Where to start with GTA 4? For a series that started as little more than an arcade driving game and evolved into what is potentially one of the most critically and financially successful games of all time, GTA sure is doing well for itself. GTA 4 is Rockstar’s latest instalment (excluding Episodes from Liberty City, which I’ll get to later on) and also its biggest hit so far, but wherever the GTA brand goes, controversy is never far behind. So why did I swear I’d never play it?
Back in the day when Vice City had just come onto the market I was introduced to the series of games via a friend. Now at that time I was under the age limit to play the game. I won’t tell you how old I was, but I’m sure you could take a guess. It was however a game for people aged older than 18, yet was made very popular with kids far younger than that.
But come on, that’s not Rockstar’s fault! That’s so totally biased! Yeah, yeah, I know. It is the parents fault in this case. How they missed the massive 18+ sticker I don’t know, but I do know that those who bought the game for their kids rarely sat around long enough to see what goes on in them.
Fast-track to the modern day and my reasoning for not wanting to play one of the most successful games of all time can only be based on some other reason, right? Right! In fact, my reason for not wanting to play it was due mostly to a rather unfair bias against games that in my view at the time, glorify crime.
Let’s get this straight: Grand Theft Auto does NOT glorify crime. Having played through it now I can see that the entire game is one massive exaggeration, with a story where by and large the big crime bosses fall more regularly than they rise.
Although… I do sometimes look at cars in the street and think to myself “I drove one of those once… it didn’t handle well. At least, not in water.”
So now that I’ve conquered my fear of becoming a mass murdering, car stealing, gangster film stereotype, what did I actually think of the game? To answer this I’m going to go into my experiences with both GTA 4 and Episodes from Liberty City, the two subsequent ‘expansions’.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is a fun game, and right from the start I was very much pulled into the illusion that I was playing Niko Bellic (the game’s protagonist). I was fully prepared to fall into a life of crime, as this was the inevitable consequence of playing a GTA game, and decided that I would do my best to avoid this. I even tried to drive on the right side of the street and avoid speeding through traffic lights, so immersed was I in the world of Liberty City.
I’m not entirely sure when the bubble broke, but as many RPG players will confirm, once something happens that takes control from your hands, it’s hard to feel like you’re doing what you want to and not just playing someone else’s story. Don’t get me wrong, Niko Bellic’s story is a fun, exciting and at times emotionally engaging journey, but it soon stops feeling like your story, and becomes someone elses.
There’s a point early on where you are given the opportunity to kill a man or save him. I chose to save him. In other instances this choice is taken from your hands and all you can do is assassinate a defenceless target. After the first time this happened to me, I ceased caring which side of the road I was speeding down.
As a gangster film turned into a game, there are some very entertaining set pieces. I particularly enjoyed meeting the character Manny, a supposedly reformed hoodlum determined to clean up the streets, or at least, to get you to do it for him. Violently. There was a lot of development in Roman’s character as well, moving him from being rather feeble and pathetic to being likable, albeit annoying (We should go bowling!).
The finale for me was when the story fell flat. Not to give any spoilers, but really depending on your choices and preferences you may end up a bit confused. It’s clear you’re supposed to be emotionally involved, but personally I wasn’t. That for me was the biggest failure.
On the other hand The Lost and the Damned (although suffering from one or two plot holes) and Ballad of Gay Tony do a lot to make up for GTA 4’s disappointing end. Ballad of Gay Tony for example introduces us to the minor characters Luis Lopez and “Gay” Tony Prince who both have cameos in GTA 4 and The Lost and the Damned. Neither of these games have overly satisfying endings, but as far as characterisation goes, GTA 4 and its expansions shows a lot of promise.
The gameplay in GTA 4 is at times fun, confusing, and downright frustrating. Running around stealing cars is ridiculous fun, and the fact that they all handle differently makes searching for the ideal car for you a fun meta-game. The ability to ‘store’ cars at any of your safe houses is good too, though it is not uncommon for these cars to sometimes disappear, or for you to lose a saved car by driving it to a mission that requires you to use a different car.
The sheer variety of vehicles, although lesser than in some previous instalments, is always a treat. There’s nothing more ridiculously fun than running away from the cop cars in a stolen ice cream truck. It even lets you play music! Even though Liberty City is a massive place and you often have a lot of ground to cover it never really feels like a chore. After all, it really is what you’d expect from a GTA title, and driving around is made even more fun by the funny radio stations you can listen to. I now want a t-shirt with “University of Lazlow” printed on it.
In fact, most of the vehicles in GTA 4 handle extremely well on the PC, and are a lot of fun to drive… with one very obvious exception. For some reason the helicopters are a nightmare to fly. When I got behind the wheel… or well… whatever it is you fly a helicopter with, I spent more time crashing into the water because of poorly thought out controls than I did travelling towards my destinations. It had got to the point where I actually loathed such missions and wherever possible attempted to avoid them. Sadly, most are unavoidable, and particularly in the Ballad of Gay Tony, this leads to some unpleasant moments.
Combat in the game is pretty standard and really quite average. The cover system is useful, but certainly nothing new, and will occasionally cause you to get killed simply because it is not always clear if you’re behind an object or just crouching. Also firing rockets around corners… not recommended.
There are a few weird things that most players would be likely to overlook, such as the fact that a car will explode if riddled with enough bullets, no matter where those bullets hit, or that the AI will happily stay in one position for the entire fight no matter the amount of danger it places them in. By and large the AI is not intelligent, though in spite of this car chases remain fresh and exciting each time.
3. And the rest…
Rockstar’s patented Social Club login is a nightmare. If you’re looking to play any of the GTA 4 era games online, you will have to suffer through a system that requires you to sign up for a Social Club account, and then enters you into something very much like russian roulette as you click the login button repeatedly to see if this time you might actually make it online. Most of the time I ended up giving up on this system and playing offline. As such I never really saw much of the multi-player aspect, which from what I have seen via videos online is a real shame.
One of the things GTA 4 does well is bonus games. There are a lot of them through Liberty City, and they tend to be pretty fun. You can play darts, go bowling, or in the Ballad of Gay Tony even go base jumping! Many of these require you to bring a friend along, but doing so will result in you getting a thumbs up from them, which down the line leads to more bonuses for your character. It really is a win-win, though the constant phone calls from friends and admirers demanding your time can be a bit irritating when just trying to explore… or even when on the way to pick up someone else.
GTA 4 also seems to save progress in missions at awkward times, causing you to repeat long missions right from the start whereas others might save half-way through. The expansions seem to fix this problem, which shows promise for the future but does limit GTA 4’s replayability.
GTA 4 is a fun game and I am very glad that I played it. I’m so glad in fact that I’m seriously considering picking up GTA 5 when it eventually comes out. While not perfect, the story of GTA 4 is still really compelling and Niko in particular is an interesting character. In fact, characterisation is something the game does really well. The characters don’t feel like stereotypes, and many of them are strangely likable.
A lot of GTA 4 is repetitive, particularly in the driving and fighting department, but there are definitely some memorable moments. The driving is fun though, and there’s so much space to explore that the world never gets old.
It’s a game that does a lot of things right, but doesn’t quite make it in some departments. If you want a game where you drive around a beautiful city though, there’s really nothing quite like it.