The Gangster’s New Clothes.
Grand Theft Auto IV steps onto the current console scene with all the swagger and confidence of a gunslinger in an Old West saloon. Men run in fear; women swoon. It packs more heat than an NRA member at an anti-war demonstration. In the eyes of many, the GTA series is a veritable pantheon of god-like game after god-like game. They say that a GTA game can swallow children whole, give birth to fully armored women from its skull, and make the earth crumble into insignificant specks of dust with just a glance. Where it treads, glorious destruction follows. But because it has such an awe-inspiring and intimidating presence, no one wants to be the first to say that GTA IV isn’t wearing any clothes.
As a game critic, I often feel like the kid who sits on Santa’s lap and pulls at Santa’s beard to show everyone that he’s a fake. But I do that because I want so badly to believe that Santa is real and that a game is capable of perfection. But neither one ever is. I also should point out that very rarely is a game criticized for not being perfect. Only a game with the stature of Grand Theft Auto IV could ever be judged harshly for not being flawless.
But it isn’t only that GTA IV isn’t perfect; it’s not even revolutionary or innovative. It’s also got a sizeable laundry list of graphical and gameplay issues. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t discuss a game’s shortcomings first, but everyone already knows this is a game worth playing and that you should run out and get it if you haven’t already. It’s an incredible game in many ways, but only because its standing on the shoulders of its predecessors.
If it were just a matter of a few small issues here and there, I would have no problem ignoring them, moving on, jumping on the gangster train, and declaring this “The Most Bestest Awesomest Coolest I-Want-to-Have-Its-Babies-est Game Ever!” Trouble is, most of the game’s problems are the same problems that have been following the series since it first made the transition to 3-D almost a decade ago, and the few major additions that it does have introduce yet more problems.
These long-standing issues are like an untreated STD that was easier to ignore when the series was young and fresh and nubile, but now that the series has slowed down a bit by scaling back its scope and by returning to an old haunt (Liberty City), it’s hard not to think about that festering, scratch-inducing rash. These problems were forgivable while the games were still being released for the PS2 generation, but with the transition to a new generation of consoles, I would expect these issues to be resolved. No such luck.
The on-foot controls are still as cumbersome as ever, and for whatever ungodly reason, Rockstar still insists on using an auto-centering camera that you continually have to flip up as you drive in order to see over and around your car. In essence, the series desperately needs a revamped control and camera scheme across the board. They need to start from scratch instead of trying to force this antiquated control system to work.
The most egregious holdover, however, is in the game’s graphics. Now that games like Assassin’s Creed and Crackdown have been made, the frequency of object and texture pop-in and piss-poor framerates here stands out like a bloody stump squirting gallons of Technicolor blood. On both 360 and PS3, framerates in GTA IV hover around 25 fps for most of the game; it can change depending on the in-game time of day, weather pattern, and amount of traffic, but it rarely hits the expected current-gen minimum of 30 fps. It’s a constant buzz-kill that regularly sent me packing to one of the game’s many drinking establishments. Texture pop-in doesn’t affect the gameplay at all, but when you’re in a helicopter, the overwhelming amount of pop-in quickly kills any immersive feeling you may have had. Buildings looks like un-detailed blobs of color, even at close range. And while driving, don’t be surprised if a roadside object pops into view right in front of you.
These graphical errors have been with the series since it first appeared on PS2, but because the game was pushing so many technical and gameplay boundaries at the time, no one cared. But in these current-gen times, it makes the game look decidedly last-gen. Worse, GTA IV claims to have stripped off so many extras that you would expect it to run at least as well as its open-world genre competitors. This is a game all about immersion and about convincing you that you’re living and acting in an alternate world, but these major technical shortcomings make it a hell of a lot less convincing than it should be.
However, there are improvements. The vast majority of the changes you’ll discover won’t be immediately obvious. At first blush, GTA IV looks very similar to past iterations. Similar car and character models, similar city layouts, similar play mechanics, similar storytelling structure, and so on.
But as a post-op transsexual might say, the real changes are all in the details. Vehicle controls have been refined, the lock-on mechanic has been tweaked, character animations have been broadened, and the physics engine has been beefed up. To list most of what is “new” in this game compared to its predecessors would be to list hundreds of small refinements and tweaks, so I’ll leave the rest of those for you to discover.
What’s missing are the more substantial changes and improvements. In deciding to scale back the scope of the game, Rockstar took a big risk. Instead of focusing on adding gameplay features, larger areas, or new means of destruction, they instead decided to cut down on the different gameplay types, cut down on the geography, and cut down on the arsenal. In fact, GTA IV is more remarkable for what it doesn’t include than for what it does.
The most obvious major addition in GTA IV is a friends management system. And, yes, “friends management” is about as exciting as it sounds. Using your cell phone, you meet up with your pals for games, shows, food, and drinks. GTA IV takes the dating gameplay from San Andreas, sprinkles it with gameplay tidbits from The Sims: Pimpin' Hard, and turns it into a major part of the game. No longer just confined to keeping your girlfriends happy by taking them places, you now go on “man-dates” in order to keep up relationships with your fellow men. Instead of sex, you get more manly perks from these guys like free cab service and weapons delivery (an occasional hand-job from a guy-friend doesn’t make me gay, right?).
If you don’t keep your friends happy, your relationships suffer. If you haven’t done something with one of them in a while, they call or text you and complain. After a while I realized that these characters were nagging me. Hell, I get enough of that at home in real life; I play games hoping to avoid all that nagging. So why in the world would I want game characters to nag me for not spending time with them? As if drug smuggling and cop killing weren’t taxing enough, now you have to spend a lot of your time trying to keep your virtual friends happy. A gangster’s life is never easy. Anyway, at a certain point I just started ignoring my friends so I could play more GTA 4 — you know, just like in real life.
Rockstar obviously saved all their best tricks for the last third of the game where you’ll experience some of the most exciting, tense, and creative action sequences ever to bloody a console. A particular highlight is a bank heist that moves from the bank, to the vault, to the streets, to the subway, and back out into the streets shooting cops the whole way, all without a single pause in action or a single load screen. Everything unfolds in the impressively continuous city, without a single seam showing. Unfortunately, you have to put lots of time into the game and play the same old mission types in the same old way following the same old patterns before the game shows its winning hand.
There are a couple of smaller gameplay tweaks worth pointing out that slightly improve on the gameplay of prior GTA games. You no longer use Pay-‘n-Spray to get rid of your wanted level. Instead, you need to escape the cops. The higher your wanted level, the further away you have to escape without being spotted.
Another small tweak is a new-and-improved lock-on system for gunplay, but it’s not without its issues. There are some problems with overly sticky reticules, but otherwise it works smoothly. You can also adjust the “stickiness”, but you can never get it quite right. Many times, it won’t stick to characters you’re looking straight at, and other times, it won’t switch between enemies when you need it to. Combined with a finicky cover system, gunplay sequences can be frustrating just as often as they are exhilarating.
The last major addition—multiplayer—comes off as a half-finished add-on. It’s a fantastic idea, and many of the game types look very promising and show what the series might hold in the future (MMOGTA, anyone?). But currently, multiplayer is plagued with painful slowdown, often hitting the sub-20 fps mark. Worse, very few people seem willing to stick out a full game, and since no other players can join mid-game, you’ll often be one of three or two (or... you know)players left at the end of a fifteen-minute match. Playing with your friends helps, but that’s not always an option. Multiplayer, as it currently stands, is a partly-broken — but promising — addition.
To borrow a Jedi phrase, “This isn’t the revolution you’re looking for.” Ultimately, GTA IV ends up feeling more like an upgrade than a real sequel. Strange, considering that neither Vice City nor San Andreas received the new number designation. GTA IV has fewer substantial changes and is far less ambitious than either of its two predecessors. I suppose this was always the danger in returning to Liberty City and in narrowing the scope rather than increasing it. Yes, there are hundreds of new details and it has the best story seen yet in the series, but the few major gameplay changes there are (like friends or multiplayer) introduce too many new problems.
I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas doing things considered unacceptable by society and by game developers. Forget about Andrew Ryan’s moral quandary; at its best, GTA IV is the real test of liberty. Without a doubt, this is one of the defining games of this console generation, but it comes with so few innovations, so many graphical and gameplay glitches, and so little payoff that it won’t be a defining game in video game history.
Very few games can be considered “disappointments” for failing to innovate the medium, so that says something very positive about its credentials. GTA IV has more content for your buck than pretty much anything else out there, and it has more variety, more freedom, and more soul than any other game this generation. But that makes its missteps all the more heartbreaking. It takes a very powerful and imposing emperor to convince everyone that he’s wearing the most glorious clothes ever, even when his junk is dangling out for all the world to see.