I know I promised to shut up about it, but that is because I lied to you. I lied to you so hard.
When I wrote this about Grand Theft Auto, it was more of an impression than a review; the game had only been out for a few days at that point. I’ve had much, much more time put in on it. I’ve finally gotten beyond the novelty factor enough to honestly consider the game itself, and I have come to this conclusion:
It is shit.
It’s repetitive, poorly implemented, riddled with design flaws, awkward, and above all glitchy. I’ll stop now and give you all a moment to type the word ‘motherfucker’ a few dozen times in the comments section below, and then we’ll continue.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a horrible game, and yet I stand by every word of my previous gushing impressions. It is perhaps the single most impressive achievement in gaming, and one of the shoddiest mass-market releases I have ever seen. And at the risk of seeming like an even more monumental asshole, I think it’s the very aspects that make GTA IV so impressive that also completely ruin it.
That leaves a hell of a lot of explaining for me to do. First, everything I said about the city and it’s immersiveness is absolutely true. If anything, I have come to appreciate what Rockstar has accomplished here even more the longer I play. I notice even more of the little things, like how the fast food workers at the various restaurants actually have different duties. They don’t merely stand there, inanimate, existing only to serve the one function you require – food. They come out from behind the counter and clean the tables. They sweep the sidewalks out front and wash the windows. Or that the cars actually break down – even when they’re not yours. I’ve driven by several times now and seen random civilians causing massive traffic jams, standing in front of their overheated vehicles completely befuddled. Drivers caught behind them get angry, they honk and yell and swerve around the other drivers furiously. Or how about the cable car connecting two of the islands? Did you even know it was there? There’s no reason for it to exist. It doesn’t appear in the single player campaign, it serves no utilitarian purpose, but Rockstar has populated their town with details like this specifically to increase the immersion of the player. This city is the closest gaming has ever come to a real place, a real New York. The flyers, the newspaper stands, the grime – it’s the little things that make this truly a living, breathing environment.
So it’s just too bad that Rockstar layered an irreperably flawed game on top of it. The actual gameplay in Grand Theft Auto IV is nearly identical to every GTA before it, and gameplay has never been their strong suit. They’ve added and tweaked, to be sure, but it’s almost universally for the worse. There is an implemented cover mechanic, for example, that is nothing short of ridiculous. It’s incredibly clumsy; you hit the button once to cover, and then as you try to move along the cover you’ve taken, the system often randomly interprets your movement to mean you want to switch cover entirely. So rather than sneaking along a wall to ambush an unsuspecting enemy, it’s equally likely that you’ll break cover, run two feet to a fire hydrant and crouch behind it while bullets rain into you – leaving you to die squatting in the middle of the road like a diarrhetic hobo.
They’ve also added a great deal of versatility to the jumping system. Hitting the jump button will now execute a number of actions such as climbing, mounting, or just hopping over obstacles. This new system allows you to seamlessly hurdle through the new, vastly detailed terrain without breaking stride…in theory. In practice, however, assigning all environmental interaction to one button – a button that already has a vital function; jumping – is an exercise in stupidity. No, it’s more than an exercise, it’s a grand athletic competition in stupidity. It’s the motherfucking Olympics of stupidity. Maneuvering through this city is complicated by the very details that make it great; the path is no longer flat, the terrain is varied, and some sense of agility on the part of your character is absolutely, fundamentally necessary now. Ideally, small obstacles would be handled automatically – your character should step up foot-high ledges, hop over fire hydrants and make tiny distance jumps on his own. But he typically doesn’t, and you find yourself having to force him to do these things quite often, but not always. Leaving you to continuously wonder: Is he going to just step over this curb, or am I going to get caught jogging in place alongside it? If I hit the button now, does that mean hop over that thing, or leap in front of that speeding bus? Does pressing jump actually mean jump, or does it mean vault over the safety railing and fall to certain death?
This is a hell of a snap decision to make at a tense point in the game. At no point should pressing one button mean either:
A.) Use the sidewalk
B.) Kill yourself.
Maybe Nico is supposed to be dangerously bi-polar, and this is just Rockstar’s way of simulating his mental instability, but either way it doesn’t help the gameplay.
It is beautiful to behold how active and full Liberty City is, and everything that doesn’t expressly involve your character interweaves together seamlessly. As soon as your input becomes a part of it, however, that’s when things start to fall apart. The collision detection is sketchy at best. A poorly aligned car too close to your leg could just knock you down…or it could send you into an awkward, flailing convulsion that effectively incapacitates you until the driver decides that you’ve had enough of doing the Batoosie and mercifully moves on. The missions and goals are little more than ultra-gritty deliveries – sometimes it’s coke, sometimes it’s a car, sometimes it’s death – but it’s always drive from point A to point B, kill or drop off something, escape cops. I know this is the premise of GTA, that you’re a mercenary driver, but if you can’t think of any variety to add to these missions outside of “use a different car this time,” then you probably don’t need thirty hours of them. Also, why for the love of an all-knowing God are there no checkpoints in the longer, multi-stage missions? If a mission requires me to drive across town to steal a Ferrari, kill forty-five cops in a parking garage, blow up a helicopter with a hand-grenade, deliver a boat full of heroin, and then dress up like a clown to perform at a children’s birthday party, I shouldn’t have to do every step of that again if my fucking seltzer bottle clogs up and the kids get bored. That’s just shoddy design, and there’s no justifying that.
These things may not be completely ruinous in the single-player campaign, but they’re particularly noticeable in the multi-player. Easily half of all the multi-player games I’ve been in have been won or lost on a glitch. I’ve been gunned down in Deathmatch because my foot was too close to a moped, which causes me to inexplicably levitate in the air while the other players take potshots at me like I’m a blood Pinata. I’ve lost games of Cops ‘N Crooks when – after a flurry of amazing stunt jumps, eerily accurate sniper-fire and well-placed rockets, I hit the enter vehicle button at the getaway boat and my guy can’t figure out how to walk around the seat. I stand there twitching in place, unable to move, while cops stroll casually up and slap me to death. To be fair, you could assume I suck at this game, but amazingly that’s not true. I win far more often than I lose, and I’m typically one of the better players in any given game. I’ve even managed to kill a Rockstar developer, and so now my online avatar has been transformed into a naked zombie (which is an awesome bonus, by the way.) I think I’m pretty okay at this game, it’s just that even half of the matches that I win, I win by glitch. After a long chase, I’ll frequently see my enemies hitting the jump button to step up a curb, and instead go flailing off of a bridge. They’ll get stuck in buildings, have cars materialize into existence directly in front of them, or most perplexingly, they’ll suddenly lay down and zip around the street; their bodies rigid and motionless as they luge about the intersection while I fire rockets at their ricocheting, paralytic corpses like a twisted, hellish game of Air-hockey. It’s frustrating to lose to these things, sure, but even the victories are hollow when you know the only reason you’ve won is because your arch-nemesis’ knee accidentally touched somebody’s fender and he couldn’t stop disco-dancing.
I don’t mean to imply that the flaws outweigh the perks; they don’t, but just barely. I won’t stop playing it over these issues, both because the city and what it could have been are too tempting, and because the few times where everything does go right, it is nothing short of amazing. But Grand Theft Auto IV exemplifies why the scoring system of game reviews is so fucked at its very core. If I had to score it, I would’ve said that GTA IV gets a 10, because this game makes you remember everything you dreamed video games could be as a kid. But does a perfect score mean a perfect game? How can you give Liberty City a 10, but Grand Theft Auto IV a 5? Reducing everything to a number is such a black and white summation that there’s simply no way to accurately tell everybody that this may be the best game ever made, and you fucking hate it so much it’s like a knife in your eye. I guess that’s what I really wanted to get across.
It’s times like this when I really wish that media ownership wasn’t quite so proprietary. Rockstar did an amazing thing here, and made a city worthy of a great game. They just forgot to do the great game part. If they could lease out their digital environments like other companies lease out their gaming engines, amazing things could be done with it. A million different games could be set within the borders of this city – stealth games, racing games, fighting games or hell, even sim games. I assume the bulk of the hundred million dollars Rockstar spent developing GTA went to the insane detail in this environment. Why not let another company buy some rights to it, and spend substantially less to develop working game mechanics? Let somebody else put a bit of work into it, and develop even more interactivity. A lesser company could come along and just detail the insides of the buildings a little more, for example, and that would do wonders in effectively expanding your environment. They could spend a tenth of your costs and add a little something more to your city. With a little cooperation they could build modest profits, and your wonderful game environment could truly thrive. Why not?
Oh, right. You actually want to make money. Well, fuck my beautiful dream, then.