Arrive in America and hunt down the man who betrayed you.
PC Release: December 2, 2008
By Ian Coppock
Our Grand Theft Auto miniseries continues with a look at Grand Theft Auto IV, the first installment in the “HD” universe of GTA games. As with Wednesday’s review of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, we’re going to be looking at the controversies surrounding the series and whether GTA is an especially violent series of video games. Grand Theft Auto IV isn’t especially violent, but I do think it’s especially boring.
OOOOH! CRITIC BOMB!
Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in 2008 and follows the exploits of Niko Bellic, a Serbian ex-soldier who arrives to Liberty City (New York City in all but name) at the behest of his cousin, Roman. Having heard so many great things about American prosperity and exceptionalism, Niko is disappointed to learn that America is even dirtier, greedier and more ridiculous than the eastern European homeland he departed from.
Niko has another reason for coming to America. He tells Roman that while serving during the Yugoslav Wars, his entire unit was led into an ambush by a traitorous squadmate. He’s learned that this man is hiding out in Liberty City, and has come to America to exact his revenge.
So begins one of the grittiest and most compelling manhunts in gamedom. Or so I thought.
Despite having vowed to abstain from crime, Niko engages in it almost immediately when he discovers that Roman is indebted to Albanian loan sharks. Just like Carl in San Andreas, Niko is forced into a world of violence, taking jobs from Russian gangsters so that they don’t burn down his cousin’s taxi garage. Grand Theft Auto IV employs the age-old GTA technique of giving its characters no choice but to become criminals.
Despite starting off with a hunt to kill the man who betrayed Niko, GTA IV throws this premise out the window almost immediately and replaces it with a vague, unfocused plot. The entire game is spent performing crimes for a roster of various groups. You start off with the Russians, but then move into working for neat categories of Jamaican, Irish, Jewish and Italian gangsters. For a man who claims to be adverse to crime, Niko receives more phone calls and solicitations from criminals than anyone else.
While the missions had their own problems unrelated to the plot, my issue with GTA IV is that the game is nothing BUT these neat strings of missions for various groups. You don’t revisit Niko’s original purpose for having arrived to Liberty City until the very end of the game, when GTA IV seemingly says “oh yeah, that beginning part, I guess we’ll wrap that up now that you’ve spent 40 hours doing random odd jobs”. Each set of missions is basically self-contained and has no grander context beyond “hey, go kill these people and come back. Here’s your money.”
So we have a plot that’s shot its premise in the head and drags its feet with missions around Liberty City that lack any sort of grander meaning. As for the characters and character development, well, Niko remains a very likeable person. He’s one of those protagonists who’s keenly self-aware about the atrocities he’s committing. Some of them come close to taking a toll on him; a rarity for a GTA game. There’s a compelling scene where he admits to a mobster’s wife that he killed a group of children outside a church in Eastern Europe, and that he therefore must not have a soul.
Even Rockstar knows that most people who play a game want a likeable protagonist, and Niko is definitely in that category. What he does, he does for his family or for his dead squadmates. He dismisses the wealth and trappings that come with crime lord-dom as unimportant to the greater picture. He’s keenly driven by goals he sees as best for everyone, even if the game’s missions do not reflect that.
The other characters in this game fulfill the same wacky niches that we’ve come to expect of GTA by this point. We have Roman, your portly stripper-addicted everyman, as well as a spiritual drug dealer, a steroid-obsessed megalomaniac, and a down-home family man. Grand Theft Auto IV evolves its side characters alongside its main ones, in a departure from San Andreas. However, because most of this game’s missions are self-contained, GTA IV falls short of its own characters’ potential.
If a meaningless, meandering plot were all that’s wrong with GTA IV, that would be one thing, but the gameplay elements in this game are god-awful. I’m not talking about the competent cover-based shooting, or the admittedly fun car-driving as you zip around Liberty City. I’m talking about some seriously tedious attempts at story-building that can only be the work of a madman.
Chief among these mechanics is a teeth-gnashingly irritating friendship mechanic. Once you gain friends and allies around the city, you are obligated to take them on 30-minute man-dates. I’m not joking. They’ll call you EVERY TEN MINUTES ordering you to pick them up for a helicopter ride or a trip to the strip club. If you refuse, they stop being your friends. When this happens, not only can you not access that character’s perks and services, but the main story becomes a lot more difficult to advance.
I don’t usually come down on video game elements like this, but this best-friends-forever activities mechanic is goddamn stupid. You don’t get any sort of reward for doing these little trips either, outside of your friends no longer holding their services hostage.
You have to spend 15 minutes driving across the damn city to your friend’s place, driving 15 minutes BACK to the venue they want to visit, and then sitting through what basically amounts to an interactive cutscene for 10 minutes. You then have to drive them BACK to their house, and before you can embark upon a real mission, OH SHIT! ANOTHER friendbuddy wants you to take them to that exact same bar! OH HOLY JEEBUS HOW WE LOVE BUSYWORK 😀
I get that the point of this mechanic is to give the narrative some extra story material and flesh out the feeling that this is a living world, but the execution of all these well-intended ideas is very poor. Thankfully, this mechanic was reduced and then rescinded in GTA IV‘s episodes and in Grand Theft Auto V. Being forced to spend hours of playtime on something that does nothing to advance the game in any way is not fun; it’s tedious. Moving on.
As it happens, this mechanic is an excellent segway into the main missions themselves, which are both clunky and punishing. Grand Theft Auto IV has no mission checkpoints whatsoever. None. Meaning that if you spend 30 minutes driving from your house to the place you’re going to shoot up, and spend 15 minutes fighting bad guys only to get shot at the end, you don’t even start at the beginning of the actual mission. You start all the way back at your apartment, before arming up, before the pre-mission cutscene, before everything.
My very favorite mission, and one that caused me to literally rage quit the game (the only other game that’s forced me to do that is BRINK) was as follows. I had to arm up at my apartment, spend 10 minutes driving my car around the city picking up my buddies, spend another 15 minutes driving BACK to the mission spot, spend 45 minutes completing that mission’s four stages, only for one of my guys to get shot and thus fail the mission. I was dropped NOT at the beginning of the mission, at the mission spot, but at my apartment, before even spending so much time picking up my buddies and driving around.
ARE YOU TRYING TO BE AS FREAKING FRUSTRATING AS POSSIBLE, GTA IV??? GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
(heavy breathing) I’m okay… I’m okay…
I don’t need checkpoints every five seconds. In fact, I usually relish the challenge of a checkpoint-free mission. But does it really make sense to force players to do all of the mundane pre-mission shit, AGAIN, before re-trying the mission? Do players really want to be forced to spend hours of time buying ammo and picking up NPCs over and over?
That is clunky, lazy, frustrating-as-hell game design, and it caused me to nearly break my machine in half.
It was around the time I developed a hatred for GTA IV‘s game mechanics that I also noticed a radical departure in tone from the game’s previous installments. It’s no secret that the franchise has dropped its comedic absurdity in favor of gritty realism. Saints Row has since taken up the comedic absurdity mantle. There are a few hints of background comedy, like the Tw@t Internet cafes, but they felt token and out of place in this grim new world.
I think another reason GTA IV and I didn’t exactly get along was because the social satire present in San Andreas was mostly gone from this game. In its place were stern-faced, direct discussions about America’s problems between the characters, but you can get that in any game. The satire is what makes GTA GTA, and its absence in GTA IV just left the game feeling underwhelming.
I suppose now we touch on anything that Grand Theft Auto IV is particularly violent about. From what I gathered, the mechanic in which you can drive drunk is what got most everyday consumers hopping mad about this game. I can empathize. I will say that it’s fun to attempt to drive drunk in the game while drunk in real life, but this is coming from somebody who hasn’t lost a family member or friend to drunk driving. I imagine their perspective on such a mechanic would be different, and I respect that.
All in all, I don’t recommend Grand Theft Auto IV. Not because it’s particularly violent; more because of its listing plot, god-awful game mechanics, and the abrupt transition from the dark absurdity that made GTA GTA to soulless realism. The icing on the cake is that this game’s PC version has out-of-control DRM. The game requires you to log into Games for Windows, of all things, and this is, to put it lightly, an arduous experience. Hundreds of PC gamers have had issues trying to make it work, but I advise you to skip this mess altogether and move on to better games. How Grand Theft Auto IV received critical acclaim is beyond me.
You can buy Grand Theft Auto IV here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.