The PC version is an irritating and disappointing port
Before this game came out, Rockstar was one of the few developers that PC aficionados could always trust to provide the best possible content. Manhunt and the previous Grand Theft Auto games always put their best foot forward when it came to the PC version. In return for an extra six months of patience, you could play a game with better graphics and better controls. Sadly, that glorious trend has come to an end. Grand Theft Auto IV for the PC isn't just a lazy, substandard port with a few problems. It is, quite possibly, the worst ever port of a console game to the PC. Between the poor graphical performance, rigid controls, and the shameful shilling for "Games for Windows", just about everyone can find something to hate about this irritating and disappointing port.
It doesn't take long to see what is wrong with this port to the PC. The install process, by itself, is enough to give anyone a bad impression. The whopping 13+ GB of hard drive space and the 2-DVD, 15 minute install process is at least forgivable. However, the game requires all kinds of bloatware and updates to start. First, it requires Rockstar Social Club to play multiplayer or share captured videos. It is not a terrible nuisance, but if you already have a Steam account and a Games for Windows Live account, then the last thing that you need is yet one more account for just one game. Second, the game requires a Games for Windows Live update. To download this update, you must quit the game and install it separately, since the in-game updater for this service is broken. (This service was broken for Gears of War too). The game then requires SecuROM installation and on-line activation. Then, it requires Service Pack 3 for Windows XP or Service Pack 1 for Vista. It does not warn you, however, if you have not installed them. Instead, it just crashes and gives you an error message, forcing you to play the Google search minigame to find the problem. If you have not yet installed these updates, then be prepared for another long delay on what is already a marathon install and activation process.
If you get the game up and running, you will immediately notice some other annoying problems. The game has significant performance issues. My system that played Crysis on high settings and Fallout 3 with almost everything maxed out could only play this game on Medium settings, at best. Graphically, Grand Theft Auto IV is significantly below the quality offered by today's high end games, but it chugs mightily in open spaces. GTA IV looks essentially like GTA III with a huge texture and lighting upgrade – it looks more like an Xbox 360 or PS3 launch title than a full-fledged next-gen game. It definitely does not look bad, and its technical shortcomings are greatly redeemed by terrific art direction and the sheer variety of scenery present in the game. However, it runs at far lower frame rates than it should for this level of visual quality. I guess that I should count my blessings, since at least I could get it to run.
Low frame rate isn't the game's biggest problem. More significant is the game's lack of support for any gamepad other than the Xbox 360 controller. Every Grand Theft Auto game at least since III has supported all kinds of gamepads for people who don't like driving with the mouse and keyboard. Precise analog control is absolutely necessary for the game's harder missions. Unless you have an Xbox 360 controller or you want to use a hack, then forget about it. Fortunately, there is hack for it that is compatible with the unpatched version of the game. However, the hack was "mysteriously" disabled in version 1.1. Apparently, exclusive DLC isn't the only way that Rockstar is paying back Microsoft for that $50 Million that changed hands. Regardless of what controller you use, you can't reconfigure any buttons, the controller configuration screen shows that Rockstar never had any intention of supporting any other controllers. Quite simply, it is a disgraceful shill for Microsoft and the Xbox 360, and everyone at Rockstar should be ashamed of participating in it.
It is truly a shame that Rockstar made so little effort into making this game enjoyable for PC gamers. GTA IV has some fine points that separate it from other games of this nature. Rockstar has shown repeatedly that they are the kings of the open-ended action game, and with GTA IV, they have proven it yet again. Liberty City is bigger and more dense than it was in GTA III, and almost none of it is copy-and-paste. When it comes to games of this variety, Rockstar clearly "gets" it. The design of these games is simply beautiful, more so than the open-ended games that repeat the same thing over and over (Assassins Creed) or use algorithms to generate a bunch of generic content (Oblivion). Every city block and every street seems different from the last. Exploration is fun and no matter how many times you drive through the city, you can find something new. The city is bursting from the seams with charm. This series is the only one where a city actually seems like a city. It's almost enough to make up for all of the problems with the PC version.
The core of GTA IV's gameplay is typical GTA fare. Missions involve taxiing your pals to and fro, protecting comrades while gunning down enemies, chasing other criminal through the city and on foot, and so on. If you wish, you can just roam the city wreaking havoc, destroying random vehicles or killing random victims At times, the gameplay comes together perfectly, just like you have always known it. The minor details that simulate driving and pedestrian behavior have improved noticeably. The addition of more realistic damage modeling and Havok physics is a huge upgrade to the game over the previous versions. Driving full speed through a traffic jam with a semi truck and smashing cars into oblivion is more fun than it ever has been. Unscripted mayhem waits around every corner.
Another staple of Rockstar games is terrific audio, and GTA IV does not disappoint in this department. The voice acting is excellent, as always, and the huge variety of radio stations offer some great driving music. The indie radio station on which you can play your own songs is a great addition, and one of the few improvements for the PC version.
Notably absent from GTA IV is the ability to steal a taxi, ambulance, or fire truck and perform instant missions with these vehicles. The loss of these parts is a big disappointment, as those were great time killers that also familiarized you with the city. In their place is sim life type dating and friendship gameplay, which is boring and doesn't add a lot of value to the game. You maintain relationships by occasionally taking out friends or girlfriends for some kind of entertainment. The bowling, pool, and darts minigames are dull and not more fun to play more than once. The girlfriends get angry with you if you drive too recklessly or cause too much carnage, which sort of defeats the purpose of the game. The hidden items like the pigeons and the stunt jumps are much harder to find. In this reviewer's opinion, GTA IV would have been a better game if it stuck to its core gameplay of gunplay, fast driving, and finding random goodies throughout the city.
Series veterans will notice another major departure from the previous Grand Theft Auto tiles. This game is less cartoony, and more realistic than Rockstar's other games. This change is not obvious at first, but it shows up in subtle ways. The main character, Niko, is very well fleshed-out and he shows a lot more realistic emotions than Tommy Vercetti or Carl Johnson. Your friends and girlfriends, likewise, are more serious this time around. The handling on the cars is less forgiving and, overall, it feels a bit slower. Overall, the change is not a good one. The mayhem of the series does not lend itself to a serious tone.
One area in which GTA IV takes a step backwards from its predecessors and other Rockstar games is its humor. It is certainly not for a lack of trying. The game has the usual assortment of fictional radio stations, along with newly added televisions shows and even stand-up comic routines. What it lacks is a sense of subtlety or variety. All previous Rockstar games brilliantly satirized American culture in a manner that you might expect from The Simpsons or the Coen brothers. They made fun of Left and Right, and just about everything in between, and they didn't feel agenda-driven. The comedy in GTA IV, however, feels a lot more like the product of angry Liberals than the clever writing of the previous games. The radio and TV humor in GTA IV endlessly bludgeons you over the head by bashing of the war on terror, the Patriot Act, Republicans, Conservative talk radio, Fox News, the occupation of Iraq, America's lack of socialized medicine, America's obesity problem, the treatment of natives by colonial settlers, and many other topics. All of these topics are made fun of through the use of unimaginative caricatures. The sole source of news in the game is "Weazel News", an ultra right wing network with slogans like "Liberals suck" in its advertisements (Weazel News = Fox News Har har Get it?). One TV show is a "Reublicans in Space" cartoon where three meaty cigar-chomping redneck space explorers indiscriminately murder a friendly space alien in the name of America and democracy. Whether you find this one-note, ham-fisted preaching to be funny will probably depend upon your own political leanings. GTA IV does have its funny moments and amusing characters though. It is still above average when it comes to video game humor, but not as good as Rockstar's previous efforts. (If you wish to play a game with hilarious satire and social commentary, I highly recommend the new Sam and Max games).
Thanks to advancing technology in consoles and PCs, Rockstar could have made GTA IV the best ever game in the series. Instead, they blew the opportunity in a lot of ways. Even without all of the problems created by the terrible PC port, I would rank this gameplay slightly behind that of Vice City, San Andreas, and Bully. For the next game, Rockstar needs to get back more to the roots of the series and ditch the dating minigames in favor of more driving and shooting challenges, and more stuff to do in the city. More importantly, they need to make the PC version worth the extra wait. Unlike Rockstar's previous games, I have a very hard time giving this one a high recommendation.