GRAND THEFT AUTO IV (2008) – ROCKSTAR NORTH
With Grand Theft Auto V coming out in just mere days, now is the ideal time to offer a quick retrospective look at the last big budget game hailed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread; the well hyped fourth main installment into the series released five years ago. Around the time of its launch, you couldn’t move for the sheer amount of praise that was heaped upon GTA IV by the gaming press – anything less than 10 out of 10 seemed to be sacrilege. I remember thinking at the time after playing IV that these scores were perhaps overrating the experience a bit, and time has done little to change my opinion. While GTA IV remains to this day a stunning feat of technical ability, it lacks that special something that made Vice City and San Andreas the must-have games of their day.
Eschewing the film-inspired narratives of previous games, GTA IV is set in a modern day (for 2008) interpretation of Liberty City (Rockstar’s interpretation of New York City) and follows the exploits of Niko Bellic, an immigrant from the old Soviet Bloc looking to make a fresh start in the land of opportunity. It doesn’t take long for Niko’s past to catch up with him though, and soon he and his brother Roman are fighting for their lives against adversaries from the old country and new enemies in Liberty City. GTA IV is a much more gritty and sullen experience than previous titles, but unfortunately it creates a disparity between what happens in game; Niko consistently states his desire to escape his past life and build up some funds – before walking out of a luxury apartment you accrue during the game and blasting away at the civilians in the street. It also doesn’t help that I really couldn’t connect with about 80% of the characters in the narrative, the majority of them proving to be thoroughly unlikeable human beings. The story itself contains some quite enjoyable set-pieces, including the much praised ‘Three Leaf Clover’ mission which pays a homage to the shootouts in Heat, but overall I found it to be a tad unsatisfying. I am reliably informed by friends who have played the DLC add-ons The Lost And The Damned & The Ballad Of Gay Tony that the storyline found in these new bit of content are much better, but since I haven’t personally played them I can’t really comment.
For me, the real star of GTA IV is Liberty City itself. It seems strange now to look back and consider that the massive game world is just a third of the size of what V will be, but to this day the open world sandbox of GTA IV is still a joy to behold. More so than any other open world game I’ve played, it feels…real. The streets are rammed with cars and pedestrians going about their daily lives, and the attention to detail to make the different districts of the city feel unique is really something that needs to be observed to believe. When you aren’t causing mayhem in the streets, Niko can engage in bowling, play darts and pool, get drunk, surf the in-game internet sites, or even go to a comedy club to watch routines from Katt Williams and Ricky Gervais – not to mention the usual multitude of side missions featured in the Grand Theft Auto series including assassination missions, taxi driving, ambulance work etc. While Rockstar boasted of the size and scope of its world, it’s the tiniest details that still impress me; like the way the radio in a car will receive static a few seconds before an incoming call is received, or the fluid animation of someone dropping a newspaper when Niko bumps into them and then picking it up again. You can spend hours just trudging around the city finding something new around every corner, and the effort to create such a believable city deserves serious praise.
It’s a great shame therefore that the game controls hinder you from fully enjoying the sandbox lying in front of you. There have been complaints of laggy inputs while moving Niko around, and while it is true that the shooting and cover mechanics are nowhere near as pin sharp as Red Dead Redemption (2010), I didn’t find them to be that problematic after a few hours – my major complaint is with driving, which naturally makes up a huge part of GTA games. Instead of the more arcade handling from the PS2 era, vehicles in GTA IV move around the road with all the grace of a cross channel ferry; the move to a more ‘realistic’ style of driving makes even a simple drive through traffic a major chore. Considering most missions start off with a long drive to a location or involve a car chase, the poor controls really hinder one’s enjoyment of the game – I ended up using the many taxis around the city to skip out as much driving as I could get away with. The Euphoria physics engine also suffers from the odd moment of stupidness, causing Niko to ragdoll around after the slightest bump from a car. Thankfully, it looks as if lessons have been learned, and V will be utilizing the better aspects of gameplay from Red Dead and Max Payne 3 to improve the experience. The other element of GTA IV that bugged me was the multiplayer component, the first time GTA had been taken online. Depending on what you were trying to achieve, it was a totally different experience: playing ranked matches and trying to level up was hell on earth unless you invested far too many hours into it; thankfully mucking about with friends trying to surf a bus as it jumped into a river was fun incarnate.
On the presentation front, it’s a big thumbs up from a graphical perspective. Despite not being soaked in the neon colors of Vice City, the toned down nature of Liberty City still holds a peculiar charm, rarely suffering from a technical blip and offering some incredibly well designed car models and buildings. Getting up high in a helicopter in the middle of the day shows off the full splendor of the city; it’s pretty damn big and the draw distance is huge – although one suspects it will quickly be forgotten once people set foot in the updated version of Los Santos. Strangely for the first time I can remember in a GTA game, the soundtrack isn’t exactly something to write home about. Perhaps it is because they went for a more modern soundtrack rather than cherry picking the best songs of the olden days, but aside from the hilarious ‘Just Or Unjust’ show on WKTT, there wasn’t any particular musical experience that I really enjoyed.
GTA IV is a bewildering game; offering a superb sandbox world, but seemingly ignoring the madcap fun and vigor that had made the series famous during the PS2 era. I think it would be unkind to label it as ‘boring’ as many others have done; ‘disappointing’ seems to sum up my experience better. It will be looked back on in 10 years time as a game which like GTA III before it shifted the goalposts for what consumers expect from a videogame, but will I honestly remember my time in Liberty City as much as say CJ getting on a bike for the first time or Mr Vercetti’s final standoff in the mansion? Probably not.