Review by Zipp_Dementia
"More of a step sideways than a step forward"
Grand Theft Auto IV marks a sort've reboot of the series, revamping the famed Liberty City and taking a more realistic approach to its characters, rather than its established camp feel. I like the change. The characters had motivations, they changed over time, there were even a few moments where I felt SORRY for them and their terrible situations. This GTA has a far darker story, and a more viable one, in terms of an actual plot. It even has branching story paths.
Okay, so that's a plus. And the game itself isn't bad. Of course it isn't. I mean, it's Grand Theft Auto, how bad can it be? As long as I get to drive around killing people and running away from enraged cops, I'm satisfied. Yet, as with all GTA games, the minute I beat it I start to wonder why I own it. And with the revamp of the game comes a revamp of my reservations.
The first thing I began to notice was that the missions weren't quite satisfying. This has been a problem for a while now in the series. GTA III was amazing, despite its numerous glitches and the poor controls outside of the vehicle. Ever since then, subsequent games have tacked on more and more spectacular scenes (with San Andreas being frankly ridiculous) while somehow managing to feel more and more stodgy. GTA: IV is perhaps the least exciting of all the games, despite having the most precise controls to date.
Part of the issue, and this is an issue I have with many modern games, was in the pacing. Many missions started with long driving scenes across the city and ended with a very quick shoot out. This is the correct pacing for a movie, which uses these kind of scenes to build suspense, but not the correct pacing for a video game, no matter how cinematic. A video game is meant to be played. We are meant to be challenged by something every step of the way. That's called content.
In terms of content, GTA games used to have a fairly formulaic set up to their missions. You'd have to get somewhere within a time limit while being chased by someone (usually the cops). Rockstar has continually tried to move away from this formula, but I'm not quite sure why. It's a good formula. It works. It's fun. GTA:IV moves the furthest away from this, and it suffers as a result. You have to go out of your way to provoke cop chases (and even further out of your way to maintain them) and there's barely a single mission with a time limit. So what are we left with?
Most of GTA:IV is spent driving people to destinations with not much going on in the interim. The gunfights are impressive, using a Gears of War cover system that works very well, but with the focus on combat, we sort've lose the "Auto" part of the game. The cars are simply transportation, no longer serving as the high speed vehicles of death the games originally had them be.
Sticking with my complaints about the police, I really didn't like the new "net" system that GTA:IV utilizes. In this system, when you gain wanted stars, rather than police spawning more rapidly around your position, a circle appears on the radar, with police moving around in and near it. If you can escape the circle and avoid police contact, the stars all go away. Certainly this is a little more realistic than the whole "drive like a madman to the nearest hideout or paint shop" but it's also less fun. It took the chase out of the game. Instead, enraging cops becomes a game of hide and seek, and felt inappropriate for the GTA series.
Another area where content takes a blow is in the city itself. Though beautifully rendered and meticulously detailed, Liberty City is lacking. Any time a game feels obligated to include an option to skip everything in between you and your goal (AKA Taxi cabs), you know there's something wrong. This is what I call the "Oblivion" dilemma. Certainly the city was pretty, but it had little use. You can have the most amazing setting ever, but if it's not utilized, than it's all just background. Sort've like going to an amusement park to use the bathrooms.
One of the few things I did miss from San Andreas was the gang wars. With so much emphasis placed on GTA:IV's cover system, I'm surprised that it wasn't showcased more. Not only would Gang Wars have provided this, but they also would've given more use to the city itself. The architecture begs to be utilized in death match scenarios.
Yes, yes, I know... there's multiplayer. And, yes, it is awesome. But two things bug me about it. One, the cover system simply doesn't translate. I quickly discovered that using cover online was the fastest way to get shot in the arm or leg twenty times (repeat until dead). Also, the player base is spread out over three different systems and, as much as I hate to admit it, the PS3 didn't get the majority of that player base. The multiplayer is defenitely designed with ten or more combatants in mind. Fighting one on one just isn't exciting.
Getting back to content, GTA:IV tries to fill itself out with mini games and maintainable relationships.
First, the mini games. I do have to say GTA:IV has an impressive array of mini games, from bowling to pool and darts. But there are more complex and focused versions of all these games released on every system, from the Wii to the Xbox 360. And it strikes me that anyone who is seriously interested in playing simulated billiards probably owns one of those better versions. For me, the mini games fell into a similar category as the television programs that you could watch at your apartment: warning signs that I was spending too much time by myself. Seriously, the day I plug in a video game in order to watch television FROM WITHIN the video game is the day I've been without a girlfriend for far too long.
Speaking of girlfriends... the goddamn relationships. I hate these. Nothing killed the pace of the game for me more than getting a call from some annoying NPC asking me to take them out, when I'm just minutes from attempting an assasination. Halt everything! Put away your guns and put on a suit, drive all the way BACK across the city, pick up the bastard NPC, take them out to a boring dinner, and get treated to the lamest excuse for a sex scene that I've ever seen.
Or you can tell them to screw off. You can even put them on ignore so they don't call you, so I guess I can't slight Rockstar for including them. What gets me is that these relationships make up a huge percent of the supposed content. Which means that the content of GTA:IV was mostly pointless driving around to diners and lack-a-luster mini games. And for me, picking up a girl and driving her to watch digitalized comedy or play a thinned out version of Wii bowling just doesn't cut it.
On a related note, the clothing stores make a reappearance but most of the clothes make you look like an old man who gets his fashion sense from American Apparel ads. What happened to the wide selection of clothing and appearance from San Andreas? I understand taking out the weight system and even the tatoos and haircuts... but the clothes in GTA:IV plain suck.
Like I said, I enjoy the realism of the story in GTA:IV, but it seems like Rockstar tried to carry that realism into every other aspect of the game. Thus, you get crappy clothes, annoying girlfriends, cop chases that mostly involving sitting in one space and waiting for your problems to go away, and long pointless drives across a traffic jammed city. I think developers need to go back to simple basics and start remembering what it is that makes games fun. Like I said earlier, no GTA game is a bad game, but ironically the more Rockstar tries to add to them, the blander they seem to get. Grand Theft Auto IV takes one step in the right direction with its story, does some interesting things online, but ultimately moves further away from what made the originals so addictive.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 10/24/08
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (US, 04/29/08)
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