By GrantHeaslip 47 Comments
Look, I get a lot of the appeal of GTA IV: it's sharply written, looks great (even 5 years out), does a great job of rendering pseudo-New York, and is full of charm and attention to detail. At the time, it redefined what an open-world game was in a lot of key ways. I've got a ton of respect for a lot of what this game does, but there's one huge problem: it's not fun to play.
I don't just mean that there's a few boring parts, I mean that at almost no point while actually playing it have I been really enjoying myself. I'm at best kind of bored, and way too often actively mad. I'm not just mad at some of the brain-dead, bewilderingly flawed gameplay decisions, I'm mad at the critics who were wowed by the sharp presentation, forgot that they were playing a video game, and awarded it with the 98% Metacritic score it has today. I don't get how critics could so overlook the the single defining characteristic of the medium in evaluating this game.
Let me cut right to the chase: this game doesn't have checkpoints. If you fail a mission at any point, even 10-15 minutes in, you're fucked. But wait, it gets worse: if you choose restart the mission, you do so from the point at which the mission technically began, which is almost always a 3-5+ minute commute from the the actual setting of the mission.
Even if I were to set that issue aside, the shooting in the game is just not good. The targeting system never seems to do what I want it to (and ridiculously expects the player to press a trigger halfway for basic operation), the cover system is loose and awkward, the shooting isn't particularly satisfying, the enemy AI is brain-dead, and it's way too easy to find oneself in a lethal, derpy short-range clusterfuck. There's no recharging health, health packs are extremely rare, and many enemies can cripple you in under a second, so the correct way to play is painstakingly slow and risk-averse.
Here's a real scenario: I play a mission that involves entering a housing project, mowing through dozens of guards to get the roof, killing a guy, mowing through dozens of guards and police to get back the entrance, then losing the police. The first time I play the mission, I get about 5 minutes in, accidentally run past a guard that was nestled in a corner, instantly lose half my health from one barrage of bullets, and in the ensuing clusterfuck, can't manage to target him and get killed. To get back to where I was, I not only have to drive from video game Brooklyn to video game Manhattan, but I have to patiently (to avoid making the same mistake again) play through the same portion of the mission.
The next time, I successfully kill the target on the roof, but lose 1/3 of my health in the process. The police show up, so I have to fight my way back through the building. Again, the correct way to do this is painstakingly slowly and carefully, as one slip-up could result in a guard catching me in an awkward position, and the targeting system isn't predictable enough to be relied on while on the run. I make it to the ground, and as the police appear from all sides, I figure "fuck, I guess I'm just supposed to run?", and proceed to run a full lap around the complex looking for the single tiny entrance while being shot from all directions. I die during said marathon. Including the commute, that was 15 minutes of gameplay.
What am I supposed to do now? I'm not happy, and am having basically the opposite of fun, but I do have a pretty good handle on the mission, so if I want to get this shit over with, now's the time. It also occurs to me that I should probably have grabbed armour, which gives you an extra non-renewable health bar to work with. Getting to the mission now involves commuting to the weapon store, getting out of my car, walking in, buying the armour, walking back to my car, then driving to the mission. I take a short breather, then waste the next 20 minutes doing all of this unfun crap. I complete the mission, but instead of satisfaction, exhilaration, or even mild amusement, all I've got to show for it is resentment, anger, and a sort of demented relief.
This game is full of moments as unnecessarily idiotic and unfun as I've just described. I have never played a game that's inspired such rage in me, and that's not hyperbole -- I sincerely can't think of a game that's so consistently annoyed me. Whether it be zero-margin-for-error motorcycle chases in which the primary enemy is squirrelly (yet weirdly muddy) controls, AI companions that get themselves killed and trigger fail states 15 minutes into a mission, a lack of low-level gameplay variety, cheap shots from concealed enemies, exploding barrels that instantly you without warning, loose character controls, terrible unarmed combat, an expectation that the player commute to gun shops to buy armour before missions, or just messed up AI pathfinding, this game's treasure trove of bullshit is seemingly boundless. Missions are either easy and boring; or hard, rage-inducing, and still boring.
Ironically, as it was the complaint I was most aware of going in, I don't find the car handling to be a problem. It took some getting used to, but I feel very in control, and I say this as someone who's never really been good at any driving game that doesn't have Yoshi in it.
GTA IV's shooting, while not forgivable, is at least understandable -- this game is not the first to feature an awkward targeting system, bad AI, or terrible play style incentives. The complete lack of a sane checkpointing system, however, is bafflingly stupid, and combined with the subpar, cheap shot-packed gunplay, produces a piece of interactive entertainment in which the parts you're actually controlling are often actively unfun.
Again, let me say that I like almost everything about the presentation of GTA IV. I think it's got some of the best writing I've seen in a game, it's pretty funny (if a bit high-and-mighty and/or crude at times), the world genuinely feels living and breathing, it's got a great cast of characters, it looks great, and it's stylish and culturally aware. If you want to tell me you like that stuff, I'm totally on board, but don't tell me GTA IV is one of the best video games of all time, because it's not. It's not a terrible game, but I can't square the breathlessly positive reviews with my experience playing it.