Genre: Open World
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Toronto
Release Date: December 2, 2008
(Note: Just after this review was put together, Rockstar got its act together and released a large-scale patch for Grand Theft Auto IV, improving performance, adding some new options, and generally making many people happy. This review is based largely on the game after Patch 1 but before the large-scale patch. Caveat emptor.)
I've been around the Grand Theft Autouniverse since its inception under heavy controversy in 1997. It's never been a perfect beast, but after refining the formula in GTA III and its offspring Vice City and San Andreas, Rockstar nearly single-handedly created the modern version of the "sandbox" game, allowing mostly free-form exploration within large urban environments, high-speed car chases, and lots of gunplay. While they've never been very deep games and the narrative has always been light (GTA III didn't even bother naming the lead character), they were fun. The race has gotten much tighter in recent years with upstarts like Saints Rowand Mercenaries throwing down, while complaints about the aging engine, retro graphics, and lack of innovation have surfaced. A lot of hopes were pinned on Grand Theft Auto IV doing for the franchise in 2007 what GTA III did over half a decade ago, but they're not particularly well-placed. GTA IV for the PC tries hard but fails to make the same kind of impact.
Much like its predecessors, GTA IV is an adventure in the never-ending pursuit of crime and punishment, centered this time on a lone Russian expatriate, Niko Bellic. Niko is everything you would expect from a bad action movie; he arrives at the beginning of the game fresh off a Russian freighter, having never seen anything of America except for what he finds in the movies and what his cousin Roman tells him in flowery e-mails. He sports an accent so thick you could top a pizza with it, he's a retired soldier with dark secrets about a failed mission, he doesn't like opening up to people, and he sees honor as one of the most important things in life, which is odd considering he's also very good at running over pedestrians at high speed while escaping local law enforcement in a stolen vehicle. That's about all the player knows at the beginning of the game; much like CJ or Tommy, the background details will reveal themselves as missions open and close.
At the core, GTA, even in the early days, was about exploring: go here, do that, shoot these people before they shoot you, terrorize the citizens, that kind of thing. This newest installment doesn't bring much more to the party in terms of gameplay, though. Niko still runs, sprints, shoots, drives, etc., just like CJ, Claude, Tommy and the rest. Some of the new elements are simple things, such as Niko's ability to smash out windows of locked cars with his elbow, an unlimited sprint, and a greatly improved GPS-slash-mini-map. Completely gone are CJ's "RPG Lite" statistics, which will be a blessing to many, as you'll never need to sit in a gym doing mini-games ever again, and Niko is a skilled driver from the outset of the game. The big gameplay "improvement" for this sequel is Niko's mobile phone, which was given to him by Roman after finishing a few early missions. In foot or on wheels, Niko can simply pop open his phone and call up contacts or receive text messages. It helps break up the monotony of earlier games by allowing you to take missions while on the move (many will note that Saints Row did this two years ago, I'm sure), but it brings with it a new "feature" that you'll find totally annoying: social interaction.
Social Interaction is an extension of the dating system found back in San Andreas. Niko needs to interact with people from time to time to keep them happy and unlock bonuses, missions and services. For instance, making Roman very happy will allow you to call free cab rides at any time you'd like. The issue, though, is that these are frustrating, boring breaks from the normal gameplay, and unlike dating, where you could simply ignore your girlfriend, your friends will beg for your attention and they'll use the cell phone to do it so you're never out of reach. Leaving them to their own devices will accrue penalties and cost you opportunities, and even if you just hang up, they tend to call back over and over and over. It feels clunky and tacked on, as if Rockstar were worried that they had to drop something new in the game or they'd be accused of being derivative again so they stole a Tamagotchi from one of the developers' children and duct-taped it on.
That makes almost no sense, as one of the biggest things they've brought into GTA IV is a brand-spanking-new engine, bright and shiny, revving like a Shelby Cobra next to the San Andreas and its coughing Volkswagen Microbus. It's an acceptably beautiful thing, with solid textures, models that don't look completely like The Tumor People from Woebegone Six, and enough draw distance and ambient details to make most people smile. It's a shame that they've chosen to wrap the entire experience in a filter much like wearing a stocking on your head, with gritty and brown everywhere, odd Bloom effects (that can't be disabled) and quirky shadows. That's if you can run the thing at any appreciable speed; GTA4 is a resource hog like none I've seen this decade. It plays very differently depending on what you throw at it, like a session of "The Prince and the Pauper" taking place on your video hardware.
Here's the breakdown:
- If you have a high-end Radeon, at least a 4870, or a GeForce 9800 or better, with at least 512MB of video memory (preferably 1GB), you get "The Experience," with above quality graphics everywhere, long draw distances, and good but not great frame rates. DirectX 10 is required for the "full" experience, they tell me.
- If you come in much under that or only bring 256MB of video RAM to the table, you get laughed at by the engine as it starts. Expect no more than 20 FPS, heavy draw-in, lots of graphic anomalies and artifacting, and enough lag to make the controls function awkwardly, particularly when driving. Textures are muddy, shadows are jagged, and water may as well be concrete. I ran in this mode for most of the review, and barely managed to eke out 20 frames per second at 800x600 resolution with bottom-of-the-chart settings.
It's simply laughable that in this modern age, we find a top-shelf game that does not look as high-quality as some of its peers (Fallout 3 or FarCry 2 are vastly superior) requires more hardware behind it to get it to acceptable levels; with a dual-core CPU and 1GB of video memory in my machine, I still can't get more than half of the capabilities from GTA IV.
Those who think that they can get more out of their hardware can sit down: GTA IV uses a graphics configuration tool that "locks" the available graphic settings based on your available video memory and won't let you go outside of the safe settings, no matter what you do. While there is a simple configuration file you could feasibly edit, doing so will trigger Live For Windows' anti-cheating protection and boot you from the game. (You have to be logged into Live whether you intend to play online or not; it's not optional like it was in Fallout 3.)
Every bit as disconcerting as the resource demands of graphic engine are the dramatic changes to vehicular handling. GTA has always been known for silly, almost arcade-style car physics, where corners can be taken at insane speeds, with up to all four wheels leaving the ground, and the hand brake is a way of life. That, children and adults, is gone. Cars now handle with a "realistic" feel, and if you understand the use of quotes around an adjective like that, you know that I don't mean it in a positive sense. Each vehicle handles much like you'd expect a real to handle — heavy cars like SUVs and luxury yachts are sluggish to steer, while high-performance rigs flick around turns and accelerate madly — and physics are much more realistic, with rolls, wheel lifts, flips and slides. Slamming the brakes while you're moving along at a high speed will result in uncontrolled slides, so the steering locks up like it would in a real car, and the hand brake should be a mechanism of last resort, as it often results in the rear of the car coming around front and then back again.
In this case, the problem is that GTA IV is designed to be driven like an arcade game, with high-speed pursuits and frantic chases, but the cars demand absolute perfection in their handling. Every notable mistake will leave you spinning, sliding and, in the worst case, flipping or rolling while Niko is battered about or ejected from the vehicle. While I understand the deviation from the "cartoony" approach of the last three games, this just isn't really all that much fun, and I'd take the goofy vehicle handling of Crackdown or Saints Row any day of the week. Throwing more system resources at the game will improve the steering marginally, but it's a bad solution for a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place.
GTA IV introduces two extra modes, but both feel like bolted-on amenities rather than anything that contributes to the overall game. Admittedly, the much-hyped Video Editor is nicely put together and simple to use, allowing you to record any gameplay sequence, save it and come back to make a YouTube-worthy video of your game. There are a lot of camera angles, a smattering of effects, and the ability to post the videos directly to the Internet via the Social Club system, and I have to say that it's well done enough to be interesting for a few passes, but as a feature, it doesn't contribute a thing to the game —although, to be fair, it really doesn't claim to.
On the other hand, the multiplayer options try to be something substantial and make an official pass at duplicating the popular Multi Theft Auto mod, but it's not very successful. While there are several modes offered, going from Free Play modes through races, team missions, and good old classic deathmatch, they simply aren't any fun. When removed from the plot and setting of the main game, these just feel like exercises in boredom, treading over excessively large areas to find a gun or driving around simplistic tracks, all without much in the way of interface, particularly deathmatch mode. I don't see the multiplayer options being something worth spending any amount of time playing, as they're presented in a very flat manner and really feel like a fan mod instead of a professional presentation.
Much of the argument comes down to presentation compared to content: In all its attempts to be gritty, brown and realistic, GTA has lost sight of what made GTA III and its brethren worth playing: They were fun. The social aspects are poorly thought-out and inconvenient, linked to dull mini-games and pointless driving segments. Many of the characters are ethnic stereotypes, from Niko to Little J, "Uncle" Vlad, Mallory and just about everyone else of note. Niko is irritatingly unlikable, and yet the entirety of the plot hinges upon us somehow wanting to know more about him and his past. Gunplay is less fun now that the lead character can no longer eat bullets like M&Ms, car chases often end with a single mistake sending the player propelling into the air (and most likely into the river or police custody), and despite being easily restarted, missions tend to be dull and crippled by a lack of checkpoints.
Technically speaking, Grand Theft Auto IV for the PC is not a bad game, and it sets out to hit all of the notes that it attempted. The entire game has a feeling of misdirected effort, as if Rockstar sat down to rejuvenate the franchise without knowing particularly how and simply stuck every idea, gimmick and cliché they could think of into one big ball, like some sort of Katamari of game elements with the old GTA feeling at the core. While I can't say I didn't enjoy my time in this new pseudo-New York City, it's not the highlight of the series, and Rockstar would be wise to rethink their approach before bringing Mr. Bellic around for another pass.
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