Grand Theft Auto 4

There were a number of sites declaring Grand Theft Auto IV to be a 10/10
game. It’s good, I’ll agree. I would not rate it quite that high though.
(And keep in mind, I played it on the PC.)

So how does GTA4 differ from previous iterations of the series?

We’ll start with driving. There’s no mouse control of the cars,
which sucks. It takes some getting used to, controlling only with the
keyboard. The reason you can’t drive with the mouse is they added the
ability to aim fire while driving. I know that in Vice City you could
only shoot directly left or right and I can’t remember now how San Andreas
did it. The shooting is definitely much more convenient, with almost 360
degrees of aiming. Of course, your choice of weapons is limited (no
assault rifles or rocket launchers from the driver’s seat).

Cars in GTA4 have far too little traction, and the real beaters and crappy
cars can drive as if their tires are made from congealed cooking fat.
High-end cars are much better at gripping the road. The emergency brake,
necessary to get some good sideways slides and fast turns, will
temporarily disable both your ability to steer (to some degree) and to
accelerate. While in a sideways slide, your spinning drive wheels won’t
give any traction at all until you slow down. Kind of annoying, I wish it
felt more authentic.

Combat and weapons work pretty well. Right mouse button puts you
into aim mode, left button shoots. Melee weapons and hand-to-hand combat
use a lock-on system, where your right mouse button locks onto a
particular target and then when you move, it’s in relation to your target,
and when you swing, stab, or punch, it’s at that target only. The mouse
controls here were a bit twitchy. The game (a console port) did not quite
recognize very very minute mouse movements, so if you try to aim
too precisely, your mouse won’t move at all. GTA4 also has a cover
system, whereby you hit a key to take cover behind a wall or barrier, then
you can pop out and fire or shoot blindly. It’s pretty useful, especially
the blind-fire. I just wish it was more reliable. Sometimes you’ll be
rapidly sliding the mouse to move your crosshairs and it just won’t react.
This only happened with using cover. So other than the flakiness with the
cover system, combat in GTA4 (at least on the PC) is pretty solid.

Ever since GTA3 came out, Rockstar has been trying to incorporate more of
a story into the GTA games. And they’ve all, more or less,
revolved around organized crime. This seems to be the easiest way to
weave a narrative around a sandbox game where you can run people over
without a second look from the cops. The character’s personality is far
more defined here than in GTA3, where your silent protagonist was a blank
slate for whatever the player wanted to bring. In GTA4, the problems
arise when the actions of your main character (Niko) are completely at
odds with what he says.

GTA4 is two games at war. One, a sandbox game where the player can wreck
havoc on an unsuspecting metropolis, go on grand crime sprees, and indulge
in epic shootouts with police. The other game is a wannabe-Scorsese mafia
drama told through cut scenes, with nearly as many betrayals as it has
characters. It’s a bit self-indulgent and long-winded and takes itself
far more seriously than it should. And when the two games interact,
problems arise. The cut scenes and dialog are all laid out in advance,
with little flexibility or openness to player choice. Thus the game
easily presents situations where Niko in a cut scene expresses reluctance
to perform violence, just after finishing up a mass murder spree. Or if
you don’t make the choice to hang out with certain characters outside of
the story missions, you’ll be left wondering scratching your head at some
of the character dynamics in cut scenes.

What most impresses people is the realizing of the city. The
game’s setting of Liberty City is a scaled down rendition of New York City
with a bit of Jersey City. The illusion is very impressive. You can get
around by car, taxi, subway, and there are bridges and tunnels connecting
the islands. The architecture of the buildings reflect their location
(skyscrapers in their version of Manhattan, industrial buildings along the
harbors). The smallest prying reveals the illusion right away, of course.
While many of the buildings will have stairs or ladders that let you
access the roof, the insides can’t be reached because the majority of the
doors are fake. There are a few stores that can be entered (clothing
only), some bars, a few restaurants, a couple of strip clubs. Everything
else is a mirage. Now I’m not saying that Rockstar should have created a
fully interactive model of New York City! That would be a ridiculous
task, at least for a game like this. It’s just that people need to
realize what you can and can’t do before jumping into the game with false
impressions. Liberty City can give you a great sense of immersion, but as
soon as you try to do anything, you’re reminded of the fact that it’s just
window dressing.

As you encounter more and more characters in the progressing storyline,
many of them will go into your phone as contacts. Some of them you’ll be
able to call up and go do social activies with, like bowling, darts,
drinking, that kind of thing. These are your friends. The game
tracks how much they like you and for some of them if their appreciation
gets high enough, they’ll offer to do special favors for you. One girl
had the ability to give me health over the phone if I called her. Another
was able to get police to stop chasing me (as long as my offenses weren’t
too egregious). The irritating side to friends is that you have to
keep doing crap with them or you’ll lose their approval. Then the favors
stop. Sometimes they’ll call you in the middle of some goings-on and nag
about how you never hang out anymore. Turn them down and their approval
drops. A nice idea, but poorly implemented.

Grand Theft Auto games are famous for having sandbox environments,
with near total freedom to go and do as you please. GTA4 is no different,
with an even bigger city than ever before. And without the need to drive
through along boring country roads to get from one area to another, as
they did with San Andreas. Some aspects of the sandbox will only get
unlocked as you progress through the story missions, however. There are
locations around the city where you can find weapons; except these only
start appearing after certain missions make them available. So you cannot
ignore the missions and expect to get the full experience of the sandbox
(especially since the other islands are closed to you initially).

With all the moves forward with GTA4, what were the steps back? In
their drive to make a more serious story-based experience, Rockstar tossed
out a number of game aspects that I really enjoyed. There’s no buying or
controlling property now. You get a few safehouses as you progress
through the missions; they’re just places to safe your game and change
your clothes. (You can also watch TV there, if you’re so inclined.) A
safehouse has a parking area out front where you can stash cars so that
they’ll persist if you leave or load a game. This area’s pretty small
though: you can only park 2 large cars in it. It’s not as nice or
reliable as the garages you’d get in Vice City though. And the safehouses
are far apart, so if you find your have no room to park, it’s a hell of a
drive to get to the next one.

So there’s no owning property the brings you income or gives you access to
cars. The money thing doesn’t bother me. I do hate having to hunt around
for nice cars though. (As I said before, the crappier cars can’t drive
worth shit.) Your properties won’t have weapons readily available at them
either. It used to be that you’d find “packages” around the city and as
you grabbed them, you’d unlock various stuff at your safehouses. Not in
GTA4. Instead, you hunt pigeons (flying rats) and you have to exterminate
all 200 of them before you get anything. And even then,
it’s 1 thing: a military helicopter placed the top of a single building (I
have not yet unlocked this).

They dropped the chop shop part of San Andreas. No more customizing a car
you’re really fond of (with the tiny parking spots, you probably wouldn’t
have anywhere to put it anyway.) GTA4 has nicer 60s American muscle cars
than San Andreas did; a shame the most common ones — the Dukes (a ’69
Charger) and the Stallion (’68 Cutlass) — are two of the worst handling
cars in the game. The Sabre GT is a blast to drive though and looks
great, much like the Sabre Turbo in Vice City (my favorite of that game).
There are a few specialized vehicles in the game that have parts that look
like they should function (forklift, car-carrier with ramp) except that
there’s no apparent way to work them.

They did away with some staples of the series: while you can still hunt
criminals from a cop car with the help of the police computer, there are
no taxi missions, no ambulance missions, no firetruck missions. This is
the biggest deficiency of the game. The sandbox nature of GTA is really
crippled when you take away the most popular alternatives to the main
missions. So what do you do in the game without them? Drive and cause
mayhem. There’s side mission to collect cars for a shadowy Stevie
character. Go bowling? Play darts? They’re fairly shallow mini-games
with (IMO) poorly implemented controls. And I still haven’t gotten the
handling of putting spin on my ball when I bowl.

I’m kind of frustrated that Rockstar seems to have a habit of taking one
step back for every two steps forward when it comes to the GTA games.
Somewhere there has a vision of what the games should be and it just
doesn’t seem to match mine. They want to turn it into a serious vehicle
for crime dramas, no matter how at odds that may be with the gameplay
mechanics. Even so, it’s a really good game, especially for a console
port. And it didn’t hurt that I only paid $7 during the Steam holiday
sale for it.