It wasn’t that long ago that the following thought entered my head.
“Wow. I might actually finish a GTA game.”
You see, I never got too much into the GTA series. And Lord knows, I tried. GTA III, GTA III: Vice City, GTA: Liberty City Stories — I played them all. Or rather, I played them for a couple of hours, which is about how long it took to get to an “epic” mission, which would be too difficult for me to complete. At that point, I would switch to just taking advantage of the open environment these games drop you into — taking on the taxi cab missions, for example. Or doing what I could to attract police attention and then attempt a daring escape. But those things only hold your interest for so long.
So you might be wondering why I kept buying the games. Well, I rather naively thought that each version would somehow fix the annoyances of the earlier versions. But more than that, I liked the concept of the games, and appreciated the work that went into them. I wanted to progress, I wanted to enjoy them. But I kept running into a brick wall.
What was the brick wall? What were the annoyances that I kept hoping would be fixed? The two most notable ones were, 1) the almost complete lack of being able to target your enemy, and 2) difficulty reducing the amount of damage you take. In the earlier missions, these weren’t a big deal. Gun play is a minimum on both sides. But as soon as the missions ratchet up to where your opponent opens fire on you, I would be in trouble. Part of the problem may be that I’m not much of an FPS player, so I wouldn’t really have the experience or techniques for handling the scenarios — and would get punished for that harshly. But it did seem a bit strange that there was no form of targeting, and no reliable way for protecting yourself except for the body armor item, which effectively doubled your hit points and nothing more.
It didn’t help that when you did come upon a mission that was difficult, you would have to start back from square one every time you wanted to replay the mission. This wasn’t a trivial task. You usually ended up at the hospital, or the police station. I may be remembering wrong, but it seemed like you lost all your weapons regardless of which one happened. So, first thing you would have to do is re-arm yourself. Then you would have to find your way back to the mission-giver. Finally, you would have to repeat any parts of the mission you were doing successfully before finally repeating the tricky part. It didn’t help that trying to navigate the city streets was sometimes very difficult, at least for me.
Okay, so enough complaints about earlier versions. Lets talk about what makes GTA IV different.
The first thing that you are introduced to in this version is the targeting mechanism. All you do is hold down the left trigger, and Niko points his weapon at the closest “enemy”, locking onto them. You even get a nifty loop of life bars, so you know how many more hits it will take before they go down.
The second thing you are introduced to is taking cover. By tapping the right bumper, Niko quickly kneels behind, or presses his back against the nearest solid object in order to cover himself from any incoming gunfire. You can move left and right while you are covered and, as icing on the cake, you can target enemies while you are covered. If an enemy is exposed, all you need to do is target and shoot without taking any damage!
Believe it or not, these two things together are the primary reasons why I was able to progress in this game. They’re such simple things, too. It pains me to think that if these mechanics had made it into the GTA series just a little earlier, I might have enjoyed more of the earlier games. Oh well. I’m glad that I was at least able to enjoy this GTA, because there is so much more to it than targeting and taking cover.
GTA IV is essentially story driven. A lot of the reviews I read when the game came out described the story with words like “epic” and “dramatic”. I found the story to be okay. It wasn’t bad by any means — if it were bad, I wouldn’t have seen it through to the end. But this isn’t the story I was expecting based on the reviews I read. Also, what is with all the swear words? Okay, I get it, the characers in this story aren’t angels. But, at the beginning especially, it seemed like every other word was the f-word. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude, but I find that excessive swearing in a narrative shows lack of imagination. And the swearing does ease up a litle later in the game, but it’s always prevelant.
The bigger complaint — and perhaps it is related to the swearing thing — is that I never felt too close to the characters. I love stories that focus on the plights of the characters. GTA IV, at best, gives you a glancing look. You get to know Niko, the main character, pretty well, and as a result you sympathize with him the most. But everyone else — from Niko’s cousin, to Little Jacob, to Packie McReary, to Brucie — you appreciate their colorful personalities, but you don’t really get deep into who they are.
One of the game mechanics is having friends and relationships. If you take the time to become good friends with some of the characters by doing activities such as going out to eat and bowling, you will unlock bonus abilities that can help you get an edge with some of the tasks in the game. I mention this now, because usually when you do one of these activities, you have to go pick up your friend, do the activity, and then take them home. While the both of you are in the car, Niko will talk to his companion. This is where you will learn most about the characters, but it’s all very high level: my brother tries to be good but is as crooked as the rest of us; my friend is doing too many drugs and losing his mind; I’m the way I am because of what happened when I was younger. Stuff like that. No details. No epic missions or scenarios to highlight the conversation. Just rush hour confessions that get a passing comment from Niko. It’s interesting, but not the best story telling.
And so the missions end up being where most of the depth in the game is, and there is some intriguing elements. There are even several key points where the player is forced to make a potentially game-changing decision. This is especially true later in the game, which I won’t go into details about so as not to spoil anything. But suffice it to say that the network of people you know at the end of the game is very different from the beginning.
I want to step back a moment and try to get to what I think is really GTA IV’s biggest flaw. Basically, I think there are elements of an uncanny valley here.
(For those who don’t know: the valley referred to in the uncanny valley is the line on a graph. Basically, someone did an experiment where they showed participants pictures of human faces in varying degrees of realism. The participants rate how real they feel the faces are, and the results are graphed. As you might expect, the line slowly increases as the faces grow more complex. But a curious thing happens as you get very close to real: there is a sudden dip in ratings before finally going back up when shown a real human face. One theory for this is that the more real you try to make a human face look in animation or robotics, the easier it is to see imperfections. The little things that we expect to see when we meet another person. And those imperfections on an otherwise realstic face freaks us out.)
Rockstar put a lot of effort in making GTA IV as real as possible, in the same manner as GTA III. And boy did they go all out. Some parts of Liberty City look identical to New York City. And yet… it doesn’t. Liberty City is very bleak. And I know that is part of the point. After all, with all the things going on — most of it caused by you — it’s no surprise the city looks as bad as it does. But it’s dirty. The sun shines, but everything is in shadow. Liberty City’s version of Times Square is filled with neon signs and bright lights, but nothing is illuminated. It’s a very odd sensation — like everything is dead, but “living” people are walking around.
The NPC drivers are dumb as bricks. At times, you’re amused, because it’s scarily similar to reality: people changing lanes without warning, taking forever to move when the traffic light turns green, turning at the last minute. But the game takes it to the next level of stupidity, sometimes making it very difficult to get around.
And then there’s the radio. Oh the radio. I loved GTA III’s radio. It was just the right amount of sarcasm and satire. But GTA IV seems to take it too far sometimes. For example, Niko will be giving an epic talk about his past, and how it has scarred him deeply — and in the background there will be an ad for Babies Overnight. “If you don’t like the baby, drop it in a dumpster, and we’ll send you another!”
Again, I can appreciate what Rockstar was going for. Some of the advertisments we are subjected to these days are painfully stupid. And set against some of the very real troubles that we all go through, they’re insulting to humanity’s intelligence. It’s satire, I get it. But GTA IV holds it up and rubs it in your face to the point where it is no longer clever commentary.
One other thing about the radio: it seemed to be quantity over quality. In other words, a lot of stations, but not much content on each station. I loved Lazlow on Chatterbox in GTA III, partly because it took a while to listen through every segment. But in Lazlow’s reappearance in GTA IV, you can hear all of it pretty quickly. You hunger for more, but there’s nothing. It felt the same way on a couple of the other stations as well.
What I’m trying to get at is that the level of detail in GTA IV is amazing — your car radio crackles with GSM static whenever you get a cell phone call for crying out loud! — but they fall just short of being truly believable, and it’s a shame.
I want to wrap up with mentioning a few of the other things I liked and disliked. The GPS in cars is a Godsend. It makes it so much easier to navigate the vast city that is Liberty City. The little parlor game minigames are implemented well and don’t feel too much like afterthoughts, which is nice for a change. The cell phone is an ingenious HUD, although they should have toned down the amount of times friends call to hang out. As nice as the targeting is, there were many times that it would be stupid. I failed more missions than I should have just because an enemy appeared in front of me — but when I tried to target them, Niko would inexplicably aim his gun off into the distance, giving the enemy the perfect opportunity to finish me off. And, as nice as the ability to take cover is, there were often times when he would take cover behind the wrong thing, sometimes choosing the option that put me right in an enemy’s line of sight. I liked that you could choose to replay a mission straight from your cell phone right after failing, though. And I liked that you only lost all your weapons if you got busted, because it’s actually very difficult to get busted in GTA IV.
But all in all, GTA IV was a great game, and I highly recommend it. Just don’t build your hopes up after reading the mainstream reviews of the game. It boggles my mind how much they praised this thing. It is well designed, and is worth the money you spend on it — but it is not the 10/10 perfect masterpiece that it was described as at release.
I’m very glad this was the first GTA game I was able to beat.