Saturday, August 17, 2013

Grand Theft Auto IV review

    As part of my "Month of Grand Theft Auto", I thought I'd take time to review the majority of the games in the series. At the very least, the HD versions. No more important game to this study exists than Grand Theft Auto IV, which showed video game developer Rockstar's changing focus from mindless mayhem to serious storytelling.

    The premise of Grand Theft Auto is Balkan War veteran, Niko Bellic, has jumped ship off a freighter docked in Liberty City to become an American. He has his own motivations for this act but is primarily interested in helping his strapped-for-cash cousin Roman.

Niko isn't a particularly handsome or scary man--but he looks gritty enough that you wouldn't want to tick him off in RL.
     Given Niko Bellic's only skills are an impressive array of combat techniques and a mother-of-all PTSD-induced apathy, he's the perfect sort of guy to get stuff done for the city's various criminals. Unlike Claude, the protagonist of the mega-successful Grand Theft Auto III, Niko does not take much pleasure in his criminal activities but treats them with a grim professionalism.

The combat in the game is excellent, a real improvement over San Andreas. The addition of auto-targeting is also great.
    The revisited Liberty City is an amazing reproduction of the actual real-life New York, managing to invoke the feeling of the city if not specific streets. There's ethnic neighborhoods, blue-collar districts, industrial centers, residential zones, docks, internet cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, clothing stores, Times Square, a 'life-size' Statue of Liberty remake, and more unique areas than you could shake a stick at.

    GTAIV's Liberty City is obviously a labor of love for its developers and the sheer amount of work which must have gone into creating it boggles the mind. While many sandbox claim you could spend literally hours just tooling around, this game really lives up to that statement. Sometimes I actually stopped during missions merely to marvel at the scenery.

The scenery is really, really beautiful. Seriously.
     Dialing down the absurdity in the main game makes the plot-line all the more entertaining with Niko struggling to make things right for his cousin, achieve personal success, and resolve the many issues which inevitably come from being a member of organized crime. He attempts to make friends, deal with his enemies, and live a normal life while things get progressively more insane. I felt for Niko, thuggish tendencies aside, and wanted him to succeed--which is a sure sign of a good character.

Combat is fast and furious in the game. You are never too far from death but it's not unfair, either.
    The supporting cast in the game isn't quite as colorful as the one in Vice City but it's incredibly memorable. I became particularly fond of Roman, Niko's cousin, despite the fact the game went out of its way to show his many flaws. Likewise, I loved Niko's numerous in-game friends that include Irish, black, Jamaican, and Jewish criminals. Niko's love interests are less entertaining but the "side" ones you can date are often immensely entertaining.

    As with previous Grand Theft Auto games, there is well over forty hours of content present (I'd argue it's as much as eighty). I've been playing it well-over a week and a half now with only now the endgame material finally coming into play. That's not including the simple joys of getting into car chases or the Multiplayer option.

    Sadly, unlike Saints Row 2, there's only a few mini-games present with Vigilante missions from the police-cruiser and jobs for your friends being the notable exceptions. I can understand why they did this, Niko doesn't seem the kind of guy to go joyriding around in an ambulance, but it was disappointing. The game does include the option to play darts, pool, and bowl but they're not the sort of things I bought GTAIV for.

The story is engaging with many twists and turns.
     There's also not a lot of customization in the game, either, with Niko restricted more or less to three kinds of clothes (suits, middle-class Dad, and grungy dock worker). A couple of missions add unique outfits with my favorite being Claude's from Grand Theft Auto IV but I was very disappointed we couldn't get Niko jewelry or tattoos. Likewise, perhaps sensitive to 9/11 issues, there isn't an opportunity to fly around a plane in New York City's analog.

    I'm also not too pleased with the lack of a Difficulty slider. I'm a hopelessly causal gamer so the lack of a Causal mode irritated me. Despite this, I still managed to complete the vast majority of missions without much trouble. I just hope Rockstar will realize there's a variance in their players' skill levels and will restore the content in future installments of the series.

Bowling - not exactly what you think of when you hear the word GTA.
     How does the game play? Very well, in fact. The vehicles handle more "realistically" which isn't always fun but it doesn't take that long to master the game. There's also dozens of different types of missions to keep the gameplay fresh and interesting.

    A few of the missions were really fun for the variety of ways you could resolve them. Several missions had a straight-forward assault approach as a way of resolving it while also including side-entrances and different valid tactical approaches. Sadly, another few include invincible cars and helicopters because they're required to advance the story.

    There's also the very annoying, much talked about "Friendship System" where you have to do regular activities with your in-game friends to maintain their benefits. If you refuse to do these activities, their friendship scores go down. There's a trick around this where you accept the offer to go bowling, darts, drinking, or whatever then cancel the plans without problem. However, when played "correct" it can be very annoying.

    So, overall, what score do I give the game? As cliche as it sounds, I give it a ten. It's not because the game is without flaws or problems but because I'm judging it on the level of enjoyment I derived from it. I got dozens of hours of entertainment from it and was never bored. That, at the end of the day, is what's important.


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