Friday, June 27, 2008
GTA IV Criticisms
GTA IV is a great game - let me just say that first and foremost. The game world, which is a digital recreation of NYC, is stunningly realized - at first glance. Look a little deeper though, and you may realize that both the game world and the gameplay itself are not quite as fully fleshed out as they could have been. Granted, making a game like GTA IV requires an astronomical amount of work and not everything can make it into the game - not even stuff the developers want to put in. Im sure Rockstar could have put more into the game - why they didnt is a matter of speculation. On one hand, we might theorize that they were under pressure to get the game out on budget and on time, as it had already been delayed numerous times. On the other, pehaps, as any good poker player might, Rockstar chose not to show their complete hand early in the game. That is, they realize GTA IV is the first of several new GTA games, and if they put everything in the first one, there wouldnt be much point in making a sequel. Perhaps its a combination of both factors.
Lets start with the game world itself - an uncanny digital recreation of NYC. Let me say I think the graphics are fantastic in GTA IV - it is visually one of the most stunning games I have ever played. If the colors look flat and the lighting isnt what you wanted - come visit NYC. It wont be what you wanted either. NYC is a grey area - literally. I once stuck my Xbox 360 camera out my window during a match of Uno and umopapisdnpuaq asked me to turn the black and white filter off so he could see the city better. There was no filter on the camera - the city, with all the soot and grime and sleaze stuck to it, just looks very grey. So, they got the look right - but they didnt quite get the feel right.
For starters, there are no tourists in Times Square - or the rest of the city. City residents are portrayed with remarkable accuracy - but the non-residents are perhaps the most notable thing when you go to an area like Midtown. During the summer, its swarming with people in brightly colored clothes, with backpacks, sandals and maps, just staring up at the buildings. There are unkempt people walking around, but nobody sleeping on the streets or crackheads begging for change. Yet we have a plethora of prostitutes - among many women in the game who are portayed as objects to be aquired like ammunition. So we strike on an early theme: the boring, pathetic and visiting people were left out of the city, and the cool, absurd, or sexy people were left in. They edited the roster of NYC street life to suit their Rockstar tastes. Their tastes are in a few words, adolescent and misogynistic. You have people walking down the street shouting out "cheesy vaginas!" Its hard to take the game world seriously when puerile humor is constantly being jammed down your throat. The TV and radio ads, as hilarious and ridiculous as some of them are, detract from the otherwise incredible realism of the game world. Rockstar - and its writers like Dan Houser who wrote GTA IV - still havent grown up. The game still feels jouvenile, even though the look has clearly grown up with new technology - GTA IV is still a joy for the eyes and ears, despite these flaws.
But more troubling is the somewhat empty game world. Sure, there is tons of traffic and pedestrians everywhere. But after playing a game like The Godfather, which was originally a PS2 title mind you, where there are seemingly hundreds of different buildings and busineses the player can enter and interact with, Liberty City feels a bit empty. You can only enter a few dozen structures in the entire game world, and there are only a handful of places to eat in the entire city. At first, I thought I had to discover them first before they appeared on the map. But no, there are just a few eateries in all of NYC, and none in New Jersey (Alderney). Whats worse is that there are many restaurants built into the game world - you just cant interact with them. I can't tell you the number of times I needed health and had to take a taxi to the Time Square chicken place and then another taxi back to Alderney to finish a mission. Later I realized I could call an ambulance for health, but really, its no replacement for more food spots or an item system where I could store a health pack.
Secondly, you cant buy property or extort businesses - which you could do in GTA San Andreas and The Godfather, respectively. As you gained money, you could buy bigger and better properties, and it served to propel the gameplay particularly in GTA:SA after the storyline was done. GTA IV has no such features, and the replay value is hurt substantially by it.
Comparing the single player experience of GTA IV to GTA San Andreas isnt kind to GTA IV. While there were several improvements to the gameplay, most notably a cover system and better aiming, a huge chunk of content that was present in San Andreas doesnt exist in GTA IV. For starters, you cant buy property like you could in San Andreas - or anything besides food, guns or clothes. Sop bascially, the money you earn in GTA IV is pointless. You have so much of it by the end of the game, and so little to spend it on. This was a huge oversight by Rockstar.
There are fewer cars and weapons types in GTA IV than there were in San Andreas. But worse than that, they completely screwed up both the handling and the physics of the vehicles. You should not need to play a game for 20 hours just to learn how to drive. The driving controls are so heavy and counterintuitive, and the cars flip so easily, its amazing that the game is even playable. Imagine how great the game would be if the vehicle controls were actually good. I eventually got used to fighting them and was able to earn the "Genetically Superior" achievement for winning all the single player races - but the learning curve should not be so steep. I know a few people that simply quit playing the game early on because they could just not get a handle on the driving controls, and thats a shame.
In San Andreas, there was a driving school. Although you didnt really need to complete it to be able to drive the cars proficiently, it was really fun to complete anyway. GTA IV desperately needs a driving school, right at the beginning of the game. The "A" button, which is the e-brake, and supposedly helps you make sharp turns, is entirely useless for doing anything other than 180 spins. The only way to take sharp turns in a controlled fashion is to rapidly tap the L trigger (brake) as you approach it. There is no real drifting in the game, just slow down and take the turn like a grandma. Because if you take the turn too sharply, your car will go up onto two wheels and flip over - even in a supercar like the Inferno. Do you know how hard it is to actually flip a Ferarri in reality? Do you know how fast you would have to be going to generate enough force to lift one up on two wheels? Its almost physically impossible. Yet in GTA IV flipping your car is constant. Amazingly, this was Rockstar's attempt to make the driving more realitic. They completely and utterly failed, and in the process made the game much more difficult and much less enjoyable than it could have been.
Cars arent the only things Rockstar messed up in GTA IV. The bikes and helicopters, while handling better than the cars and trucks, arent as much fun to drive in GTA IV. The physics on the bikes was so radically changed that the entire genre of game videos knows as "GTA Stunting" is in jeopardy. There are a few rare people who can still create cool stunts in GTA IV, but GTA San Andreas was GTA Stunting democraticized. Anyone with a bike and a jump truck could create amazing stunts anywhere - flying off buildings, doing multiple flips - and landing it, all for an insane stunt bonus. Thats right, for those who dont remember, you earned cash for landing the unique stunt jumps in San Andreas. Not only were there more jumps built into the map, they were bigger, more badass, and more totally insane. The stunt jumps in GTA IV are weak. There are only a handful of good ones, and stunningly, there are no jumptrucks at all in GTA IV.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the vehicles besides their poor handling is the inability to realistically interact with them. Rockstar made a huge deal about how GTA IV incorporated the Havoc physic engine, and it would allow the game to offer more realistic interaction with vehicles and objects. Not only are the vehicle physics in the game no longer fun, they do not allow for such simple tasks as standing on a moving boat. You cannot stand on moving cars or trucks either - although both of these actions were possible in GTA San Andreas. Whether this was a conscious decision by Rockstar or a byproduct of a useless and overhyped physics engine doesnt matter - its an absolutely unforgivable design decision. I also really, really wanted to be able to grab and hang onto a low hovering helicopter with one hand on have friends take me on a heli-tour, or, if its Blank Void piloting it would be more of a Hell Tour with me getting slammed into bridge and building tops and whatnot. Imagine the possibilities of rocket toting heli-hangers jousting over the skies of Midtown, and you can see why Im so disappointed. Dont even get me started on the lack of BMX bikes, skateboards, or rollerskates. Just imagine the possibilities!
The single player game features the gruff yet charismatic Niko Bellic, though sadly you cant customize him beyond his outfit. GTA:SA allowed players to customize its main character, Carl, with tatoos, different hairstyles, sunglasses, he could work out and become super-buff, or he could eat 500 burgers in a row and become super-fat, etc. Niko has none of these more advanced, RPG style customization elements. Couple these limitations with only a handful of choices throughout the story, and you have a very limited, controlled, linear experience, thats more like a playable action movie than the Adventure-Action-RPG that was GTA San Andreas. Rival gangs roamed the streets of GTA SA and The Godfather, and you could often witness inter-gang fights and gang battles with the police - no such NPC chaos exists in GTA IV. San Andreas was also huge, physically, compared to the size of Liberty City. I remember reading a Rockstar rep saying that Liberty City would be as physically big as SA, but more dense. Lies - Liberty City is smaller and more limited, in every way.
The gameplay in the single player GTA IV experience is suprisingly limited compared to what the player was presented with in GTA SA. Where San Andreas consistenly presented the player with new gameplay elements, GTA IV is content to ram the same four or five mission types down the players throat over and over - almost all involve driving somewhere and shooting something. This isnt a review of GTA San Andreas, as its its such an amazingly deep game that trying to list all of it features would take several more pages. Ill try to be brief then - for starters, the only side missions you get in GTA IV are the police missions, Brucie's races, and Lil' Jacob's weed delivery missions. Those are all really fun side missions and completing them really extended the game experience past the story. Now imagine there were 30 times as many total side missions, spread out over more than 10 different gameplay elements - cause thats what you got in GTA SA: robbery missions, pimping missions, truck and train driving missions requiring players to make deliveries on time, insane driving/flying/boating/biking schools, taxi driver missions, firefighter missions, ambulance missions, police missions, remote-control vehicle missions, boxing missions, gambling, skydiving, basketball, pool, an entire lowrider minigame, and the ability to customize any vehicle with a nitrous boost, rims, and hydrolics. And then there were the planes and the skydiving! GTA SA had all of that, and then some more - thats why it was a 100+ hour game, and GTA IV is a 40+ hour game. There is less than half the single player content in GTA IV than in San Andreas, and there are fewer total story missions. Sadly, you cant play any of the minigames in GTA IV online, another shocking omission.
Another thing I was completely shocked by was how much weaker the cops are in GTA IV, and how much more mayhem you have to cause to get 6 stars, and then how utterly disappointing it is when you finally get them. Getting 6 stars in GTA IV is so hard, and takes so long most people will never get them just playing the story normally, which is a shame. I completed the story without ever getting more than 5 stars - there are no missions, not even the insane 3 Leaf Clover, where you are awarded 6 stars at any time. Its is never necessary to escape from a 6 star wanted level to complete the game. Its hard for me to describe how disappointed I was to find out that the way most people achieve 6 stars is right at the beginning of the game, when they explore one of the other islands before they are "unlocked" - a ridiculous idea if Ive ever heard one. Here Rockstar gives us this massive open world, but, no-no-no, dont go explore it yet. You have to "unlock" it before you are allowed to explore it normally. If you try to explore before the other islands are unlocked, you will get 6 stars. Other than that, its almost impossible to earn them without a substantial effort: it took me a specially planned rampage through Times Square culminating in landing a helicopter on a building, and lobbing grenades and rockets onto SWAT vehicles for half an hour before the 6th star clicked in.
Getting 6 stars in San Andreas wasnt just easy - it happened all the time, and often when you didnt want it! It made the game so much more crazy and fun. When you got 6 stars in GTA SA, the army would come for you. There is no army in GTA IV. There was the army in GTA III, which GTA IV is supposedly the successor to. When I finally got 6 stars and no army came, just a few FBI cars, I knew GTA IV was a flawed game. It is a great game as I said before, but it is flawed - mostly due to lacking content that other prior GTA games had. Most of these flaws are allieviated by the ridiculously fun online modes, because when you are in a car with 3 of your friends, it doesnt quite matter as much that its an FBI car chasing you rather than a Tank. GTA IV is a great game, even a classic, but I cant help but wonder how much more amazing it could have been.