The Precise Moment I Gave Up Playing Grand Theft Auto IV

by Arthur B

Arthur B doesn't care to watch Niko Bellic's story to the very end.
Maybe the title is the problem. The name Grand Theft Auto IV carries with it a weight that something like, say, Grand Theft Auto: The American Dream simply wouldn't have. But since GTA III represented such a quantum leap from the gameplay of previous instalments in the series, there was an expectation that GTA IV would do the same, or would at the very least represent a larger shift than the various small improvements introduced in Vice City and San Andreas.

It doesn't. In fact, it follows the same model used to good effect in Vice City and San Andreas: tidy up the core gameplay, and sprinkle on a few interesting twists. Unfortunately, after 5 games in the GTA III mould (6 if you include Bully, which is easily the best thing Rockstar has ever produced), it's pretty clear to me that the developers have simply run out of ideas for how to keep the game interesting.

Much has been made of the grim tone of the basic scenario in GTA IV; you play Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has come to Liberty City to track down the surviving members of his old army unit, in order to find out who betrayed the unit and to get revenge on them. Complicating matters is Niko's cousin, Roman, who in his enthusiastic embrace of the American Dream has managed to land neck-deep in debt to the Russian Mafia, and Niko's interventions on Roman's behalf soon embroil you in the criminal underworld of Liberty City. To be fair to Rockstar, Niko's is one of the more interesting stories they've come up with, even though it does borrow elements from all over the series - for instance, Vice City Stories often revolved around the protagonist's idiot brother who keeps getting in trouble with criminal types. One of the things that made me vaguely uncomfortable about playing San Andreas is the way you start out playing this guy from a really grim, impoverished neighbourhood, and it's all incredibly depressing... until you get to the San Fransisco and Las Vegas analogues, at which point it's all zany criminal capers like in the previous two games. The earlier part of the game is thus trivialised by the latter, and (worse still) these vain dreams that drug-dealing and drive-bys can eventually translate into a better life for the community turn out to be more-or-less justified.

Conversely, in GTA IV the tone is much more carefully managed. Sure, you eventually become a big player in the city's power structure, but that just means that the people coming to kill you have more numbers and better guns, and Niko's loved ones eventually suffer as a direct result of his criminal entanglements. But at the same time, things never quite get as grim as they do in some of the earlier stages of San Andreas. No matter what happens to him, Niko always retains the ability to fight back (unlike the main character from San Andreas, who at various stages of the game is basically forced to do a corrupt cop's bidding), and unlike any previous GTA protagonist he's actually permitted to make choices from time to time.

These choices are used incredibly sparingly, and the plot doesn't really fork until you've made the final one, but this is actually kind of an interesting approach. The first time I was offered the chance to make an actual decision I was sort of taken aback and didn't really think about it; while I'm very used to GTA games giving you a certain amount of leeway in terms of how you succeed at the tasks given to you in a mission, I wasn't used to being asked to decide the actual parameters of the mission on the fly. The decisions you are asked to make seem intended to prompt you to come up with a certain vision of how you see Niko - whether he's an amoral sociopath or a guilt-ridden man who doesn't believe that he can actually be any better than he is - so that when you are offered the final choice between Greed and Revenge (which has actual consequences for the final part of the plot), it's a no-brainer: either you've decided that Niko's only in it for the money, or you make him stick to his principles. Unfortunately, the last choice is somewhat skewed towards Revenge, to my mind - taking the Greed option entails trusting a non-player character who has repeatedly tried to kill you, Roman, and the people in your lives for most of the game, and you're not really given any reason to imagine that he's not going to betray you yet again, so only someone who was paying absolutely no attention to the plot (or someone who wanted to see both endings) would go for Greed.

Especially considering that by that point, you're going to be pretty much loaded; I don't know what's wrong with the game economy, but it definitely seems wonky. In previous GTA games, if you got killed you'd wake up in the hospital, pay the doctors, and lose all your weapons, meaning that you'd really have to go buy them all again if you want to have a chance of surviving the sort of missions you're experiencing. That particular money sink is gone in GTA; hospitals don't confiscate your weapons any more, although the police do, so it's always worth suiciding-by-cop instead of allowing yourself to get arrested. The issue is exacerbated by the fact that there isn't very much available to blow your money on; you've got weapons and ammunition, but there seems to be less variety (no flamethrower, for example), and you have ammunition limits so you can't just blow your cash on buying more rockets than you could ever conceivably need. You can buy clothes to customise Niko's look, which is fun, except there are some missions you can only attempt if you're wearing a suit, and no other missions with alternate dress codes, so you may find that once you have a decent suit you simply don't bother changing your appearance after that for convenience's sake. Oh, and you can buy a couple of ringtones. And that's pretty much it; you have to pay to eat in restaurants and so forth, but the amount of money you're getting makes these expenses pretty trivial.

I really liked the fact that Vice City, San Andreas, and Vice City Stories all had setups where you could spend money to buy up in-game properties (which in the two Vice City games would become jumping-off points for sub-missions designed to enhance the property's return, whether it's a drug-dealing operation or a counterfeiting ring), and I think Vice City Stories really was onto something when it combined that aspect of the game with a gang warfare system vaguely reminiscent of the one in San Andreas (although this time it was about control of businesses, not areas of the city): it made it feel as if you were actually building a criminal empire and defending it, which was a damn good reason to spend a bunch of money. Conversely, in GTA IV unless you're especially incompetant you end up with fat wads of cash and absolutely nothing to spend them on.

The only way I could imagine that you would get short of cash in GTA IV, aside from in the very earliest stages of the game, is if you spent hours on end partying with your friends. Yes, like in San Andreas you can take ladies out on dates and make off-screen kisses with them (except in the case of one of them, where she simply doesn't put out because she doesn't want to let her guard down in a world where basically everyone betrays each other, all the time, for no good reason). But you can also hang out with dudes! You can go bowling! Play darts! Play pool! Or just get really drunk! Essentially, as the game progresses a number of individuals get tagged as your friends, and they'll call you on your mobile (of which more later) to arrange to hang out with you (or alternately you can call them). If you keep them sweet, they'll stay good buddies with you, and can give you special bonus abilities - Roman, for example, can send along a cab from his taxi firm to give you lifts to places if you can't be bothered to carjack someone. If you ignore them, eventually they're reduced to sending you the occasional sad text message. It's all part of the real-life-simulation aspect of GTA IV which, I suspect, represents 90% of the work that has gone into this edition of the game, although to be blunt aside from the massively enhanced graphics and possibly enhanced AI and physics engine (I certainly can't tell the difference) pretty much all of these clever little additions could have happily been implemented in earlier versions of the game, and there's a reason they weren't: they're all very slightly pointless, and in some cases aren't especially well implemented. (Irritatingly, you can sometimes get called by one of your friends when you're on the way to pick up one of your other friends - but for no good reason, you can't take two friends out to have fun simultaneously, so you inevitably disappoint one or the other).

Other additional little add-ons in GTA IV include the television, which is astonishingly pointless: you're just sitting there watching one long cut scene on loop. Granted, it's the next logical step from the radio stations in the post-GTA III games, but the joy of the radio is that you can listen to it whilst doing something else, and with the television you really can't. You have the internet, which occasionally has some point to it - you can get the odd mission delivered via e-mail, you can hit up some online dating sites to meet owmen, and you can get 5 wanted stars by going to a fake pedophile site - but it's too much self-conscious parody in one bundle for me. Oh, and the combat system has a few new bells and whistles, but nothing which I haven't seen in a great many PS2 games over the past few years.

Oh yes, and there's your mobile phone. Here's an aspect of the game which is actually quite nicely done: you have a mobile phone which you can use to call other characters (mainly your girlfriends and friends, but sometimes you can trigger a mission early with it), and on which periodically people will call you to invite you out or ask you to do a mission. You can turn it off if you don't want to be bothered (and doing so will freeze your status with your friends and girlfriends, so you can rampage for a while without worrying about being bothered with plot stuff), and you can sometimes do cool things with it (like dialling 911 when you really, really need to steal a police car or fire truck). It at once makes certain aspects of the game more convenient and, in some cases, gives you an on-tap supply of missions you can play whenever you want. So thumbs up for that.

The major problem I have with GTA IV, however, isn't the relatively slight progress it has made since the previous games - another game with the freshness and originality of San Andreas would have suited me fine. It's the way it's begun to regress and stagnate. Specifically, the missions are incredibly repetitive, even by the standards of the series, both in terms of the activites you get up to and the plot devices framing them. There isn't a single mission in GTA IV which hasn't appeared a dozen times in slightly different surroundings in previous GTA games, and the setup becomes painfully predictable. What's that, I have to provide security for a drug deal? Well, I suppose I can do that - I've been doing it since GTA III, after all. What's that, the deal's disintegrated in an explosion of betrayal and backstabbing? Why am I not surprised? One begins to wonder why anyone ever gets involved in a criminal career in the GTA universe, since I can't think of any shady deal in GTA IV in which one side does not betray the other; granted, this was always the case, but I'm sure in previous games they slipped in the occasional mission where after some close scrapes with the law the actual deal goes through fine.

But the straw that broke the camel's back for me is this: GTA IV cheats. Yes, it cheats. It is a cheater. It breaks the rules.

In several missions over the course of the game I began to have the faint suspicion that I was being railroaded. There were a fair number of "chase the guy fleeing in a car and kill him" missions where I'd be driving after the guy's car and shooting bullet after bullet from my submachinegun at him and the bullets had no effect whatsoever, whereas in other missions the car would eventually explode or break down due to suddenly resembling Swiss cheese. And invariably, in those missions where the bad guy's cars become mysteriously bulletproof, the chase culminates in a tense cut scene in some dramatic location. Fair enough; I can accept bulletproof cars, they do exist after all.

What I can't accept is missile-proof boats.

It's long-established in the GTA series that some vehicles are bulletproof. But it is also extremely well-established in the series that the rocket launcher is the great equaliser. Just about nothing can stand up to it: not cars, not boats, not even helicopters or armoured SWAT vans. Basically, you hit something with a rocket, and you're guaranteed that thing isn't going to bother you any more, because it's been turned into several small burning chunks raining down in a one-mile radius.

In the final mission, I was having trouble killing my last victim, an odious mob boss responsible for gunning down the woman who might have convinced me to turn away from crime one day. I could reliably get past his minions and ride the motorbike to the bit where I launch off the ramp and grab the helicopter, it was piloting the helicopter which was problematic - the dude has a rocket launcher which can take the chopper out in one shot, but if you fly too low the chopper falls in the water and you sink. So, I thought I'd try taking out the guy beforehand, and attempted to do so through the simple expedient of shooting his speedboat with my rocket launcher while it's still in the dock. I landed a direct hit. And on went the boat.

That, friends, is the precise moment where I stopped playing GTA IV: the moment where the game designers made a conscious decision to override the established rules of the game world for the sake of their script, a script which, at that point, I no longer cared to see to the end. Irritate me with useless real-life-simulation crap all you like, Rockstar, but don't establish ground rules for your universe and then invert them whenever it suits you, because at that point you're no longer designing a game; you're just fucking with me and wasting my time.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 11:36 on 2009-02-18
Update: Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned, an expansion pack for GTA IV, just came out today. It's meant to be about a third as long as GTA IV, and you get to be a scary biker, so maybe it'll have more of a sense of fun than the joyless mopefest that is the main game; I'll be downloading it this evening and I'll let people know the score once I've played through it.
Arthur B at 16:52 on 2009-03-24
Shamus Young has a pretty decent blog post up about mission structure in GTA IV and Saint's Row 2 which is pretty on the ball.

Note how in the GTA IV mission there's an example of precisely the sort of thing that made me quit the game: the NPC is given magical immunity from your attacks (even though the game is directly asking you to attack them) solely so that they can get taken down in the cool way the designers envisioned, rather than just letting you come up with your own plan as though this were, I don't know, some sort of sandbox game.

Seriously, if we could get a version of GTA/Saint's Row where each individual mission is as open-ended as your average Hitman mission I'd be laughing. It would be expensive and time-consuming, but can't Rockstar afford to do that sort of thing these days?
Wardog at 10:42 on 2009-03-25
Thanks for the link Arthur.

The differences between GTA and Saints Row are genuinely interesting to me, especially because Saints Row has always been deliberately been designed and marketed as a GTA-clone. But I'd much rather play Saints Row than GTA any day of the week.
Craverguy at 02:25 on 2013-10-12
You're a better man than I am, Arthur. Or maybe just a more bloody-minded one.

The precise moment when I decided to stop playing this game came about 90 minutes in. During that 90 minutes, my character acted as a taxi service for his idiot cousin and the cousin's girlfriend(?), bought a really hideous set of clothes, got into a fistfight on a playground with a couple of goons, and went bowling with a woman who I'm guessing is some sort of undercover cop (based on her evasion of Niko's questions and intense interest in his cousin's business activities). One thing my character had emphatically not done: anything particularly exciting.

(Compare this to the first 90 minutes of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, during which Tommy Vercetti is almost killed in a drug deal gone wrong, attends a party on an arms dealer's yacht, murders a low-level drug pusher, intimidates a couple of jurors, and starts a riot on behalf of a crooked real estate mogul. That, my friends, is a wide-open sandbox crime-'em-up worthy of the name.)

But the tipping point came when the cousin called Niko and asked to go do something fun with him. Since there weren't any little icons on the map indicating jobs that needed doing, I said OK. Niko and Roman went drinking. They got drunk. Then they got busted for DWI. Then the cops shot Niko to death for no particular reason, even though he was unarmed and not resisting.

And that's the moment when I decided to pop this game out of my Xbox, put it back in its case, file the case carefully away with my other games, and play Saints Row 2 again. Because, if I want bowling and clothes shopping and driving people to work and being threatened with arrest if I decided to drive drunk, hey, I already have that. It's called real life.
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