Grandest Theftiest Auto? Not Quite...
Grand Theft Auto 4, wow, it was a slow burn for me to like it enough to say it’s a good game. I started out pretty skeptical and ten hours in my doubts grew. The other GTA’s aren’t paced well enough so 4 is notable for that feat alone. Sand-box style games usually don’t work well in that sense. But I wasn’t exactly feeling the characters. From the story perspective I started out liking Niko. If you read most of the reviews then by now you know there is praise for him as a game character. It’s true; he’s likable a lot of the time and seems to always want to do the right thing. My problem with the character starts with his willingness to kill. If you don’t have killing in a GTA game, then it would probably be pretty boring. But Niko never seems to have any doubts of his own. Every major character throughout the game at some point asks Niko to kill somebody. And every time Niko just accepts it. He never sounds reluctant to handle the missions. Niko becomes a serial killer for hire. He has moments where he feels remorse but in most cut-scenes his orders are to kill and he does so without questioning what he’s doing. I think that’s a missed opportunity. I’m more critical of people saying Niko is a good guy though. Everywhere, I’ve read what a good guy he is, but he really isn’t. The other characters are also great, but not in a positive way. The voice acting is excellent. But everyone is a killer. I liked Brucie and Packie the most. I think Packie was raised to be a criminal, but doesn’t go out of his way to harm anyone who doesn’t deserve it. Brucie was just funny, and usually he was more about business and less about revenge. He helped break up the tension from every other guy. The rest of the McCreary brothers weren’t too bad. I enjoyed my time and missions with them. The mafia types did nothing for me. I don’t like how the story narrows where you go in the world either. That’s an issue when they restrict you into such a small area. Slowly each island unlocks but it just takes too long. So much of the game takes place in a concentrated area. In other GTA’s you’d get to do a lot in a large area before moving on. Here it’s small, very small.
The missions are very much the back-bone of the game’s story. But they’re only a vehicle for moving the story along. In most ways each mission is the same as the last one. That’s always been a GTA problem is the repetition from "Kill person, chase person, deliver goods." That’s just about every mission in the game. Some are pretty great because they are staged with urgency. The bank job was probably my favorite because it was so intense without being unfairly difficult. The opposite can be said for The Snow Storm where I just wanted to throw the controller. It was mostly pointless, long, and pretty hard. Sometimes they work, sometimes they really don’t. Niko’s always killing somebody in them though.
The game also breaks its own rules. In one mission early on you chase some guy out of a Laundromat. And I failed it. The next time I put cars behind the building to stop him. But when I chased him again the cars were gone. Sometimes the world resets in cut-scenes. It’s a game where rule number one is there are no rules, and rule number two is rule number one sometimes doesn’t apply. There are just limitations.
Here’s another thing I really didn’t like. Some missions were about chasing someone down in a vehicle. The goal specifically says "Take this guy down." So I would chase them while shooting. But the game doesn’t say that they’re going to be invincible until the next cut-scene. So you might waste all your ammo before getting to the point where the game allows you to kill them. But it’s not consistent. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t. That’s very frustrating when Niko lives or dies on how you accomplish the mission, and that success is based on a scripted event!
That plays into the games economy when you waste so much ammo and you have to buy more for like $300 worth of rounds. Also, regarding money and guns, why is there still this punishment for dying? The game should have evolved to the point where if you die, you won’t lose over $6,000. In a game where you can do anything, shouldn’t you be given a break there? I don’t mind losing money but that’s too much.
The reworked controls leave a lot to be desired. It’s far better then what was there before. But the cover system feels so clunky. Gears is a good example of how it should work. It should flow. Instead of having the A button as the main function, it’s hitting multiple buttons and hoping for the best. To get off a wall, or move across cover…it’s useless. It gives a much needed tactical element without being very tactical. Auto-aim and free-aim are a pain to use. Still, it’s better now then before. The cars handle very realistically too. Seen as a negative by many, I actually enjoy it more. I like everything getting its own feel. Once you get used to them it becomes second nature.
Here’s my rant bit. First is with these irritating relationships. I know, we need something more to do in a game besides killing whatever moves. But the tedious parts are so annoying. For example, if I am in a mission, and Roman decides to call me, I should never be punished for declining his invite. I shouldn’t be punished at all. The game will always give you negative feedback no matter what you’re doing. That changes the game with no real basis or logic. No longer can you get picked up in a helicopter because Brucie decided to call you at a bad time. I don’t mind the dating because it never really changes the game you’re playing. It can’t limit your abilities. One more thing is the cell phone. When you answer a call you go into walking mode. If someone calls you when you have a wanted level…you’re done. You won’t survive the attack because the cops will shoot you.
And when they do want you to go do something it’s usually a broken mini-game. Bowling is broken. Take two steps left, hold back on the stick for one second, then push up. Strike every time. Darts? Hardly…for those that remember Shenmue there was always an element of skill mixed in with the randomness of darts. Here it’s pretty silly. Meanwhile, pool is broken in a way that it shouldn’t be. If a flash game online does pool well, certainly a Grand Theft Auto game can too? Tedious and broken. The other events are alright since you can skip them. The comedy club was pretty good, I must admit!
I like the racing missions. When it came down to doing those I have a lot of fun. The tracks are laid out in the city with enough variety that you can do them more then once. Racing the AI isn’t too hard, and it plays pretty light. If you’re behind you can catch up, but if you’re ahead it never lets you get bored. Sometimes you hit cross-traffic but at least you can catch up again. It never gets very frustrating. Compared to San Andreas it’s vastly improved. One other side mission I liked a lot was the cop missions. The most wanted stuff is really fun. Just pick a name from the police computer and away you go.
The graphics are really good. The city is so detailed. I notice something different every time. Even after 35 hours I came across a park that I didn’t know existed. There’s art and signs on every business. No single building looks the same. It’s pretty amazing that they managed so pull that together. All of the alleys have things in them, places where in Vice City it would have been empty. The frame-rate is a little off but it’s not blatant or frequent. I can’t blame them for that when everything else looks so great. The physics are awesome, and the damage you can cause is so fun. Like when you shoot pillars and it falls apart, or flying through the windshield. Even flying above the city, the roofs have detail. It’s amazing if you ask me. I can’t think of anything better right now in gaming.
The soundtrack is pretty bad. They licensed all those genres. But it doesn’t give the game an identity in the same way that San Andreas and Vice City had. It’s pretty underwhelming. I made my own playlist and have since moved towards using that. The sound effects are great though.
It certainly deserves all that success but I wish they would fix what is wrong. Maybe for the next GTA they can take a city and do something crazy in it. Like have a meteor hit sometime towards the middle of the game. Change the entire city to reflect that. Maybe something that you wouldn’t expect, where the entire story becomes irrelevant as you try to survive.
Or remake Vice City with these graphics, because that would rock too!