Friday 24 September 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV


Hey Niko Bellic, you "eastern European" Bosnian war veteran out to hunt down other Bosnian war veterans while fighting against Russians, Albanians and Italians... welcome to America! Why are you here? Because... erm... well... it's Grand Theft Auto IV, the 2008 spectacular aiming to prove for the fifth time that Liberty City is a great place to live, and we're too frightened to change the setting. According to Metacritic this game is two points away from perfection, and as I love other GTA games, it had to be one of my top purchases when getting an Xbox 360. Yet something doesn't feel right about this one...

One step above Super Mario Galaxy 2, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (maybe I should look into that one) and Grand Theft Auto III, there's a lot resting on GTA IV's shoulders in order to impress dear old Squirrel, and I'll say this now - GTA IV is by no means a bad game. In fact, I'd recommend it. All who can run it should buy it because few games are as immersive as this one (and you'd be hard-pressed to find games that beat it on all fronts).

Yet GTA IV doesn't seem to have lived up to expectations. Or at least my expectations. Though it's a good idea to respect an aggregate score such as metacritic instead of individual reviewers, my ever growing concern about the gaming media is that the reviewers who ultimately attach a value to games like these... don't really know what they're talking about.

I doubt many have the ability to really judge what pushes a console to its limits. If you've played 3482190432 games you can easily make comparisons, but many simply haven't and even if they have, all three billion games could be crap. There's often a certain amount of console bias. For example, GTA IV was rumoured to be a PS3 exclusive at one point, so I suspect fans of the Xbox 360 give it higher marks to make sure that doesn't happen again.

For example, GTA: San Andreas reviews seem to be a bit more trustworthy as the magazines/websites who played San Andreas probably played Vice City and GTA III, as they were all big PS2 games. You can compare it to its prequels as a result, but there's no guarantee that the Xbox 360 backers have played the PS2 entries, so it's all very new to them.

The Grand Theft Auto series has always been ranked near the top of my personal chart in terms of great video games. Even the fist and second, arguably very dated by today's standards, are fun games in my eyes and haven't aged too badly. As time goes on we've had improvements, bringing the series to 3D, giving it a more realistic feeling and adding a ton of new settings and features. And that's what made the last "main" game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, great. The only poor GTA game was GTA: London, and that's mostly due to the fact the map is so small (though it was an "expansion pack" so that might not count).

GTA has always improved through every main game iteration, and usually the improvements are obvious. So what does GTA IV bring? Better graphics and a cover system... and that's pretty much it (unless you can see a practical use for phones, internets and televisions in a game about gun and car crime). Fair enough, there's only so many things you can do with a car, but with all that extra time you can expect the other parts of the game to be refined and perfected.

Of course, there are folks out there who would read that sentence and think it's great to have additions, and it is... except more important features were taken away in the process. When I was a lad and we all played Vice City/San Andreas well before we reached the age of 18, one of the best things about the game was the cheat system. Spawn a tank, blow the crap out of everything, get the residents to kill each other or wear stupid clothes etc. Fun times, though there's none of that in GTA IV. There are only a set of very basic cheats, and none of them include the ability to create a pile of tanks. The closest you'll get is an attack helicopter, which doesn't tend to come in handy.


Liberty City is a dark, dank hell hole where people insult you as they pass by. The map is smaller than in San Andreas, and the scenery consists solely of dull urban streets and buildings, with very little diversity as you move from one side of the map to the other. Rockstar North have gone for a more realistic tone than in previous games, but lets face it - this is by no means operating under the laws of reality. There's no way these radio stations would be tolerated in real life, nor does desaturation run amok in our streets clouding our vision. I don't mind "realsim" in games and I'm not one to flip over the lack of blue sky, but gameplay should always have a higher precedence over graphics.

The immigration theme regarding Niko and his many contacts (very few of which are American), is a reoccurring one. By sticking the last two games in the past, Rockstar sadly missed the whole "war on terror" thing, but they've made it their mission to bring it up as often as possible in GTA IV, to the point where it just isn't all that funny anymore. You can't blame them for it, but you can point out that if they'd set it in the past like the others, you could have come up with something more long lasting.

But it all leads to the question I've already asked - "why is this game set in America?". Why recycle a tired city cliché in a country unrelated to any of the central characters? Is it fear that the American public wouldn't be able to place "BOSNIA" on the map? There's probably all sorts of political undertones stating that the Russians are backstabbing traitors and Yugoslavia has had difficult relations with its bordering countries (namely Albania... though I don't know if there really is any history). It would be a lot more entertaining (and educational) to have a game set in this often forgotten region of the world. As far as I know these people have cars to steal too, and nobody's done it yet.

Some changes seen in GTA IV have mixed results. For example, weapons are harder to come by (they're not hiding around on the streets or in crates this time around) but tend to last a bit longer. However, again this stops the sandbox mode from being enjoyable, because the only way to obtain weapons for free is to tackle the missions. Once you've tackled all those missions, you're faced with having to buy them yourself at your local weapons store, and predictably, they're expensive. Sure there's very little else to spend your cash on, but it's still a tedious process driving to one of these stores and slowly buying ammo.

You don't lose weapons when you're wasted or busted, but the only way to find a baseball bat for example is to track down someone on the street holding one. I was actually under the impression that melee weapons had been taken out of the game until I accidentally found someone holding one. Either way it doesn't make much difference - guns will always win and large parts of the population own some.

You also can't really use weapons at the best of times because of the way the police/life system works. Niko Bellic isn't a superhuman like previous anti-heroes - he'll be slaughtered if he's not protected from gunfire. Unfortunately the Liberty City Police Deperatment take great pride in shooting you down, drawing their weapons from two stars onwards and not stopping until you're dead. Nice new additions to the physics engine means it's possible to shoot people while they're driving, so it's almost impossible to live with a four-star wanted level (or higher).

GTA IV boasts a new cover system, which comes in handy when it behaves normally. Once again though, it's fairly useless in sandbox mode as the police will spawn from all sides and will always find a way to take you down. The police are a really big problem in GTA IV - they're stupid enough to be out-run, but come in with all guns blazing for even the most minor of crimes. You can't have fun blowing up cars because weapons that cause explosions are so hard to come by, and you can't create your own little rampages without health cheats. Truthfully, in a realistic world you'd expect this, but this was once the best part of GTA and it's now mostly impossible.

The whole system needs an overhaul. For example, if I shoot a civillian even in a closed off area, the police will likely show up. If one of the NPCs starts firing, the police will do very little. There's a couple of missions that force you to go out and take down some enemies. Except if you start doing this when the cops are around, they'll hunt you down, regardless of who fired first or who is more of a threat. I find it very frustrating that the game is still biased against you when they've had so many opportunities to make things more fair.

And it's a good point to make. Even if you accidentally hit a police car you'll gain a wanted level and they'll arrest you. That's surely not how it works in real life. The key word is "accident". There's actually a chase sequence in which you watch your target outwit a police car (resulting in an explosion, no less). Do the police call in backup to deal with the problem? Of course not.

The physics system has been completely revamped, and mostly for the better I might add. Once you get used to the fact that some big crashes will hurl Niko across the street, it's not that much different than in previous GTA games. One problem is that most of the cars in GTA IV suck, and that the lorries are death traps. The new physics engine isn't too kind to bikes either.

But there some glaring problems that don't seem to have been addressed. Fans of the PS2 games will recall that after death or capture, the street you respawn on is always devoid of life (unless you were killed outside of a hospital). This is because it takes the game awhile to spawn cars and people, and as it can't drop them in front of you for some reason, they need to drive/walk around the corner into view. This has been carried over to GTA IV too, and that's quite bad. Again, it's counterproductive to have these problems as it goes against the whole "realism" theme Rockstar were going for.

There are few likable characters in GTA IV, and many of the fun ones get shot. Everyone seems to deal in drugs and the dialogue isn't all that great this time around. For some reason Niko is forced to kill a lot of his former employers in GTA IV too - I counted seven, with a further two being killed as the game progresses. There's a lot of angsty revenge in the atmosphere and everyone can hazard a guess on how the story might end. I don't know why all the characters seem to hate Ray Boccino. I hate Phil Bell because he thought it would be fun to keep killing himself during that one mission.

The other problem with setting the game in 2008 is the music restrictions. In Vice City the game was pumped up with 80s music for the nostalgia factor. In GTA IV it's difficult to know exactly what music defined the decade, so there's a big variety, most of it sucking because Rockstar probably didn't have the rights to play anything from that time. There's quite a lot of chatshows, which brings me onto another long standing GTA grudge - every time you turn on the console the radio starts from the same position, so you hear the same conversations time and time again. Surely we can fix that these days.

But despite the many weird choices and design flaws, GTA IV still ends up being one of the best games ever conceived. It has ten minutes worth of credits, so it's clear an enormous amount of effort went in to creating all of its in game content. In fact, the game manages to be "bigger" despite having a smaller map to work with, it's just let down by the fact important features were taken out. It's a generally fun game to play and I can only sit here and criticise it because the last two titles were video game legends. The multiplayer mode is probably great too.

I'd place good money on the idea that the next game will fix up most of these issues, anyway. Considering there were eventually five PS2 GTA games released for the console, I'd like to think another GTA game (that isn't an expansion pack) will show up before this generation is done. And it'll probably be perfect.

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