar weren't trying to innovate. In this regard, GTA IV delivers, but in my view still has plenty of room for improvement.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 05/05/08
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (US, 04/29/08)
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