Let's first get the good in GTA4 out of the way, because it only takes one sentence: the graphics are really, really good. That's it. That's what the "good" about this game amounts to. Great graphics.
Remember the first Grand Theft Auto? It was a cartoony game where you were given a sandbox top-down city, filled with squishy people, weapons, and cars that were made by Acme Corporation. It was nearly impossible not to create massive amounts of chaos and destruction in GTA1, and the game itself had about as much to do with "reality" as the Looney Tunes.
GTA4 does away with the cartooney, the looney, and Acme cars. The people at Rockstar decided to make a game that adhered to reality as closely as possible, but in doing so, parked GTA4 well and comfy in the uncanny valley. Even though the valley originally describes humanoid robots, it can be extended pretty well to other artificial creations that are supposed to mimic real-world objects. GTA4 tries so hard to be realistic, that the nonsensical elements just stick out so badly that the game becomes laughable.
My biggest gripe in this regard is your character, Niko Bellic. Niko is an Eastern European man who fled to
New York Liberty City after a war in Yugoslavia his unspecified home country. He continuously pummels us with tear-jerking stories about how much he regrets his acts of violence during the war, and all the horrible things he has seen and experienced. So far, the character makes sense, since the war in Yugoslavia was about as horrible as war gets.
And then the entire character falls apart since he is the main character in a Grand Theft Auto game, a series which rewards violence and murder. He whines about how he wants to forget the actions of the war, and how he regrets what he has done - and then he comes to Liberty City where during every mission he shoots and kills an average of 25 people. This just doesn't make any sense. This turns Niko Bellic into an unlikable figure that I couldn't relate to in any way.
If you make an excessively violent computer game, where the goal is to kill a lot of people, it just doesn't make any sense to play a character that is at odds with itself about.... Killing people. Saints Row 2, which I also reviewed, made a lot more sense in this regard: your character in Saints Row 2 is portrayed as an insane homicidal psychopath without any form of a conscience. As such, Saints Row 2's character makes a lot more sense, and is much easier to relate to.
Niko Bellic resides squarely in the uncanny valley. Rockstar tried to craft a realistic character, with valid reasons and motivations to move to the US and start a new life there. However, by making him more realistic, it just becomes all the more obvious how unrealistic the life of crime in the GTA universe is: real crime doesn't involve mass murder on a daily basis, especially not by someone who is portrayed as having regrets over... Murder and violence.
Still, I would be able to get over crappy storytelling and dislikable characters if at least the gameplay was any good. Sadly, this is where GTA4 really falls on its ass.
GTA4 is riddled with design decisions that I'd like to give the umbrella term "anti-gameplay". These are features or parts in a game that seem to have been specifically put there to frustrate the player and hinder gameplay. In the case of GTA4, most of these come from Rockstar's aspirations to realism.
The biggest single-most annoying anti-gameplay feature in GTA4 is your mobile phone. After only 15 minutes of playtime, I wanted to reach into my screen, grab Niko's phone, smash it to bits, and feed it to Niko's cousin. Every 5 minutes, some guy or girl will call you, demanding you take him or her bowling, drinking, eating, to the strip club, and so on, and so forth. It just never stops. Sure, you can just ignore all the calls, but I get the feeling that the game will punish me for it later on. I just don't understand how any game writer can look at GTA4's phone feature, and think "Yeah, this'll never get annoying".
Another anti-gameplay feature is the insistence on realistic lighting. Crime is against the law (really?) and therefore takes place in the dark - quite literally. The end result is that in GTA4 you're most of the time doing your business in total darkness, even when it's mid-day. Most gunfights take place in dark interiors, where it's impossible to actually see your enemies. If it wasn't for the auto lock-on system, this game would be completely unplayable.
Of course, even the auto lock-on system is badly designed, since it consistently comes to the conclusion that some guy 10km away, hiding behind a concrete column, is more of a threat than those 5 guys with machine guns standing right in front of you. Still, it's better than nothing.
The darkness of the game also leads to these aggravating situations where you have to find a ladder to move up to a roof, but you can't find it because it's too dark. I recall one of the earlier missions where it took me 20 blood-sucking minutes to find the ladder to take me to the spot where I had to assassinate someone. Controller-snapping frustration.
Again, gameplay is sacrificed for realism.
Then there's the insistence on time-based gameplay. What I mean by this is that the GTA4 universe has its own time. This is nothing new, and many games have shown that it is perfectly possible to implement this in an unobtrusive way (Fallout 3, for instance). GTA4 completely messes this one up, by not giving you the option to skip time. Since there are a number of missions that are time-based ("be there at 17:00"), this just becomes yet another case where realism hinders gameplay.
The problem with such in-game time mechanics is that as a player, you do not have a good perception of how time progresses in the game. In the real-world, you have years and years of experience in estimating how long things take, and at what time you need to complete one task in order to still be able to perform your next task. In a video game, you lack this experience, rendering you virtually unable to determine what you can still do between now, and the moment you have to be somewhere.
Let me illustrate. There is a mission in the game where you have to go for a job interview at a lawyers' office, and you have to be there at 08:00 in the morning. I was at the building at 19:00 the day before, because I wanted to know where it was. At this point, I realised the game did not have a time-skipping feature (like for instance Fallout 3 or Oblivion), so I had two options: just hope for the best and see if I can accomplish something else between now and 08:00 (shopping for ammo, armour, perform another mission, whatever), or just put my controller down and work on OSNews. I didn't want to risk missing the interview, so I decided to put my controller down and work on OSNews.
In other words, this game promotes not playing the game. Sure, it's more realistic to have a time mechanic in a game, but by depending on it so badly for a number of missions, and not offering a skipping feature, it becomes just another nuisance to deal with along with your cousin calling every 5 minutes and the inability to see what you're doing.
I could forgive the crappy storytelling, dislikable characters, and the anti-gameplay features if in any case the rest of the game was still any good. You guessed it - it isn't.
So you think you can act?
GTA4 was lauded for its cutscenes, dialogue, and voice acting. I guess the people handing out the praise (basically every game reviewer) have never played Mass Effect, which sports the best dialogue and story of any game ever made. Yes, I'm very decisive in this case: Mass Effect's epic story, combined with the innovative dialogue controls, film-like camera work during dialogues, and the near-perfect trademark BioWare voice acting make it stand out above any other game in this department.
GTA4 can't even hand Mass Effect its bum wiping paper in this regard. The dialogue in GTA4 is nailbitingly cheesy, full of lame jokes, dislikable flat characters, and settings taken out of any random c movie about crime. The star of the cutscenes is of course Niko Bellic, who has the uncanny ability to say just those things you don't want him to say.
And there we have the problem. There's no control over whatever you're going to say or do during dialogue scenes, which by definition makes the dialogue inferior to those of games where you do have control. I'm playing a game, and I want to exert at least some control over which direction a dialogue is moving towards. This isn't a film with a script, this is a game. Played by me. I had the same problems with Fable 2, where during the dialogue I'm just a spectator, not a participant.
The final straw with which this game could've saved itself is if it had lots of interesting and wildly different missions with interesting back stories. And no, it doesn't have this either. Every mission is simply "go there, murder everyone, then murder the leader", repeated about 200 times. It gets real old, real fast. Oh, and you can bet your sweet bum that the leader will escape through a back door of the building, forcing you to deal with the incredibly realistic, and therefore incredibly undrivable cars.
As an aside, it's made worse by the fact that during any given moment, you're working for 7-8 different crime figures, which simply doesn't sound as a very good strategy for a young criminal; you're bound to step on someone's toes.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is one of the worst games I have ever played. Everything about it except the graphics is a massive letdown; the characters are dislikable and unrealistic, the gameplay is filled to the brim with features that are solely there to annoy you, the dialogue is extremely cheesy, and the game lacks any form of variety.
I have no idea how this game has gotten so many good reviews and ratings. The only thing I can think of is Stockholm Syndrome. Reviewers spent countless hours doing the same boring missions over and over again, with the same frustrating gameplay, and the same dislikable characters, that it lead to the same effect that hostage situations have over hostages.
I wouldn't recommend anyone to buy this game, but I know I'm already too late. This game has been sold more often than bananas, leaving us with millions of victims of Stockholm Syndrome. If you want a good sandbox crime game that's fun and entertaining, buy Saints Row 2, instead of wasting 64 EUR on GTA4.
- Title: Grand Theft Auto 4
- Platform: XBox 360
- Release Date: April 2008
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