Friday, August 27, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV

This might be the best videogame I've ever played. I don't mean to say this is the most fun game I've ever played, nor that it is my all time favorite. I just mean that, when considering what the producers and designers set out to create, the end result was so phenomenal it has to rank as one of the greatest achievements in the history of gaming. It's just amazing. But it ain't perfect.

If you've already played any GTA game, you'll know what to expect and feel right at home with this fourth installment. But if you've never played one but have played almost any action game released in the past five or six years, you'll still feel right at home, because that's how influential this series has been on the gaming industry. You roam around a giant city, collecting missions and jobs from characters that lead you to other characters with more missions. The fourth GTA game doesn't do much to break this mold, it just does it better than anyone has done it before.

If you loved the earlier GTA games, you'll probably love this, because it looks amazing, controls better, and gives you way more to do (for the most part, but we'll get to that). If you hated the other games, this will do nothing to change your opinion. It's basically the same game just with a lot more polish. If you didn't like the series before now, adding a cover system and the ability to make friends ain't gonna win you over. In fact, the cover system is often more trouble than it's worth, since you can get stuck to walls or pop out in the wrong way, and having friends is more of an annoyance than anything else. After your tenth invitation to go bowling or drinking, you're going to switch your phone off.

But this game is just so much fun and the city in which it takes place is so huge and expansive and alive. Just driving through the city is fun, especially with the revamped physics engine that makes things feel better and more responsive than most full racing games. The physicals are so fully realized, you can see the cars dip lower when you enter one, and some of the most fun can be had by just running in front of a moving car and seeing how far your body goes flying. Also, there are a dozen or so radio stations full of excellent tunes and hilarious talk radio shows. Oh, and there are lots of missions where you get to kill lots of people. You can carjack any vehicle - including helicopters -- and drive to any location on the map. There's no painted on backdrop on the horizon. If you can see it, you can get there.

If anything, the city is almost too big, so missions and objectives can take a while to drive to. That's easily fixed, however, since you can also take taxis or the subway, which act as "warps" to any location. Toward the end of the game, I was so sick of driving, I just took a cab everywhere whenever possible. This game's city has better public transportation than my actual home of Minneapolis. Also, the missions themselves tend to get a bit repetitive, since they all take the form of either chasing down a car in order to kill the driver, or just driving to a place in order to kill some people. But no matter the variation, it's always pretty satisfying. There are so many different cars and vehicles you can drive, with weapon choices ranging from knives to machine guns to grenades to rocket launchers.

Unfortunately, the story is where this game falls a bit short. Niko, the main character, is a very likable guy with whom it's easy to relate, but unfortunately his main story arc goes nowhere and leaves him fundamentally unchanged from when he began. Ostensibly it's about his attempt to live the "American dream," but it really loses steam toward the end and lacks focus. The game just gives you a cut scene introducing a mission, which rewards you with money and the opportunity to get new missions. There are lots of characters to meet, but the only likable ones are your cousin Roman, Brucie (the best character in any videogame ever, and I mean that), and Little Jacob, all of whom vanish almost completely toward the second half of the game. The characters that take over in the second part of the game are all generic -- and completely interchangeable -- Italian mobsters. I had a hard time telling them all apart, and eventually just skipped most of their cut scenes and never missed out on anything.

And then ending just sucks. In fact, it's hard to even call it an ending, since you basically just stop getting missions, but are still able to roam around the city and do various other tasks. There is just no real emotional drive to the story nor any real reason to complete missions except for getting money, which serves no purpose because there's so little to buy. By the time I beat the game, I had about half a million dollars with no real way to spend any of it. In previous GTA games, you had to opportunity to buy real estate, move up in rank in the crime world, and even take over the entire city. In this game, you start as a hired gun and stay as a hired gun until the end. Granted, having to weight train and watch how much you eat so you won't get fat in the other games was a tedious chore, but at least it gave you a real sense of connection with the game's character.

So after all of these complaints, why did I begin my review by calling it one of the best games I've ever played? Because no matter what, it's just so damn fun and addicting to play. The game's storymode might be fundamentally lacking, but as a tool to create your own fun, the game simply can't be beat. Even forgetting the main story missions, there are hundreds of other ways to occupy your time. You can become a drug runner driving packages all over the city, take hit man missions, steal cars for your friend Brucie, go on dates with girls you meet on the internet (plays your cards right, and you'll even get lucky... off camera, thankfully), enter various street races, or just catch a comedy act from Ricky Gervais or Kat Williams, go bowling, or play a game of pool or darts. And when you get tired of all that, just grab some weapons and create some havoc on the streets. One of my favorite ways to occupy time was to take a helicopter to a random rooftoop to take down unlucky passersby with my sniper rifle. What that says about me, I don't want to know.

The highest compliment I can give to this game is that since I bought it about two months ago, I haven't taken it out of my 360 yet, except to watch the occasional DVD here and there. It's even been about a week and a half since I beat it, but I still keep playing around almost every day. I still have more to do before getting the 100% completion achievement, and it's too much fun.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

I about this about a year and a half ago, and I played it a lot for a little while. I think I got to the part where your first apartment gets burned down, or something, and you have to move into your second place. I didn't stop playing because I didn't enjoy the game. It was great, and the only thing I remember annoying me was having to keep my friends satisfied all the time. I just got distracted by a different game and then never came back to GTA.

One of these days, I'm going to start it up again. Niko is awesome.

stupescommaruth said...

do you still get to bang hookers and then steal your money back? i mean, I suppose that's an integral part of the early game, right? if so, I'm on it. I need to do a little research on "professionals" for my next story.