AGAINST THE GRAIN: Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

Before we celebrate Rockstar’s gaming blockbuster, Andy tells us why not everyone loves GTA’s fourth. 

Grand Theft Auto began life under Rockstar North’s old banner DMA Games as a tribute to films like Death Race (1976), and was in the form of an extremely fun top-down shooter. I was too young to play it, but I did later on despite the seizures the bright colours and odd framerate gave me. The 1997 original doesn’t take itself seriously, and boasted three characters and three cities to choose from: Liberty City (the metropolis featured in GTA IV), San Andreas, and Vice City. It had varied missions, interesting characters, a storyline that will make you chuckle, and a modicum of comic book violence. Admittedly, the controls were choppy, but what classic game franchise of the 90s started out with perfect controls? GTA most definitely took off, and GTA2 as well as add-on packs such as London 1969 were released to take the public’s money.

Finally, Grand Theft Auto III bought the series into three dimensions on the then next-generation console, the PlayStation 2, with a fully 3D-rendered Liberty City. It was a huge success and spawned two other sequels exploring the previous cities in the original Grand Theft Auto – Vice City and San Andreas. They explored them in different time frames, quoting from different films and cultures for which their real life counterparts were known for. The gameplay evolved as it went along, sticking to its fun roots as much as possible whilst raising the maturity level of the storyline somewhat. GTA was beginning to tackle more and more serious issues such as racial boundaries in San Andreas.

Then Grand Theft Auto IV came along, and like Resident Evil 4, I was suckered in. At first there was all the “ooohs” and the “ahhs”, and then came the running and screaming. Dr. Malcolm was right again. I finally came to realise that Grand Theft Auto IV sucked more than Sasha Grey has during her entire career.

Let’s start with the gameplay. While improved on aspects of the previous incarnations, such as targeting and cover systems, other elements have become either worse or just remain unplayable. First on the list is driving and the impact it has on missions. Rockstar had apparently made cruising around more “realistic”, but to me, it’s like the cars are made of fucking paper. I don’t drive, mind you; maybe cars handle like they’re made of paper and balsa wood, but if they do, keep it out of my GTA. Grand Theft Auto is a videogame at the end of the day. Even if the storyline is more mature than other titles, it does not give Rockstar the excuse to make the gameplay less enjoyable. I want my cars in games to be solid, fast and easy to handle. I know it’s impossible to get a fast car that responds well, but in this game it’s hard to find a vehicle short of a block of steel on wheels that handles gracefully.

Is it so hard to ask that they allow you to alter car physics to your needs? I know they don’t want unfair advantages with online street races, but restrictions can apply. Or should they incorporate it into the game and bring in a bit of Gran Turisimo/Forza, and allow Brucie’s garage to tune your beast to your demands, including the furry dice hanging from the rearview mirror? For a game that prides itself on being a sandbox title, Grand Theft Auto IV just doesn’t boast as much innovation as previous titles considering the previous generation’s limited technology.

Next up is the combat. This is far more forgiving as the mechanic is pretty decent compared to previous incarnations of Grand Theft Auto with fast switching between targets. The ability to target certain areas of the body along with the cover system makes the skirmishes of GTA IV a pretty smooth ride. Where it fails is combat whilst driving or flying. I’m afraid Rockstar either wanted to be “realistic” or they just couldn’t be bothered to actually make the in-car action enjoyable. Hell, even if they just had auto-aim within a car available that’d be nice. I don’t really care if Niko couldn’t shoot accurately while driving in excess of 60MPH, this is supposed to be a videogame, and like action films they don’t have to play by our rules of physics. It’d be nice when chasing down other cars (which you do often) to be able to target certain areas of the car, or be able to enter a series of well-placed QTE’s that are only triggered after a set period of time. Again, R* just didn’t experiment enough with the core values of gameplay that make up Grand Theft Auto, and instead just dressed it up with a social mechanic, which I’ll get into later.

Hand-to-hand combat is there, but it just doesn’t excite and feels shoehorned in. If games like GTA have a hand-to-hand combat system and it’s a sandbox title, they should really allow you to customise your character’s fighting moves allowing him or her to learn martial arts, or learn new move-sets with a full-on Tekken-like customisable lay-out. Why not? GTA’s core components are driving and shooting within an open-world environment. GTA IV just forgets to concentrate on getting the core fundamentals right, and while it improves in some areas, it forgets to follow through in others.

My next agenda is the repetitive missions. When you’re driving around causing chaos or going bowling with your cousin, sometimes you’ll decide enough is enough. You’ll actually play the game how it should be played and take on a few missions to progress and mix things up. However, you will find yourself playing the same mission over and over again, just with different exposition and stock characters, and rarely does it throw in something unexpected. The formula for GTA IV is driven to a point where something happens and either 1) there’s a shootout or 2) you chase someone down in your car. Very rarely does the formula change, and it just feels very recycled. The only story mission that truly shines is the one called “Three Leaf Clover” where you perform what can only be described as a heist of Quentin Tarantino (or perhaps Michael Mann) proportions.

I ask you: where has the fun gone? Where did the missions go where you have to drive a remote control car riddled with high explosives? I tell you where – right up the arse of the “serious, mature storyline.” That’s where. Because R* lost their sense of hyper-real fun and gave it to Volition, Inc and the late THQ (R.I.P) where it ended up squarely in Saint’s Row 2’s lap. Talking of realistic, if they wanted to go the whole hog, why not have the police chase you for running red lights? In GTA IV, cops chase you at the drop of a hat, so you might as well get away with murder. It’d be far more fun if you had a difficulty selection to balance your level of credibility and fantasy so you can have it your own way.

Another gripe was the lack of mechanics I loved in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, such as fully customisable looks, along with the ability to own your own condo. No matter how much you earn and how much you cheat, you cannot own a house by your own here. There’s no excuse. You could blame it on “limited” hardware due to the RAM the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have due to a larger environment etc., but that’s no reason not to have it in the PC version where minimum specs can be higher than the PS3’s. At least have an official patch. A brief look at GTA V shows us that, thankfully, they’re not only improving things visually but making the game larger and putting back all those great mechanics.

Graphically, IV is great. It’s a flawless evolution of the series, and further PC mods really show off a glimpse of what can be done when a GTA is finally developed on a next-gen console. However, they should have had a shift in art direction. If there’s one thing that looks really fucking cool in the Grand Theft Auto series, it’s the artwork. This, especially in GTA IV and the most recent GTA V, is amazing and, in my opinion, worthy of a huge shift in style. It’s semi-realistic, with just the right balance to show off the atmosphere that a Grand Theft Auto game should be. It’d be perfect to see that artwork come to life in full HD and 3D. This way you can keep the more serious storyline but up the fun factor, and also tweak the violence to comic book levels. It’d mark a new age of Grand Theft Auto whilst still being a natural evolution. While I completely don’t mind the more realistic look, I wish Rockstar would just relax and have fun a bit more.

Finally, we get to the social mechanic, which GTA IV was marketed around. Now you can go on dates with women, go bowling with Roman, and get a lap-dance with Brucie (not what you’re thinking). It does serve as a pretty decent add-on and helps to break up the terrible and monotonous missions. And this is where the game gets you. To keep everyone happy and unlock secret bonuses from your friends and girlfriends, you have to keep them happy, and to keep them happy you have to take them out. Depending on their personality, winning or losing at particular games, or eating and drinking in certain places, your choices can get you bonus or negative points. As you progress, your friends get more and more demanding, and as you got this game for other reasons than a Demanding Friends Simulator, when they call up it gets infuriating and the game loses its appeal.

There is one thing I can give GTA IV credit for, and that is for having a deep, involving, well-written, and well-acted storyline. It’ll make you laugh, your heart will beat rapidly with adrenaline, and it will make you cry like a baby. Truly, it was something that makes the game worthwhile, although I hate to admit it. GTA IV has one of the better-written stories in the series, and it’s a shame that the gameplay lets it down so much.

An afterthought: Is anyone sick of not being able to have a fully-customisable character, choosing gender etc.? A game like the Saints Row outdoes Rockstar at their own game with changeable characters and comic book-style gameplay and storyline, bringing fun and laughter to that franchise. Think about the potential.

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  1. If GTA 4 had like Max Payne 3’s gameplay, it’d be great.

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