Grand Theft Auto IV
There’s a long running debate, on this site and in this industry as a whole, about “perfect scores.” What does a “ten out of ten” mean? For some sites and magazines, editors and reviewers go to great lengths to make sure that even the best games around can only hope to come close to the unachievable perfect number. I have always gone the other way. I’ve given out lots of perfect scores, probably more than anyone else on this site (in my defense, I have a lot more articles than everyone else on Thunderbolt). To me, it doesn’t matter if a game has flaws. As long as those flaws don’t detract from the total experience, I’m willing to accept that nothing will ever be perfect and I am willing to reward the few games that come around that come as close to perfection as humanly possible.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a prime example. Grand Theft Auto IV is easily one of the best games I have ever played. I can’t remember any point in my life where I have gotten so absorbed into a video game (probably back in the day when I used to play EverQuest, all night, but I try not to think about that). Despite this, there are lots of little glitches and there were a few missions that just didn’t do it for me. That said, the rest of this product shines so brightly and works so well that whatever issues I had with graphical clipping or collision detection or any other problems were quickly forgotten.
Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in the same Liberty City setting that Grand Theft Auto III took place in, but besides the similar setting and style, this is no rehash. This is the story of Niko Bellic, a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe who has arrived in this country imagining a rockstar lifestyle awaiting him. Niko came to this country to escape his past at the urgings of his cousin, Roman, who convinced him that he was living like a king in America. Once Niko arrives, he quickly discovers that his cousin’s life is far from ideal, and the more business-oriented Niko is thrust into a world of crime in order to clean up his cousin’s mistakes and to make a living in Liberty City that extends beyond driving a cab for his gambling-addicted cousin.
Despite the many murders, car jackings, and other crimes that Niko commits, you can’t help but feel empathy for him as you play. Niko isn’t some thug out to make a name for himself like some of the other characters you’ll meet on your journey into the Liberty City criminal underground. He isn’t motivated by greed and he carries around haunting emotional baggage. As a character, he seems trapped in a nightmare that he can’t escape and as you play, you legitimately feel for him. You know that what he does is awful, but you can’t help but feel that he has no other option. This is particularly unique for a video game, but also unique for any form of entertainment media. There are few books that I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, or television shows that I’ve watched where I’ve legitimately felt absorbed into a character in such a way. To all the haters who say that video games cannot be art because they cannot convey a storyline in such a manner, this is a shining example of where stories and character development can and should go in this industry.
And, unlike in previous Grand Theft Auto games, the storyline is actually enhanced by refined gameplay mechanics. You will rarely be shot to death in Grand Theft Auto IV because the auto-aim accidently targeted the grandmother across the street rather than the police officer plugging you full of holes. Some might say that the franchise has actually been made too easy by this game, thanks to the addition of a combat system that fans of Gears of War are sure to recognize. We’ve seen this stuff before: press a button and your character takes cover on a wall or a crate, and then you can shoot safely and remain protected from the swarms of bullets flying at you. This addition has improved the series incredibly.
While in the past I have given up on almost every other Grand Theft Auto game because I was frustrated over the poor combat mechanics, I found that I could chug along, even when missions were very tough, because I didn’t feel like I was fighting against the game’s poor design. Some people may say that the new cover system makes the game a little too easy. I disagree. The cover system makes the game much more playable, but the lack of strong AI makes the game too easy. Enemies will stand behind cover of their own, but that’s all they will do. Unlike in a game like Rainbow Six: Vegas, which used a similar system, enemies in Grand Theft Auto IV are static and rarely, if ever, will attempt to flank you or move to a better position. Though this can make gunfights rather simple, I don’t feel that it really compromised the experience or the enjoyment that I got from playing the game.
Perhaps the biggest addition outside of the combat system is the new cell phone feature, which allows you to call up your friends and meet up with them just to hang out or to do jobs for them. You can pick them up in your car and take them out to strip clubs, bars, and similar criminal hangouts and learn interesting things about their characters. Some characters will inevitably be more interesting than others, but taking the time to make friends is well worth it. I found out that my in-game girlfriend (who I met on an in-game Internet dating site) was a nurse. After I went on a few dates with her (including going into her house for a couple of cups of “hot coffee”), I could then call her up on my phone and she would nurse me back to health. If I called Cousin Roman up, he’d send a taxi to me anywhere in the city, free of charge. Maintaining these relationships can be difficult as you’ll need to balance time with your friends with time with your business, but the payoffs can be very helpful and rewarding.
Besides the superb story-telling and the enhanced combat mechanics, the rest of the game is pretty much the Grand Theft Auto that you know and love. Missions usually involve killing people for guys that you’re friends with, but you’ll also develop closer relationships with your criminal associates than in the past. Every now and then though, a mission will come along that will completely surprise you and these are the moments where Grand Theft Auto IV shines. You can tell the developers don’t just want to push the envelope on brutality and sex when these missions come up, they also want to make the player make difficult choices that they do not expect to have to make. You’re sometimes forced to choose which of Niko’s friend should live or die and it’s conveyed through the plot in a manner that doesn’t make it just a simple choice of pressing the Triangle or Square button without consequence.
But, this all comes back to that ten out of ten that I’m sure you’ve already scrolled down to see. Is Grand Theft Auto IV perfect? No. The AI could be substantially improved. The driving mechanics took me a while to get used to because I felt that the camera didn’t respond fast enough and the cars just felt a little “loose” on the road. Sometimes I would be driving along and slightly graze another vehicle and would flip ridiculously through the air as if my car were a feather. Once, I fell 80 feet off a building and landed on a car and walked away. Sometimes I ran people over or stole cars in view of cops and they didn’t do anything. For some reason, the police pull their guns on you if you run one of the many toll booths that divide the city, even though we all know that if you do that in real-life, at the most you’ll get is a fine mailed to your house. And there is the added bonus that PlayStation 3 owners got to uniquely enjoy: having to wait until a patch came out to be able to fully enjoy the experience of playing this game online.
That said, these problems are just so negligible in comparison to how great the rest of the package is that you won’t ever think about them when you’re away from the game. You’ll only think about how much you can’t wait to get home to find out what happens next. Playing Grand Theft Auto IV is like being involved in the beginning of something great. It’s like watching a rookie player in whatever sport you love have a really good season and you just know that that kid is going to be one of the all-time greats. It’s a building block to be improved upon in many respects, but it’s already so good that it’s very difficult to imagine it getting any better. Grand Theft Auto IV is a game for the ages, one that will without doubt be included in gaming halls of fame and remembered fondly by everyone who was there to play it when it was released. Don’t be left out of the party.