Monday, 10 September 2018

Review No. 144 Grand Theft Auto IV - PC (18+)

Strong Points:
Strong voice performances
Great animation for cutscenes...
Variety of missions
Niko is well rounded and complete
Strong supporting cast
Great story
Gunplay is tight and versatile
Lots of cars to drive around in, with them behaving mostly like they should
Niko actually questions what's being asked of him...
The detail of the world and dialogue
Plenty of references
Detail of world - being able to skip tolls if you are in an ambulance with sirens on

Weak Points:
...Even with the occasional glitch or pop-in
Seems confused as to whether Niko is the main character or just a vehicle for the player to see the city
...Although doesn't necessarily do anything about it
Dark and gritty city fits the mood but isn't particularly fun to drive around
Constantly jumping between islands can get repetitive
The chronology of the game doesn't necessarily fit with the amount of time you play it for
Constant phone calls
No checkpoints in missions
No quicksave option
Tolls and bottlenecked traffic slow travel down
Some interesting physics with the cars

Some spoilers ahead:

In-depth Review:

Release Dates:
North America: December 2nd, 2008
PAL: December 3rd, 2008

Controls: can be configured in-game

Grand Theft Auto IV tells the tale of Niko, an immigrant to America, chasing the American Dream. He meets a wide variety of characters, from many walks of life, all also chasing such a dream, with varied success. While the exaggerated characters add wit and charm to the game, it is, as a whole, a grounded and dark tale about the realities of the world. Just with that added GTA spark. And rocket launchers.

Niko, as a character, is well rounded and mostly multi-faceted (more on this later). You quickly grow to like and sympathise with him and his choices - he's been lost in the system and is (at least to begin with) desperately trying to escape. The other characters in the game don't particularly share his view, instead wanting to use his particular set of skills for their own uses.

These supporting characters are slightly more stereotyped than Niko, but that is by no means a bad thing. To have each character as complicated as Niko would be a herculean task, and by focusing on specific traits for each character Rockstar can the different personalities of the city as a whole. You have characters who have accepted their place, others who are desperately battling against it, others still who are blind and think they have and even a few who seem to have escaped the city. I enjoyed watching all these characters, even if I didn't particularly like some of them, which shows the strength of the writing.

The world is dark and gritty, with poverty and gang wars abound (not to say there isn't humour as well). Everyone talks about it being 'their streets' and loyalty is the name of the game. I enjoyed the world as a whole, especially as it opens up in the second half and you start seeing some more organised rather than opportunistic crime. This organised crime allows Niko to keep his head above water and not get choked by the streets, also allowing him (and furthermore the player) to look at the bigger picture of the world. Now you could say that Niko doesn't take advantage of this enough, but we'll get to that later. On another note, one of the major strengths in the game's world is the constant satire and references to pop culture, from The Godfather to Weekend at Bernie's.

With such a large world as this, driving is essential to get where you need to go in a reasonable time. Thankfully, the driving mechanics in GTA IV lessen the chore considerably. A large variety of cars, from trucks to sports cars, with them all handling mostly how you'd think they should. Sure, sometimes the cars can feel a bit floaty and outside the regions of reality, but then again, who regularly drives at speeds GTA advertises in a city? Also, when the scripted AI chase scenes line up just right, with cars flying and missing you by a whisker, the game feels brilliant. Less so, when you catch something out of the corner of your eye and think 'whoops, was meant to be there'.

Overall, I enjoyed the gunplay as well. With plenty of weapons to choose from, all of which feel well balanced, I naturally went the way of choosing the weapon to suit a situation, unlike other games where I just choose the highest DPS. While the HP system for the enemies isn't the best, especially compared to the more detailed systems of today, it does its job, and the ability to headshot etc. is appreciated.

A problem with GTA IV is that it can't seem to decide whether you are following the story of Niko or the city itself. The first third of the game follows Niko and Roman closely, with each mission directly affecting their lives and relationships with other characters. Once the rest of the islands open up, however, this close-knit story also opens up, focusing more on the mobster families of Liberty City as a whole. Suddenly, Niko is more of a tool, both for the characters in the game and the game developers behind it. He becomes the eyes for the player to see the underside of the city, accepting missions and contracts, not necessarily so that his own personal story can develop, but so that we can see how the other character's lives play out.

This would be fine, albeit a little disappointing due to the likeable and complex nature of Niko begging to be explored, but then the game doubles back on itself again. We're thrust back again into the personal story of the Bellics and are suddenly asked to make choices which I personally didn't feel we are justified to make. They are deeply personal to Niko and due to the slightly detached way the game plays in its midgame, it almost felt wrong to be made to make these choices for him.

The chronology of the game also seems slightly odd. By the end of the game, 26 hours in, my stats page says I'd played the game for 72 in-game days. Which was fine, things move fast in the city. Gangs had broken up, people had been jailed etc. and Niko had worked for a wide range of criminals. It seemed a bit odd, therefore, that Niko was still saying that America wasn't like he had thought, and he was just trying to survive after Roman had tricked him with his lavish dreams. While all the other characters were busy in their daily lives, Niko seemed stuck in the past, forgetting with each new encounter the lessons he'd learned previously. A saving grace is when Niko finally loses his temper and shouts at Ray to help him - suddenly Niko isn't outside the timeline and directly influenced other characters. This was a nice change of pace, seeing the main character have some agency in their decisions instead of being pushed around mission to mission.

Graphically, the game is pretty good for its time, with huge amounts of detail in the world and buildings. The cutscenes have great animation, with small changes in body language or facial expressions allowing for quick emotional changes and the audience can still keep up even when everything (sometimes literally) blows up. It's a shame that there are some bugs, with jaws disjointing or hands going through shoulders sometimes, but it's forgivable.

I wouldn't call the world particularly varied, either. Most of it is just grey streets with poverty and dirt the two main features. Now, I choose to believe that it looks like this more because of how Niko views it than because the entire city is one big drug bin. I mean, if the city looked like it did all the time, there's no way characters like Bernie would stay there. It was just too grey for my liking and could have done with more colour to brighten up against the dark narrative. Even the activities you can undertake - cabaret shows, pool and darts all seem to be there to emphasise a hopeless, isolated view of the world.

If the graphics sometimes have problems, the voice acting has no such issues. Conversations flow naturally, with each character seeming like a (slightly exaggerated) real person. Emotions can be gleaned from the car journeys, without the help of visual expressions just as easily as in the cutscenes. Compared to RPG's such as Horizon: Zero Dawn or Kingdom Hearts, the amount of expression which can be filled in the game is amazing. I realise that branching storylines dictate a huge amount of lines to speak in H:ZD and others like it, but then GTA IV has multiple dialogue sections depending on if you fail a mission and have to do it again, or even if you choose to ring someone at the end of a task.

Conclusion: overall, I enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV, with the amount of detail and systems in the game being mindblowing. To have this depth and still be able to tell a great and deep story is amazing and I applaud Rockstar for attempting it, even if sometimes the story and gameplay are at odds with each other.

Rating: 90%

Thanks for reading, Satamer.

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