Grand Theft Auto. Everyone knows the name of the game and the series certainly can back up the popularity behind it. Wide open cities filled with cars to steal, people to run over, or alleys filled with secrets to find. From Grand Theft Auto 3 down to the San Andreas game, each GTA game improved upon its predecessor and GTA 4 would continue that route, right? Sadly, GTA 4 attempts change the current formula in the guise of improvement falls flat on its face.
You take the role of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant fresh off the boat in America and you’re here just to make money for your fat and stupid cousin who can’t seem to hold onto his money. That’s all you really need to know since the story doesn’t really progressive beyond this and Niko’s search for finding some specific people. All you really do is run around being the errand boy of every gangster in the city just because it pays. Unlike previous GTA games, there’s barely anything for you to spend your hard earned money on. Aside from buying meals or paying cab fares, the only things to spend money on are guns and clothes. Niko himself comes across as sarcastic but very bland in all other aspects of his character. Compared to Tommy Vercetti or CJ, Niko doesn’t really develop in character and just comes across as someone whining about lack of money or how people are trying to kill him. It also doesn’t help that Niko always seems to go out of his way to help his cousin no matter how much the guy screws up. The other characters you interact with are very one dimensional and are quite forgettable as well. Even though some of them are playing up to the stereotypes in the media, they still come across as unlikable.
Realism seems to be Rockstar’s biggest motivation when it came to anything in this game. Cars now handle more realistically, as in you spin out if you turn too hard with the handbrakes or you go flying through the windshield in a hard head on collision. This makes it hard to adapt to the controls of driving if you played any other GTA game before this one since now you have to be extra careful in your driving, which goes out the window when you have to keep up with a target and can’t let them get away. Motorbikes also have been hit in the head with the realism hammer since any crashes you make on your bike will send you flying across the street and having your body roll across the sidewalk for several seconds as each tumble takes off a good chunk of health. On top of this, when it comes to shootouts in a car, you can actually be shot through the windows and be killed while in your car. Shooting while driving has also gone down the drain since you have to use the right stick to move your aiming reticule get a good shot in. The realistic physics also apply to being hit by a car. If a car so much as taps you, you’ll take damage and you’ll stumble or fall down. This can get extremely frustrating as you just try to cross the street and take unnecessary damage by a driver that couldn’t stop his car sooner.
Shooting has also jumped on the “pop and shoot” bandwagon. Targeting enemies is simple enough and you flick the right stick to switch targets, but the targeting system is still finicky as ever since you could still be targeting a dead body you just made while the targeting system refuses to switch to a new target that is a few feet away from you. Many of the missions encourage you to use walls and objects for cover, but it also has the problem of having Niko either getting stuck to a wall when you need to get away someplace real fast, or he clings to the wall awkwardly that makes hitting enemies harder. Enemies are hit and miss when it comes to shooting you, but the police are extremely accurate at their shots and just tapping a cop’s car is enough to get them pissed off at you. Even if you get far enough away to evade the police, the game will usually spawn another cop car right in your path so that the chase can resume, forcing you to go so far out of your way just to lose your warrant level. Luckily, you don’t lose your guns upon death.
Rockstar seemed to have been in love with making everything realistic as possible thanks to the friend system. Over the course of the game, you’ll make several friends and you have the option to call them up to hang out, get a drink, or even go to a show. Unlike real life friends that probably know your schedule, it seems Niko’s friends have no concept of time and will always bother you to go hang out with them and then complain if you refuse. They’ll even try to call you in the middle of a mission. The only reason you would bother to make the in game friends happy is they give you perks such as having a cab whenever you want or having guns delivered to you. However, the hassle is usually not worth it. To make matters worse, if you are trying to listen to the phone conversation when something important comes up, the call immediately drops when you get hurt. All the friend system does is making you please a bunch of clingy people that seem incapable to make any other friends and feel they have to bother you and only you.
One thing Rockstar did get right is the design of Liberty City. The entire game takes very well after New York City by having a lot of the bridges and landmarks recreated from their real life counterparts and each neighborhood feels just like the actual areas from NYC. Even the subway system captures the feel of the city. The smaller details like the conditions of the roads are made with great care. No two neighborhoods will have the same structural styles and it does make them feel unique. Unfortunately, the game is plagued with tons of bloom effects from the sunlight and the city lights at night, which can make everything look extremely blobby and indistinguishable from each other. Nighttime is usually worse since the lighting is very dim unless you’re directly under a streetlight.
Grand Theft Auto 4 had so much potential going for it, but it falls apart under the attempt of trying to be like real life between the friends, the physics, and the bloom effects. Every time I failed a mission, it was back to square one and driving across the city yet again in another attempt to succeed as I hoped the next turn I make while chasing enemies didn’t cause my car to flip over and crash against a tree. The city looks nice, but driving through it is a whole other ball game.