Grand Theft Auto IV

Review by Steerpike
July 2008

Come on, People

Confession time: I am a Grand Theft Auto virgin. This one is my first.

I know plenty about the series, but it never interested me. I’d heard bad things about the controls; and “open world” games often leave me cold because they tend to be the least open and most repetitive of all. However, impressed by the enormity of positive prerelease press this installment received, I went against my better judgment, drove to Best Buy, clambered up the mountain of copies they had, and snagged one from the summit.

I should have trusted my instincts. I don’t know what’s wrong with the gaming press, collectively behaving like an excitable puppy and pissing itself in its eagerness to heap praise, but take my word: Grand Theft Auto IV is memorably mediocre, not even representative of the best the open-world genre can achieve, let alone the pinnacle of this medium. It’s boring, repetitive, irritating, difficult to control, and far too puffed up with its own sense of self-worth. I’d have been better off putting the money toward a new stove.

Before we get into all of the reasons this game isn’t worth the polycarbonate it’s printed on, I want to talk about the theme. I was very surprised to discover what Grand Theft Auto IV is really about, because it’s not about busting up hos or popping caps into po-lice. It’s not about sex scenes, strip joints, gunfights, or vehicle theft. It’s not about battery or blackmail or drug passes or car chases. All that’s just a scrim that overlays a truth so evident one wonders how the critics—even in their frenzied race to outdo one another in piling adulation on this game—can fail to see it.

Grand Theft Auto IV is about life.

It’s about living and loving and fighting for a piece of heaven, for peace of mind. Its world is all too familiar, occupied by weak and strong, cruel and kind, innocent and guilty. Crooks live here, as do killers. Mothers live here, and so do friends. We all live here. GTA is about the choices we make and the people we love. It’s as simple as that. Series creators Dan and Sam Houser have produced not a game but a reflection on what it is to be a person.

It has nothing to do with crime or cruelty. It simply uses those things as dressing for its theme ... the game of life played as Cops and Robbers. GTA IV is a simulator not of rape or cop killing, but of the American Dream, and the soul-crushing impossibility of achieving it. Only a fool would miss the real message, and that message is sublime. Sublime messages are generally great ... if there’s a fun game underneath, and in this case there ain’t.

A friend of mine once said this about Assassin’s Creed: “the first three hours are the best gaming of your life ... and then you realize that they just stacked the exact same three hours on top of each other again and again.” The creators of Assassin’s Creed were so obsessed with making it enormous that they forgot to put a game in the game. GTA IV is kind of like that—interestingly, its first three hours are very dull and repetitive, but they’re the only three during which you’ll really enjoy yourself. I was hooked when I first brought it home. Its story and world—its vastness—had me in its thrall. But then I realized how bloated and endlessly repetitive it is, how every activity devolves into something either tedious or annoying, how every mechanic is deliberately clumsy. And it lost me. I’m simply baffled how anyone could willingly spend hours with this distended, obtuse game.

Speaking of hours, Confession #2: I haven’t finished it. I gave GTA IV about 50 hours of my life and called it a day. Since I highly doubt that another 50 hours would have dramatically improved it or eliminated my complaints, I stand by what I say in this review. But you should know that I didn’t play through from beginning to end.

Eastern Promises

Here’s a story from my first few hours with GTA IV, hours during which I thought the game deserved the accolades it’s gotten.

7:02 p.m. The sun is setting over Liberty City, and I’m listening to conservative talk radio in the driver’s seat of a banged-up sedan behind a little café. I’ve only been in America for a day. I came for a new life. Instead here I am, wedged into a grimy dumpster alley, the wheelman in a marijuana buy that’s about to go south in a big way. The good news: I’ve got a date planned for later tonight with a pretty girl.

Ring. It’s Little Jacob, my guy. Deal’s gone wrong; the sellers are headed out the back. “Stop-a dem, mon,” he says, his Jamaican-tinted voice rendering him practically unintelligible. My Russian accent probably has the same effect on him. But it’s important that Little Jacob knows I’m reliable.

Door crashes open and four guys pelt out. I floor it and screech forward, shaving paint and side view mirrors off as I draw a line of sparks between the dumpsters. Stoned or not, the guys can’t help but take note of a ton and a half of steel and glass barreling toward them. Two dodge right and head out onto the street, two don’t quite make it. I hop out of the car and vault the hood. Little Jacob’s coming around from the front, but he’s a good eighty yards away. The two surviving bangers have made it out onto a street with video stores and brownstones ... and pedestrians. Bystanders, guilty only of talking an evening walk. I know what I must do.

I pass something cold and dull before my eyes, and I feel any innocence I had left whisper as it goes. I make myself not hear the lady yammering on her cell. I make myself not see the panhandling hobo and the young lovers chatting nearby; I make myself blind to the slow roll of traffic and deaf to the sounds of the street. I make the world no larger than my quarry and me, I shrink reality to a pinhole; I make myself see only the escaping pot dealers. I harden my heart. I walk out calmly and gun them down in front of thirty screaming onlookers.

And I make myself reliable in Little Jacob’s eyes.

“How’s your first day in America?” asks Michelle, sliding into the passenger seat of a red compact I liberated from up the street. I can hardly pick my new girl up in a smashed hooptie with innards drying on the grille.

Fantastic, I reflect glumly. I’ve killed four people since lunch.

My name is Niko Bellic, and I’m not a bad person. I came here to visit my cousin Roman, to escape some bad memories and some bad men, and to bring the pain down on a foe long deserving of my vengeance. But Roman’s promises of mansions and success must have been lost in translation, because what I’ve found is a shitbox studio apartment I share with roaches the size of Pop-Tarts, a gambling-addicted cousin who’s in way over his head with the Russian mob, and a future that looks bleak, brutal, and short. “New life.” I brought the old one with me.

I feel sad. I hate this place, I think, and I take Michelle bowling.

And Here’s the Rest of the Story

First off, GTA IV is an ugly game, and I’m not talking about its content. This is a nasty, jaggy, feces-colored, badly lit, shimmery-shadowed, undersaturated, low-resolution, sprite-using, bloomy, texture-popping, Uncanny Valleyed affront to the power of the Xbox 360. Don’t let the screenshots fool you. This game is not as pretty as it ought to be. They filled the disc with things other than graphics (or gameplay): tens of thousands of lines of spoken dialogue, a dozen-odd unique radio stations with few commercials or tunes ever repeated, hours of original TV I guess you’re expected to just sit and watch, a gazillion conversations on the street, everything singular and handcrafted. Liberty City is so big, and GTA IV is so full of stuff, that you’d think you’d never be at a loss of things to do.

But most of those things are painfully repetitive, and you feel the lack of variance. As Niko gets better-known among Roman’s peculiar little circle, he can pick up a variety of jobs for cash or favors. This is where the open-world part comes in, and where it breaks down. Missions attached to the story arc pop up from time to time, but you can take them on at your leisure. Between, you’re expected to do whatever you want: non-canon side jobs, hanging with your friends, dating girls, shopping for clothes, surfing the internet, even just tooling around the city. But these pursuits are completely banal, more like chores than activities, and you have to do some of them to maintain good relationships with Niko’s many friends. There are only so many times you want to take a girl to the pool hall or throw darts with your buddies or buy new clothes or go drinking with Roman and only so many times I can take some side job that, despite a different setup in the fiction, is nonetheless exactly the same as the previous dozen I’ve performed.

They turned Grand Theft Auto into The Sims, and it’s simply too open for its own good ... in that huge city you can enter maybe two dozen buildings and play the same annoying mini-games in most of them. It’s wide but shallow, so shallow. And so goddamned irritating. Meanwhile, mission after mission—dozens of them—devolve into running someone down with your car or chasing some quarry through impossibly labyrinthine and packed city streets. The story behind each pursuit might be unique and even well–thought out, but it is the same experience over and over.

If these are the “improved” controls, I tremble at what they must have been like before. Cars drive like barges, careening around corners and into lampposts, flipping, fishtailing, essentially out of control from the moment you hit the gas. It is impossible to drive well or elegantly, a significant issue since nearly every mission involves some driving. Running is sluggish, and sprinting can cause a sprained thumb. The obnoxious camera keeps repositioning as you try to turn or maneuver, and during driving sequences it’s placed in such a way that it’s nearly impossible to see the road in front of you no matter which view mode you select. A new cover system is helpful in gunfights, but it’s feckless and unresponsive compared to that in Gears of War. GTA IV has ambition to be profoundly cinematic, but for that to work it would need buoyantly graceful controls. Instead, you get a clumsy, ponderous game that often feels like it’s maliciously trying to obstruct you.

This problem also rears in the game AI, which is impressive only at first blush: People react realistically to your actions, attempt to accomplish their own goals, even display a sense of self-preservation. But scratch a little deeper and the shiny veneer flakes off. Drivers run red lights and don’t go on greens. Cars crash into each other, traffic snarls are ubiquitous; often whole routes through the city are blocked by pileups that take endless minutes to clear. Pedestrians dart out of the way if you drive on the sidewalk but stroll blithely out into traffic. Enemies rarely relocate, and they pop out to shoot at intervals so predictable you could set your watch by them. AIs don’t always react correctly to events in their surroundings, or if they do, the reaction is brief and quickly replaced with scripted activities, breaking the fourth wall and ruining any sense of cohesion in the world.

Another truly annoying thing about this game has been a GTA (and a console) standby for so long there’s little point in bringing it up: you can only save the game at one of a handful of safehouses. It can be quite time-consuming to get to one, and your phone often rings while you’re on your way there, meaning to quit for the evening. In this day and age, the inability to save a game anywhere, and as many times as you want, not to mention the bewildering inability to save at all during a mission, is simply intolerable. Save points were invented when consoles didn’t have the storage to manage tons of saves; I have gigabytes free on my 360’s hard drive. It’s time to let go of this antiquated and hateful “feature” that, though universally despised, is now practically a convention of the medium.

Corollary to this, you can replay any failed mission again and again until you get it right, which you’ll be doing a lot. However, the game starts you back at the point where you got the mission, not where the mission activity begins. You almost always have to drive miles and miles back to the mission start point to try again, which can be a pain because more often than not your vehicle’s disappeared, so you have to get a new one and drive all that way only to fail once more. This is not only annoying, it’s obvious—a transparent attempt to make the game seem longer than it actually is.

It’s also absurdly huge. Size isn’t everything, and GTA IV goes for size at the expense of nearly all other aspects of the game experience, so it quickly devolves into tedium. Still, though tedious—and, again, strangely evocative of The Sims—you’ll find yourself meaning to quit for two hours before you actually do, because there’s always something that grabs your attention at the last moment. But that thing is usually a chore, not a thrill. You find yourself sitting there wondering why the hell you’re still playing a game in which buying clothes and watching television are considered important activities.

Frustratingly, there are some really good aspects to this game. It is clever, with a well-written script and outstanding voice talent. It tells an emotional, touching story that reflects on humanity in a way very new to games. It’s quite political, and you come away feeling that the Housers really managed to communicate their feelings, which you never see in a game, or at least never see done well. The city shows attention to detail that you wouldn’t believe. And there are welcome play improvements: a new targeting system; a GPS that will guide you to your destination via a safe, legal route; a more bearable pursuit mechanism that adrenalinifies and shortens police chases into a frenetic high-speed game of Pac-Man on the streets of Liberty City.

But the price you pay for those few good points is a universe of monotony and repetition, a game that runs around the house shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” like a child—an immature and bland experience that is all flash and no substance.

Red Mafiya

Interestingly, GTA IV does induce a certain emotional state that’s different from other games. It didn’t make me want to shoot up a school or anything, but I found myself more willing to commit atrocities in this game than in others. In Dead Rising and Crackdown, I felt bad when innocents died on my account, but in GTA I didn’t feel that way. Maybe just because it’s GTA, maybe it has a cultural history that even series newbies are influenced by, I don’t know.

Yet unlike Dead Rising, which was a hateful, mean-spirited game, you don’t get that here. GTA IV is vicious, but the viciousness is tempered by an inherent humanity, a sense of connection with the characters. Niko is not some bloodthirsty sociopath—he is actually a really funny, polite, and likable guy. You get to know him in a way rarely seen in game protagonists ... you see a kind side, the side that emails his mother and frets about his cousin’s gambling problem. He is capable of awful things, but he takes no joy in them, and neither, by extension, will you. Instead, you feel like you’re controlling someone you’d happily hang out with—or rather, you’d be controlling him if the controls weren’t for shit from beginning to end.

You simply like Niko and most of his friends. It is so obvious that these people care about each other that you can’t help but care about them, except when they call you wanting to go bowling. And they do that all the freaking time. In a game that’s supposed to be about high-speed crime action, it seems like more than half is spent in mindless, meaningless, housekeeping tasks like socializing and minigame playing. And endure them you must because there are about a million lines of important dialogue spoken during these insufferable tangents.

Beyond that lie the story missions, which are certainly more fun than the social parts. But the goddamned controls make even the most interesting tasks exercises in fury. Your active weapon switches without being told. You stick to cover you don’t want to. The snap-aiming system twirls and zooms the camera, inducing a vertigo that wrecks your sense of direction. And time after time after time after time, the mission winds up with a pursuit, you and your target weaving drunkenly through tangled streets in vehicles so difficult to control that you’d be better off on camelback.

Off-mission, it’s relatively easy to remain innocuous, unless you open fire on the street or try to jack a car right when a cop is rolling by. The law is really more of a guideline in Liberty City, and while I’d certainly loathe it more if Niko got arrested every time he jaywalked, it sort of ruins the conception of this as a realistic experience. Maybe I don’t like this game because I’m not interested in just running around the city creating mayhem; I want some story or justification for my actions, and even when it’s there it doesn’t always jibe with the character of Niko Bellic, as many of the missions are contrary to his nature. Unlike some, I don’t get a thrill simply throwing firebombs at innocent pedestrians, and that’s apparently the great draw of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Those who do enjoy such behavior will probably adore this otherwise trudging monotony of a game.

Steerpike Runs out of Synonyms for “Tedious”

Rumors swirl that GTA IV cost a hundred million dollars to make and employed 1,400 people. Since it brought in five hundred million in its first week, the budget is not really much of a concern. And, aside from a few squawks here and there—emitted by the usual suspects, Jack Thompson, NIMF, etc.—we haven’t really seen much outcry. GTA IV is no less adult-oriented than any of its predecessors, so take note if the adult content offends you. For the most part, though, this is a pretty innocuous game that only got the attention it did because of its title.

I didn’t hate GTA IV, though based on my experience I’ll probably never play it again and will almost certainly not purchase any future installments. There are moments in the game that are entertaining and—at times—even beautiful. For all the care lavished on the script, all the diligence applied to making Niko a likable individual, everything else is fog, insubstantial and worthless, and dismissed as easily.

Or maybe I’m missing the point; maybe there’s something about GTA that I didn’t “get” in all my hours of playing, waiting to be entertained, wondering where exactly the fun or fulfillment was. The thing that offends me most about Grand Theft Auto IV isn’t any aspect of its play or any of its myriad flaws, it’s that the game so obviously expected me and everyone else to worship at its little altar. “I am GTA IV,” it intoned, “and you will like me. For I ... am GTA IV.

Sorry, GTA IV. I much prefer hanging out with my real friends (who never call up and insist that they’ll stop liking me if I don’t drop what I’m doing and go play darts with them) than with the strangers you offer. And doing chores is enough of a drag in real life; I don’t expect to have to pay for the privilege. Breaking the chores up with the odd bit of ineptly designed gunplay just isn’t enough to make this one a keeper. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Rockstar
Release Date: April 2008

Available for: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

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