The 2008 review revue, part eight

It’s 2009, but I’m not done with this 2008 thing yet. Because apparently my new modus operandi in life is to run behind with all the things I schedule for myself. Although I suppose it’s not always my fault — for instance, I was planning to mail out the first batch of GameSpite Vol. 1 yesterday, but the fact that it was pissing rain put a crimp in that plan (since said plan involved toting open boxes of books in paper envelopes five blocks to the post office). And so I run slow, as ever, with reviewing my reviews…or non-reviews, as in this case.

Grand Theft Auto IV | Rockstar North/Take 2 | PC/PS3/XB360 | Criminal sandbox
I gave it: (Didn’t review it) | In retrospect, I would have given it: C+, maybe B-

I started writing this entry while I was at my sister’s house watching my brother-in-law play Crackdown. This made me sad for two reasons. One, because he was the one playing Crackdown, not me, and Crackdown is the sort of game that’s far more entertaining when you’re the one at the controller. And two, because I was writing about Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest in a series that was far more entertaining before its creator split off to go create Crackdown.

GTA is one of those series that used to strike me as self-consciously crass, a naked attempt to gather attention through juvenile shock value and amateurish parody. Which it is! But once I actually tried GTA III, I realized that all of those things are a distraction from GTA’s real point, which is freedom. DMA Designs’ created in GTA a giant, city-shaped playground with lots of fun toys for creating mayhem, encouraging violence so over-the-top and unrealistic that it ceased to be objectionable and became simply fun. And though GTA III did offer a definite story-driven progression through the game, no one really cared: the only thing the plotline really accomplished was to unlock new areas and new toys. GTA’s brilliance lay in the fact that it was entertaining no matter how you played it — even if you went about it completely wrong, in fact.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way that original vision was lost, and with GTA IV the entire series’ purpose has been inverted. Now freedom is a secondary consideration, and the amateurish plotline and heavy-handed parody/homage/rip-off are the point. That’s a shame, because those have never been the series’ strengths…much as its creators would like to think so.

GTA IV’s shortcomings are subtle and not immediately obvious, which makes them all the more frustrating. They only grow apparent with extended play, which is why it took me a good 30 hours to finally become fed up with game and shelve it. 30 hours is how long it took for me to realize that the little nagging irritants were never going to go away, that I’d never be allowed to simply enjoy GTA IV the way I’d enjoyed its predecessors, because Rockstar was more concerned with impressing their amazing writing on me than they were with giving me an open world to enjoy.

This isn’t to say GTA IV doesn’t have an open world. On the contrary! Its condensed version of New York City is detailed and gorgeously realized. It’s also stultifyingly dull — although that fact isn’t immediately obvious, because most of the city is partitioned off and you’re usually occupied fielding all the nonsensical busywork the game throws at you when you’re not on a mission. Somewhere along the way, Rockstar got it in their heads that what gamers really want from their prize franchise is a sort of ultra-violent version of The Sims, so antihero Nico Bellic spends most of his time being nagged at by clingy, unlikable friends or being goaded into having tepid online romances with female cutouts whose personality profiles read like a compilation of every discarded joke dredged from the cutting room floor of Married…With Children. You’re technically free to go anywhere and do anything you want, as in previous GTAs, but the difference is that this time you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Managing Nico’s social life is an expanded version of the annoying gang wars in San Andreas, except that the turf wars were only a minor portion of Carl Johnson’s adventure and went away once you left Los Santos. Nico, however, gets more and more guilt-inducing phone calls as his story progresses and more and more deadbeat idiots cling to him. Want to go find amazing automobile jumps, round up the obligatory collectables or just cause hilarious mayhem? Fine, but Rockstar is gonna make sure you feel guilty about it. They paid a lot of money for those voice actors and boring comedy routines, and by god you’re going to sit through every scrap of incidental dialogue or else you’re going to be reminded every few minutes that you’re a horrible, neglectful person. Meanwhile, the city itself lacks much in the way of interesting things to do — stunts and jumps are difficult to find — and the focus on more realistic road systems makes getting around a real hassle. An uninspiring hassle. Too much emphasis is placed on a few major cross-town arteries, meaning players traverse the same boring roads and pay the same stupid tolls over and over again, while the side streets offer little compelling reason to explore them — and plenty of nagging disincentive to make the effort in the first place.

If the GTA series has had a single debilitating flaw since its inception, that flaw has been the weird disconnect between missions and everything else. Missions tend to be boring, or frustrating, or else focus too much on underdeveloped gameplay mechanics. The greatest hope I’ve had for the franchise is that Rockstar would bridge that divide and make the missions more consistent with the open world joy that surrounds them…and GTA IV does move in the direction, sort of. But it goes about it all wrong. Rather than making the missions as good as everything else, GTA IV makes everything else as dull as the missions. And the missions are even worse here than usual — repetitive, unimaginative, and drawn out.

Worst of all, the game’s compulsory missions are a poor fit for the compulsory story. The game begins with Nico lamenting his sins and hoping to make a clean break from his murderous past by coming to America…where he promptly begins killing all sorts of schlubs like it ain’t no thing. Every once in a while, players are given a prompt that can allow them to spare a life, but these few opportunities seem awfully hollow when you’re gunning down cannon fodder goons left and right with nary a compunction. Nico has incredible potential as a character, but it’s utterly squandered: he’s a cipher, an amoral blank who treats his friends, family and lovers like crap yet sits in surly judgment of everyone he meets. He trots out his sob story as the plot dictates, but his supposed regrets seem to have little bearing on his actions.

I’ll say this for GTA IV, though: it probably is the closest thing gaming has ever seen to a Hollywood production. Not because of its production values or Oscar-worthy writing, though. Rather, it’s video game as subpar Tarantino flick: it goes over the top with its violence and crassness, but ultimately is too bloated by its own smirky, self-satisfied sense of cleverness to transcend its failings and justify its excesses. Somewhere deep inside GTA IV is a real Grand Theft Auto game struggling to be free, but that masterpiece of gaming is imprisoned by myopic mandate of corporate overlords who don’t really understand why the billion-dollar property they inherited was so brilliant to begin with. Utterly disappointing.

35 thoughts on “The 2008 review revue, part eight

  1. I actually love GTA IV way more than the previous installments.

    Please don’t punch my biscuits.

  2. I don’t punch biscuits for having different tastes. That’s just silly. But…why do you like it? I found the whole thing to be a terrible chore that offered nothing compelling, except the opportunity to listen to Gong’s “Heavy Tune.” But then I bought a copy of Espresso II, and then I had no reason to play GTA IV at all.

  3. The only thing I really enjoyed about the previous GTA games was driving around the city, learning the layout and checking out all the cool things. Given that Burnout Paradise focuses solely on this without the need for irritating combat, tedious characters or frustrating and boring missions, I have no need for GTA games anymore.

  4. This is probably my dumbest reason for liking GTA IV, but visiting New York City has always been a sort of dream of mine; because this new-gen Liberty City really is a somewhat accurate facsimile of the real thing, I have fun just driving around just looking at all the big-city architecture.

    Yes, dumb reason, I know.

    One real reason why I love this game might stem from the way I usually play modern open-world games; my goal in these games is to get through whatever the main objectives are, thus, the drop in freedom from San Andreas to GTA IV didn’t bother me at all. However, if a bunch of friends are over, of course I’ll ignore the main story and play around with the physics engine or go bus-jousting. The dumb reason plays into this as well, because I derive a lot of enjoyment from the game just exploring the world I was dropped in. While the missions in GTA IV are mostly of the “drive here, kill that guy, run from cops, etc.” variety that are a staple of the GTA series, these missions were more fun to me because of the improved aiming/cover system. It doesn’t hurt that I genuinely enjoyed the story and characters, even with all the dumb “Oscar-worthy” exaggerations floating about.

    Glad to hear my biscuits are safe though, and on a coincidental note, a GTA skit just happened to be on the television while I was typin’ all this up.

  5. Jeremy, just so you know, you can turn off Nico’s phone and have as much goofy fun time as you want.

  6. Doesn’t really change much of the complaint, I reckon: all those crazy shenanigans you could do in GTA3 are now locked behind missions. I can’t the amount of times I’ve wandered around finding stuff, seeing that there might be some cool things to do there, but can’t, and then returning there as part of a mission where it walks me through the thing I’ve already done. The only new experiences Nico can have that the game recognises are while he’s on a mission. Why not just turn the game into a series of levels if you’re going to do that?

  7. This is another one of those posts where all I can do is just nod in silent agreement while Parish articulates a notion or two that’ve been nebulously brewing in the back of my mind for weeks/months on end but was never able to successfully articulate by myself. Thumbs-up, brother.

  8. Bi-Polar makes a good point, but it got me thinking: even the developers seem to recognize how obtrusive their game’s story is in regards to actually playing the game. Why else would they give you the option to turn the story off manually?

  9. I also liked gta4 more then any of the other games but then when I played the old GTA’s I’d get frustrated with the missions and I never found the story compelling enough to keep going with them. So that left the virtual playground option and well… sure they were fun to mess around in for 20 or 30 minutes but after that I’d get bored. At least GTA4 had a compelling enough story to keep going with the main missions , I just liked the main cast of characters, brucie, little jacob, roman. Sure the story contradicted itself quite heavily the longer you played it but I was still invested somewhat in where this story would wind up.

    Most interesting to me is that if you polled a bunch of gamers, many of them seem to hate the game to no end prefering the sloppier but simpler saints row 2 yet critically GTA4 scored hundreds of near flawless reviews. Is it simply that the majority of staffers around the world didn’t want to review it or did take 2 demand a minimum score ?

  10. Pachinko, you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain why some people liked GTA IV more than others. If you want one anyway…

    When the game arrives for review about 24 hours before the embargo is up, readers aren’t going to be treated to anything but the afterglow of a first run-through.

    Look at this series of posts here on Gamespite: reasonable people can change their opinion on a game after having been given time to digest it. And heck, some people still think that GTA IV is a 10 out of 10 game. Jeff Gerstmann and Giant Bomb just named it their “Game of the Year”, as did the voters in the Spike Video Game awards.

    I personally really liked GTA IV… for about 15 hours. Once I realized that all the missions were going to following the same formula I lost interest — the miserly checkpoints didn’t help either, especially on the longer and more difficult missions. When I repeatedly fail a mission for things that are out of my control (a risk in a “open” game, I s’pose), I’m not having fun.

  11. As soon as I beat GTA IV, I was hit with how much I didn’t like the game’s fake freedom. Out of everything that you do, out of all the choices they give you, you still end up at the exact same place.

    That, and Niko didn’t like killing, and yet he’s killing tons of people.

  12. “Jeremy, just so you know, you can turn off Nico’s phone and have as much goofy fun time as you want.”

    You still receive penalties for ignoring everyone, and you’re informed of these penalties with a steady stream of thumbs-down icons in the corner. One way or another, you spend most of your time going to comedy clubs and playing darts, or else you pay the price for playing the game the way you want.

  13. Holy crap. I’m really glad this is what you thought later on Jeremy, as I’ve had the total same reaction.

    At first I loved the game, as it was finally getting me back into GTA… but then, I never wanted to do any of the things I liked GTA3 and extra installments for. Police chases were so stupidly easy and boring it was useless(even if the mechanic was better, the AI for it just wasn’t enough), blowing things up or seeing what the AI would do just wasn’t possible(there literally weren’t ways to cause pileups, ’cause eventually the AI would just stop, and stop, and no one would care. The weapons were decent, but marred in the controls(that were overrated- sure, the cover system was good enough, but genuinely good? Hell no.)

    Not to mention, the game made the fucking poor decision of having a story that anyone who had paid attention to any kind of crime story writing in the past 20 years be about as unsatisfying as it gets. Its not artistic to take what someone really wanted out of the game’s story and just say “This is it, bubye” through everything. You have to have a better reason than being ‘artistic’ or whatever(that schlick didn’t work for FF7 either), you need to have some kind of expectation, not complete left-field someone-dies-and-now-you’re-done. The fact that I had 1 mission to feel out my recourse was an insult to me, as the gamer. I actually cared about this bullshit world they made, and the characters I formed relationships with in it, then you throw the most important one away in a cutscene and expect me to be a child who wants it to just be some stupid fucking reason to jump a dirt bike from pier to helicopter? What the fuck.

    It was not replayable at all after you finished, and whats worse, you didn’t want to- the end of the story bummed you out so bad that the mediocre ‘freedom’ afterwards just wasn’t interesting in the least.

  14. I’d probably like GTA more if I’d never played Crackdown. As it stands I sold my copy of GTA IV and will probably be skipping any sequels. I will be getting Crackdown 2 on day one though.

  15. I’ll be honest, I’ve never played GTA for the freedom aspect. I must be the only person in the world trying to finish all of the missions. I must be playing it wrong!

  16. I’ll say this much: just about every single mission in GTA IV tended to take place in a memorable setpiece. The abandoned hospital in ‘The Snow Storm’, the bank-to-alleys-to-subway shootout in Three Leaf Clover, the warehouse in ‘Hostile Negotiation’, the old Sprunk factory in ‘Tresspass’- that’s the kind of stuff Crackdown’s geographically-indistinct, generic comic-book futurism really lacked. As someone who can forgive some story shortcomings in a video game if the set’s impressive enough (and if the controls are decent- which, love-or-hate car handling aside, they are, a hell of a lot more than any previous GTA by far especially when it comes to combat), these locales tend to color my impressions a lot more than the “want to go bowlink” or “oh well, so much for not killing anyone” flaws.

  17. The combat in GTA may’ve been an improvement over previous games in the series, but the combat controls are still a mess compared to most other AAA games on the market.

  18. I think the final straw for me was realizing the internet cafes are named tw@. That pretty much sums up the writing and humor, particularly outside of missions, that some people claim is brilliant parody. It’s not even a joke though, it’s just spelling a dirty word with symbols. The creators wanna make a Hollywood movie, but the “satire” is on par with Family Guy.

  19. Yeah, I had forgotten about that! I guess that was a good enough game to where that didn’t stand out as much.

  20. It’s good to know that what I suspected after about 2 hours with the game is true. I rented it, and every time I tried to do something fun, Roman’s fat ass would call up and beg me to go beat someone up for him or something. Then this girl is blowing up my cell… Ugh. I just wanted to find some sweet jumps.

  21. Whoops, I forgot to put my screen name on that post; can you delete this post and the one before so I can actually put my screen name on it this time parish?

  22. I’m really sucky at using this comment system.

    I know this doesn’t eliminate the problem completely, but when your friends call you for bowling or whatever, just accept the plans, then after the call’s over, go into the cell phone menu and cancel the plans. You won’t have to go to the comedy club for the nth time and there is no relationship penalty for canceling the plans yourself.

  23. Just imagine the death threats if you had reviewed GTAIV and gave it a C+! Dodged a bullet there, Parish.

  24. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure that if you turn the phone off, or whatever the option is that prevents you from receiving calls and going on missions, then there is no penalty for screwing around as much as you want. No one calls you, and no one complains you haven’t called them. It effectively pauses the story.

  25. “GTA’s brilliance lay in the fact that it was entertaining no matter how you played it”

    THAT’S why Saints Row 2 is a much more superior game than GTA IV, even if it blatantly rips off the city sandbox genre. I’d sacrifice realism for fun in the long run. Having said that, at least GTA’s parody radio stations still got their humorous kicks to them.

  26. Parish has summed up my feelings about the singleplayer game exactly. The only thing I have to add is that I think the multiplayer can actually be a lot of fun, though I was REALLY disappointed that there isn’t a split-screen co-op mode. It seemed like the perfect sort of game for causing wanton destruction with a friend a la Mercenaries 2, but as it is, it’s going to be relegated to collecting dust on the shelf pretty quickly.

  27. Yeah, there was that too. Trying to run from the cops in the rain was one of the more controller-through-TV-rage-inducing experiences I’ve had with a game in recent memory. To say nothing of the street racing…

  28. I played about twenty minutes of GTAIV at a friend’s house awhile back. It was alright, but the whole thing felt kind of clunky and awkward, perhaps even more then previous GTAs. Most of all though, it just made me want to play Crackdown.

    So… yeah, Crackdown is awesome.

  29. I agree, the game seemed to lack a lot of the fun of earlier entries. The game seemed to play like it was underwater, the scripting made things claustrophobic, and the missions seemed more repetitive and banal, especially early on. I mean, who wants to drive across town to use a fake computer? That said, I loved the Sentinel car.

  30. I thought Mass Effect was the closest thing in video games to a Hollywood production. It is easily the most impressive sci-fi game I’ve ever played, has real characters (despite some being under developed) and *gasp!* a story I found interesting.

  31. Having sunk a few more hours into this game, I’m feeling the same things about it as I have with most of the big budget titles I’ve played recently, such as Mass Effect. Like Mass Effect, the game really does offer an improvement in production quality, be it through the graphics, the dialogue, or the sheer scale. But, like Mass Effect, I find the actual gameplay to be inferior to more dedicated titles, and mostly unrewarding (e.g. the driving is worse than in Burnout, the combat worse than gears or virtua fighter or ninja gaiden). It seems that with all of the massive world games, developers still cannot tighten up the gameplay to the point where bugs in the AI, physics, and the slowness of player control reduce the action sequences to a frustrating mess. Given that I have so little free time to play games, do I really need an endless world that I can only explore in such a fashion?

    GTA is however a huge leap forward in graphical consistency in a massive world, and though not without its lapses, the writing is a notch above most other games I’ve played. As for qualms about the game “nagging,” while I definitely can get frustrated by that, it seems the only way to allow freedom while still presenting some kind of linear story. I do think Parish is right in his frustration with the negative reinforcement in the game — why not give players bonuses when they bother to interact with a characters (you bothered to help out a guy, so he saves your skin when you’re about to die)? Some penalties are unavoidable, as they play a role in the narrative, but otherwise… That said, the developer needs to guide players to the characters they have written into their game, and the cell phone seems a neat way of doing this.

  32. I think you are really looking back at the GTA series with rose-tinted glasses, Parish. This is coming from someone that just replayed the GTAIII and Vice City after his love affair with GTAIV. Those games are near unplayable back then (why I, and most people, never beat them) and especially after the advent of GTAIV. The cars control horribly, the shooting elements are sadistic, and the storyline is far from compelling. You talked about how the new game’s world is dull and that it lacks the freedom of past games. Both statements seem to go against the herd’s thoughts, and you never explain why you feel this way. I mean there is more freedom than ever in GTAIV, from who you have relationships with to what you do between missions. You didn’t have much of that in the past games. As for the world, GTAIV feels like a faithful representation of NYC and is the most lively game world ever created. “Ever” might sound like hyperbole, but even the likes of Fable II and Fallout 3 can’t measure up to the feeling you get when you are sitting in the back of a taxi, listening to a random conversation the taxi driver is having with you (which you would only hear if you ventured to wait out the ride), and you see a cop chasing a thief while passing by. I will say that Vice City is the most colorful and thematically consistent GTA, but its characters lack the variety, strong writing, and animation of GTAIV.

    I usually agree with you, but I find it very hard to even really understand where you are coming from on this review. I, myself, played through GTAIV and felt lukewarm about it. Measuring it up to all the hype, it failed to deliver–what does? Yet, I played through it again with a fresh mind and was blown away. I think its time you give the game a 2nd try. I can only imagine how all the hype in the 1UP offices might have changed your judgment (that 1UP show was ridiculous, on GTAIV). Either that or Saint’s Row 2 might be more to your liking.

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