David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-05-21 14:26:29
Grand Theft Auto IV - Rank S
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Also available for PlayStation 3
More words have been written about Grand Theft Auto IV than about any other game in recent memory. Most articles rattle down the checklist of the typical game review template, but GTA IV deserves more than mere dissection. It's a sprawling, organically complex whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Instead, I'm going to spend the bulk of my focus on the merits and flaws of GTA IV's two stars: Liberty City and Niko Bellic.
The two mirror each other: as you progress through the game, you simultaneously unlock greater access to the city and reveal more of Niko's character and back story. Both of them are presented in such superb fashion that when that presentation falters, the flaws are all the more glaring. This results in a sort of meta-"Uncanny Valley". The term specifically applies to the phenomenon of how human-like objects become repulsive when they look almost, but not quite exactly, like humans. This is the reason why dolls or mannequins can be creepy. In the same way, both the setting of GTA IV and the narrative of its lead character are so overpoweringly credible, that minor missteps you'd ignore in any other videogame become painfully pronounced.
I spent my early childhood in New York City, and Grand Theft Auto IV took me home. The satirical doppelganger that Rockstar has brought to life is nothing short of a technical masterpiece. Liberty City is a massive and dense construct the likes of which has never before been seen in any game. Every building, subway and L train station, street and alley has been lovingly and uniquely crafted. No two city blocks are like, and each borough has a distinct personality. Just grab an SUV and cruise the bridge over the West River, and you'll hear the Sopranos theme in your head. The limitless draw distance of the city skyline convinces you that Liberty City is real, and is simply breathtaking when viewed from above in a helicopter.
The phrase "living breathing city" has become a cliched hyperbole in videogame circles, but it actually applies to Liberty City. Its inhabitants are convincing. You'll see a vast array of everyday people roaming its streets. Businesspeople, shoppers, joggers, Hasidic Jews, hotdog vendors, streetwalkers, homeless, hoodlums, tourists and more fill the city going about their business. They'll carry on conversations, answer their phones, and accost you if bumped into. They'll run for cover when it rains, or make their way holding umbrellas or newspapers over their heads. Policemen will chase criminals, and motorists will angrily step out of their cars after a fender bender. If you should graze someone with your car, they'll slump over and place their hands on your hood in a believable manner. All the fine details add up to a rich human tapestry.
Grand Theft Auto's radio stations return in all their glory. Each station's programming was meticulously selected. Any jazz station that includes John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" is aces in my book. The faux commercial spots poke fun at the plasticity and triviality of American media, and the various talk stations are mesmerizing in their satirical intensity. I found myself pulled over on the side of the road just listening to several segments instead of completing the mission I was currently tasked with. Liberty City televisions provide hours of viewable material. Its internet cafes provide a ridiculously deep webscape to surf. It's also home to a comedy club, cabaret club, pool hall, strip clubs, bowling alleys, bars and restaurants - Liberty City is realistic enough to have its own rudimentary culture.
And then come those incidents that remind you that you're playing a videogame. Sometimes it's a technical issue. The framerate is passable, but it'll hitch at times. Textures can pop in late. For all of the beautifully rendered architecture, you can only enter specific buildings. Sometimes Rockstar's sense of humor descends from sardonically brilliant to simply juvenile: the internet cafe chain is named "Tw@", and the bowling alley logo consists of an erect pin flanked by two balls. The worst offense is when characters' behaviors fail. For example, you could be on a date and running people over with your car. Meanwhile, your girlfriend is obliviously asking you if you're involved at all with crime. Moments like these break the illusion, and Liberty City becomes just another virtual playground.
Niko Bellic is the strongest Grand Theft Auto protagonist yet. He's an illegal immigrant with depth and conviction, and clearly haunted by his military past. Many gamers mistake him as a Russian, but game dialogue clearly identifies him as Serbian. While Grand Theft Auto obviously takes place in some parallel universe, we can infer that the war that's left him so emotionally crippled was likely the Kosovo conflict. Something dreadful happened to Niko, somewhere between genocide and the violence of the NATO military machine.
He's come to America to escape his past, and to seek peace for his troubled soul. As you progress through the narrative, you'll be treated to one of the most complex and conflicted characters to ever grace a videogame. Niko is instantly likable, and becomes increasingly sympathetic as his past is revealed and his present goals crystallize. Meanwhile, this journey is contrasted by his cousin's hollow pursuit of the "American dream" and the personal struggles of the supporting characters that cross his path. Grand Theft Auto IV's dialogue is exceptional, and does a masterful job of conveying Niko's battle with his violent nature and the emotional gravity of each of his cohorts. He laments that death is the only trade he knows; most of his acquaintances are in the same business.
This drama isn't limited to Niko's plot-driven, criminal mission sequences. You have plenty of opportunities to pursue a normal life by dating or socializing with your friends. At times, this can become something of a chore. After all, we play games to escape our mundane lives, not to wallow in a virtual version of them. Nevertheless, patience yield payoffs, as the dialogue and character development that occur in these segments are excellent, and often hilarious. I'm not talking mildly amusing "lulz" here, I'm talking about truly laugh out loud moments. Brucie's bullshark testosterone-driven rants, in particular, are a hoot. Going drinking results in Niko hollering "STOP MR. MAN; HEY YEL-LOW CAR!" in a futile effort to hail a cab while his Irish pal Packie sings Celtic drinking songs and bullshit-analyzes the poetry of Yeats while the two of you drunkenly stagger through the streets of Liberty City. These make for great interludes of downtime between the blood-soaked intensity of Niko's violent "day jobs".
Unfortunately, the gameplay and mission structure often runs counter to this depth of characterization. Niko constantly preaches the values of loyalty, and despite being a killer, was clearly intended to be a man of principles. However, in actual practice, he's just a run of the mill sociopath. He'll turn on employers, gun people down by the hundreds, and show no remorse. When I began playing GTA IV, it dropped me into such a believable environ that I actually tried to be a decent guy. I strove to abide by the law as much as possible - even obeying traffic codes. But once I saw that Niko was a psychotic narcissist with borderline personality disorder, it freed me up to behave in an equally inappropriate manner. Instead of driving carefully, I'd take the most convenient path regardless of the presence of pedestrians. My final tally of vehicular manslaughter victims ended up rivaling the number of criminals I killed. If any random bystander happened to annoy me, I'd execute them. Once that immersive believability of Liberty City and Niko Bellic cracked, the citizens of the city were no longer real to me, and I was just playing a videogame again.
"I killed people, smuggled people, sold people. Perhaps here, things will be different..."
That's Niko's lament from the original trailer, and Grand Theft Auto IV is indeed a different class of videogame. All of the criticisms you read above are purely the result of the contrast to how incredible GTA IV is when it works. When it's hitting the story beats just right, you will empathize with Niko's pain, and regret having to choose between equally tragic decisions. Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto IV is an engrossing epic that will move you.
VERY MINOR SPOILER ALERT! HIGHLIGHT HERE TO SEE: GTA IV has two endings. There is no good ending.
For all of Grand Theft Auto's notoriety, the irony is that this installment is ultimately a condemnation of violence. Liberty City and Niko combine to tell one of the greatest videogames of all time.
Ok, so I spent that entire review approaching Grand Theft Auto IV from the perspective of how it holds up as art. Well, how does it fucking play?
It kicks ass. The father of the sandbox genre is back in full force, with unlimited ways to have fun screwing around. Tons of people gave up on the older titles because of the wretched targeting system. It works now, along with a fairly fluid cover system. The new physics engine is fucking amazing. Cars still handle loosely, allowing you to perform ridiculous stunts, but now have convincing weight and mass to them. The end result is a deeper control experience, with tons of eye candy. Just watch the way Niko's body reacts as you corner, get air, or crash. If you smash into a sufficiently abrupt stop, he'll go flying out the front windshield!
Grand Theft Auto gameplay is at its best during its fantastic car chases. You'll be telling your friends about the tons of impromptu kickassery that occurs while chasing a quarry with a fleet of cops chasing you. GTA IV is the kind of game where the most amazingly astounding events can happen. I only have a few gripes here: some of the story missions are scripted, preventing you from killing your quarry (they're invincible) until you reach the predetermined sequence in the chase. Also, if there ever was a game that required a recording function, it's GTA IV. You'll have one of those crazy moments that's impossible to replicate, and wish you could share it with others.
Oh, this one mission is so awesome it's worth mentioning here: about two-thirds through the campaign, Niko gets involved in a bank heist that's straight out of Heat. You'll run and gun S.W.A.T. units through the city streets in one of the best combat chases I've ever played.
Oh yeah! Multiplayer! I thought Crackdown's two player co-op was impressive, but GTA IV brings sixteen multiplayer to the table. Screwing around alone in Liberty City is entertaining, but this... wow. I got together with some of my Live buddies and formed a squadron of attack choppers. We formed up "Charlie don't surf"-style while humming "The Ride of the Valkyries", before jousting by playing "chicken" through a sky filled with machinegun fire. And that's just in the game lobby. GTA IV has over a dozen different game modes which are entirely customizable. One of my favorite moments was while playing "Mafia Works" (competing with each other to complete criminal jobs) - riding a zippy but slow Vespa style scooter while a buddy stalked me in his roaring muscle car.
The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are roughly equivalent. If you care at all about multiplayer, just get the version that most of your friends are getting.
Now to nitpick...
The Xbox 360 version has a better frame rate. I thought it might be my imagination at first, but Eurogamer went through the trouble of objectively confirming my eyeballed impression. I consider a steady 30 FPS to be the minimum standard, and feel vindicated that I was able to tell that the PS3 version wasn't quite acceptable. The Xbox 360 color saturation is also a bit better. However, the PlayStation 3 version seems to have a bit less pop-up and better anti-aliasing. Also, the PS3 version installs onto the hard drive, resulting in slightly faster load times. Unfortunately, this seems to be related to issues of the game crashing. This happened to me twice on my 60GB PlayStation 3 necessitating reinstalls. To be fair, my Xbox 360 GTA IV froze as well, but that was once over the course of over 40 hours of play.
The triggers on the 360 controller are distinctly superior; I hate the flimsy PS3 flippers. Considering how important it is to have the proper pressure on the gas, this is no small consideration. The 360's rumble is also a key feature. Everything from crashes to the deep sonic report of thunderstorms is even better with the feedback. I do have to give rare credit to the PS3's Sixaxis controls. You'll only be spending a tiny fraction of your game time flying helicopters, but when you do, the motion controls are superior to the analog stick for this specific purpose.
Finally, if you're still on the fence and need one final tie breaker, the Xbox 360 will be receiving exclusive downloadable content.