Review by BloodGod65

"The Series Matures… And Loses Its Soul in the Process"

Grand Theft Auto was, inarguably, the most influential series of the previous generation. The third title, a massive reboot of an obscure franchise, took the game away from its top-down roots and into three dimensions, while creating a massive, living world for players to move around in and interact with. Not only was Grand Theft Auto III critically praised, it turned into a system seller and ended up becoming so popular it spawned two full blown spin-offs that targeted distinct periods of American history.

With such an outstanding pedigree, not to mention millions of fans, it was a given that Grand Theft Auto would eventually make its way to the next generation of consoles. The fact that this is the first numbered entry since the release of GTA III back in 2001 speaks volumes about Rockstar's intent for the game; it is not a spin-off but a total franchise reboot. Indeed, Rockstar's rejuvenation of this monumental franchise finally fixes many of the issues that have plagued the series since it first stepped into three dimensions. However, these gains have not come without their own costs; many of the best aspects of Grand Theft Auto have been lost in translation. At the risk of sounding overly ominous, this is definitely not the Grand Theft Auto you remember and it might not be the Grand Theft Auto you loved.

Like all of the Grand Theft Auto games, Rockstar's latest opus takes on the various flaws and foibles of American culture. This time, the developer takes aim at one of the biggest questions about American culture, one that drives to the very center of the nation's soul - What is the state of the American dream?

The game begins with an Eastern European immigrant named Niko Bellic coming to Liberty City at the behest of his cousin Roman. Roman has been in Liberty for quite some time and he writes to Niko that he is living the American dream to its fullest, with all the cars, money and women he can handle. Niko, somewhat naively, buys into this. Once he arrives he quickly realizes the truth; Roman is a nobody and life is hell. Not only does Roman work at a cab company, but he's also a gambling addict with huge debts and it would appear that everyone in the city is out to get him. America is a much different place than Niko was led to believe.

Soon enough it becomes clear that Niko has his own reasons for coming to America. He's running from a violent past in his homeland, and has come to the States in hopes of tracking down those who ruined his life in Europe. But the pressures of the city soon find Niko resorting to criminality to survive, and he is soon sucked back into the life he came to America to escape.

While the stories in Grand Theft Auto have always been interesting (Grand Theft Auto III excepted), this ends up being the first problem GTA IV has. There are several contributing issue, and the first is a fundamental and critical concern; the cast of characters just isn't likeable and, in many cases, outright loathsome. Aside from Roman and Niko, all the characters just feel like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, and it would appear that everyone in the city is either part of the mob or a drug addict (or both). With a couple of exceptions, the entire cast is just a parade of bland faces lacking in personality. Eventually they all start to run together and it becomes hard to remember which crew some mobster is working for or why one group hates the other.

It's also worth mentioning that the narrative is a drastic departure from earlier games in terms of tone. Previous games have all been unafraid to get a little goofy while parodying American culture, but Rockstar has eliminated that lighthearted and sometimes gonzo element. Part of it traces back to the lack of good characters, as the game doesn't contain any memorably crazy personae like the Truth or Diaz. Rockstar also shuts the lighter side out through every other avenue through which it has traditionally been delivered. Suffice it to say, Rockstar's pursuit of maturity has robbed the game of its characteristic wit – something that has been an important aspect of the series in the past. I see it as a problem of the developers taking themselves too seriously; like a movie producer trying to transition from comedy to drama, Rockstar is so focused on being taken seriously they've abandoned many of the devices that made their work interesting and enjoyable in the first place.

Though it tries to make up for its inadequacies by containing lots of events and people, the story is still a disappointment. The whole narrative lacks Rockstar's signature ability to craft unique, compelling characters and the plot itself eventually devolves into a cliched mess of betrayal, drugs and feuding mobsters. But, in the end, it is the horrendous characters that really sink the game. No matter what form of entertainment you look at, if the characters aren't interesting, if they don't resonate or at least entertain, then it is impossible to care about the events at hand. The story fails on another level as well; many of the most important events in the game pass quickly and sometimes not another word is spoken about it. This problem even affects the game's climax, effectively neutering the entire scene. Despite potentially being the most emotional part of the game, the whole event lacks any impact because of its brevity and because of how little concern the characters show.

While the narrative is uncharacteristically bland in comparison to the last few games, the gameplay itself has changed nearly as much, though a quick glance would belie the breadth of these alterations. Like the cities of previous games, Liberty is divided up into several large islands that open up as you progress. Progression is still tied to the completion of missions that usually have Niko driving across the city to meet or find random people before killing them. But beyond this, Grand Theft Auto IV feels like a completely different game than its predecessors, which can be both good and bad.

Several of these changes have been desperately needed since the very beginning and Rockstar deserves praise for finally rectifying the most consistent issues of the series. The most praiseworthy change is undoubtedly the new targeting system. Players can opt to use a targeting system in the vein of what GTA games have traditionally offered but the better option is to turn it off. With the lock-on targeting mechanic gone, players can use a control scheme very similar to the Resident Evil 4 over the shoulder camera. This makes it easier to target enemies and completely eliminates the notorious problem of scrolling through every onscreen character to target the one shooting you. This alone makes the firefights more enjoyable than they've ever been, but Rockstar has added a tactical element as well.

Niko has the ability to take cover on nearly any surface. Naturally, this makes the gunplay more interesting, as Niko ducks in and out of cover trying to get a shot off while enemies shoot back. Unfortunately, taking cover doesn't work quite as well as the RE4 style targeting setup. Getting in and out of cover can be awkward, and Niko will often snap to the wrong object when he's in a tight space. It can sometimes be a nuisance, but the cover system is effective more often than not.

Rockstar has also addressed the outdated wanted system. In previous games, attracting heat meant cops would relentlessly pursue the player and they could somehow home in on your location no matter where you ran. The new wanted system is best described as a game of cat and mouse. When Niko commits a crime, and is spotted, the cops will be alerted. A zone is then established in the city circling the area Niko was last seen. If Niko can escape this area and lay low for a while, the heat will disappear. As the number of wanted stars increase, the zone becomes larger and the number of responding officers grows. As in previous games, a higher number of stars means more drastic action - SWAT teams are called in and helicopters will hover overhead. But at level one, cops will merely try to arrest Niko without firing a single shot. You can choose to stand still and let the arrest occur or try to run. Go the latter route and things will heat up in a hurry.

All of these changes are for the better, but Grand Theft Auto IV stumbles in other areas. It's unfortunate that one of the biggest problems is with the missions. Over the past few entries, Rockstar had become very good at creating compelling and exciting missions. In San Andreas it seemed like they all turned into some rollercoaster ride of gun battles, car chases and tense moments. Almost none of that returns for GTAIV. Rockstar has, in an attempt to become more serious and mature in their storytelling, lost much of the fun involved in previous games. The overwhelming majority of the story missions simply involve driving from place to place and, if you're lucky, shooting a few people in between. In the entire game – containing over fifty hours of playtime and close to one hundred missions - I could count the number that were exciting on one hand. This is an astounding disappointment not only because it is completely uncharacteristic for Rockstar, but because the game mechanics are finally up to the job of handling the crazy scenarios of previous games.

Because the main missions are an unmitigated disappointment, many people will look to side activities to make up for it. But I'm afraid there's not much to find in the new Liberty City. Many of the GTA side activity mainstays such as ambulance and fire truck missions are gone, as is anything introduced in Vice City and San Andreas. The few traditional side activities that are still left include taxi and vigilante missions along with racing.

The beloved character customization of San Andreas has also been minimized to the point that player choice is nearly negligible. In the whole of Liberty City, there are only a few clothing stores that provide limited options. Other things, like barber shops and tattoo parlors, have been eliminated entirely. While this doesn't hurt the gameplay, it will be a disappointment for anyone who enjoyed customizing CJ in San Andreas. Overall, I'm not so much disappointed by the fact that Rockstar decided to take these things out as I am dismayed by the things they brought in to replace them.

The limited player-NPC interaction (dating) of San Andreas has been fleshed out and implemented as the be-all, end-all replacement to the many things Rockstar has eliminated. Soon after arriving in Liberty City, Niko gets his hands on a cell phone and this ends up being his lifeline to anyone and everyone of importance. The phone can be used for a variety of things like taking pictures, receiving texts and, believe it or not, calling people. This comes in handy because Niko will soon have numerous acquaintances and friends - all of whom want something before helping him out.

Characters often call Niko to let him know missions are available or text important information. But the biggest use for the phone is calling friends and setting up dates. Once their name is pulled up on the phone menu, you can then choose to invite them to a number of different activities like going to a cabaret club, comedy show or strip joint. There are also options to do things like go bowling, shoot darts, play pool or just go to a bar or a restaurant. Many of these things are completely passive on the player's part. Once you've picked up your friend and driven to the place, you do nothing. In the case of bowling, darts and pool, you do at least get to play the appropriate game. But the fact that the game takes the action out of the players hands is a real turnoff and in the end, most of these things are just no fun to do. Sure, going to a comedy club to see digital versions of Katt Williams or Ricky Gervais is fun the first couple of times, but then the acts start repeating. And going to a strip club to ogle some digital boobies is just juvenile.

But Rockstar has implemented a few perks to hanging out with friends, so you'll have to suffer through these mind-numbingly awful activities in order to benefit from them. Once a friend likes him enough, Niko will be granted the ability to call in a favor from him. These favors vary from friend to friend; Cousin Roman will send a cab to take Niko anywhere he wants, free of charge, while another character will drive to Niko's location in a car full of discount firearms. I was often forced to slog through these terrible little dates just so I could keep the nice perks of having friends. Although, come to think of it, this might be some sly social commentary on Rockstar's part… Either way, the whole thing is devoid of fun and doesn't serve as a good alternative to the traditional side activities of GTA.

There are some other things players can do that aren't related to friends. Internet cafes are scattered throughout Liberty and players can stop in and check their email or surf the web. There are hundreds of websites to browse through, but once again there's almost no reason to do so. You can go to the website of a car dealership or clothing store, but you can't actually buy anything. You can check out a dating service site to hook up with other people in Liberty, but that just means wasting time on the aforementioned dates and activities. Niko can also choose to stay at home and watch television. There are several channels with numerous programs. Some, like Republican Space Rangers, are good for a laugh but the whole idea of sitting in one place, watching TV while playing a video game seems fundamentally idiotic to me. If I'm playing a game, I want to be playing the game! The sheer number of pointless additions makes me wonder what Rockstar was thinking during the development process.

There are a few final noteworthy tweaks to the game. Some are just fun, others are extraordinarily helpful. One interesting thing is that players can now hail a cab and jump in rather than drive to a destination. Given that Liberty is so big and the game requires so much driving from point to point, it's nice that you can just skip from place to place. Other changes are even more helpful; failing a mission is no longer a hassle. In previous games you would have to drive back to the mission start area, but now you just receive a text and can restart the mission from anywhere you want. There is also now an autosave feature that saves between missions. Again, because the city is so big, this is a nice way to avoid the monotony of going back and forth to safe houses. It's doubly appreciated since you only get a few safe houses over the course of the game and you can't buy any more, as in previous games.

Regardless of how the game actually plays and how it compares to previous games, Grand Theft Auto IV is a technical achievement. The city itself looks great and is among the best looking open world games I've ever seen. The amount of detail Rockstar has poured into it is just astounding. And, because Liberty is just an alternate take on New York, you can expect to see many thinly disguised landmarks; the Statue of Liberty is now the Statue of Happiness and instead of holding a torch, she's holding a big gulp soft drink. Times Square is also present and is just as garish and overwhelming as its real world counterpart.

GTAIV gets more impressive when you aren't looking at the big picture. Even little things have been given lots of attention. Car damage is realistic and organic; if you get sideswiped you'll see the marks and any collision realistically impacts how the car looks. Hit a pedestrian and you can see a small dent in your front bumper. You might even see a dent in the hood where their head bounced off - complete with blood splatter (this is as good a time as any to mention GTA is still totally unfit for children). If you get t-boned, the whole side of your car will be crumpled.

Niko's animations are also extraordinary. They are very realistic so he has his own distinct walk, and when walking up and down stairs his feet will actually touch the steps - and how he does this even changes according to how fast he's moving. One of my favorite demonstrations of how dedicated Rockstar was comes when Niko crashes while riding a motorcycle. As he flies through the air, he'll curl up into a ball and then bounce along the pavement.

For me, the most impressive thing about GTAIV is just how alive Liberty City feels. There is an unbelievable sense of randomness and reality to the game. Just taking Niko for a stroll around the block is enough to demonstrate how much time and effort went into creating this atmosphere. Hot dog vendors shout out to passing pedestrians, people may sit on benches and read newspapers, or eat and drink as they walk along. You might see a driver roll down their window and toss out an empty soda bottle or watch an oblivious pedestrian walk out into oncoming traffic and get creamed. Other times the driver might react fast enough to stop and only nudge them, at which point the pedestrian might stumble in shock or put a hand on the hood to keep from falling over. Police even pull over other drivers and search their cars. This randomness even carries over to firefights. Pedestrians will scatter and enemies react realistically to their wounds; I once shot a guy standing on the balcony but my aim was off and I hit him in the leg. He stumbled and fell two stories to the ground. Since GTAIII, Rockstar has tried to create increasingly realistic worlds but this is the first time they've created something that actually feels alive.

With that in mind, it's a shame that there are a few persistent glitches to be found. Some environments have a tendency to blink in and out, object popup is noticeable and there are numerous bad cases of texture loading. After playing this and Midnight Club Los Angeles, I would guess that these are problems with the graphics engine itself (both run off the same engine).

As always the audio is great, but it is a huge departure from previous games. The star studded voice actor list is… well, not so star studded any more. You'll find no Hollywood celebrities in important roles, but the game still has several famous people performing minor parts, usually those of comedians and DJ's. I've already mentioned Katt Williams and Ricky Gervais. There are some more, like Iggy Pop as the DJ on the rock radio channel. However, all of the voice actors do an excellent job, so nothing has been lost by not using Hollywood celebrities (and a lot of money was probably saved).

Speaking of the radio, there are plenty of channels to choose from - classic and alt rock, rap, and a Russian radio channel among others. But, like every other game that takes place in Liberty City, the music list is a little eclectic and there aren't as many well known artists as there are in the era-specific GTA's.

It's also worth reiterating one of my main gripes with the story here - it just isn't that funny. The radio has traditionally been where most of the satire is found. While that hasn't changed, most of it just feels lazy for Rockstar. Expect to hear a lot of lame quips about prescription drugs and cheating housewives.

In the end, Grand Theft Auto IV is both a triumph and a disappointment. Rockstar has finally given their premier series the overhaul it has needed since inception, but in doing so they've also lost much of its magic. While I'm not averse to change, this iteration feels completely different than the Grand Theft Auto I've come to love. The series that has become known for irreverent and wild American satire has turned a new, more mature leaf. Yes, the satire is still here but it is much darker, bleak to the point of passing cynicism and verging on nihilistic territory. But then, maybe this is just an example of Rockstar doing what it does best - tuning into the American psyche for any given era. This bleak look at the American dream is a frighteningly apt take on the nation America has become - fearful, xenophobic and backward. So, as much as Vice City was a take on the glitz and materialism of the eighties, how San Andreas was a look at the struggle of impoverished urban neighborhoods, gang warfare and the drug crisis of the nineties, GTAIV is a snapshot of our time and its inherent paranoia and apathy.

But what about the game as a whole? The gameplay mechanics are stronger than ever but the things that made me love the series in spite of its faults are gone. The improvements that were steadily built up through Vice City and San Andreas are also gone, replaced by the same stark minimalism and bland mission design of GTAIII. From a technical standpoint, GTAIV is good. Playing it can be an entirely different story. It has its moments, but most of the time it is as bleak and depressing as its subject matter. Grand Theft Auto has changed, and I for one don't care for the new direction.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 07/19/10

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

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