From the dim and distant past of computer gaming to the incandescent, high definition now, and a game that is surely one of the biggest releases of all time. It’s interesting, looking at the two together, how far the games industry has come. From a time when games were coded in a couple of months by some geezer with huge specs and a chunky jumper in his attic, to one in which they’re developed over years by teams of hundreds with astronomical budgets. The sole preserve of screaming school-kids, bemused dads and terminally uncool twenty-somethings to a multi-billion dollar international industry that eclipses Hollywood, and can surely only grow further.
I’ve been a lover of this series since the original, top-down game came out way back in ’97 on the original Playstation. In many ways the formula hasn’t changed in the eight or so games that have followed on various platforms: a hard-bitten crime simulator, if you will, with lashings of fast driving action and tongue-in-cheek splatter that frequently imitates classic gangster films. It’s the sense of humour (all too often missing in video games generally) that’s always really separated these games from the many stodgy imitations, though, with a sharp line in biting satire on modern life.
It was Grand Theft Auto III, in 2001, that really made the series into a phenomenon and established the basic pattern of gameplay for the games that would follow – introducing a totally 3d city, one of the most detailed and complex ever realised at the time, incorporating some great characterisation and voice-acting and a new level of immersion and gameplay, with vast amounts of side-missions and flexibility. Every title since has been a massive hit, apparently the franchise has sold over 70 million copies. Despite the many, many imitators it has spawned, nothing really comes close for the mixture of beautifully realised urban settings, range of different games modes including driving, action, role-playing, exploration, and sheer sense of humour. The previous installment, San Andreas, in particular was an enormous, epic game spanning three cities and a whole load of country in between. The only games you can really compare these to are others in the series.
So what’s better in GTA IV than the previous one?
Well, graphics, for a pretty major start. I’ve never been someone who really valued graphics of themselves, they’re certainly no substitute for gameplay, but this is the first game I’ve played on a hi-def console on a proper, quality, hi-def LCD TV, and it does look frickin’ amazing. The characters are vastly more detailed and expressive than ever before, which helps with the characterisation. Sometimes when you add detail to people and really get in close it can make them look very unreal – a mistake developers make all too often, especially when new technology becomes available – but they’ve kept a larger than life, over-vivid, slightly cartoony feel to the faces and places that’s consistent with the pop-graphic art they’ve always used on the covers, and flows beautifully with the whole feel of the world.
Liberty City itself is the real star. I don’t think a city, or for that matter any kind of environment, has ever been realised so completely and in such detail on a computer game. I mean the place lives , shifts, changes. Time passes, shadows move and lengthen, weather comes and goes. People of all types throng the streets. They knock into you, drop their hot-dog and call you an asshole. Stuff happens – guys chat about nonsense as you pass, hit up girls, get into fights, get chased by overweight cops. It’s a city packed with magic moments, and everyone will have their own – gunning your recently stolen sports car past middle park as the sun peeps between the skyscrapers and burns away the morning mist. Crossing the Broker Bridge at sunset, just as the lights come on. At times, like when I first went up in a helicopter over the city, you’ll just think, how the hell is this possible? Parks, churches, affluent office blocks and seedy housing projects, graffiti-daubed flyovers and rubbish-strewn back alleys, floodlit refineries and mansions on the heights, rattling l-trains and echoing tunnels, the sense of realism, the detail, the feel and the variety is amazing.
And the city is absolutely massive. It could easily be three hundred city blocks, arranged in five boroughs that are rough analogues of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Jersey City. It is massive, even by the standards of the previous massive cities in the series, and this is somewhat of a curse as well as a blessing. To truly explore every nook and cranny could take months, and because the city’s so big and the content is hence comparatively spread out, there isn’t that much to find, just looking at random. At least there wasn’t when I tried, and so I soon gave up on that aspect, and just went where the game took me. Driving from one place to another, especially in later missions spanning the whole city, can take ages. You’re assisted this time round by a nice guideline on the little mini-map, but again this proves more curse than blessing, as you typically end up following it slavishly from one place to another at high speed, eyes half on it and half on the road, generally missing the urban wonder around you lest you drive your motorbike off a pier. I didn’t feel like I got to know the city the way I had the cities in San Andreas – a few landmarks, a few main roads, a couple of blocks round my safehouses, but I didn’t know the cut-throughs, the alleyways. They never felt like my streets.
The acid sense of humour that has always characterised the series is there in spades, and suffuses every aspect – the ads on the streets for German beer Piswasser, the talk on the radio stations, the send-ups of tv shows (a cartoon in which american space rangers take democracy to the stars by any means necessary is particularly good), the fact that the statue of liberty holds aloft a disposable coffee cup instead of a torch, and so on. And there’s bucketloads of character too. The main character, Niko Bellic, could easily have turned out to be an implacable, brutal, bullet-headed balkan killer of the type we’re used to seeing on The Shield. Instead he’s funny, honest, very likeable, and has an excellent double-act with his cousin, bullshit-merchant Roman. Other characters are pretty much great across the board, and a wide board it is, from Russian gangsters, to Irish Goons, to Sopranos-style low-rent mafiosi, they’re all affectionately drawn and nicely acted. You can build friendships with some of them, go out and get pissed together, take in a show, play darts. If they like you enough they’ll offer some special service – cut price guns or a good word with the cops if you find yourself wanted. But the little sub-games are rather repetitive, and despite some occasionally hilarious dialogue, maintaining the relationships can quickly seem more of a chore than a diversion.
The combat has been significantly re-tooled, and mostly for the better. Fist-fighting is fudgier than before, for some reason it’s very hard to give someone a shoeing once you’ve knocked them over, but the gunfighting is way better, with reasonable systems for taking cover, aiming and zooming in that lift the shooting sections of the game considerably. And those sections interact and fit into the rest much more smoothly – there are a lot of interiors you can explore now, merging seamlessly with the rest of the world. You get shoot-outs in museums, in hotels, in housing projects, abandoned hospitals, you name it, you kill gangsters in it. With pistols. Pop, pop, pop go me nine. With shotguns. Boo-yah. With SMGs. Rat-a-tat-tat. With assault rifles, grenades, bazookas… Yes, the violence level is still sky high, but there’s a far greater sense of realism, and with it seems to come…responsibility. Maybe it’s just me, but I
couldn’t imagine just going out on the streets and cutting loose with a desert eagle in this game, like I regularly used to on others. It just would have seemed…disrespectful of the environment. And out of character with Niko, who’s basically a good guy, forced to do bad things. Very bad things. In line with this new realism some of the more splattery extremes have been pruned. No rampages (little challenges to slaughter a certain number of bystanders with a given weapon in a given time). It feels a more grown up, more adult game, perhaps.
So I’ve touched on what was worse than last time, what else was worse?
Somewhat of a lack of customisability. In San Andreas, there were a mighty range of options for hair, facial hair, tattoos, jewelry, clothes. You could go down the gym and work out (which with my spinal problems is about as close as I get to a gym these days), or you could pig out on fried chicken, and the results would show on the character, buff or flabby accordingly. I went through noticable phases in different cities and areas, tweaking the appearance to fit the environment. In GTA IV there are far fewer options – the character is always physically the same (kind of fly-weight boxer with a crew-cut, stubble, and a stance that says, “fuck you”) there’s limited choice of clothes and shoes but not much more. Four shops in the entire game where there were a cornucopia of barbers, tattoo parlours, gyms and clothes places before. There was also a system of experience in San Andreas – you’d get better with a certain type of gun the more you used it, for example. Maybe I’ve got OCD (actually I definitely have) but the mere existence of things like that make me want to explore them. You felt as if the character grew as the game went on, from punk kid to hardened gangster to feared kingpin. All that was gone in GTA IV – at the end of the game you’re basically the same shovel-faced balkan killer you were at the start, just with better shoes and a suit, maybe.
Related to this slight feel of lack of progress is that there seems to be a lot less side-stuff to do, and what there is is less compelling. Specifically lost are the businesses you could buy up, do a couple of jobs to sort out, and would then start making money for you. Maybe there was nothing particularly special about them in terms of gameplay, but it created a sense of building an empire that I really enjoyed. Likewise you no longer buy safehouses, you just get given them at various key points, and there are far fewer. One of the big reasons for earning the money in San Andreas always seemed to be to buy a better pad. You’d look at a big house on the hill and think, one day… With that gone there didn’t really seem to be much point in earning all the money. Five or six grand would buy you all the clothes you’d ever need, so then it’s just exhorbitant medical bills after you’re riddled with lead by a bunch of angry mafiosi, and lots and lots of guns. And you usually pick up all the guns you’d ever need anyway, which leaves the money feeling kind of pointless. There was no fighting for territory, as in San Andreas, no ownership of the streets, so Niko becomes a kind of eternal freelancer, working for bigger, better, richer bosses as he goes along, sure, but basically always an outsider. That was disappointing, especially since Niko’s cousin is a kind of lame-ass business man – you’d have thought building up the family business would have been an easy set of missions to include.
There are little extra bits and pieces you can do, of course, just as there were previously. You can hunt criminals in a cop-car, take fares in a cab, steal cars to order, hunt down 200 pigeons scattered about the city if you’re completely insane, but without much reason to make the money it feels a bit pointless, and changes very little except the % completed statistic. And I’m getting a bit old to worry about that. It becomes about the main missions only, and getting from one to the other as fast as possible, and the sense of daily life gets kind of lost. It’s a good thing that some of the missions are absolutely brilliant. The heat-influenced bank heist in particular – three masked men charging through the back alleys of chinatown, blazing away with assault rifles, escaping down the subway tunnels – is one of the most impressive sequences I’ve ever seen on a game.
The writing of the cut-scenes, the voice acting and the interaction between the characters is great throughout, but there’s a bit of a lack of star turns. San Andreas had some dream casting – Samuel L Jackson and Chris Penn as the bent cops? Peter Fonda as the grass-growing hippy? James Woods as the shady CIA man? Ice T as the washed-up rapper? These were the guys you’d pick if you could pick anyone. GTA IV didn’t have any voices that I really recognised. It generally felt a less huge, less epic game, smaller-scale, with less crazy excesses (not necessarily a bad thing) but also a more pedestrian plot and a less satisfying resolution. I found myself rushing through it a bit towards the end, a sure sign that it had slightly lost my interest. I think they pulled a blinder as well by setting the last couple of games in the recent past – 80s, Miami-vice, Carlito’s Way style Miami, and 90s, Boyz n the Hood, Colours era LA were instantly themed and recognisable. Setting this game in the now made it somehow less impactful.
In this era of internet connections and downloadable content, perhaps some of these holes will be filled in with future patches. Perhaps the multi-player mode adds layers of depth, or at least additional gameplay, I missed out on. The city they’ve created could certainly support another two or three complete games without seeming repetitive. I guess time will tell on that score, it’s not an area I’ve really started to explore yet, and I hear additional content will be exclusive to XBox anyway. Ah well…
So the verdict, after all this waffle? A very good game, still, don’t get me wrong. But it feels as if it stands slightly in the shadow of world-beating forebears, and in an effort to streamline and simplify they’ve maybe lost some depth. The all important humour is there, and the setting is spectacular, but the game within it is, for me, a much lesser one than San Andreas. That game I would have given 10/10 without a doubt. For me, GTA IV is closer to an 8.