Saturday, 10 May 2008

Extended Review: GTA IV


Format: Xbox 360

Category: GTA Game
Players: 1-16 (1-4 Co-Op)
Publisher: Rockstar


Welcome to America!

I guess you know you’re getting old when you can vividly remember playing a new GTA game for the first time and being overwhelmed by it more than twice. Rockstar North games seem to evolve with society like some great parasitic borg. What was cool and hip in 1997 was acknowledged back then. What was ‘in’ during the summer of 2002 was charted in code and what’s hot in 2008 is surely somewhere in the mammoth title that is GTA IV. There is probably as many GTA IV reviews doing the rounds right now as there are pedestrians in Liberty City so my aim throughout this humble piece is to try and focus on areas of the game that haven’t been as deeply analysed or commented upon. I don’t want to laboriously delve into the plot since this has just been done to death in so many other reviews.

Off the bat, I want to establish a few things. Firstly, I’m a
GTA fan but in the old school sense. I remember fondly playing a demo from a now long gone PC games magazine in 1997. That demo was of Grand Theft Auto, by BMG Interactive – now Rockstar North. Everyone was in love with this cute little thing. The 2d cars and the innovative world were a breakthrough and the game was so very playable. My early GTA gaming days then took me to London and then a downloadable Manchester (anyone else remember that?). These were the glory days where games weren’t taken so seriously and GTA became a product every gamer wanted.

A few years later and along came GTA III. Again, it blew me away. It also done something quite profound: it managed to transfer the magic of the 2d titles and place it into a 3d environment. Many old titles have failed to cross this transition and now exist only in the minds of a seasoned few. However, 2001/2 was probably about the period that I did start to move away from the GTA titles in other ways. I played III to death and simply never got into Vice City. To me, it felt like a holding pattern was developing and I sensed the ‘innovation’ days of the past may have passed. San Andreas confirmed my suspicions of this holding pattern. It was clearly a far larger game than III but was essentially the same old thing. The game mechanic had worn thin for me but clearly hadn’t for the millions of other gamers who still swear by these titles today.

My next general point is that I believe, perhaps via some crazy example of gamers’ intuition, that we are perhaps decades away from ever getting that overwhelming sense from a new game we used to in the ’90s and in ’01 with III. Technology simply won’t enable a revolution per decade. Things have slowed down in recent years and certain technological boundaries simply will not budge until gaming reaches generations ahead of our current one. I always find it funny how we speak of our ‘current next-gen consoles’. The 360 and PS3 are the current generation, and have been since 2005. Next-gen is now a slot that has been moved along our mortal timeline. So that’s that then. I’ve established I’m an old school GTA fan and have developed quite a reserved attitude when it comes to what I expect from games (particularly after Halo 3).

Sitting down with GTA IV for the first time isn’t a spiritual experience. It’s not a moment you will remember in years to come or write excessively about on forums or journals. You won’t be blown away or forced to pause the game and then take another look after a few deep breaths. There is no initial ‘wow’ factor. The introductory cut scenes pass and then you find yourself in a car with the objective of driving deeper into the city. It’s night time but you see enough initially to instantly realise a few fundamental things about GTA IV. These reactions will probably depend on whether you’re a GTA veteran or are experiencing a Rockstar game for the first time. For those later people, I actually do envy you. You will probably experience what we all experienced back in 2001. This will always be the case when it comes to any given sphere of society though. You’re either on board or left behind and desperate to catch up if you ever delve into it.

The bottom line is that GTA IV is not the ‘holodeck’. It’s a GTA game. There is no revolutionary experience to be had. It’s just the next GTA game. What I mean by that is the rules of any other GTA game apply here. Pedestrians will just walk around aimlessly, cars will move around but never park anywhere, days will go by in the blink of an eye and the radio will either have you in stitches or eager to switch it off. As you start to play GTA IV more you will notice things that constantly remind you that this is very much still just a computer game and absolutely nothing more. I’ve read some bizarre hysteria-induced reviews about this title over the last few days. Some people are even calling for a new word to describe this game; arguing it’s more than a just a regular game but not quite virtual reality. Let me be clear. It’s a game and it comes on a disc. This is not ‘infotainment’.

As you can probably sense, a part of me has been ever so slightly disappointed by IV. It’s largely down to my desperate urge to experience something utterly astonishing. I miss that feeling and I guess us gamers are always on the prowl for the ultimate digital world. However, once you accept that this is still just good old GTA things do get easier to digest. The radio, for example, is neither better nor worse than it was in previous 3d GTA games. It’s musically varied and entertaining and that’s about all you’d want from it. It starts to repeat itself after a few hours of game time has passed and it’s when this happens that I was personally more inclined to switch it off entirely – which is possible.

The next reality check with this game is that it’s based on the same old mission system of former games. You go meet people and accept jobs. You must do them to proceed and they are often scripted. I have a problem with this. For me, the idea of an open-world game is all about total freedom. GTA doesn’t offer this. It offers freedom within the framework of doing compulsory missions. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about generational limitations. Perhaps in ten years time games won’t work in this manner. I’m hinting towards a time when games, like life, have no framework besides the laws of physics and the context you are in.

Most of the missions are exciting and really cinematic. Gone are the ridiculous types of mission from previous games (like remote controlling mini-helicopters within a strict time limit etc). Virtually every mission consists of driving somewhere and killing someone. There is very little variety. When the game does experiment with other tasks there is a sense of it only doing it to show you something that is possible in the game. It’s the gravity gun syndrome all over again but this time with things like being able to throw bricks at windows, date people online, and buy a shirt and tie. I’m not criticising the game for this but I was continuously reminded of Oblivion. That game represented how an open world ought to be and how to deeply vary missions/quests in a way that doesn’t seem forced or contrived.

There are also too many chase missions in IV. Way too many. Target vehicles speed away at impossible speed and then slow down to a halt after a few minutes of darting across the map. The whole car chase mechanic is done to death and proves repetitive. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could actually formulate elaborate ways of preventing them from reaching their cars in the first place and clocking them early on. The problem is this isn’t possible as the chase is always a scripted event.

It is worth mentioning here one very positive difference of this game to the former GTAs. Most of the missions will inevitably spark the attention of the police. This is often scripted but will also tend to just happen due to your antics getting reported by a random onlooker or a patrol car spotting your brawling. When you do get into police chases in this game the general experience far exceeds expectation. It actually feels like a realistic encounter, particularly with a 3 or 4 star wanted level. The police will chase you as always but if you drive down an alley and remain out of view they will often drive by you and lose you in the process. This adds a warm and cinematic sense to police confrontations - even when on foot. It feels like something out of the movie, Shooter, or even the Bourne Trilogy at times and is certainly one of the highlights for me. You can bail into the ocean and hide under a boat, run into a random building and then dive from a fire escape, even flee in a helicopter if you can find one. No longer are the authorities omnipresent; although with higher wanted levels things do tend to get more predictable.

When you’re not chasing cars or running from the fuzz you’re in the thick of some pretty intense firefights. My initial reaction to these was that they were ruined by the auto-targeting system. I then realised you could switch that off and swiftly done so. I also turned the reticule to a basic dot in the options. I hate overly complex and visible icons in any game. Once I’d done this I started to enjoy the combat. It looks cinematic and often quite brutal. It’s not tactical though, or particularly challenging. It’s also repetitive once you’ve sussed the crucial rule of play: use cover and be patient. The game has a cover system and it’s acceptable but not particularly well implemented. I think this whole cover system mechanic is so vital to get right now for any combat game. Rockstar obviously knew it was important to implement but unfortunately failed to get it right. The biggest issue is that you have to hold down the trigger and keep firing whenever you’re peeking out of cover or you’ll return to cover. This makes using pistols particularly awkward and always means that ammo will be eaten up unnecessarily.

When you take this rather sluggish combat system online it really starts to irritate you. The way cover is often approached and rested against from the wrong angle to the way you are facing will literally get you killed. The way you drill shots every time you step out of cover is the biggest foul up though. The driving system, on the other hand, is perfect as far as I’m concerned. Cars feel weighty and speed is handled well. However, online this falls apart. Lag sometimes means that breaking will be delayed and, although this might be my imagination, I just am convinced the physics are somehow downgraded in multiplayer. They are still impressive though and I’ve won many a race due to my perfected driving skills.

This is probably a good time to look to the multiplayer in general. The way I see it is if you’re reading this you know most of what there is to tell about what this game offers online. I want to focus on whether it’s any good. The answer is that some modes work and some don’t. GTA Race is easily the best mode as far as I’m concerned. It lets you either run havoc and sabotage other players’ chances of winning or just drive like a stig and hit the finish line. The reason I love this mode so much is because it’s precisely what I wished was possible whilst hitting GTA in 1997. Instead, back then I would often ‘dial up’ my friend and connect to his hosted game session on the PC. Although it actually did work back then you were generally a) eating money b) lagging like mad and, c) only with one other person (like a phone call).

Other notable modes include Cops ’n Crooks, which is undeniably fun when with the right people, the Co-Op missions, and Free Roam. The other modes are just bog standard stuff in comparison but still workable. To start with Co-Op, it’s really only a taster of something that you absolutely want to see far more of. There are only three missions available. I hope Rockstar release more as downloadable content but I don’t take this into account when I review. I believe this game needed far more Co-Op in general but these three missions are really good fun to play through and can be repeated over and over. Cops ’n Crooks is an inspired inclusion. It works perfectly and not many other games would have a chance with pulling a mode like this off. It really is like playing an epic game of ‘tag’ online.

Free Roam or Free Mode is obviously a brilliant option to have available. The problem with it is that you can’t do that much besides drive around aimlessly, kill cops, and turn things into a deathmatch. Since the map is from the single player there is no exploration factor and everything from the campaign mode that is marked on the HUD is locked and unavailable online. So, for example, you can’t go to the strip club with friends or even play a game of pool together. This is a serious oversight by Rockstar. People were expecting a lot more from Free Roam and I think that’s probably why the developers were so quiet about it in the first place. It just got slipped in as an extra. It feels half-baked and lacking. The other problem with it is you can’t specify enough as the host. Sure, you can set the time of day and the game length but you can’t assign wanted levels for instant cop battling or even decide on the guns to start off with. Instead, you must find the guns you want and work up a wanted level from scratch every time you die.

I also want to mention my utter dissatisfaction with the ‘customisation’ options available for your online avatar. It is so basic that it’s hardly worth raising as a game feature in a review. You can rank up and unlock more clothing and hair styles than the limited amount you start with but even then you are limited with appearance options. When will it be taken as red by developers that gamers want features such as deep character customisation in any online game? It’s almost an instinctual requirement of a human being. In a game like IV, where there are thousands of varied pedestrians in the game wearing limitless types of clothing and boasting all manner of bodily frames, it should have been relatively easy to create one beast of a character creation system comparable to something like The Sims 2. Also, it is just irritating that many modes simply don’t use your player model in them anyway; substituting them for generic mobsters or cops.

It is important to stress that, when played online, the ‘living and breathing’ city of IV is turned into a silent, lifeless, dull and eerily empty world in most places. Even with traffic and pedestrian levels set for high things still don’t seem to hussle like they do offline. I can accept all this though – just making the point. What I can’t accept is the way confrontations with the police (about all you can do in Free Roam) actually ruin the game’s illusion of being a grand step forward. That old phrase, ‘the emperor has no clothes’, comes to mind. I actually decided to stop playing Free Roam because every time I went on it my fondness for the game chipped away some more. You see the game mechanics in a bare form and it hurts to see it. It all starts to look like GTA III/Vice City/San Andreas with improved graphics and a cover system. Also, the frame rate drops to unplayable levels with a 5 or 6 star wanted level when online. It’s almost as if you are teased with something when you play Free Roam. It’s like a taster of the future of online gaming – we are just not there yet.

I wasn’t going to raise this but decided to at a late stage of churning out this review. A big problem with GTA IV online is that it requires a lot of organisational skills to achieve a fun and hassle free session with friends. It is like the interface works against you in a host of sly ways. Party mode at first looks promising but then you realise that it will just constantly throw you into rooms with far smaller (or larger) groups and then hang until more people join. They never do and the only way back is to leave the game, which disbands your party, and start from scratch. This is utterly infuriating since your average Xbox Live (or PSN) user is not know for their patience. In these pre Call of Duty 4 days we are not used to struggling to get a good game on the go. With GTA IV it is a challenge and requires a lot of fiddling. Many of the problems seem to be with NAT restrictions on many gamers' routers. Personally, I just think the game should mention this somewhere like Halo 3 manages to when it detects you’re on a strict or closed network.

My concern here is also that IV fails the ‘J Test’. WTF is that I hear you ask? Well, it’s not something you will ever see mentioned on IGN that’s for sure. Basically, it’s something I’ve observed over the years I’ve played over Xbox Live. The test is: is it possible to play this game online with friends after a few joints or does it become an exercise in futility? Yes, that’s right. After a toke of the smoke, a puff of the chronic, whatever you like to call it. Sure, it’s not something developers are likely to take into consideration but the reality is that to play IV online with friends requires a level of focus and attention that many gamers simply don’t have at 1am when this stuff is usually kicking off.

You can, alternatively, use the private match function of the game to ensure you play with your friends and your friends only. You must set maximum private slots for this to work. Unfortunately though once you decide on a game type you can’t cancel it without the whole thing closing down, which requires you to start it all up again. It’s just small things like this that tend to screw with you when online. Let’s hope for a patch at least.

At the user end of this game you will become very frustrated by the army of whiny 13-year olds out there to annoy you. GTA IV is an 18 certificate game, and never in gaming history has this been more applicable to a title, yet online this is a kidathon. In fact, when I was on very recently a 5-year old entered into our lobby alongside another slightly older child! The level of parenting out there beggars belief and I truly was shocked by this blatant and undeniable reality; GTA IV is played almost exclusively by children online.

So, you rely on your friends lists more than with any other game I can remember. Ultimately, the gaming experience depends on who you play with. It is very hard to convince people to work as a team or coordinate anything. Very few are prepared to really experiment with much – particularly in the Free Mode. This is a shame but is always an issue with games that fail to spoon feed you in that way many are used to. On a side note though it is well worth organising a bunch of players to fly choppers onto skyscrapers with and then RPG the police down below. Good luck!

You may have noted that I’ve been quite critical about IV so far. The truth is I’m very fond of this game but wanted to highlight its weaknesses rather than jump onto the bandwagon and go on at length about every positive point. I can now mention some of them though. For me the absolute gem of this game is the Euphoria motion system for all pedestrians and non-player characters. It is noticeably a vast improvement over ragdoll technology and is spookily lifelike in so many ways. For a start, in gunfights you will often see wounded enemies run away whilst clutching their stomach or a limb. They will limp away and yell for help. They will even sometimes clutch their hand if you shoot their weapon from their grip. I’ve not seen this level of animation in any other game before. That’s because this is the first game to use Euphoria, which is a system developed by an entirely separate company to Rockstar. There is no doubt that we will see this system used in every form of war or combat game made from this point onwards. It’s simply that good.

Another great inclusion comes with the quality of mediums such as the in-game television and entertainment venues. The TV shows are particularly humorous and very watchable. Some are parodies on other video games (Republican Space Rangers has all sorts of Halo references) whilst others are tongue-in-cheek takes on American history and popular culture. All of this represents a great take on Anglophone society. I’m note sure how the rest of the world will respond to it all but I’m sure it’ll prove popular everywhere outside of English speaking society. There is a great mix of British/American cultural references and all of this is remarkably entertaining. The fake internet is also fantastic and very cleverly done. It parodies every net culture reference imaginable and also manages to seem genuinely ‘online’ somehow at times. It is perhaps missing one treat though; a form of ‘YouTube’ or video sharing website would have clearly been an inspired idea for short and deliberately bad clips of the in-game inhabitants doing wacky things.

The comedy clubs are equally awesome although most of the Ricky Gervais stuff just consists of old gags from his tour DVDs such as Politics and Animals. The rest of the venues you can attend aren’t so great though. You can’t, for example, enter a bar or nightclub. You just walk up to them and then it goes dark and reloads with you walking out as a drunkard. The strip club is pretty cool, particularly when the controller vibrates during private dances! However, it’s not much different to the clubs you could venture into in San Andreas.

There are many great tweaks in this game that improve the GTA model. The most notable is the taxi system that allows you to travel as a fair and skip to the destination. Looking out of the window of the back seat of a cab was one of my highlights of playing this game. I know it doesn’t sound like a great deal, but being able to just sit and study the world outside is quite an experience because it does start to blur that line between reality and a game. You see the pedestrians living their life and behaving like you’d expect people to. They talk on phones, drink coffee, litter, lean against walls, sweep roads, even scratch themselves and talk in groups.

The problem is this is all an illusion. It is the gaming equivalent of The Truman Show. It all seems real but upon closer inspection is artificial and hollow. No-one in GTA IV is ‘living a life’ like they did in Oblivion. They are on a set path and will repeat it for eternity. The pedestrians themselves look very varied and realistic. Every kind of archetypal figure imaginable roams these streets. However, eventually you start to spot the same figures again and again and realise that these figures are actually clones and are not unique. I was a little disappointed by this the first time I realised it and it was confirmed for me.

Going back to the taxi, even this feature often highlights various issues with the game. That feeling of being in a taxi cab in a bustling city is instantly smashed when said taxi cab driver starts to crash into walls and reverse onto pavements recklessly. Once, my taxi ended up so damaged I had to get out half way into a journey. The A.I does bizarre stuff and behaviour like this acts to remind you of the fact you’re playing a GTA game.

I haven’t touched on the story in this review like so many others have. All I will say is that the character you play is a cool and likeable anti-hero; a sort of dried up killer of a man. You feel bad ass in all the right ways. Kudos to Rockstar for nailing this. The story itself is believable but suffers from being linear. There are multiple endings but no sense of forging your own way like there is in true open-world games. I wanted to say ‘no’ to some missions and do others in ways the script didn’t allow. Sometimes this game feels like it is too mission heavy. Traditionally, GTA has always been about just doing your own thing. Personally, I believe Rockstar should have focused on this element more and made missions something you actually discover for yourself as opposed to them being fed to you. I would have liked to have that sense of discovering obscure figures in bars offering shady work. You don’t get this. It’s all pre-determined for gamer.

The friend management system is pointless and rather tedious. I have no idea why Rockstar rolled with this Japanese style dating game feature. In reality a cold killer like Niko wouldn’t do niceties like playing darts with an innocent girl or taking low level crooks for a drive to a show. By about the half way stage of playing you are already the alpha man in the city anyway. You’ve got money coming out of your ears and more guns than a NRA convention. Once you’ve had ‘sex’ (heard it at least) with Michelle there’s no incentive left. I didn’t need Little Jacob’s guns or Roman’s cabs. I wanted to mute my phone in the end.

I’m not sure why so many people are waxing lyrical about the mobile phone itself in this game. It’s basically an interface for the options. It’s well implemented but is not as big of a deal as so many would have you believe.

Soundtrack wise I think IV is just going to be a subjective thing. I was a little disappointed by the soundtrack on offer. It’s probably about now that Rockstar should start thinking of new ways to implement radio into GTA titles. I’m thinking streaming content or at least updatable track listings. I listened to beat 102 more than anything else because it just felt right somehow. The rest is okay though – but this is where the 360’s custom soundtrack feature truly shines. The sound and graphics are great and do the job well. My only criticism comes with the gun sound effects. They don’t come over heavy enough, particularly with the MP5.

I really need to round this one up. I knew it would be a long review and deservedly so. This is clearly the best GTA game ever made, although many I’m sure will maintain there own personal take on this. Being the best GTA game is clearly a big deal but the world has moved on considerably since 2001. Has GTA IV managed to do enough to truly take this franchise into our ‘current’ generation? I would say it has. It’s an entertaining game and genuinely gripping in a few places. However, it’s no ‘holodeck’ and has many issues.

This is not the best open-world game. As far as I’m concerned Oblivion is hands down still the best in this genre. It isn’t a shooter that can touch Gears of War, or a racer that could contend with something like… Forza?? (I know zilch about racing games). What this game represents is a mash of every genre.

For me the main shining point of this game is Euphoria; a feature that cannot truly be solely associated with the game itself. This motion technology is what drives the lifelike activities of the pedestrians, the realistic reactions to entry wounds, and the animation within cut scenes. Without it I honestly believe that in terms of the feel and atmosphere of the game IV would be almost identical to San Andreas bar the major graphical improvements.

With every GTA game the quality of each of its parts is improved upon and the quantity is carried through. Here, a compromise was made between that quality and quantity balance. I believe that one day, perhaps years away or perhaps decades, a GTA game will ultimately come out that is not only of utter quality but has the sheer quantity of something like San Andreas to boot. GTA IV is the start of something but it’s not the great masterpiece that will no doubt be on the way in the future. This is one stunning game but it’s far from perfect.


Summary

+Constant glimpses of something profound
+Very impressive animation and NPC behaviours
+Varied and entertaining offline activities/mediums
+/-This is still a GTA game in every sense
-All the old GTA problems with A.I
-Multiplayer does feel like an afterthought


9.3 / 10

For all its faults it's still one of the best games in recent years


by The Critical Alien
© 2008

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

lol the "j test".

GamesReview UK said...

There is nothing funny about the "J test". When will those pesky games developers learn...

Dori said...

Good for people to know.

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