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“Grand Theft Auto IV” Bitch List

by on Mar.23, 2010, under Xbox 360 Game Reviews

Game: Grand Theft Auto IV
Developer: Rockstar North/Rockstar Toronto

No, this isn’t Niko Bellic’s definitive guide to dating.

One of the rewarding benefits of writing articles for your own web-site is the increased latitude and scope available to you when choosing a topic for your penmanship. You can cover any subject you wish, you aren’t restricted to following editor-enforced formulaic review templates, and you can vent your spleen about any game you wish without the threat of losing your highly fancied freelance writing position. As it has been quite a few months since my last foray into “spleen venting”, I’ve decided to write today’s article on my love-hate relationship with Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV) for the Xbox 360 … with emphasis on the “hate”.

If you’ve taken the time to scan metacritic.com, you’ll notice that GTA IV is ranked as the number one high-scoring game of all time (and has been since its release in April last year.) Perusing the critical analyses listed shows a chronology of 100% review scores as long as my arm touting the virtues, game-play and longevity of Rockstar’s latest crime/vehicular mayhem/anti-social behaviour simulation. What is noticeably absent from these in-depth critiques is the just as lengthy list of technical issues and questionable game-play design choices made by the developers during their 3+ year creative process. In many cases, the pressure of being the “first review on the block” has perhaps resulted in sub-standard assessments that haven’t covered enough of the game to reveal these inconsistencies. While that may help out the publisher who is trying to push product out the door, it’s definitely doing the purchasing public a huge disservice. Gamers are now faced with the interesting question: “Are all those ‘perfect’ scores a true and accurate reflection of the game experience?” My answer, as expounded upon later in this article, is an emphatic “no”.

Before I get to the bile and vitriol I am about to heap upon this opus, I should clearly state that I have finished the game (which took roughly 50 hours to complete) and have even indulged in a bit of achievement whoring just to pad my rather pathetic Gamerscore. The score of 3½ llamas is based on my assessment and impressions of the game, balancing the good, the bad and the ugly aspects that I have observed. I’m just not going to bother discussing any of the good bits because it’s already been done to death in a multitude of GTA IV reviews scattered across the web. If you really want to flip through a lengthy rehash of the massive open world environment, creative mission design, memorable characters, well written dialogue, extensive soundtrack, and all the other positive features that have been gushed over by the majority of online media, check out any mainstream game review sites and admire their remarkably similar and uniform points of view. Let’s start the critique rolling with a list of game play issues.

First cab off the rank is GTA IV’s missions. Now, I’m one of the first to admit that each of these forays throughout the environs of Liberty City is a unique experience in terms of dialogue, mission objective and location. Some of them are actually darn right funny like the hi-speed scooter chase later in the game. However, each and every GTA IV sojourn ends up following this simple formula to the letter. The prologue to your mission is invariably a lengthy drive through the city from point A to point B, a process that usually takes a good 5 minutes or so depending on how insane a driver you normally are. Upon reaching point B you will be treated to either: a high-speed vehicular chase to point C, or a protracted gunfight between you and a variety of sociopathic gang members, drug addicts and/or police. The above formula pretty much covers all the side-missions and other events that occur within the game as well, resulting in missions that are only differentiated by the vehicle you’re chasing or the miscreants you’re shooting at. Unfortunately, some of the game-play elements tossed in by the designers can make both of these scenarios tedious exercises in frustration that practically force you to replay each mission several times.

With GTA IV’s intuitive combat system, you’d think that the regular gun battles being fought out in the streets shouldn’t be such a big issue, right? Just run to the nearest cover, and then take out your opponents one by one with the incredibly useful auto-targeting system. Alas, random police response isn’t disabled when you are undertaking missions. Accordingly, the local constabulary have a remarkably annoying habit of being in the neighbourhood, just as you arrive to unleash 9mm justice upon your foes. With the local underworld notorieties safely hidden behind walls or inside vehicles, and you standing in the open having just disembarked from your 4WD Patriot, it’s no surprise that the cops start shooting at you first! Returning fire just makes the situation worse, causing your wanted level to rise rapidly as police casualties mount. The invariable end result is a quick trip to the local hospital.

During high speed vehicle chases you’re occasionally asked to kill the driver you’re hunting. The trouble is that there is no automatic target locking, which makes hitting the pursued vehicle, while travelling at 80+ mph nigh on impossible. Any Liberty City citizens unlucky enough to witness one of these occurrences would be well advised to promptly take cover as they are just as likely to be taken out as you careen wildly through the suburbs, guns blazing. Unsurprisingly, the LCPD is usually quick to react to any “shots fired” reports, rapidly resulting in a three way pursuit with you in the middle. To top it off, the designers also tossed in some scripted events designed to prematurely end your pursuit. Here’s a hypothetical example. You’re driving through Chinatown when all of a sudden a group of Orientals in a dragon costume waltz across the road in front of you as part of the local Chinese New Year celebrations. These events are incredibly cheap tricks that are purely designed to force you to crash and prevent you from successfully completing your mission. They are also almost impossible to recover from unless you have advance warning from a previous attempt.
To add insult to injury, when you are offered the chance to repeat a failed mission, you are subjected to that same mind numbingly mundane 5+ minute journey to the mission site each and every time. Note to the development team: This is really irritating, and is something that could have been solved with a simple checkpoint system that restarts the mission with you about 30 seconds away from the true mission objective.

GTA IV’s main claim to fame is it’s over the top parodying of the American Dream, with the main character’s aspirations of fame and fortune being rudely cast aside in favour of a much darker and seedier reality. It’s also quite possibly the most realistic babysitting simulation currently available on current generation consoles. As Niko explores Liberty City’s environs, he encounters and befriends what have to be some of the most self-absorbed ne’er-do-well’s Liberty City has seen since the game franchise went 3D in 2001. Assuming our hero is a typically gullible Eastern European migrant, they happily phone him up at all hours of the day or night requesting anything from a game of darts to demanding sexual favours because they’re frisky after a long shift at the hospital. While this might be reality as the developers see it, this kind of mundane existence really has no place in a video game. The fact that everyone I know of who has played the game wants to mute their mobile after the main storyline is complete, kind of confirms this observation. Frankly, I think they’d rather shoot the callers instead.

The game artificial intelligence routines also seem simplistic in a variety of situations. For example, it’s impossible to toss a grenade from a rooftop at a locked target below him, without Niko under arming it straight into the roof at his feet! The GPS system used to generate optimal travel paths can make some highly convoluted routes. This was especially noticeable when travelling from Alderney to any of the other islands. Liberty City’s driving populace also appears to be lacking in the “smart’s” department if my encounters on the surrounding freeways is anything to go by. Here’s my guesstimate of how Driver A.I. routines have been implemented. Every time you approach a vehicle from behind whilst travelling at speed, a random number between ‘1’ and ‘4’ is generated. If a ‘1’ is rolled, the aforementioned vehicle is automatically instructed to cut across in front of you at the precise moment in time necessary to cause a collision! This is obviously Rockstar’s method of simulating vehicle manufacturers removing all rear-view mirrors as a cost-cutting exercise due to the current global financial crisis.

Race A.I. isn’t anything to write home about either. Upon starting any event, floor your accelerator and head off towards the first turn; I can guarantee that all five of your opponents will do the same in a mad attempt to beat you to the first corner. When you approach the first turn, slam on your brakes, sit back and watch the opposition slam into each other or the surrounding buildings as they fail to make the turn at the same impossible speed! Casually pass your opponents, honking your horn if you feel suitably smug. Provided you don’t do anything ridiculously stupid, it’s unlikely you’ll either see or hear your opponents again for the rest of the race. Oddly enough, police reaction to collisions also seems to involve the aforementioned random number generator. Sometimes you can smack into a police cruiser head-on, and the officer will barely blink, passing you by without a care in the world. On other occasions a slight tap on the rear bumper will have Officer Barbrady putting out an APB for you across the entire county. I can only assume in these instances the collision jostled him, causing a major spillage of coffee and doughnuts.

The local population don’t appear to cope well with terrorist threats either. Having just acquired the ability to use car bombs, I decided to detonate one at a crowded intersection in Broker to observe the results. As expected, I was treated to a big explosion, lots of screaming citizens and a few exploding and burning vehicles. As I watched, I noticed a couple of impatient drivers trying to pass through the intersection, callously oblivious to the death and destruction I had caused. As they bumped into the burning vehicles, they too caught fire, eventually exploding 20-30 seconds later. Having learnt nothing from the additional carnage caused, another driver attempted to make a passage through the burning debris. For roughly 5 minutes I sat and watched as representatives from the shallow end of Liberty City’s gene pool expired in a protracted pyrotechnic display.

The game is also graced with a few bugs and some occasional in-game oddities. I’ve had the game completely freeze up on me on over a dozen occasions, requiring a restart and loss of my current mission progress; a state of affairs exacerbated in some instances because I’d just spent an hour or so trying to complete that particular scenario. If you were also unlucky enough to be completing an achievement like performing all of the stunt jumps, and you didn’t take the time to drive to a safe house to save your game, you can similarly kiss your progress good bye. During high speed driving, the game sometimes struggles to render scenery in a timely fashion, resulting in distance related pop-in. When driving, it’s impossible to lock the camera view in anything over than the chase position without repeatedly jiggling the right thumb stick to maintain position. There’s also an issue with building lighting that takes an extra second or so to illuminate giving the impression of thousands of bored residents simultaneously trying to cause a blackout in their borough as you drive by. Some people have suggested that this is supposed to be your eyes adjusting to the sunlight, similar to when you leave your safe house, but the behaviour I’ve described occurs outdoors and at night. I’ve managed to fall through the world on a couple of occasions, the more memorable one being when I walked into the Alderney [email protected] Internet cafe when the door was already open, re-appearing 5 seconds later roughly a block away and promptly freezing the game. I also managed to trigger a mission bug during one of the assassination tasks I was assigned. In this particular instance, a target limousine managed to get temporarily separated from two escorting SUVs. I managed to destroy the limo with a RPG, and heard the musical riff suggesting I had successfully completed the mission. Unfortunately no-one bothered to tell the less than diligent bodyguards that they were now out of a job. For the next ten minutes they persistently stalked me across the city, attempting to run me down every time I left my vehicle. After their less than salutary “hit and run” offence involving a hot-dog vendor, I decided discretion was the better part of valour and promptly rebooted the game. Sure enough, I had to repeat that same assassination mission once more.

From my perspective the game is nothing like the near perfect sandbox simulation that the majority of mainstream media have insisted upon. It can best be described as a collection of one hour gaming sessions that ended in a great deal of frustration and angst, followed up by several days of bitching and whining until enough courage was plucked up to repeat the process. Whilst the remainder of the reviewing community managed to accurately report on all the positive aspects of the game, it’s equally important to note that the warts and blemishes adorning its guise prevent GTA IV from being the near-perfect game that these same individuals would have us believe.

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