Grand Theft Auto IV has had the most positive critical acclaim of any game ever made. And deservedly so, it offers one of the most immersive single player experience any game has every had, as well as brilliantly fun multiplayer. But in the uncompromising praise that has been lavished on the game, many of the reviews fail to devote enough words to the game’s problems, and personally I find the the problems distracting enough to tarnish the game’s perfect status among the press.
Being the most anticipated game ever, Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot to live up to. The first in the series blew the games industry away with its sandbox style game play and story line. It didn’t matter that the graphics were years out of date, or that the controls were baffling even after hours of play, GTA was immense fun for running around killing people and joy riding cars as much as the scripted missions were.
The second game continued in a similar fashion, this time with updated graphics that meant your character looked more like a person and less like a collection of pixels. However, much of the game play was the same, and irritatingly so was the control system. The overall experience made the game feel more like an add-on pack, and Rockstar were really pushing what they could achieve with the top-down perspective.
The third game is what really kicked the series off. Grand Theft Auto III featured a huge city and a new third-person 3D environment that made you feel much more part of the game, with smoke, explosions, and weather and time effects adding to the immersion. Much of what made GTA III great is also in GTA IV, the same sandbox style game play in a 3D environment, the music and radio stations, and the enjoyment from playing the game off-script. However, GTA III was not a perfect game, and GTA IV inherits many of its problems.
GTA IV still suffers from the same combat system from GTA IV, meaning a clumsy auto-aim system that always seems to choose the wrong enemy to target in an intense fire-fight. Manually aiming is so difficult it’s worse than using auto aim in most scenarios, and it takes too much effort to switch auto-aim on and off. This ruins a lot of the combat in the game, which could be a lot more fun if it didn’t feel like the skill was taken out with the poor auto-aim.
GTA IV also features a new covering system, which partially works but is nowhere near as good as the systems in Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, or Army of Two. The most tedious thing about a cover system is one that doesn’t work quite as you expect, and this is something like that from GTA IV. I found hitting the wrong buttons too frequent, which would usually end up with sending me into the line of enemy fire, or into a ridiculously exposed covering position.
Driving is much more realistic in this incarnation, with certain cars that under-steer more, and certain cars that over-steer. A nice touch is that you can now fly out of the windscreen if you crash into something substantially heavier or substantial front first, even more amusing when you do it to a passenger in your car or a driver of another car. The camera in the chase view of the car is terrible, making it very difficult to drive at speed without manually turning the camera yourself. I can see why they did it, to shoot out the car you don’t want the camera to move around with every little bump of the car, but on the other hand, it ruins the driving for the other 95% of the time when you’re not doing a drive-by. I actually find it easier to drive and shoot in bonnet view anyway and I have my camera position set to that.
To gain respect with friends and to get them to like you more, you must go out and spend time with them, which involves mini-games or just driving them to a bar or restaurant and back. After the initial novelty of playing pool or darts wears off, this becomes incredibly repetitive and tedious, adding very little to the overall game experience for the time invested by the developers and players. In fact, I can see the developers making this more of an important part of the game if they had spent a lot of time on making it. But really it deserves as much attention as getting dates did in San Andreas (which is not much), as it doesn’t really add anything to the main storyline (said friends will still give you missions whether they like you or not!)
Visually, the fourth in the series is much more impressive than GTA III, Vice City, or San Andreas. That old graphics engine has been stretched to its limit, powering several other Rockstar games, including the recent Bully (Canis Canem Edit). It has been given a complete overhaul in GTA IV, and the overall experience is much better. However, probably because of the sandbox nature of the game, the graphics are still far from the level of a more focused and modern first-person-shooter such as Bioshock, and are more reminiscent of the very early Xbox 360 games like Gears of War. Some textures are very low in detail, and some models are very blocky, which doesn’t detract from the game when you are driving at high speed, but walking around it does affect the immersion.
Overall, I was left underwhelmed after completing the game. The ending is quite a muted affair and leaves the main story on a low (whichever ending you get), hopefully something which the downloadable content for the Xbox will fix. Hopefully, the Vice City and San Andreas of GTA IV will spice up the game and offer a more balanced game play of story missions, and other stuff. GTA IV is a good game, I’ve not yet played the multiplayer enough to fully make up my mind on it1 but the single player has a solid 30 hour campaign. It’s just not quite as good as the single player in Bioshock.