I sat here for a while, wondering how to begin this little post. Appeal to the controversy that surrounds the Grand Theft Autoseries? Nah, that’s been done to many times. Start with some memorable quote from the game? No, too obvious and lazy. And really, how many people really care about the superfluous flairs in the introduction? So fuck it, I’m going to get to the point. Grand Theft Auto IVis not a good game. It is a pretty damn great experience, but it fails as a game. Why’s that? Because the focus during development was clearly on the atmosphere and character, not on the gameplay. Now, I love me some character-driven, atmospheric games. Hell, I have a hard time playing games that don’t fit that description. But those qualities need to be backed up by gameplay that is at least competent. There’s no excuse here, this game doesn’t feel like it sacrifices fun for atmosphere or for its open world, it feels like making the gameplay satisfying was ignored outright. Do the strengths of the storytelling and characters outweigh the weaknesses of the gameplay? Read on
The Issue: Throughout my 25 hour experience playing Grand Theft Auto IV, I had to constantly remind myself what the game was doing right. The game creates a shockingly real recreation of New York City, capturing the atmosphere of the area impeccably well. It tells a decent story with some fantastic characterizations. You will care about a select few of the people you encounter as Niko. On the complete other end of the quality spectrum is the gameplay. The weapons don’t feel especially powerful, and the lock-on targeting system in place is broken. The combat itself is, at its best, moderately interesting, and at it’s worst, infuriating. Combine this with some loading and framerate issues, and what’s left is a painfully poor playing experience.
The Debate: GTA IV focuses on the adventures of Niko Bellic, a former Special Operations soldier from Eastern Europe. He comes to America to live with his cousin, Roman, who has written to him of his exorbitant wealth and luxurious lifestyle he leads in Liberty City, which totally isn’t anything like New York. We soon learn that Roman is a sort of a dirty liar, since he lives in a small, dirty apartment and runs a moderately successful taxi service, and owes money to the local bully. Niko has to take on jobs for this local bully in order to keep Roman safe, all of which involve driving and shooting. This bully eventually crosses the line by going after Roman’s girlfriend, which is enough to make Niko want to kill him. After this little series of events, Niko and Roman are catapulted into the world of crime, and they associate with all manner of drug dealers, theives, murderers, and mobsters.
The main story is structured like a series of smaller vinettes, in which Niko does 3 or 4 jobs for a certain person, all the while learning about their lives and their aspirations. These vinettes are tied together by Niko’s mission for revenge on a man named Florian Cravic, who betrayed him in his old country, and got many of his friends killed. Also tying these stories together is Niko’s growing understanding of America, and how the supposed “land of opportunity” is just as violent as his homeland.
Niko is easily the best thing about Grand Theft Auto IV. He is very well characterized, and completes a well-realized character arc over the duration of the game. He is a stone-cold killer, who will end a man’s life at the drop of a hat. He feels regret for his past actions, but will still kill because all his years as a soldier numbed him to it. He is a broken man, and he is fully aware of it. It makes him angry because he feels he is powerless to change his fate, but he seems to accept it sadly. And near the end, when he feels ready to leave the violent life behind him, his chance to move on is taken from him.
The character development is as great as it is largely thanks to some extremely impressive voice work. Every character is played straight, and it is shocking just how beliveable every character is, even the incredibly over-the-top Brucie (Roman’s friend who is addicted to testosterone). Michael Hollick is particularly great as Niko (like I said, he’s the best thing in the game) because he makes this sociopathic killer likeable. There is never a moment where the player does not root for their avatar. He is funny, down to earth, and when he’s abarasive, you feel as though he is right to be. Jason Zumwalt is another high point as Roman, who plays his part as Niko’s biggest source of both stress and happiness. My other personal favorite performance in the game is that of Ryan Johnston, who plays Patrick McCreary, an Irish mobster whose friendly attitude and devotion to his family makes him hard not to like. It’s disappointing that the voice actors in this game aren’t more prolific, since they are the only reason I could bear to play this game for as long as I did. And they should have been paid more.Another thing that is truly masterful about GTA IV is the way it approaches drug use. It’s depicted casually, but is never actually condoned. The relationship between drugs and the McCrearys is particularly interesting. There is a scene in which the McCreary brothers are all doing lines of coke in their kitchen, and Packie often makes references to cocaine. These two things are not designed to shock or horrify the audience, nor do they seem to support the use of cocaine; it is just part of the depiction of Packie’s lifestyle. The destructive effects of drugs are depicted in the game. During the bank heist mission (arguably the best mission in the game) Packie and his brother Derrick are at each others throats, blaming each other for everything that goes wrong during the heist, and they use each other’s drug problems to insult each other in this exchange:
Packie: “Fuck you! Take the needle out of your arm then tell me what to do!”
Derrick: “I’ll let you tell me what to do when you stop shoving half of Bolivia up your nose every Saturday night!”
After this mission, Derrick’s problems with heroin are further developed, when he is depicted as a washed up, pitiful addict. He is not the only character to suffer from drug issues, though. Ray Boccino’s wife references her use of Crystal Meth and says that it’s killing her. The final result of this representation of drug use is a message that is essentially anti-drug, but subtlely so.
Actually, commentary on other social issues is another of the game’s strengths. Once again, Niko delivers, and he makes some of the most sensible, I hesistate to say profound, statements in the game. In particular, he remarks on the status of immigrants in America, calling them the new slave class. These words rang true in my eyes, and actually made me pause and consider the hierarchy that still exists in my country. Niko also comments on the whole notion of “family values” in politics; how it is pointless for politicians to deny who they are to appeal to the average white Republican family, and should just embrace their true feelings. As I mentioned previously, Niko discovers that America is not so different from his former country; it is still a land of violence and crime, where the small prey on the weak. This is perhaps the most profound statement that the game has to offer: The American Dream is a lie. America is no different that any given war-torn third world country, but the evils come in a prettier package.
Speaking of pretty packages, GTA looks phenomenal from a purely artistic perspective. Simply put, it captures the vibe of New York stunningly well. During the day, the city is dirty, brown, and oppressive. During the night, it is a wonder to behold. Whether the player is in the middle of “Star Junction” (Times Square) or looking at the city off in the distance, the lights can inspire awe if a player is willing to stop murdering things for a few seconds and just gaze. I can’t really go into more detail about this, so I’ll just sum it up with these screenshots:
I realize that up until now that my description of GTA IV has been incredibly positive. The number of positive aspects certainly outnumbers the negative ones, but there’s a certain caveat with that statement: the negative issues are gameplay and graphics. Simply put, not one gameplay mechanic is implemented well. Simply making Niko move is a pain, since he controls like an automobile and it is extremely difficult to make him do sharp turns or have him run through small doorways. The player has to repeatedly tap a button to make him sprint, which is also annoying. Adding to this is a Call of Duty style limit to the distance the player can sprint, which is incredibly ill-defined, since there is not a meter or any sort of indication at all as to when Niko is ready to stop briskly jogging and book it again. The driving controls are also frustrating. There is a realistic, weighty feel to the driving, but this sort of driving does not work in a game where the player has to make sharp, unexpected turns. The chase sequences in the game often require the player to either drive slowly or to just be clairvoyant. But what really ruins the basic movement controls is the terrible camera. The camera is always a step behind the player, meaning it is impossible to see where the fuck you’re going for a good second or two every time the player turns in a car or walks a different direction on foot. This problem is remedied by allowing the player to control the camera on their own, but constantly moving a thumb down from the buttons to adjust the camera slightly is an unacceptable annoyance.
The player will spend copious amounts of time shooting from cover, and these parts of the game control even worse. The lock on system is dreadful, since it doesn’t prioritize targets, and half the time will not actually allow the player to switch targets, but will stay stuck on a single dead enemy gangster/policeman/whatever. The shooting levels themselves aren’t very interesting either, since they all seem to take place in abandoned areas, utterly devoid of civilians. But perhaps this is for the best, since in the roughly two levels that take place in the bustling areas of the city, the targeting system chose to focus on the innocent bystanders rather than my assassination target, or the motherfucker who is directly next to me putting his fist in my face. There is analog aiming, but the guns are so underpowered and it’s so hard to see the enemies that it’s impossible to pull off any sort of efficient killing without the lock on aiming.
The missions are more than a tad repetitive as well, with most of them boiling down to this:
1. Go to mission start and get yelled at
2. Drive to an area that is just far enough away to make the drive tedious
3. Arrive at a bland, abandoned area and either a) shoot at guys from cover or b) chase after guys on foot/in a car/ in something else until they stop, then get out of car and shoot at them from cover.
4. Escape from cops
There is very little deviation from this formula, save for a few standout missions, such as a bank heist (probably the best locale in the game), an assassination mission that takes place in a hospital with some great stealth, and the final level.
There are some issues with the visuals and sound design as well. Given that the game came out in 2008 and that it was a large scale open world experience, it feels unfair to critisize the technical aspect of the graphics. But throughout the entire game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the models all looked like they were from the original Max Payne (except the faces, they looked better). There were a few problems with texture pop in, especially in a specific tunnel that was often completely white for a good few seconds whenever I drove through it. The sound design isn’t broken, but leaves something to be desired. The only issue is that none of the guns, except one of the Assault rifles, sound powerful. Because these weapons dole out relatively little damage, having them sound punishing should have been a priority, in order to make the shooting at least somewhat satisfying.
All of these issues might have been acceptable if the storytelling aspects of the game were flawless, but they are not. The latter portion of the game’s story simply drags, as Niko does favors for seemingly endless numbers of similar gangsters. Also, many of the moral choices that take place early in the game simply have no emotional weight to them. Prior to playing this game, I heard endlessly about Dwayne and Playboy X, and how the former was a great character and how the latter was a piece of trash. None of the great characteristics of Dwanye were conveyed in the game to me. Dwayne is an old whiner, and Playboy X is a greedy, naive drug dealer. Neither one is likeable, and the choice of which one to kill didn’t affect me at all. I didn’t care. Also, while some of the social commentary is smart, the Fox News and NPR parodies are too juvenile and blunt to be considered clever. They were funny, to be certain, but they weren’t clever.
Verdict: For all of the strengths of GTA IV, I can’t recommend it to anyone. Great characters and atmosphere aren’t enough to carry a game with mechanics this broken. It’s not as though GTA IV is even a unique experiment that failed to deliver on the gameplay front (a la Shadow of the Colossus). It’s an open world cover based shooter. It’s a poor open world cover based shooter. And that’s the bottom line: there are games that have better stories, and there are games that play better. GTA IV has a lot to offer the gaming audience, but none of it is worth the frustration of actually playing it.