Ultimately, any game review has to get at one thing: is the game fun. So let’s get that out of the way right at the start: GTA IV is a fun game. Is it fun throughout? Are there any flaws? Will everyone find it fun? To what degree is it fun? Does it have replayability? Eh, those questions, perhaps, aren’t so easy. Let me see what I can say.
I believe that we can start to break down “fun” by looking at a game’s mechanics. This is also probably the best way to determine whether a game is for you. No matter how exciting the story, the graphics, the cutscenes, the music, the conversation (and so forth), if the game mechanics aren’t fun you probably aren’t going to be interested enough to bother with the game.
The primary game mechanic in GTA IV is driving (generally in a vehicle like a car, but sometimes in a helicopter or a boat). Secondary to driving is on-foot combat (enhanced in GTA IV by the introduction of the new cover system).
Driving is fun, don’t get me wrong, but it is hampered by a few things. And I think if these items were remedied the game would be a lot more enjoyable.
First is the exaggerated physics. Yes, I love arcade-style physics over realistic simulations. I loved GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas, and never got into the Grand Turismo type games. But GTA IV takes arcade physics to another level and that requires overcoming a learning curve. And maybe it’s fair to require gamers to actually learn a skill as they play and advance those skills to progress through the game, but as an experienced GTA player it was somewhat frustrating to be unable to pull off a medium-speed turn without drifting into a 720-degree spin that culminated in my character being thrown 50 feet out from the vehicle (ah, ragdoll physics… sometimes you make GTA IV so fun and sometimes… not so much).
Second, driving is also impacted by the camera. The camera employs a rigid auto-follow routine on the y-axis. In other titles, including past GTA titles, the player could re-position the camera on the y-axis and it would stay there. In other words, if you lifted the camera higher up to create more of an overhead view of your vehicle, the camera allowed it. GTA IV doesn’t allow this, which creates problems when, for example, you’re driving up a hill and you cannot see upcoming cars. It forces you to manually adjust the camera on the y-axis while simultaneously attempting to drive. There are a lot of uphill locations in GTA IV (and other situations where you need to see in front of the car), and high speed chases where you cannot see the traffic or your target quickly become frustrating.
Third, the game world is too large. No, that’s not right. Rather, it’s not sectioned off well enough. In past titles, you generally worked through one neighborhood, completing a series of missions there before moving on completely to the next neighborhood. You might go back to that earlier neighborhood, but the game didn’t make you do that except in rare circumstances and usually for compelling story reasons. In GTA IV, the entirety of the very huge world (a re-creation of New York’s five boroughs), once unlocked, is fair game. Sadly, for a game built on the concept of driving, I admit that in the latter half of my playthrough, I spent way more time taking advantage of cabs than actually driving. It just stopped being fun to drive from one end of the city to the other again.
Finally, driving is impacted by the graphics. Colors wash together and cast a bland sheen over the otherwise very impressive, photo realistic city (though there is some pop-in and texture-less spots). The matter is made worse by the weather system. I love the idea of the city constantly going through periods of rain and fog and so forth, but it really blends everything together even more. As a result, when you’re told to chase another vehicle, you spend more time looking at your mini-map because it can be too difficult to see the target vehicle on the screen – even with a red arrow pointing down at it. And yes, I’m playing on a high-def screen. I tried standard def and it did not work at all.
On a side note, the blending of graphics also couples with an average frame rate (seems to be in the 25-30 FPS area, though there are frame rate dips) to frequently give me eye strain – something I’m not used to experiencing from games. Many times, I’d change my focus from GTA IV to my computer’s desktop and be momentarily stunned by my desktop’s bright, colorful appearance. I understand Rockstar really wanted to push the envelope with GTA IV, and like I said they really accomplished something amazing, but I wish they would have taken some more stylistic liberties and imitated something like Crackdown (brighter colors, cell shading, etc. – I wish I could find a screenshot from GTA IV on the web for comparison, but all of them look way more sharp and colorful than the actual game).
As far as the missions go, when you’re not driving around the city chasing or speeding away from someone you’re out of your vehicle and shooting at people. I complained a bit at first about the combat system but I’ve really grown to enjoy it.
It’s a slower-paced, somewhat thoughtful combat system that also instills a good bit of tension. Often, you’ll find yourself hiding behind a pillar, waiting for an opening where you can pop out and take a few shots. Sometimes guys rush you to add to the tension, but often they’ll also be hiding behind cover and waiting for you to make a mistake. Free-aim and moving to different cover positions keep things from getting stale.
There are some slight problems with the cover system – sometimes you get stuck facing the wrong way, sometimes you get stuck targeting an empty location, sometimes you can’t shift from one target to the next, or the intended target, and sometimes you are unable to lock onto hostile targets (to name a few) – but most of the time it works well and is fun. I have to admit I more often enjoy the shooting missions than the driving missions (what does that say?).
I suppose I should mention that you can also use weapons *while* driving, but this system requires you to aim your gun with the same stick you use to move the camera (maybe a working solution is to double the cinematic mode camera button as a lock-on button, but the lock on is only as effective as your driving is smooth). Worse, there’s no targeting reticule until you start firing – so lining up your weapon with your opponent often means firing in a random direction and then steering your trail of bullets to your opponent. I admit I’ve won some missions by doing exactly this, but fighting while driving is so poorly implemented that it’s almost not worth attempting.
A game is its mechanics, but the challenge comes from the different situations the game puts you in to use those mechanics. I think this is one of the areas where GTA IV didn’t do as well. It’s a shame because there are good game mechanics in place to take advantage of. But too many missions lack creativity. Too many missions have forced solutions. You come up with a great idea to solve the problem, but the game doesn’t allow it. It feels… wrong, for a game so famous for its sandbox properties. And in the few situations where you think you’re being clever, you quickly realize that it was the only solution to the puzzle (bad for re-play).
Added to that, the game’s reviewers often mentioned how often you could make moral decisions to kill people or not. That is, you receive a mission to kill someone, you take out all his thugs, chase him down, force him to surrender, and then decide whether to finish him or let him leave town. Aside from the fact that your decision does not impact the story (also bad for re-play), there really aren’t a lot of examples of it in practice, either. It seems more like the start of a good idea than the implementation of one (though, to be fair, you do get to decide between two endings, which is good for re-play).
The game can also be frustrating. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you’re in a shoot out with a few people in an abandoned warehouse and the cops spawn in immediately behind you (I swear they weren’t there a second ago) and arrest you, causing you to fail your mission and lose your weapons. Sometimes it’s frustrating because the people you’re in a shootout with are shooting at you through walls. Sometimes it’s frustrating because people you thought were dead stand up and start shooting again. Sometimes it’s frustrating because the game doesn’t want you to catch up to that boat just yet because some scripted sequence is around the corner, so the boat magically moves four times faster than it had been moving. Sometimes it’s frustrating because you get through the mission, are bleeding to death and driving back to the safehouse to heal and save, and a cop swerves into your car – causing the police to go on full alert and the cop to shoot and kill you (I haven’t decided if I like the new police chase system where you have to race out of a search circle and then go a few seconds without being spotted… sometimes it feels too boring and simplistic). Should I continue? No, that’s enough. But even though I beat most of the missions on the first try and even though a lot of the missions I failed weren’t frustrating to re-try, there are a ton of frustrations.
Actually, let me talk about one more frustration. Reviewers raved about the ability to instantly re-start a mission via your cell phone after failing, but they neglected to mention that you start from the absolute beginning of that mission. So let’s use an example that I had to endure from the other night.
I drive from one island to the next, in a car, in order to pick up a truck. I hop in the truck and drive all the way back, and then some. (And when I complained about vehicle physics earlier? I was referring to the nice vehicles. Truck are on the opposite end of nice. Drive 20 mph and take a slightly sharp turn, and you will roll over.) After twelve minutes of boring, pointless driving I arrive at the actual mission. The game suggests it’ll be a stealth mission but it turns out it’s an escort mission. You have to proceed through a very hostile environment while making sure your AI-controlled companion doesn’t get shot up. Of course the companion is compelled to run right into the thick of things, making it more difficult to keep him alive. So what happens when you mess up? You dial the “re-try” and find yourself back at the opening cutscene for the mission – meaning another twelve-minute, uneventful drive before you can actually re-try the mission.
The lack of variety in puzzles combined with the length of the game combined with the occasionally frustrating moments quickly adds up to long stretches of wondering why you’re still playing. The game needs more to play for. In GTA: San Andreas, for example, a good example of a smaller achievement is working out to improve your character’s strength and stamina or driving around to improve your character’s driving proficiency, which made future missions easier. In GTA IV, like past GTA titles, I’d suppose the cutscenes are a big part of what’s supposed to pull you forward; however, they get so old so fast that I’m often quite tempted to skip them completely to just get on with the game.
Fuck. Fuckity-fuck. Fuck, Fuck, Fuckin’ Fuck.
Let me take a minute to talk about the cutscenes. I’m no prude but… fuck! Does every other word, throughout the entirety of the game, really need to be “fuck”? Haven’t writers figured out that you can have “dark” and “mature” and “edgy” in a game without relying on a 1:1 ratio of “fuck” to any other word? I’m not talking about one character, I’m not talking about a few characters, I’m talking about every character *and* the radio and TV stations.
And then there’s the gangsters. How many of them do you think will talk about rats, swimmin’ with the fishes, and ultimately end up betraying you? One of them? All of them? Here’s a hint: it’s the latter. And speaking of shallow characters, there’s a gay character in the game and – wait, can you guess it? – yes, he’s “absolutely fabulous, darling”! Ugh. He’s a character that might have been funny ten years ago, maybe, when that boldly-gay persona was new to mainstream, conservative America but that shtick has gotten old. It feels like Rockstar is catering to the stereotypical football-n-beer wife beater. And that kind of character building makes me not care about any of them. I think Niko’s cousin Roman is the only character that somewhat amused me, but there are very long stretches where he’s absent from the game (I wonder if that’s coincidence).
I found most of the radio/TV programming to be similar. It’s like Rockstar wanted to come off as so cool and edgy, but it really just amounts to them looking like they’re trying too hard. As Candice put it, it’s a bit like Marilyn Manson; if you’re no longer offending people, you just have to be more outrageous. With GTA IV, the majority of it feels like a liberal assault on conservatives – with none of the subtlety, smarts, or ironic commentaries of the past titles (or maybe they’re just recycling and it’s gotten old). And, even as a liberal, I find it insulting. But more than that, I find it tired.
All in all, I think the overall story of GTA IV is about how my character, Niko, decided to flee the atrocities of his home country to find opportunity in the States; it makes me wonder just how bad things were back home if 1,000 murders in the USA is an improvement. It also makes me wonder what Niko considers “making it” when I have over $500,000 and four apartments and my character and his cousin are still complaining about poverty. I think the game is also about my character wanting to kill one specific character (though that scene isn’t the climax of the game). But even though the game kept telling me one specific person could help me, my character kept going to other people and asking them for help.
All that said (did I forget anything? Probably!), these failings detract from the game but the game is still largely its mechanics. And so my bottom line is that while the mechanics themselves are fun, the mission types aren’t creative or varied enough, for my taste, to sustain a high level of interest throughout. There are high points, of course, lots of them, but there are many, many more lulls or just flat, filler sections.
I’d say the game is good and worth playing, particularly if you like GTA and the GTA game mechanics. But if you consider the flaws and take scope out of the equation (i.e. the huge city size and the huge mass of content to discover), then balance it out against the fairly high level of polish, it’s really nothing more than a very solid game – an 8.5 out of 10 (if I had to use numbers). By no means is it the perfect, flawless masterpiece that the reviewers claimed it was. But I guess that’s the problem with publishers forcing quick turn-around on reviews.