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Grand Theft Auto IV
  opened by paleface at 06:07:26 07/09/08  
  last modified by paleface at 12:27:18 03/05/24  
  paleface [sys=PS3; cat=Adventure; reg=NA]
I've bought all the console GTAs, and a couple of the portable ones, since the start of the PS2, but, although I spent some hours driving like a maniac across a few of their beginning city districts, I never actually went about trying to go through their more or less sequential mission/story structure.
Since I was sucked into doing that in IV, and since IV is very much like the earlier games--even dropping some of the more RPGish elements added in later PS2 GTAs, like improving skills, or working out to change your physical attributes--I suppose what made the difference here was the vast improvement in presentation, particularly in terms of graphic detail.
Whereas PS2 and PSP GTAs rely mostly on essentially flatshaded surfaces and very simple, boxlike buildings, IV's city, sprawling over four or so initially locked off districts, as in earlier games, is packed with graphic detail in every nook and cranny; hell, even the pavement is intricately detailed, ranging from carefully molded and cracked surfaces where appropriate in the slummier parts of the city, to slick, almost irridescent boardwalks (particularly when it rains--the surface effects and lighting in the game approach photorealism, albeit blurrily--read on) in tonier districts. The overall style is I think meant to ape New York City--right down to the large monument on artificial "Libery Island" in the harbor--and it really does capture the feeling of a large, busy, multicultural modern city (I have never been to NYC itself, though, so).
Interiors, which looked looked like the inside of a paper bag in the earlier GTAs, are fully detailed as well, and bursting with decadent grime or gilding, depending on what part of the city you're in. And the sunsets--well! You can only wish they last longer, but even in the game's sped-up day/night cycle, the sight of the sun setting down into the river, seen from one of the soaring bridges, with the bridge lights going on in shimmering streams above your head, is really something to see.
The earlier games had a blurred quality to the graphics, probably to speed up rendering, and the developers used the same trick in IV; while you can run the game at up to 1080p (you have to disable the game's native 720 res in your PS3's graphics settings in order to force it to 1080--silly), it's only actually rendering the 3D elements at somewhere around 700 or so, and the upscaling looks chunky. However, while it isn't sharp, you quickly get used to it, and the blur in some ways enhances the gritty rush of the game--not that I wouldn't like it to be sharper, mind you.
Anyway, enough gawking; let's get to the actual game. Thrown into a large, free-flowing city, the story leads you from mission contact to mission contact, similar to earlier GTAs. Missions usually have you driving somewhere, and shooting some people, sometimes with things like lugging objects around, or tailing someone, thrown in for variety. Missions, and the overall story, are presented from contact characters with very detailed character animation, and top-quality voice work.
Driving and shooting, then, are the vast bulk of the gameplay, and these have been improved upon from earlier GTAs. GTA still isn't really an out-and-out action game, and so the shooting is still semi-abstract: you auto-aim at targets--hostile gang members, etc--and can pip through them by nudging the right stick from target to target. This works pretty well, except that if there are no more targets available, your aim stays locked on the last target, even if they're dead. This is annoying and distracting if you're trying to look and fire quickly, and comes up time and time again. Blah. There are also collision oddities with shots sometimes, like chain-link or even rail fences that mysteriously block bullets.
The weapons stick to the standbys: a couple pistols, a couple shotguns, a couple sniper rifles, a couple assault rifles, grenades, an RPG. Once I got the carbine rifle available (you find underground gun stores conveniently located in each district) I never went back to anything else...oooh except grenades, which are quite a bit of fun, even if their targetting/firing scheme is very inconvenient, and in many instances more or less forces you to expose yourself to enemy fire in order to get a grenade flung adequately. Still, the resulting explosive mayhem (grenade a line of cars for chain reactions, whee!) is usually worth it, and the hefty $1000 price tag.
Oh, yeah: completing missions usually pays off with $$$, which you'll mostly spend, if you're like me, keeping fully stocked in your favorite weapons. Also, if you die, you lose something like 10% of your money, which is a large amount once you have a good deal of cash built up. Finally, if cops manage to arrest you, they confiscate all your weapons, and buying your favorites back from scratch will set you back a pretty penny.
Oh, the other main gameplay component: driving. This has been vastly overhauled from previous games, very much for the better. The handling now feels quite good, like it's actually city curbs, gang member legs, etc, passing beneath your tires. Control is still a rather floaty in all but the spiffiest sports cars, but overall it's a decent compromise between arcade and simulation driving, although still very much on the arcadey side; I saw some people complaining that they're great in Gran Turismo, but couldn't control the cars in GTA, but that is utterly ridiculous: control in GTA is much more forgiving. Hm, I suppose if they were trying to drive from one of the external cameras, which are still way too slow in following the car on turns, they might have had a point, but the earlier GTAs weren't any better in that respect, and in this game, the hood view (close to an in-car view) is really quite good, and I had no particular difficulties blazing through busy downtown intersections--well, aside from a spectacular crash or twenty. All in good fun, though.
The missions aren't all nice shooting and driving. Sometimes you have to drive something awful, like a motorcycle (urgh...sickening in the hood view, and just feel weird anyway). Sometimes you have to chase people, and if you don't have the route down, they escape, and you have to redo the whole thing. Sometimes you hit a scripting glitch, or even a crash--nope, the game is far from perfect. The AI isn't bright at all, and--oh, yeah! The really annoying missions are those where you have AI assistants or whatever, and have to keep them alive. There are a fair number of those. D-ar. Oh, and boat missions. Those aren't a whole lotta fun either: boats don't hold a candle to cars in this game.
The story has its ups and downs, too. Your character is a recent immigrant from eastern Europe, hooking up in the States with his cousin, a sorta cabbie/shyster. Organized crime is around, and soon the two of you are mixed up in it, you supposedly looking for vengeance on someone from your past, and also out to make a buck, while your cousin becomes more and more annoying, and less and less central to the plot. You go through a wide variety of mission contacts as you climb the seamy underbelly of the city, and while some of these people are lively and interesting (I particularly like the insane bull-shark testosterone pumping Brucie, and Little Jacob, a slightly temperamental but still dependable and likeable rasta), many, maybe even the majority, are flat stereotypes with little charm; particularly irritating are the numerous contacts from a single family, whose feuding and casual racism is supposed to be "street" and funny, I guess, but actually just sucks. Worse, you're supposed to be sort of in love with the daughter in the family, an entirely boring woman.
Ah, which brings us to something new: the dating scene. In IV, you can use the "internet" to hook up with women through a dating site; you can also date a couple women who come along through the main story. Unfortunately, the dates are entirely perfunctory (pick them up, drive to a restaurant/bar/etc of your choice, drive them home), and once you've taken them on a few dates, enough to "score" (cue panning exterior view of the apartment with blinds drawn, and corny cooing from the female), you've seen it all.
This won't keep them from continuing to call you on your cell phone at intervals, more or less nagging you. That isn't as bad as the man-dates who keep calling you, though: everyone from your cousin, to contacts you befriend such as Little Jacob, will constantly be phoning you up to see if you want to hang out. Hanging out can include thorough but dully implemented mini-games like pool, bowling, or darts, or going to a strip club (yes, with pole/lap dancers, and yes, you can pick up hookers who will bob up and down with you in your car, too--again, this becomes instantly boring after you've seen it, not to mention that the female models in this game aren't the most attractive ever constructed, especially the women you're supposed to date...weird), but it's so much less fun than driving or shooting that I'm puzzled as to why you'd waste your time with it after seeing it once. I took to hanging up on callers, and it didn't seem to prevent me from getting through any of the story/missions. Too bad I couldn't actually block them from ringing me up all the time.
The story overall isn't very satisfying. I think this is both because in the end it seems sort of petty and pointless, and because your character isn't all that fascinating; after the dozens of hours you've spent in his skin, you know that he's kind of a tough guy with a bit of heart, and a killer instinct, an eastern European accent, and an irritating cousin; is there anything else to him? Eh.
Finishing the story took me about 60 hours, and for me that was pretty direct, but I guess I waste a lot of time here and there, like trying to complete the "stunt jumps" I found here and there, stealing new vehicles I came across (ooh, rich guy's got a helipad in his back yard...) to see how they handled, hijacking cop cars and hunting down the top ten most wanted crooks in each district, exploring the city a bit, keeping fully stocked on my favorite weapons, and so forth, because I know people who say they've got through it the first time in only 20 hours or so.
Once the story's done, the city's still open to you. You can do random drop-off missions for Little Jacob (highly repetitive and unexciting), car thefts for Brucie (ditto), races for Brucie (eh...traffic is annoying, think I'll stick with GT for racing really), exploring/mayhem (genuine potential here: the city is vast and incredibly detailed, and the story only takes you through a relatively small part of all there is to see; and, you can manufacture your own adventure any time you want just by hijacking a car, joyriding, and dodging the cops), or multiplayer.
I think there are roughly a dozen multiplayer modes, hm or even more than that, and most sound pretty scripted team things, cops and robbers so to speak. I'm not all that interested in structured multiplayer violence, so I've only done Deathmatch so far. The matches have been quite lag free, although I have hit a few disconnects. I have a friend who maintains the the game's auto-aim spoils competitive multiplayer here, and there is a popular option to disable it, but most matches leave it on, and I think it works quite well for what this game is; instead of a twitch-fest, which GTA isn't that good at anyway, it becomes a faster matter of getting the drop on someone; it also balances out people in vehicles, because while in a vehicle, you can't auto-aim, whereas those firing in at you can.
Anyway, the multiplayer's been surprisingly fun; deathmatch in an open city is refreshing, after so many shooters where you're in tightly contained maps with highly exploitable layouts. In GTA's city, by contrast, there are few dead-ends or real hiding spots, particularly since everyone (you can probably turn this off, but that would be boring dear) shows up clearly on the map, so the goal is to gear up and get ready for open encounters in the streets, more or less. I like these urban standoffs; they feel sort of like a series of High Noon shootouts, only with drive-bys thrown in. And again, GTA is not a full action game; character movement is more on the simmy side of things, so nobody's bunny-jumping, speed boosting by moving diagonally, or any of the other hyperactive exploits found in typical shooters.
I did do a deathmatch in a small, specialized area--the airport--and that was really lame; when GTA tries to do the typical action shooter thing like that, it doesn't work so well.
I'll admit to being slightly disappointed that there aren't a few more structured activities left over after completing the story (I'd have particularly liked to be able to get randomly generated shooting missions significantly more varied and more difficult than those you can get through Little Jacob), and that almost all of the varied and well-modeled buildings in the city are little more than attractive facades (only a dozen or so per district can actually be entered, and only a handful are actual reusable facilities like restaurants or clothing stores). Still, the presentation, driving, and missions were enough to keep me hooked for sixty darn hours, and random mayhem and multiplayer will probably suck a few more out of me still.
Ah, forgot to mention the media. Past GTAs have had car radio channels filled with licensed music, as well as fake talk shows, ads, and so forth, and IV does the same. I've seen people complaining that the music available here is nothing special--compared with specialized 80's themes, for instance, in previous games--and that's sort of true, but I actually like a lot of the stations: heck, there are TWO reggae stations. Sweet. The ads and talk shows are amusing in a crude way, but pretty repetitive; same goes for the TV channels you can tune in when chilling at one of your apartments. The constant barrage of media parodies is addictive in its way, though, and quite a bit of ingenuity went into the vast amount of voicework that can be found here, if you keep your eyes and ears open.
Which reminds me: it's less the case these days, apparently, but some probably still condemn GTA for portraying senseless violence and gratuitous sex. They're missing a great deal of the point. While those things obviously have an appeal to the game's target market, the game is a massive send-up of modern American culture, seen through the isolating lens of this now highly experienced Scottish game development team. This is how the world sees America seeing itself. Take the hint: we have problems. And it's through the amplified portrayal of those problems that Rockstar North makes their point, and, in the course of doing so, a damned entertaining trip through this crazy screwed up little world.
  paleface 03:43:01 07/12/08
GTAIV, for a video game, has really good writing. Not that the plot itself is War and Peace or anything, but the character dialogue is really well written. And there's a lot of it as you go through the story: spoken conversations for pretty much every mission--and not just one string of convos per mission, but several: you'll usually get an almost entirely different set of dialogue the first time or two that you screw up and have to do the mission over, which makes the pain of repeating the action a lot more bearable.
That's probably a big reason for me why the game seems so...well, sort of dead after completing the story: no more new dialogue coming in, except for random snatches of street chatter here and there. Ah well.
I think the aspect of the GTA games that I enjoy most is the unexpected: most missions have you traversing large areas of the city, and what with random traffic and cops everywhere, who knows what could happen. It's in these random combinations of ingredients that the unexpected and really memorable occurs, and you don't find this sort of capability in many games.
F'rinstance, in one mission I was offered $$$ to take out a gang leader in the projects north of downtown. 'Kay. Drove there, pulled up outside the fence, through which I could see various gang-looking fellows lounging around an overshadowed basketball court. Tough crowd. I cross to the far side of the street, mount the top of an old apartment's front staircase, crouch down, pull out my sniper rifle, take careful aim through the chain-link fence across the street, and start cutting down on the odds against me. This goes swimmingly until a cop passing through the nearest intersection notices. Sirens, police, loudspeakers... With most of the basketball court toughs dead or fled, I hightail it into the project complex, hearing more sirens, cops, and gang members as I find my way up to the second floor, still looking for the leader. Glancing down from a balcony into the basketball court below, I see a full-on gun battle raging between the gang and the cops. (And I'd have completed the mission on this first try just dandy, only after catching the boss on the roof, before he could make his annoying scripted escape that requires a subsequent car chase pursuit, I sort of overshot a flip over a balcony and fell to my death. Oops.)
It's just so annoying then that the one remaining source of random missions I know of, Little Jacob, always requires that you abandon whatever awesome car you have, and truck a really beat up old jalopy somewhere for him. Ugh. Just let me drive fast with jerks to shoot at the end, that's all I want. (Hm, having checked a FAQ, maybe even those aren't endless. Dar. They should'a made a random mission generator.)
One annoyance is getting arrested. I could take some kind of moderate penalty for being stupid and getting caught (note to self: do NOT try to steal a cop car while cops are in it), but in this game, when you're captured, you're released, but all your weapons are taken away; this means a hm dunno, $30,000 or so (a lot more if you were stocked up on grenades and rockets) reinvestment to replaced your arsenal. Considering that side missions may pay as little as $250, and story missions are usually around a couple thou or so, that's a tremendous amount of play time to make up, even counting confiscating some of the more common weapons and ammo from bodies. Bleh. Best solution seems to be simply quitting the game and reloading, which is a sign that the design is bad.
Performance also isn't great, but it isn't too bad, usually. Cruising around the city doesn't exactly feel effortless in terms of framerate, but it's generally at a pedestrian rendering speed that you can get used to easily enough.
  paleface 03:48:24 07/12/08
I don't think I mentioned that this time around, you have a GPS that gives you reasonably decent directions to wherever you're supposed to go while on a mission. It won't route you cross-country or the wrong way down one-way streets, though, so if you just follow that yellow line on the tiny map all the time, you won't learn the shortcuts...and you'll probably run into things while trying to look down into the corner of the screen for the GPS marker. I guess they probably made it limited like that intentionally, so you'd have a reason not to lean on the GPS crutch all the time, 'cause really something like a big floating Crazy Taxi-style arrow would've helped; also, the zoom on the minimap could stand to be more adjustable.
  paleface 04:59:46 07/13/08
Ah, okay, there are random missions, provided you jack a cop car: then you can do "vigilante" missions to take out criminals, which really are just drive and shoot like I was hoping for. Only real drawback is that you have to do it in a cop car, which means no radio, and no really fast sports performance. But at least there's something to do for continued missions in single-player.
· Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (PSP)
· Grand Theft Auto V (PS4)
· Grand Theft Auto V (PC)
· Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2)

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