Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Now Playing: Grand Theft Auto IV

In GTA 4 you step into the shoes of Niko Bellic, a man arriving in Liberty City on a personal quest for revenge. As you’d expect from a GTA game, this quest largely involves driving around a lot and shooting things. The first thing that strikes you about the game is how gloomy and grey it is. Colours are subdued, creating an oppressive and moody atmosphere that works well within the context of the setting and the story, although I can’t help but wish they’d injected a little more colour and life into the environments.

The City itself is large and highly detailed, but there’s not a great deal of variety on offer in terms of locations. Liberty City serves as the sandbox you can screw about in between missions, and there’s a fair bit to keep you busy. You have a selection of side jobs you can undertake for extra cash, plus a variety of recreational activities such as bowling (NO, Roman) darts and pool. You can watch television, surf the internet and even take in a show. The problem with all these extra activities though, is that there’s very little point to any of them.

The side jobs are generally a repetitive series of the same missions – steal a certain car, deliver a package – but given that you earn more than enough money through the main story missions, there’s little reason to bother with them. The recreational stuff is fun a few times, but not much more than that. And whilst there’s amusing stuff to be found on the TV stations and on the internet, there’s no real reason to bother with either. I really would have liked if these activities were in some way tied to core missions, but that’s something I’ll get into later.

The game has a great selection of in-game radio stations to listen to as you drive about, and I liked that news reports (both on radio and online) would touch upon the mayhem you’ve caused from the main missions on occasion. There’s also a ton of nice little details and features throughout the game, all of which add up to very well constructed and enjoyable sandbox to play about in, at least for a time. It’s just a shame that the aforementioned side stuff isn’t all that interesting or worthwhile in the long-term.

In terms of how it plays, GTA 4 has what is initially an odd feeling driving system, but once you get used to it, you soon appreciate how each vehicle handles differently in terms of mass, acceleration, speed, impact and turning, not to mention the fantastic damage model. On foot, GTA 4 has a solid cover based shooting system. It can be a little dodgy switching between targets at times, but it works well enough. You have a selection of weapons to use, but not a great deal of variety – a choice of a couple of handguns, a couple of rifles etc. Nothing to get too excited about.

As for the story, it’s...well, fine. It has a cast of varied and interesting characters, and it keeps you interested to the end. Niko, the protagonist, is a little too casual and laid back at times about the unpleasant things he’s doing, yet at other times he’s more pro-active and opinionated about what is right or wrong. I do like his character, but there are times it seems he acts more like a misunderstood anti-hero just doing what he has to in order to survive, and others where he just acts like a typical thug for hire. He can’t really be both, and the inconsistency can be a little jarring. But overall, it works well enough, and the story builds up to an exciting run of final missions that see through his personal story.

Now, although his primary goal is to find someone and exact revenge, Niko actually seems more concerned about getting paid. It makes sense for him to be working for some unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in order to bring him closer to his goal. But a lot of the time he acts more like a mercenary, simply doing jobs for cash. This wouldn’t be so bad if he actually needed the cash for something, but he, well, doesn’t. It doesn’t bring him any closer to his goal, and that money you accumulate is effectively worthless within the world.

This is one big issue I have with the game. You earn a ton of money yet you have practically nothing to spend or invest it in. It all goes on stocking up weapons or purchasing new clothes from a disappointingly small selection. By the end of the game I had over half a million in the bank, and that was even after ignoring most of the side jobs. But I had absolutely nothing to spend it on.

My other major issue with the game is the main missions. These really are the core of the experience. The world, characters, gameplay, story and extra activities are all good and fine. I have my criticisms about each of them, but overall, they combine well into creating a solid and entertaining framework. The problem is that the main missions don’t really build upon that framework or take advantage of it.

The main missions in GTA 4 are unfortunately just a little repetitive and dull, very rarely varying from the standard ‘Drive to A, Shoot Target’ objective. Some are slightly more elaborate, featuring a car chase, or a lengthier set-up, but a lot are pretty short and forgettable. There are, however, some far more elaborate missions mixed in, and it’s these that are far more memorable and interesting to play. These are the missions which do build upon the sandbox framework, bringing the world and all it’s features into the core story. I’ll give you an example -

One mission requires killing a lawyer. But in order to get access to him, you have to go online in the game, visit the website of the firm he works at and submit a fake CV for a job. You then wait for an interview call which is set up at a specific time the next day. In order to look the part you also need a smart suit. These minor objectives, combining elements of the sandbox world (internet, e-mail, your phone, clothing) all lead up to attending the interview itself, meeting your target, at which point the shooting begins.

It creates a far more ‘complete’ experience, than the standard ‘Drive to A, Shoot Target’ missions, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t have more multi-stage missions like this. I hate to say it, but towards the end I was losing my interest in the game itself due to this lack of variety or complexity in the missions.

It’s also a damn shame, and also rather irritating, that these missions can only really be completed in one way, as there’s very little freedom for the player to deviate from the expected path or be creative in how they approach certain objectives. I’ll give two examples. In one mission I had to kill a particular guy who was on the second floor of a building. I scoped the place out and spotted him just in view from across the street.

Thinking I’d be smart about it, I took up a position out of sight at range with a sniper rifle, intending to take him out safely and discreetly. Only I couldn’t. As soon as I raised my weapon, he (and the dozens of goons protecting him) suddenly became psychically aware of my presence and ran for it, and although I’m sure I pulled off the perfect head shot, he wasn’t scripted to die yet. No, I had to play out the mission the way the game intended, fight my way through a horde of goons and then execute him on the rooftop. So much for a free-form sandbox.

Another thing that really bothered me across multiple missions were the magically indestructible cars. GTA 4, as I’ve said, has a great damage model. You can shoot out tyres, shoot through windows, kill passengers or the driver etc...but not all the time. There are many missions which involve an extended car chase to kill a target, but they are sometimes scripted so you can’t actually take out the target until you hit a certain point or reach a certain destination. This means that you can burn through all the ammo you want, but it won’t make a dent in your target or their vehicle, not until the game allows it. It’s bloody annoying is what it is, especially in one mission, when I thought I’d take out a guy with a rocket before he could actually escape, only to see the damn thing bounce off his car as he drove away.

Okay, so enough ranting. I just really wanted a greater variety of missions, more elaborate missions involving multiple stages, and more creative flexibility for the player within the sandbox as to how they want to go about it. Looking back at a lot of the games I’ve really enjoyed and scored highly over the last few years, this is an element that has featured in some way in nearly all of them – that the game allows and trusts the player with a degree of creative freedom in order to complete an objective. But the rigid mission structure of GTA 4 feels entirely at odds with the intention of a sandbox environment.

Overall though, GTA 4 is a solid, enjoyable title with a lot of nice little features. It’s just a shame the core story missions simply aren’t very varied or more elaborate which means they can get a little tedious. I hope GTA 5 addresses a lot of these concerns. The developers certainly know how to build a great sandbox framework, but what they need now is to really let the player have more creative flexibility in how they approach their objectives within that framework. I guess I’ll find out whenever they get around to releasing the PC version. I could get the console version now, but I think I’ll wait.


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