Review by ramsiverse

"An Important Game"


“An Important Game”

Rating: 9

The Grand Theft Auto series is definitive. Literally, most other sandbox titles are compared to GTA. “It's like GTA on Mars!” or “It's like Grand Theft Auto without guns or cars, but it's in Italy!” What an achievement Rockstar has done. With such an important series, they knew they had to take great care with its venture into the seventh generation of hardware. For those too busy to read the rest of my review, I'll sum up by saying that Rockstar has done it again. They created an immersive experience and broke new ground in narrative and cinematic quality, while keeping the gameplay moderately satisfying and fun to play.

Cinematic Quality
Games have come a long way in how their stories are told. Remember when the story of the game was in the manual? I remember making up my own plot for Mario, Metroid, Dino Riki… all the way up to Driver (PS). Narrative has often been pushed aside for the sake of gameplay. RPG's would attempt to tell a complex, dramatic story, but would usually separate these moments of exposition from the gameplay, meaning you were reading/watching, or playing. Enter Grand Theft Auto 4 for the blend.

Not to say there aren't cut-scenes; there are many of them, and are used to further the plot, but the entire game is the story, full of subtle exposition and open-ended interpretations. The game is what you make of it. Some may ignore narrative and take it as a sandbox game, review its graphics and gameplay, and call it decent. But I see this as a novel attempt on Rockstar's part to progress video gaming as a whole.

It's the little things that make this game great. Your character, Niko Bellic, is a Balkan war vet immigrated to Liberty City. The GTA games have relied on the “fish out of water” narrative to introduce you to the city and its people, and GTA4 is no exception. The only difference is that Niko is in America for the first time. You're introduced to a whole new country, and are shown Niko's struggles with his new home. For the entire game, he is unhappy with what he is doing; his life of violence has followed him across the ocean. Niko's character is what you want him to be. You interpret his involuntary actions how you see him, your Niko Bellic. When he hits a pedestrian with his car and shouts, “Sorry!”, was it sarcastic or genuine? I chose to interpret it as genuine. My Niko regretted having to kill for money and was the reasonable one amongst his troubled friends. I could list dozens of examples, but that pretty well sums up my point. The game doesn't allow you to look ridiculous by becoming overweight, dressed in only heart boxers and cowboy boots with a blond Mohawk while you fight to save your cousin‘s life. GTA4 limits Niko's possible actions purposely for the narrative freedom you are entitled to.

The ending is probably one of the best I've ever played. The final scene is short and melancholy, but it's the subtext that makes it amazing. “You've won!”, they say (the trophy says it too), but won what? Why go on? The only time I visited that island was on that final mission, and how appropriate to leave you there at the end. Then all I was left to do was shoot pigeons and make money. I can see what Niko's life will be after I turn off the game. The rest of your actions as Niko, whether it's dating, shooting, or racing, all seem like desperate failures at replacing something he lost.

Aesthetic Presentation
This is where I cover graphics, sound, and design. Visually, GTA4 doesn't seem too impressive. It doesn't measure up to the crisp style of Assassin's Creed or Infamous, but I understand why. Rockstar opted to make Liberty City more…accessible rather than visually stunning. With the occasional exception, Liberty City is devoid of pop-up scenery, a very difficult task, programming-wise. There's so much going on in Liberty City; improved graphics would have taken away from these elements. A wise choice, I feel, but I do sometimes wince at the cheap textures during cut scenes. They were able to have Niko convey emotion in his facial expressions, however, which was critical in the story elements I droned on about above.

The sound is perfect. I don't know all the technical specifications, but it's clearly recorded in very high quality. There is no buzzing while characters are talking, all the levels are pitch-perfect, and the voice acting is outstanding. I'll be honest, though; I miss James Woods. And Sam Jackson. They added a lot to San Andreas, but I suppose GTA4 doesn't need them. All the actors are perfect for their parts. I wonder if they did the motion acting during recording like Uncharted did, because the characters' movements match what they're saying. My favorite character is Brucie, partly for his wild gesturing. He's an energetic steroid-junkie that Niko sees right through. “You know why I work out so much, NB?” “Because you're insecure? That's okay, though…” Even the echoing of the city is perfect. Things in tunnels sound like they should, in a tunnel. Even if you walk out of the tunnel while talking, the sound adjusts appropriately. The soundtrack is decent, but I'm not going to go out and buy it like I did for Vice City. And there are far too many radio stations. I hate having to scroll through the 18 stations to find the 3 that I actually like.

The load times are reasonable, especially considering what they're there for. You've got an 80-second startup load time, then short points before a mission or when you skip a taxi ride. Otherwise, you can drive around the city all you like and never be interrupted. I remember the old PS2 days where each island required loading… Going back to Infamous again, which did have amazing graphics, Cole wasn't driving through the city, so there was less to load at any given time. Rockstar pushed the PS3 to its limits of graphical capability. Some have complained about the frame rate. I rarely ran into this problem, and if I did, it wasn't consistent. I also managed to get through the game glitch-free, quite the accomplishment in a GTA title. I also like auto-saving, which was a problem in the past. I hated having to save before doing absolutely anything; taking the time to locate a save point and wait while it saved took a lot from the gameplay in previous GTA games.

The Gameplay!
This is where it's at. All of what I've mentioned is negligible if the gameplay sucks. Good news is that it doesn't. I love playing this game. I'll make it simple though:

The physics. I decided to boot up San Andreas before writing this review just to see how far the series has come, and gained a lot of appreciation for GTA4 this way. The cars in SA were fast, fun, and sturdy, but nothing like real cars. Completely re-vamping the games' physics, all the cars feel like they should. It takes some getting used to, but it's interesting. In SA, your driving skill leveled up the more you drove, indicated by a bar at the top of the screen. Here, you get better at handling curves and accelerating, but it's entirely cerebral. You, the gamer, level up. I like that. They also changed the character physics. Niko gains and loses momentum, sprints about as fast as a normal human being can, and even turns the steering wheel realistically. When you hit a pedestrian (or get hit yourself), the character doesn't just “splat” onto the pavement. They react disturbingly like real people.

Navigation. With such a big city, Rockstar made it easier to get where you're going. In addition to the blip on the edge of your radar, you're given the most direct, legal path to your destination. Follow it to your liking, or take a shortcut through the park and the line will adjust in seconds to your new position. One of the best features is the taxi. You can now hail a taxi and ride to wherever you want to go in seconds rather than driving yourself. Not to say that driving isn't fun; it's just nice to skip around on occasion.

Shooting. Since you do a lot of it throughout the game, it's great that shooting is so fun. You've got a priority-based auto-aiming system as well as instant manual aiming. You can take cover behind just about anything, which is done well. Shooting while driving has been re-vamped, and it's about as difficult as it should be. You can now shoot at anything you're looking at, and you can change weapons! This is something I've been waiting for since GTA3. Granted, you can only use 4 different weapons, but I'm still pleased with this.

Realism. Wait, what? Realism? Here? No… Let me explain. Remember the PS2 game The Getaway? It has the most realistic driving in any game I've played to date. There were many elements in that game which provided a realistic gaming experience. However, the game kinda sucked. It was too realistic, you see. When you crashed into another car at 90 mph, your car was done for. That's not fun. However, lack of realism can detract from a game, like how the Majini bubble up and melt in RE5. It takes away from the feeling of “being in the game”. GTA4 found the perfect place in between. “Real” elements include your cell phone, which you use to arrange missions and meetings with other characters. It's a neat sensation to pull out your phone to see what time it is, just like in real life. Also, if you hang around the scene of a crime, your wanted level goes up. That‘s kinda cool. “Not so real” elements that are there for the sake of keeping the game playable are the on-screen radar and inability to die permanently. Made too real, the game wouldn't be as fun.

There are so many little things that I enjoy about this game. I was on foot at one point when I saw a message at the top of the screen: “Give $10”. I hadn't noticed the jazz-playing NPC there, but went ahead and gave him the money. It's a perfect analogy for all the tiny things that are easy to miss while going through the game, but are there anyway. Liberty City is vast, with more going on than you see. You have email, too, which is mostly optional, but I like that it's there. You sometimes receive emails from Niko's Mom, again adding to the optional exposition.

So much to do. The great thing about sandbox games is that there's a lot to do, and you have the freedom to do them in the order you wish. GTA4 went a bit too far with the optional side tasks. They cut a lot of things from San Andreas, such as physique, hair, respect, ambulance and fire truck missions, airplanes, leveling up, territory, and property, but kept clothing, racing, vigilante missions (well done, btw), and dating. Yes, dating… You also have friends, which are just like dates. My complaint is that your friends and dates are too needy. They'll call you to hang out, and if you decline, you lose favor with them. “Hanging out” involves a mini-game of pool, darts, or bowling (all fun when you get used to them), or drinking. You have to make sure to hang out with them if you want their “special abilities”, which are often not even worth it. However, there are trophies to be had by doing this, so it's a tough choice. I also don't like the Mafia storyline. A lot of names are thrown around, deals are done, betrayals, etc. that make it hard to follow. I end up working for people that I don't remember. It's not too important to keep up with, but I feel I'm missing something. Also, the “hidden packages” in this game are replaced by pigeons that you shoot. This is a real pain, as they're so small and well-hidden that a guide is required if you want to find them. All for a trophy. Lame.

Too much money. From start to finish, I never once needed money. There's simply very little to spend it on, and once you beat a particular mission halfway through the game, you're pretty much loaded anyway. You need money for guns, but you often get enough from your dead enemies. Food, taxis, clothes, and dates all require very little of your hard-earned cash, and yet Niko constantly asserts his need for more. It smells like a cheap plot device to keep Niko working.

Some little things bug me, like the redundancy of the missions. There are about 90 story missions, and most of them involve driving somewhere, shooting a bunch of guys, or chasing. I'm having trouble remembering any missions that don't involve these things. San Andreas didn't have this problem. What happened? I also hate that the cops can be so hard to lose. I welcome the change from the simple “find a pay n' spray” way to losing them, but it sucks when you're on your way to something, bump into a cop car, and have to spend a few minutes getting far enough away from them. Losing a 3-star wanted level can feel at times impossible, taking up to 15 minutes of real time. Changing clothes has become a big hassle, as well. You have to cycle through them one by one till you find what outfit you're looking for. It takes a second to put it on, too, so you'll end up spending minutes on something that could have taken a few seconds. I usually just stuck to the gray suit.

To Conclude
GTA4 is an important game. Video games have evolved into a form of art with titles such as Braid, Heavy Rain, Bioshock, and Assassin's Creed introducing concepts such as symbolism, subtlety and complex emotion, while evolving the way stories are told. Who knew that Grand Theft Auto 4 could be so groundbreaking? I really wasn't expecting to be blown away, or to feel anything other than excitement, anger, and satisfaction from this series. What I found were genuine feelings of anxiety, ambiguity, regret and revenge. At one point I found myself furious for letting a bad guy get away after what he had done, about what he represented, despite “his” virtual nature. Not all games get this kind of rise from me. Film and TV has done this for a long time, and continues to do so, but now video games are providing a similar, but more involved experience.

GTA4 provides numerous types of challenges familiar to the series and gaming in general, but it's the emotional challenges I'll remember. Deciding which of your friends you must choose to kill, then the infamous meeting near the end with the man you've been looking for the whole time. I allowed myself to be immersed in the world of GTA4 and feel I got what the developers attempted to create. Novelist Salman Rushdie (a Super Mario fan himself) said that “art is started by the artist and finished by the viewer”. This game allows me that freedom of interpretation, and feels like art in my hands.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/27/10

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (US, 04/29/08)

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