Monday, September 16, 2013

Grand Theft Auto IV - A Retrospective

I have a weird relationship with the Grand Theft Auto series. At this point in my life, I’m somewhere between cautiously optimistic and blindingly ecstatic about the release of GTA V. If you spoke to me a month ago, I would have told you there was no other game I wanted more in the world than the fifth installment in this storied yet controversial franchise. That was right around the time I decided to reacquaint myself with the critically acclaimed GTA IV for the Xbox 360 to get in the mood for the new game’s release on September 17th. I was so close to placing a pre-order, but before I dropped the coin I decided instead to focus on not only playing GTA IV, but also beating it for the first time. However, after finishing GTA IV, my anticipation for GTA V and my decision to pre-order it have both cooled.

Before I dive too deep into my recent experience with GTA IV, I’d like to give you more insight into my history with Grand Theft Auto. When GTA III was approaching its release date, I was both extremely excited and somber. Excited because I always love when revolutionary video games are released and have the chance to change the landscape of the industry (games like Halo, Bioshock, and Final Fantasy VII), yet somber because I was 15 and there was no way my parents would allow me to get this game. Looking back at it, my parents had a point and made the right decision in not getting me the game. I’m no sociopath and I know the difference between the real world and video games, but my parents are people of principle and did not think a game where you could just as easily shoot a cop as order a burger was appropriate for a minor. Still, as a kid obsessed with video games and wanting to be a part of the revolution GTA III represented, I didn't quite see it that way.

Seriously, these games are rated "M" for a reason.

To say I threw a tantrum is an understatement. I actually had a few big yelling matches with my father, after which I refused to speak to him for over a week since he still refused to buy me the game. From that moment on, the Grand Theft Auto series held a special place in my gaming mind, because it was something unattainable and forbidden, and as we all know the more you try and keep something away from people the more they want it (see: marijuana, prohibition, sex). I was obsessed with the series, eating up everything I could about the world of Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas until I finally entered my freshman year of college and got to experience the joy of open-world action firsthand. I waited four years until I could finally see what everyone was raving about, and it did not disappoint. I’ll be honest with you – I skipped my fair share of classes to play Grand Theft Auto during those first two years of college because the games were everything I expected them to be and more.

Fast forward a couple of years later, I played GTA IV for the first time and I fell in love with it just like the others. Unfortunately, my love affair was cut short when my roommate left for the summer, taking the game with him and leaving me with an unfinished campaign. I actually managed to forget about the game for years until a few months ago when I bought it in my excitement and anticipation for GTA V. I decided to play it through once more to see if the game held up nearly four years later. All of the sudden it was like my first year in college all over again, except this time I knew a bit more of what to expect…or so I thought, which brings us to present day.

So why all the postulating and explanation of my past with this series? Why the information about my anticipation of GTA V? Well, frankly, because I want you to understand why it was such a shock to me that I didn't love GTA IV the second time through. Even worse, I was mostly bored playing through the game and actually found it to be unbalanced and unrewarding.

I’m not going to try and sugar coat things because that wouldn't be fair to you or me. I also know that there are many people out there that will disagree with this retrospective on the previous installment in the series (especially with all the fanfare surrounding GTA V), but after returning to Liberty City the second time around my excitement about the series and GTA V has lowered immensely. I’m still planning on being there for the midnight release of GTA V and I’ll give it a fair shake, but I hope the new game offers more balance and reward than its predecessor.

Will this be my reaction and feeling after playing GTA V as well?

So what exactly did I find so damning the second time around? For one, the game is severely unbalanced in its difficulty and story. Let’s start with the difficulty – seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I went from one mission to another that seemed like they should have been at opposite ends of the game. One would be laughably easy, the next would be next to impossible. Maybe I’m just used to games where the difficulty progressively gets harder and harder as you go along and your character becomes stronger and stronger, but I certainly didn’t expect the lopsidedness of GTA IV. For example, the arguably toughest mission you have all game is pretty early on when you have to retrieve a bag of cocaine from a gang holed up in an abandoned building. The gang is easy to dispatch, but as soon as you touch that bag your wanted level shoots up two stars and the place is crawling with feds. Not too hard until you’re left with no choice but to kill a few cops to escape, raising your wanted level to three stars. Now you’re running for your life from a swarm of cop cars and a relentless helicopter. At that point in the game, the highest wanted level I ever had was two stars and I promptly died on my first three attempts at the mission having no idea how to escape. That’s a bit brutal for only 20% through the game.

Then, you don’t get another difficult mission like that until much later in the game when you rob a bank, and even then the game seems to hold your hand through it making it much more manageable. How can a game from the geniuses at Rockstar (and I truly mean that, I respect them immensely) be so unbalanced in difficulty? Is it so hard to make a game where you actually progress as a player? Apparently it is, because the story itself seemed disjointed and completely out of touch with itself as it wound down. What started as a simple story of the “American Dream” and revenge lost focus about halfway through the game. Eventually, your character, Niko, seems to care less and less about revenge and more about making money. Even though it’s assumed the money is a means to an end, Niko doesn't explain that much himself and I was left wondering if he even knew what drove him to commit these in-game atrocities. Then, out of nowhere it seems, Niko gets his revenge, and the game takes a big turn. I won’t spoil the game for anyone out there who still hasn't played it, but the plot becomes about love, then getting out of the game, then revenge again, all in the matter of an hour. It’s like the writers went tripolar (I know that’s not a thing) and couldn't decide how to end the game so they threw darts at a board and then took everything the darts hit. It was a very unfulfilling and confusing end.

Still, I think the element of the game that caused the story to flounder most was character design. Not their physical make-up of course but their personalities. At first I really liked Niko because of his ambition and ability to give zero fucks, but that eventually became stale and his supporting cast of characters didn't lend anything to the story except fodder for Niko’s passive-aggressive insults and segues into missions. I felt no personal attachment to any of the characters in the game, and therefore really didn't care much about their fates. This is usually a bad thing in story-driven game, but more so in a game involves motives like revenge. Honestly, if the game ended with Niko dying for good, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash (actually, that may have been a better ending, but what do I know).

Overwhelming Feeling =  Apathy

Now those are the two main gripes I have with the game, but there are other issues I’d like to mention, just to air out the dirty laundry. The law enforcement AI was spotty: at most points in the game firing a few bullets into a bystander would warrant a single star, but start shooting up a gang at an abandoned building and the cops would be swarming the place with a two star wanted level. Other times, I could run over a cop and get only one star but be absolutely punished with two stars if I dropped one harmless grenade in an empty street in the middle of the night. I honestly still have trouble identifying what crimes garner which wanted levels, and I played the game for 40+ hours. Lastly, driving in GTA IV was a nightmare, especially motorcycles. After hitting what seemed like an infinite amount of invisible bumps that spilled me and my bike to the concrete, I became so enraged that I quickly gave up bikes (except when forced to ride them in those awful chase missions). From then on I went out of my way to ram my vehicle into anyone else riding a motorcycle just for spite.

Phew, now that we got that out of the way, it’s time for what this all means to me. Honestly, it means a lot but also a little. This experience has taught me that series, no matter how great at their apex, can stutter, can become stale, and can also change over the years without changing at all (I know this could just as easily mean that I have changed as a gamer more than the game since it honestly hasn't changed at all since I played it in 2009, but it just feels the other way around). However, it also means very little in my feelings towards Rockstar and the release of GTA V. Sure my expectations are tapered a bit, but won’t stop me from picking it up on day one because every game deserves a fair shake, regardless of the games before it. I think the most important lesson I got out of this experience was that games, people, and tastes change. If I had played GTA IV four years ago and written about it then, I would have been hard pressed to find things that were wrong with it. Then again, I was also a pretty happy-go-lucky dude about to graduate college with not a care in the world but what bar to drink at each night. Four years is a hell of a long time, and twelve years feels like a lifetime; in that span of time I like to think that my eye for games and what makes them great has become more critical, based more on the game itself than my personal feelings. Because of this, I now see games more for what they are, not for what I want them to be. Will this take some of the “sexiness” out of playing a game as touted as GTA V? I guess we’ll find out sometime on September 17th.


  1. Lol love the picture of the wedding and the caption.

  2. I would like to say.Fast forward a couple of years later, I played GTA IV for the first time and I fell in love with it just like the others. Unfortunately, my love affair was cut short when my roommate left for the summer, taking the game with him and leaving me with an unfinished campaign.Thanks for remind my past.


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