I’ve been a fan of GTA ever since the third game came out on PS2. The cartoonish violence, ridiculous weapons and humor, open-world exploration, it was something we hadn’t seen done in such detail before and it was great. I think San Andreas really perfected the formula with customization and new goofy elements like a jetpack and flying airplanes/parachuting, etc. So how does the next-gen GTA continue this tradition? Well, honestly, it doesn’t.
Being a next-gen game for the HD consoles, of course it looks pretty good. Much like the rest of the game, there is an extreme attention to detail in the models and locations and everything else. However, the game is still plagued by the same pop-in as its predecessors, though object pop-in is nearly a feature of open world games at this point. Also, there is often framerate drop and sometimes freezing on the PS3 version, though to my understanding much of this has been fixed in patches.
The voice acting is solid, and the use of unknown actors worked out pretty well for the game, making it a little more authentic. The radio stations in the game are okay, but are not nearly as memorable as those of Vice City or GTA3. It’s probably about on par with San Andreas in that respect. The sound effects are actually pretty nice, the sounds of the streets range from cars to radios playing through open windows, people interacting on the street, etc. It creates a very nice atmosphere. The guns don’t sound so good, though. They almost sound weak, in the same sense that the guns in Doom 3 sounded weak, and it contributes to them not being very fun to shoot.
Here’s the first of two reasons that GTA4 really disappoints me: the tone. Rockstar has ditched the cartoonish absurdness and light-hearted narrative of the past in favor of a more realistic and serious plot. Sadly, this didn’t work quite as intended. We are left with largely generic and one-dimensional uninteresting characters to propel a plot that never really has any direction. When I say no direction, I mean that nothing ever happens in this game. There are no arcs to the characters. Niko is a weak main character who is difficult to relate to because he doesn’t make any sense. In cutscenes, Niko is always talking about how he regrets his life as a killer and ex-soldier, yet nearly every mission in the game consists of “okay, who do I need to kill?” Throw in his goal of “finding someone from his past” that is mentioned maybe a couple times over the course of the narrative and you’ll find yourself playing a character who can’t seem to pick an identity. When you finally encounter this character that Niko is looking for, it’s supposed to be some emotional moment but you really know nothing about this guy (or Niko, really) so it loses much of its power. Throw in an expected “plot twist” moment at the end and Liberty City stops looking like the land of opportunity and more like the land of cliché. The story finally putters out without any real ending happening, but that kind of makes sense considering nothing really happens over the course of the story anyway.
The story has been claimed by many (IGN, for one) to be Oscar-quality, but if a narrative this tiring and generic is Oscar-quality, then the movie industry is screwed. People have also compared GTA4 to the quality of a Scorsese film which is just mind-boggling to me. Just because the story features an anti-hero torn up about his life of crime does not make this a Scorsese-quality narrative. The characters in Goodfellas and The Departed had depth, which is why those films were so good. The characters in GTA4 lack all depth, except for Niko, who seems to be an attempt at depth that was abandoned halfway through. If you want to compare GTA4’s story to a film, it would probably be a mildly successful cop movie starring Keanu Reeves.
The second major reason GTA4 falls apart is the direct result of Rockstar trying to make the game serious: the controls. In an effort to make driving more like real life (aka not fun), the vehicles now handle like the streets of Liberty City are made out of ice and all the cars are in need of new tires. Gone is the GTA standby of fun, ridiculous chases with the cops that play like arcade racing games and instead we have driving that feels like it was ripped from Gran Turismo and cop chases that have to move at about 25 mph if you don’t want to lose control and flip your car.
That said, there is some fun to be had in GTA4’s gameplay. While most of the missions are the formulaic “go there, shoot him” there are a few interesting ones that stand out. By far the most memorable event in the game is the mission based on the bank robbery from the movie Heat. I recommend making a save right before it so you can just play that mission over and over. The cover system is nice and makes gameplay pretty fun but the lock-on aiming (allowed even when you’re behind cover) makes things a bit too easy. Melee combat is still an uncontrollable mess. If you can adapt to the control scheme, most of the fun comes from just wandering around the vast city that Rockstar has created, taking in the sights and goofing off. However, you may have a sad realization that while this huge city is great, it’s very disappointing that the developers didn’t really work out anything for you to do in it. One of the problems here is that you never really learn your way around the city. You can now just hop into cabs, pick a destination, and skip the trip. Once you start doing this, you’ll never stop and you’ll start relying on it to get everywhere. I almost feel as if this was put in on purpose to make up for the terrible driving controls.
The customization of San Andreas is gone, in a continued effort to make the game more realistic. Niko will not gain or lose weight the way that Carl did, nor will he be able to buy ridiculous clothing to make the cutscenes more funny. You can buy clothes in GTA4, but you are pretty much limited to a tracksuit, formal suit, or sweater and jeans. You can’t even buy various safehouses of your choosing anymore. I still don’t know why they abandoned the owning businesses element, that was my favorite part of Vice City.
I know it really sounds like I hate this game, but I wouldn’t go that far. Grand Theft Auto 4 is a decent game if you look at it as just a crime game with a really detailed and cool city to wander around in. But it is not a good GTA game. While it may have the polish of the previous titles (maybe even more), it lacks all of the charm that made them so appealing. If you do pick this game up, just get to the Heat-inspired bank robbery mission and play it over and over. If you want to play the next best thing since San Andreas, do the right thing and buy Saints Row 2.