Review by phishface

"A backwards step for the wonderful GTA series"

This review can be summed up in one well worn phrase: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. So much has been abandoned in this latest instalment of the GTA series, and for no readily apparent reason, that a measure of criticism is inevitable.

Those familiar with the previous GTA titles will know broadly what to expect – a large sandbox playing area, beautifully realized in intricate detail; a protagonist with no qualms about getting involved in all kinds of criminal activity; a selection of weapons and vehicles; a wry sense of humor, usually directed at all things American, delivered via radio and TV stations, billboards, and conversations with NPCs.

You progress through the story by taking missions from various different people, and there are the usual interesting (though often rather long) cut scenes. From street punk to crime lord, as per usual. Rarely has the basic premise of a game been so familiar to so many gamers.

However, players of GTA San Andreas will notice much that is missing, and the list is long: no wide range of apparel (there are only three different clothing shops, with limited selections); no haircuts, tattoos, watches, planes, tanks (or any other military vehicle or personnel), chainsaws, swords, bicycles, flamethrowers, diving underwater, jet-packs, open country, parachutes, silenced weapons, property deals, casinos and gambling, garages, the list goes on and on. As an example of the paucity of content, try this: there are just two types of glasses, and two hats, in the whole game.

And what's replaced all that has been removed? Well, not much actually. The graphics are as good as you'd expect on a current generation game, and therefore obviously better than previous instalments. But so what? Next Gen games are expected to have good graphics. Car damage is now a little more realistic. Driving has been made more realistic too, and therefore much more difficult. You can watch TV. There's online multi-player. That's pretty much it.

That said, the missions are more interesting than in previous GTA games. It makes more sense than ever to use cover and think imaginatively about how to complete your task – for example, in one mission you can rush into a yard with guns blazing, or you can climb a nearby building and snipe your target without them ever knowing where you are. However, the frustration that has always characterised GTA mission completion is one of the features that's been kept: the interaction between controls and camera angles is often clunky, and sometimes downright obstructive. And, if you fail, you've got to redo the whole mission build-up before you can try again. This inevitably means that mission completion can get old: the first time you try, it's new and exciting; the second, third and fourth time it's just tedious and, eventually, it can get annoying.

The story is relatively good, although I found it to lack the drive of previous instalments. Essentially, you are a recently arrived immigrant who for 90% of the narrative is interested only in making money. There's a background revenge theme, but it's hardly developed beyond a handful of cut scenes. The irony of money being our (anti) hero's primary motivation is that there's virtually nothing to spend your earnings on. Potential purchases in GTAIV amount to this: food, dates, bowling, darts, pool, lap dances, weapons, clothing. Now you may say that's quite a lot to spend your money on, but it's all relatively cheap, and mostly unnecessary. There's never a feeling that you need to earn money to save up for a big purchase – there simply aren't any big purchases.

The overall sense is that this game is much, much more linear than its predecessors, because there's so much less to do. Basically, if you're not grinding through missions, then you won't have a great deal of activities to amuse yourself with other than exploring a large city area with very little in it. Sure there are hundreds of shops and cafes, but you can't go into 99% of them – they're just colourful walls. In this regard, the game reminded me of The Getaway and Driver. In San Andreas and Vice City I would often spend hours just playing around, never doing missions, just having fun. In GTAIV that isn't worthwhile. Sad, really.

There are collection side quests, if that's your thing, I guess. But forget about needing to eat when you're hungry, or working out, or spending ages getting your look ‘just right', or customizing your collection of cars. All of that has for some reason been cut.

And this brings me to the main question about GTAIV: why cut so much? Sure, not everyone enjoyed messing around with all the little details in GTA:SA, but most people did, because it gave the game both depth and longevity. Removing all that stuff undeniably makes the game less than SA, and to some extent less even than Vice City.

I imagine that Rockstar intends to release new content through downloads. Driving around, you can see barber shops and other clothes shops which could easily be converted into playable features. No doubt they'll make even more money by drip feeding us these things, though I for one feel somewhat cheated by this practice.

The GTA template is just about good enough to survive all this weight loss. It's still a good game, and there's still fun to be had. But it could have been so much better, so much more, and you may agree with me that when compared to other games in the series (and other games which have copied the franchise) it seems rather empty and bland.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 05/06/08

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

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