Thursday, June 3, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV (video game)

Platform: X-Box 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Rockstar North
Genre: Sandbox Action-Adventure
ESRB Rating: M
Release Date: April 29th, 2008

It's been rated ten out of ten by many magazines across the board. Critically, it's acclaimed; I've seen some people call it 2008's perfect game. As usual, Rockstar created a firestorm among the gaming populous.

With that in mind, it has to be said; Grand Theft Auto IV may be the most over-rated game in years.

I realize that's a lofty statement to make in the very first paragraph, but it's not a conclusion I came to lightly. I played Grand Theft Auto from as far back as before it hit 3D with the third installment. Needless to say I'm a fan. But the Grand Theft Auto franchise is synonymous with top notch quality; so when it disappoints, it disappoints big.

None of this is to say that the game is bad. But the franchise may well be it's own worst enemy. The last full installment of the franchise was San Andreas, which is without a doubt the pinnicle of the franchise thus far. The games have gotten progressively better over time. So with that, you expect each installment to top the last. Grand Theft Auto IV just doesn't manage, falling short of the lofty heights the franchise achieved with San Andreas.

To start with the good, it must be said that Grand Theft Auto IV contains one of Rockstars most fully realized stories to date. It's probably the best one so far as well; only San Andreas can really measure up, but I felt that in this respect, IV reigned supreme. You follow Niko Bellic, an immigrant into Liberty City relatively fresh from horrifying experiences in war. He's looking for something and he may not be entirely sure what it is himself, be it a fresh start, achieving the American Dream, escaping his past or maybe to simply settle his past outright. Niko feels relatively real as a character; he's conflicted, the things he ends up doing in Liberty City weighing on his conscience, which is a marked contrast to previous protagonists. He wants to make ends meet alongside his goofy cousin but always seems pulled into the seedier elements of the city. To put it simply, the story feels very human in a way previous games did not and in this respect the game is something of a triumph. Rockstar also delivers their usual cast of memorable characters that you won't soon forget.

Graphics are good, but not great. Perhaps it's just me, but the game did not look as sharp as I had hoped it would. It's not a huge issue, however; it's still leaps and bounds past San Andreas in this department. Also, Liberty City truly is lovingly based on New York City. The detail in the city in comparison to the real thing is awe-inspiring and at times almost eerie. There should be a lot of props given for the attention to detail given.

The sound is great, as always. Voice acting works very well, as expected. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of real life music across it's many radio stations, as is common with the series, from ZZ Top to Bob Marley, so there's always something to listen to that might suit your taste. The talk show stations are back, including Lazlow and are suitably amusing.

How the game plays is pretty much how it always has, but with improvements. Driving and aiming are on the triggers now though. Perhaps the biggest improvement in the area of gameplay is the gunplay. Whereas in previous games it was at times cumbersome, it's gotten something of an overhaul in this one. Stick sensitivity is used for aiming to great results; now, when you lock on to an enemy you can use the right stick to fine tune to specific body parts while a hard flick or press in a direction will cycle to the closest enemy in that direction. This leaves it so that if you get good enough you'll be headshotting fools left and right; a very useful ability in later missions in the game. Other minor improvements stick out as well; you can now free-aim while driving in cars, tires will actually rip off the rims when shot out and it's a good idea not to collide with most things at top speed anymore, because you will go flying out the windshield now when that happens. On top of that is a taxi system that will allow you to zoom to a destination instantly.

Instead of a pager or an uncontrollable cellphone, in game messages now center around an in-game cellphone that you have full control over this time, which is another welcome addition. This brings along a massive improvement in replaying missions after you die; no longer will you need to hit the marker again, trip skip or whatever thing was done in the past. After you die, you immediately get a text message asking if you want to try again; confirm and bam, mission engaged. The cell phone can also be used to call cops or paramedics to your immediate area via 911, which is useful for obvious reasons. On top of that, the cell phone allows you to keep track of all the friends and dates in the game; hanging out with them is as simple as getting a phone call to set it up, or you could just buzz up a character to talk, about recent missions or otherwise. Hanging out with friends opens up a bunch of activities, from bowling to pool to playing darts, all fun in their own right. There's also an in-game internet system now that's good for some chuckles, with the usual Rockstar parody of social issues and the media.

In other words, the core experience has received some very welcome very needed and long overdue revisions to improve things; but sadly, the core experience is where the improvements end, as too many small things wrong add up elsewhere.

As I earlier praised the story for being probably the best in the franchise so far, it's not without it's failures. Some plot points are dropped to some degree as the game goes on. Some are minor and usually on purpose, but there's one very late in the game that practically slaps you in the face. A character is introduced early in the game as significant to Niko's past and the character makes Niko's life hell. But before the end of the game, this character and the plot points he represents simply vanish from the game entirely. Most of Niko's story in the game involves his past and his attempts to both put it to rest and wrestle it out, so to have a decent part of it introduced and not concluded is just sloppy.

As far as the gameplay itself goes, the story also somewhat hampers it. The plot is such a street level, low fish in the pond story of crime that it presents something of a glass ceiling. The more outrageous and fun elements of past GTA's have no part because of it and mission variety plummets to a absolute minimum. Missions now tend to boil down to going to someplace and killing folks, chasing someone down, retrieving something or some combination of them with a variable or two. Unlike previous games, rarely is something new thrown into the mix, so it gets very old, very, very fast. Halfway through the game, some missions can simply get outright boring.

Worse still, much from past games have been removed outright. A short list of things removed entirely are planes (helicopters are still present), parachuting, the stat's system from San Andreas, owning property, types of vehicles are halved and many of the special, more outlandish vehicles from past games are gone. Clothing options are carved down to a paltry amount, choosing different fighting styles is another culled option, the RPG style system for upgrading proficiency in things like weapons, burglery, car modification and gang warfare/territory dynamic are all gone. Oh, and Rampages are absent entirely. This is only what I can remember. The amount of features from past games that are missing is both staggering and horrifying. To this end, Liberty City at times feels somewhat dull and devoid of fun; there can be so little to see and do anymore that it feels like the franchise has taken a massive step backwards to the GTA III level, maybe even further. If this were simply a case of "cutting the fat" it would be one thing, but there is way too much lost in transition.

On top of that, a lot of what remains is neutered. The side jobs that were around in past games are also reduced in number; the paramedic and firefighter missions in particular are nowhere to be seen. The ones that remain carry little incentive to bother with. Whereas there were rewards for going the distance with side jobs - things like weapons in the safehouse, upgraded health, upgraded armor capacity and so on - you receive absolutely nothing for completing the side jobs this time. Just achievements. That's it. If you could care less about those there's little reason to bother with most side activities aside from some cash, which you'll get more than enough of once the missions get a head of steam.

Speaking of which, with many of the downgrades, money becomes as useless as it was in GTA III, where it wasn't much more than a glorified score counter. There's next to nothing to buy with it except guns, ammo, food, cab rides and hookers. It may as well amount to a score, because it serves little purpose otherwise. All of which I just mentioned in the past few paragraphs are just the subtractions I can remember. If I were to go back through and check for other things the game lost in transition - not to mention small things it does wrong - we could be here all night.

It may seem unfair to compare the game so heavily to other games, but it does not exist in a vacuum. Grand Theft Auto is a premiere franchise with high expectations. When the game offers as little as a typical GTA clone when the franchise often took leaps forward in the past, it's damn noticeable. Even just sticking to the franchise itself, there hasn't been as little to do since Grand Theft Auto III; and even that features things this game didn't.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mentioned that the franchises long time annoyance - graphical pop-up - is still around. It's not quite as bad as in the past, but as always if you go too fast the texture will be gone from the surroundings for a couple seconds. It's been seven years, a full console generation and four games since Grand Theft Auto jumped to 3D. That this is still not under control after all that time seems outright insane.

This game made me feel massive disappointment. Seriously, I often enjoy games despite their flaws and I'm much kinder to some games than some of my friends. I rarely feel the kind of disappointment and boredom this game brought. From Rockstar no less. What the hell happened?

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

The basics are there, but at heart, Grand Theft Auto IV just doesn't cut it. Compared to the past games in the franchise, it falls so far short that it's maddening. But it's not a bad game. There's still enjoyment to be had, but it may take warming up to; I personally lost interest in the game the first time or two I'd played it before finally getting in a groove with it. Recommended, but with the added note not to expect the heights the franchise has achieved in the past; if you do, you're bound to walk away very disappointed. Grand Theft Auto IV just does not live up to the standards the franchise itself set in the past.

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