“Grand Theft Auto IV” falls short of the pedestal on which it’s been put on. Is “Hollywood” really the direction games should be going in?
GTAIV opens with a montage of a gritty, beautifully stylized art set to low-key noir notes that slowly rise as the game’s first cinematic loads. It is extremely subtle, instantly setting the mood of the story and capturing the narrative nuance in an elegant non-verbal context.
The opening cinematic appropriately hits you hard as soon as the subtle load montage fades. The screen stays black as the screams of a dominatrix and her masochistic subject initiate the exposition. The first image is of the Eastern-European immigrant protagonist Niko listening in on this sordid affair. The game’s characteristic “rise and fall” narrative is apparent as the scene quickly shifts to the outside, revealing that the two main characters are aboard a ship arriving at developer Rockstar’s grand Liberty City.
The gloomy, foggy nighttime skyline captured from disorienting angles immediately signals that Niko is entering a new dystopia, hardly escaping the seedy underbelly of the ship or of his homeland, as he hopes.
Rockstar punctuates its dark colors, shadowy lighting and intricately detailed environments with unrivaled nuance. As soon as you take control of Niko, you can watch full-length, cleverly-written television shows, listen to the radio running in the background or even take a nap. Of course, that’s not where the fun is.
You join your corrupt cousin, Roman, in his underworld antics. Outside, Liberty City is bustling with multitudes of cars, idiosyncratic NPCs, delicately crafted buildings resembling the architecture of New York’s seedier side, and an absolutely sprawling vista of a metropolis as far as the eye can see. Each car is rendered with unprecedented micro-detail from individual, shiny grill bars down to bumper stickers promoting city initiatives or institutions.
Niko’s downfall starts slowly. Initial missions involve meeting his first potential girlfriend, bailing Roman out of a run-in with debt collectors and chauffeuring segue-characters.
As you get deeper into the story, Niko encounters mobsters, drug dealers and local kingpins. You can choose to develop relationships by taking your girlfriends out to bars, bowling or sightseeing. With enough wooing, they will invite you in for coffee, a not so subtle euphemism for sex, and a nod to the 2005 “hot coffee” fiasco.
You can forego the dating altogether and hire a prostitute, or decide to be a villainous misogynist and do away with every woman you see. You can also cultivate male friendships for help with missions ranging from bonus weapons to backup cronies. The options are endless, and the character development is astonishing.
The soundtrack is also fantastically intricate. You will hear classics, amusing talk radio, techno or just about anything you feel like with a track list of over 200 songs. Some tracks even include lyrics about the city’s past, adding a brilliant sinuousness to Liberty City’s already intense sense of age and human vibrancy.
Very minor glitches interfere occasionally: clipping, aliasing, rare pop-in effects and framerate dips. The character models are short on polygons, but stylized enough that it’s forgivable.
The cinematic graphics, story and subplots are highly developed to the point of artistic mastery. It is also the biggest problem with the gameplay.
Missions are carried by story, not by expert game design. Playing mission after mission of “drive after and kill the drug dealer” or “pick up and drop off Miscreant X,” punctuated by mildly entertaining minigames such as bowling, doesn’t add up to stellar gameplay.
The cover system is slightly flawed because you can accidentally expose yourself to gunfire when the game misreads your intended cover point. Creating havoc with the vast variety of vehicles and weapons soon gets repetitive. While there is quite a bit to do, the well-developed story mode is the meat of the game.
The multiplayer mode is mostly problem-free with some understandable framerate dips. You have a lot of options, including racing and co-op, which add replay value. Still, the lack of local multiplayer leaves something to be desired.
While these are minor gripes, I felt that Rockstar is the proverbial jack of all trades, and master of none.
I think the best contrast to draw is with “Gears of War.” Epic’s landmark title really pushed the bounds of the third-person shooter with its advanced cover system and unprecedented AI, whereas Rockstar just expanded its last game. The real revolution was with “Grand Theft Auto III” but, since then, the philosophy is “more is better,” without some needed attention to crafting intense, nuanced missions.
Maybe I just have an esoteric taste for complex button combinations and strategy, but, as I see it, GTAIV does not define a revolutionary gaming experience so much as it does a stellar cinematic presentation. Rockstar nailed the graphics, audio, story and overall atmosphere, but revolutionary gameplay makes an A+ video game. Nevertheless, I would be hard-pressed to give Rockstar’s highly artistic, detailed and always fun masterpiece anything less than a solid A.