Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

It seems every couple of years a game comes along that the majority of the industry can rally around. Games like Halo, Goldeneye, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Metroid Prime, and Super Mario 64 are all universally recognized as timeless classics that pushed the boundaries of the gaming medium. With Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar is hoping to create another timeless and endearing gaming experience that will recognized amongst the best gaming has to offer. Early reviews for GTA IV came in with near flawless results, and later reviews only reinforced that idea, if only to a bit lesser degree. So, how did I feel about the game? I’ve been a little outspoken against the level of praise that the GTA series has received in the past; was GTA IV enough to finally understand the appeal of the series? Keep reading to find out, and to witness a Stupid Gamer first.

GTA IV is huge. Everybody knows that the one of the strongest points of each game in the series, since GTA III, has been the size of the game world. Set in Liberty City, which is just a different way of saying New York City, you play as a recent immigrant named Niko Bellic. As you try to earn a living for yourself and your idiot cousin, you eventually get drawn into the world of organized crime, government conspiracy, and complicated loyalties. The storyline is stitched together through multiple missions (some required, some optional), and it’s up to you how to approach them and in which order. As you progress through the missions, Niko’s world changes, his loyalties shift, and new areas is the game world are opened up to you.

The scale of the game is downright impressive. Liberty City is as close to a real, living city that we’ve ever seen in a video game. The streets are filled with pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, buses, taxis, and even street vendors. You’ll witness car accidents, police interactions with people, bad drivers, taxis loading up and unloading passengers, and more. From the miles of shoreline to the packed downtown streets, Liberty City is a sight to behold. As you play the game, you can’t help but to admire the virtual recreation of New York City; even after you’ve already put in 20+ hours in.

The story in GTA IV is engaging, but I can’t help to feel a disconnect from many of the moments of the game that are designed to be emotionally weighted. When the game begins, you’re an immigrant fresh off the boat. Yes, you have a dark past, but you get the feeling that Niko really wants to do things the right way. In early moments of the game, Niko seems to flinch at some of the killing he’s coaxed into, but not much later he’s as cold-hearted as can be. Unfortunately you have no control in this progression, so you go from caring about Niko’s actions to just feeling numb about his killing. As a result, you have a hard time caring what happens with Niko’s personal relationships as well. Someone close to you might die, and it’s kind of a shrug your shoulders moment and onto the next mission. Had Rockstar either given me more control over Niko’s actions or not fiddled around with giving Niko the appearance of a man with some sort of morals for the first 3 hours of the game, the emotional weight of the story could have much more easily been felt. Even with that, I think most gamers will still care how Niko’s fate plays out.

Graphically the game is pretty nice. There are some issues worth noting, namely a dodgy framerate at times, some odd looking shadows that can look like fuzzy blobs, and mostly average character models. Given the scale of the city, and the very infrequent amount of loading, however, it’s pretty amazing that those are the only real issues that can be found (and admittedly they’re not very pervasive). GTA IV definitely sits alongside the rest of the AAA titles in regards to graphics for the current generation.

Gameplay is where I have my biggest issues with the game. Since GTA III, Rockstar has had Vice City, San Andreas, Vice City Stories, Liberty City Stories, and now GTA IV to refine and improve upon their gameplay formula. Unfortunately the core of the game is still pretty much the same as it was in GTA III, and in many cases, the game has become even more formulaic and repetitious. I feel that 90% of the missions in the game were just slight variations on the following set of actions:

  • Find target or drug deal to supervise
  • Attempt to kill target or rival drug dealers after the deal goes sour
  • Chase down escaping target
  • Lose wanted level (ditch the cops)
  • Go to next mission
  • Repeat

In addition to doing variations of the same thing over and over, the controls leave a whole heck of a lot to be desired. It’s a shame just how clunky and irritating the controls are in the GTA series as a whole, and GTA IV only takes minor steps toward fixing things. Driving is still really awkward, and it takes a long time to adjust to the squirrelly nature of the vehicles. Walking around is no picnic as Niko controls like a drunk rhino. You take wider turns that a 747 commercial jet, even while on foot, and in order to sprint you have to continually tap a button. In the age of analog controls, you think that we could make him run, walk, or jog with just the analog stick (see: Super Mario 64…which released last century). The cover system is a nice addition, but the camera can play havoc with your aiming and combat efforts. In fact, the camera in general is pretty poor. You can swivel it around with the right analog stick, but as soon as you let go it re-centers behind Niko. A good camera should stay where I put it and only re-center when I tell it to. This is really elementary game design, and it’s unforgivable that Rockstar can’t see this. Even lesser open-world games, such as Saints Row (blech), and Crackdown provide the gamer with much better controls and a more reliable camera system.

From a presentation standpoint, GTA IV is going to give you everything you ever wanted. Well, everything you ever wanted if you’re an angry and undersexed 17 year old with no sense of tactful satire. For a game that’s pushing a deep and serious story, you’d think that the world in which it is set would reflect that. Instead you have a city that’s packed to the brim with sex jokes, shallow innuendo, and heavy-handed criticisms. Rather than put some effort into creating clever in-game jokes, Rockstar decided to go lowbrow and create the 69 Diner (a 69 joke, seriously?), an Internet cafe named tw@ (twat), a radio station named CNT, a bowling alley whose logo is a pin and two balls, and a set of dialog that is drenched with gratuitous F-bombs, gay jokes, and mentions of “titties.” I’m all for comic relief in games, but when the jokes are so overbearing that they actively work against the theme of the game, I will take issue with them. Why create such an impressive living and breathing city only to allow it to be sullied so thoroughly with unconvincing and sophomoric “humorous” content?

Gripes aside, I can understand why GTA IV has been a hit with many gamers. Personally I feel that the gameplay formula is in serious need of improvement, but I was very impressed with the setting and technical achievements present within the game. If I could have the same game with some improved controls, a bit more variety in the missions, and a toned-down level of crass behavior, I think I could enjoy it much more. For those that can overlook these things, or even my some miracle enjoy them, I envy you (seriously). If I was to be entirely subjective in my evaluation of the game, I’d probably drag it through the mud and kick it to the curb. If I’m being objective, however, I do have to recognize that the impressive aspects of the game outweigh the nagging issues by a noticeable margin. While I cringe at reviewers claiming perfection or that a new high in gaming has been reached with GTA IV’s release, I can understand the sentiment of those that truly love the game. For this reason I’m doing something different with the score for the game; I’m splitting the score into two separate scores. One will be how I feel about the game subjectively, and one will be how I’d score it on a purely objective level. I think this is fair because it eliminates the “it’s just not for me” bias while still allowing me to feel good about the score(s) I’m giving the game.

My subjective and personal score for GTA IV (the one I prefer people take from this review):

7.5/10

My objective and bias-free score of the game (the one I think the game deserves from a purely objective level):

8.5/10

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