Sunday, June 01, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360) Impressions

Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that needs no introduction. It is the single highest grossing media launch in history, it's scored countless perfect 10 out of 10 scores from professional publications, and has significantly boosted the sales of both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.

In brief, Grand Theft Auto IV has been heralded as a master of the art form, a medium defining title that proves what the video game industry can do, how it can compete, how it can both entertain, captivate, and push the limits with exceptional gameplay, a deep story, and a grand sense of scale never seen before.

At least, that's what the hype train has been saying since even before its launch. I've never been a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, never really played it as it was always a PlayStation franchise despite its ports, and I'm an Xbox/Xbox 360/PC gamer who's favourite genre is first and third person shooters.

But damn the hype for this game is enormous, and the weekend after launch, I decided to cave and pick up a copy. I figured that if everyone is saying this game is all that and more, being the hardcore gamer that I am, I owe it to myself to experience this revolution.

I only played it for a brief period at first, as I was focusing on my backlog and was trying to get through another play through of Mass Effect (Xbox 360). With that finally finished, I turned my attention to Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360) and decided to see if it really is the American gamer's Dream: The perfect game.

This is the last time I fall for the hype train. Grand Theft Auto IV has a lot going for it and some damn good innovations, but it tends to fall victim to its own ambitions. Grant Theft Auto IV doesn't embody the American Dream, it embodies a saying I first heard a decade ago: "A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none."

Liberty City is a huge, open world full of rich detail and activities. It is a city filled with mature, dry sarcastic whit that puts Family Guy to shame; the satire is everywhere. On the many radio stations, television shows, the net, billboards, random comments, I literally laughed my ass off with my eyes tearing up when I read the "IKEA" page online, and who can ever forget the Republican Space Rangers. Liberty City is a city that I want to play in an experience, and of course there's so much to do. I can steal a car and go for a ride, I can gun random people down, I can go on a date and screw the girl, I can shoot pool, play bowling, go shopping, watch TV... the list goes on and on. But no matter what I partake in, every activity just feels unrefined.

The pool physics feels off, the driving camera's poor, and the combat controls are God-awful. Don't even get me started about firing from a vehicle. "Vehicle combat" in Grand Theft Auto IV makes me long for Mass Effect's Mako, and we all know how much I love the Mako. To complicate combat further, since combat mainly happens on story missions, the game only saves at the beginning or end, so if you die, it's right back to the beginning. This can lead to a lot of pacing issues, and coupled with the shoddy controls, I've found so many missions to be more of an exercise in frustration rather than an adrenaline rush.

Which brings us to that "epic story." Let's discuss character development for a second. You play as Niko, a recent immigrant from Serbia who's come to America to join his cousin. Niko has had enough of violence and has promised not to kill anyone, he wants to start a new life. But of course, he's also up for being a gun-for-hire, helping people deal weed, smuggling, brutality, etc. Yup, solid character arc right there. The game's mission dialogue is also ridiculously poor. It's mainly a lot of swearing and BS wanna-be mobster talk that sounds like it was written by a bunch of high schoolers. I can't believe the writers got the satire of the world itself so right but got the character's dialogue so wrong!

Visually, Liberty City looks great. It's textures are a little lower resolution than what I've come to expect from more recent games, but given the sheer size and scope of Liberty City without any major load times, that's easily forgivable. The character models themselves though are downright bad, even the game's main characters. From medium distance they're not bad, but up close they look severely dated, and I'm trying to decide which models are worse, Grand Theft Auto IV's or the human character models from Halo 3.

As I mentioned though, Grand Theft Auto IV does have some solid innovations. The cell phone (which is sheer brilliance), the GPS system, and vehicle physics are all excellent and really add to the feel that you're part of a larger world, but they alone can't make up for the game's short comings.

This isn't the first big-name game I've felt failed to live up to its hype (Half-Life 2 is still a glorified physics tech demo), but I can safely pronounce Grand Theft Auto IV to be the biggest over-hyped game in history. It is not a perfect 10, it is not revolutionary, and it is not the must-have game for your console.

All things considered, it is not a bad game mind you, there's a lot of fun to be had in Liberty City, but by God did Rockstar Games drop the ball on so many things. I've been playing shooters for over a decade, and I can not believe how bad combat is. I know this is not a shooter, but if you're going to make gun fights such an important part of story missions, please implement smooth controls and a cover system that actually isn't a detriment to use. In fact, that's the main reason why I've decided to sell my copy. I might be able to milk a few more Achievements out of the game, but I've already greatly expanded my own cursing vocabulary and came damn close on several occasions to smashing my controller through my TV at such poor execution of what should have been one of the greatest gaming experiences of my life.

Sorry kids. Many of you will disagree with me, but Grand Theft Auto IV isn't what its cracked up to be. If it's your style of game and you can get past the horrible controls, than more power to you. Me though, I prefer to play something that doesn't involve me struggling with my controller.

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