I’ve been a little out of it this week, since pretty much all I’ve been doing is going to work and playing GTA4, with short naps in between. That by itself should tell you that GTA4 is pretty good, but to add some weight to that, but I did not own an Xbox 360 until last week. I bought a $350 console just for this game, and to top it off, I actually had to walk from DUMBO to Atlantic Center - a bit over a mile - before I found a store that was open, and had both the game and the console in stock (RadioShack, by the way, had 360s but no GTA for it, and no PS3s but the GTA for it).
I have no problem whatsoever with this, either. GTA4 is just that good.
As in previous installments, the game takes place in fake New York, only this time around, it’s actually recognizable as New York. No, the translation isn’t perfect - Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Bay Ridge are reduced to a narrow slum above Coney Island, Times Square is about a block from Central Park, and, rather delightfully, Staten Island is missing entirely - but neighborhoods feel like their real-life counterparts, and the attention to detail is staggering.
The cop cars look like NYPD cars. The farecard machines in the subway look like the real ones, down to the graphics on the screen. Sometimes I find my way around by thinking of how I’d get there in real life, and I wonder how much of this people who don’t live in New York really grasp. It’s insane.
Beyond the setting, there’s a lot to like here. They took out that RPG bullshit that was in San Andreas, where you had to eat food and go to the gym and grind stats before you could run around with a shotgun blasting holes in things. The driving has been made a bit more realistic, which is to say that you can still drift all over the road and flip cars over, but pulling the handbrake and jerking the wheel is no longer the best way to turn, and, to my great amusement, crashing head-first into a wall will throw your guy out through the windshield. I’ve died more doing that than in gunfights.
This is getting long, so the rest is going after the jump. No major spoilers this time.
Speaking of which, the gunplay is great. They started using a Gears of War sort of cover system, which I hate, but at least you can crouch now, so that’s something. Auto-aim is now only mildly retarded, and you can shoot through all of a car’s windows, not just the front one. The weapon sound effects are incredibly satisfying, and I fell in love with the AK-47 the first time I used it.
That said, GTA4 is not the second coming of Christ. It is not the best game ever, just the best Grand Theft Auto.
I’m starting to get irked by the number of cutscenes. It’s not just that they yank you out of the gameplay and force you to watch things happen, which is pretty much the direct opposite of what a goddamned game is supposed to do. It’s also that you’re watching your character do the stupidest things. Example: You’re supposed to kill a Russian mob boss. You watch yourself walk into a club where he’s partying with bodyguards, and tell him that you are here to kill him. Then you watch his guards pull out guns, and then you are given control back.
I had a Molotov cocktail at that point, and an UZI with a thousand rounds. I would’ve set that whole room on fire and run in guns blazing, instead of sauntering in, announcing my presence, and getting shot full of holes. And who in their right mind tells a dangerous crime lord that he is there to kill him? Why would you ever announce something like that?
Anyway, the basic problem is that GTA 4 is much more tightly scripted than previous installments. Missions have to unfold a certain way, in order for the plot to play out the way Rockstar intended, and for you to see all the cool things they put in there. Which means that instead of getting to be a violent lunatic in your own ways, you get to be a violent lunatic in only the way they wanted you to.
I’m all for gaming becoming more cinematic if it means having a plot and characterization, or hiring a writer, but not when it means ham-fistedly removing interactivity and player choice. It’s just irritating, especially in a place like Grand Theft Auto, which is supposed to be about stealing cars and blowing them up with no interference.
It doesn’t help that everyone in GTA4 is utterly unlikable. I feel like I’m grinding missions just to unlock fake Manhattan so I can run from the cops there or shoot rockets in Times Square, because I don’t care about the story at all. With fake Manhattan unlocked, I’ve started using cheat codes to spawn helicopters, and just flown around causing trouble until I crash. I’m worried that if I advance the story too far, I’ll unlock the New Jersey level, which I emphatically do not want to do.
There’s this whole system of character interaction, where you only get non-story side missions by making people like you - you take them out to the strip club or something, or get drunk - and you have the option to go on dates with girls. I do not care about this. I make it a point to answer the phone when someone calls, but then hang up as soon as they ask me to do something, often when they are in mid-sentence. The only one I don’t blow off is the stereotypical Jamaican, Little Jacob, because he cracks me up.
I’ve started assuming the worst from the game by this point. Oh, a mission to go kill a guy. I’ll bet there’s a cutscene where you have to watch him get away, instead of letting me just blow up his car, and then a scripted car chase where his car is invincible and he drives perfectly at 200 miles an hour, until I get to the pre-planned destination, and there’s another cutscene where I get to watch my character kill him. In fairness, it usually doesn’t work out like that, and the game is actually incredibly fun, but the first 5 or 6 hours are just total crap.
GTA4 is a slow burn, but if you can deal with what’s essentially an extended tutorial that ends about when you get the second safehouse, it’s amazing. They nailed New York, absolutely nailed it, and if nothing else, it’s a beautiful game to drive around it.
Shooting, driving, and exploring are the core of Grand Theft Auto, and they’re very well done here. The story doesn’t do anything for me, but even then it’s not bad, just not great.