Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

GTAIV.jpg I know, I know. I’m a little late to the Grand Theft Auto IV party here, but frankly, I never got all that hyped up for its launch and only got around to picking up a copy within the past week or so. So how do I feel about it? Honestly, I’m experiencing a mixed bag of emotions now that I’ve finished up my time inside the world of Liberty City. It’s definitely the best game in the series, by a landslide at that. But at the same time it’s simply not resonating with me as this all-time great game that it’s been portrayed as by much of the press and mainstream gaming public.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a groundbreaking achievement in sandbox game design, let me just get that out of the way before anything else. It truly is the closest a game has come to creating a living, breathing virtual world. Much of the game is typical GTA, but the world is fleshed out with an obscene amount of graphical detail, environmental scale and immersive elements that have never been pulled off in a videogame before. Actual TV shows you can sit down and watch to kill some time at your crib, internet cafes that you can visit to get online for checking email and searching for info on targets, cabaret shows, interactive strip teases, a fully functional subway system, and of course the trademark GTA radio stations. The way the game’s mission structure is all tied into a simple cell phone interface is pretty genius too.

The thing is, as an actual game I wouldn’t necessarily describe GTA IV as “fun” to play. Sure, it has many moments that are downright unbelievable, but for the most part I found getting through the game to be rather tedious. At 25+ hours long (it took me just over 26 to complete the main story missions), the game is way too long. Yes, I said too long. Most of the time games get criticized for being too short, but personally I found GTA IV’s story to drag on about 10 hours more than it needed to, if not more than that. Seriously, after about 10-15 hours I became bored to tears and just wanted the game to end. What’s worse, slogging through those remaining hours wasn’t even worth it given how underwhelming the ending is. For all those long hours invested, I didn’t feel like the payoff was worth the time and effort.

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The story overall was a letdown for me as well, not just the ending. For the first 10 hours I was really compelled by the direction it was going. Niko is a very likeable main character – certainly the best lead in the GTA series – but after he arrives in Liberty City and settles in, the game similarly settles into the same old story arcs and clichéd characters that have existed in GTAs past. Basically, you end up working for the mafia, doing odd jobs, whacking anyone who needs whacking and ultimately getting stabbed in the back by those you’ve been working for before moving on to the next. Except for a few standouts, such as this epic bank heist and escape mission that I found to be one of the most exhilarating gaming moments I’ve had this generation, the mission designs are all so repetitive and uninspired. Go kill this guy, steal this, chase someone down, chauffeur people around, yada yada yada. It’s all been done before.

As much as I’ve heard about how the story adapts to your actions within the world, I never got even the slightest sense of it myself either. There are a few moments sprinkled throughout that provide you with multiple choices on how to proceed, say the choice between executing someone or showing mercy and letting them live or deciding which one of two characters to take out, but once these choices were made I didn’t feel like the aftereffects were all that significant. An in-depth relationship system has also been implemented through which you can choose to call up contacts you’ve made to hang out, shoot some pool, go bowling, play darts, hit the clubs or go on a date, but none of it is particularly entertaining, nor does building relationships ever seem to have any major impact on how the game unfolds.

I am at least grateful that Rockstar went back and really did a number on improving the gunplay mechanics. I thought the three previous GTAs were nearly unplayable at times due to their sloppy targeting systems and imprecise controls altogether, but now shooting people up is at least functional and can have a very satisfying feel to it thanks to the sweet hit detection physics and realistic death animations. Killing people and blowing shit up is very dynamic, nothing ever seems to happen the same way twice. Of course, the targeting system can still be somewhat of a mess at times. When more than two enemies are in view, the lock-on mechanic tends to falter. Cycling between multiple targets is generally hit or miss, which when coupled with the so-so cover system causes problems in the crazier shootouts.

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One of the major advancements GTA IV brings to the series has to be the multiplayer; it was clearly an ambitious undertaking by Rockstar. There are something like 15 game modes with max support for 16 players (not all allow that many players though), so obviously there’s a tremendous amount of variety to be found. Basic modes like deathmatch, team deathmatch, point-to-point vehicle races, and team-based zone control battles are in place as expected, but there are a number of unique offerings that you won’t find in any other multiplayer game. Like Cops ‘n Crooks, a team mode where one team are crooks escorting their boss while the other team are cops trying to chase down and apprehend the protected crime lord, or Car Jack City in which you compete with others to steal and deliver the most cars to a chop shop.

There are some really cool concepts at work here, but sadly the execution isn’t always up to snuff. My main problem with the multiplayer is that the game’s gunplay, while improved dramatically and certainly functional against AI enemies that follow simple duck-and-cover routines, isn’t polished enough to be viable for competing against other real players. Lock-on targeting is an option, but you aren’t going to win very much using it. Free aim targeting is a must for going for head shots and dealing more damage, but it just isn’t precise enough to keep up with the dynamic tactics of live opponents. Overall, I just don’t think the game’s core play mechanics are solid enough to make the multiplayer truly sing.

For everything GTA IV gets right, there’s something else it gets wrong. At times I was blown away just driving around the city and taking in the vast, buzzing virtual world Rockstar has created. But when I actually got down and dirty playing through the game, I found it to be nothing more than a lot of dull busy work. As a sandbox playground, GTA IV is a technical marvel and worthy of praise, but as a videogame I want to sit down with, play and feel rewarded for doing so, quite frankly it just doesn’t get the job done. At least not enough to make it worth more than a rental, in my opinion.

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Pros:
+ Unprecedented sandbox world design is breathtaking to behold and unmatched in terms of immersion
+ Ambitious multiplayer component
+ Incredible physics, damage modeling and hit detection
+ Gunplay mechanics show a lot of improvement

Cons:
– Story drags on far too long and doesn’t deliver a rewarding payoff for the time and effort
– Storyline and mission designs don’t bring much of anything new to the series; been there, done that, didn’t much care to do it again
– All the ancillary activities seem pretty pointless and mostly feel like busy work
– Still quite a few control issues; multiplayer ultimately suffers from the average game mechanics

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available on Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: 4/29/08
Genre: Sandbox Action/Adventure
Players: 1-16
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!