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Xbox 360 Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

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Grand Theft Auto IV is the latest title in the Grand Theft Auto series and the first to appear on the Xbox 360.  Technically it is not the fourth in the series. The game had a tremendous amount of hype building up to its release. The hype ratcheted up even higher upon its release with strong sales and near universal great reviews. In fact a few notable gaming websites gave it their first perfect scores in years.

Does the game live up to the hype? Frankly no, but it would be hard for any game to live up to it.  The game does innovate, but it is not nearly as innovative, intuitive, open-ended, or as emotionally gripping as many have claimed.

The story of Grand Theft Auto IV follows Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant. He comes to Liberty City to pursue the American dream. His cousin Roman has sent him letters claiming to be much more of a ladies’ man and high-roller than he actually is. Niko says he comes to America because of Roman’s letters but he is actually seeking revenge on someone who has wronged him in his past. At the start of the game Roman introduces Niko to some low-level hoods and gangsters, but as the story progresses you meet drug dealers, gangsters, hoods, and crooked cops who are higher up on the totem pole.  The story follows Niko as he gets involved with more and more of the Liberty City underworld and continuously seeks his revenge.

The story has been praised by critics for its span and its emotional resonance. It does not deserve all the praise it has been getting.  The story does include many well-drawn caricatures, but that is more of a hindrance to it than a help. Towards the end of the game I was getting confused about which gangster was which from which family. There are a few tough choices you make about where you want the story to go, but ultimately they all lead to the same place. The story was too scattershot and clichéd to resonate with me emotionally.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a sandbox game but there are some restrictions. Not all of Liberty City is open to you at the start of the game. Completed missions unlock new hangouts in the city you can visit. You can play missions in the order you choose, but not every mission in the game is immediately available. There are different mission threads; each thread’s tasks must be done chronologically. Sometimes you must complete a few mission threads before a new thread opens. So occasionally you are still stuck doing a mission you do not want to play because you must to advance the game.   

There is some variety in the types of missions, but not much. Most missions are hit missions, but there are also some that involve vehicle chases, robbery, protection, intimidation, gang wars, or combinations of the different types.  The controls for all these different types boil down to shooting and driving.

The actual mission structure of the game is stupid. Often to start a mission you have to drive somewhere to get the task, then you have to drive somewhere else to get something needed for the job, then you have to go complete the job, then you have to get away. In the majority of missions if you die at any point in the mission you have to start all over. Only a few of the missions include checkpoints. This is one of the most frustrating and outdated features of any game I have played recently.

This would not be so frustrating if the game play was more fun. The controls are an improvement from Grand Theft Auto games on the original Xbox, but they are still bad. Shooting relies very much on auto-targeting and staying behind cover. Switching between auto-targets does not work very well; you have to fight the game to change from the guy it wants you to shoot. You can free-aim but it is not much better and is even harder to switch rapidly. To top all this off, moving between cover is also annoying. Niko will too easily stick to objects, often when you do not want him to. You will find him taking cover on the wrong side of a wall far too much.

The driving controls are alright, but not great. Different cars have noticeably different handling, weight, and acceleration. Still, none of them control as well as an average race game. This is a problem for a game were you spend a significant amount of time driving. There is also another problem with driving missions. Sometimes they are pre-scripted, you have to follow a bad guy to a certain location and then chase him on foot. Other times they are not, you can stop the bad guy before he gets away from you. You are not always told at the beginning of a driving mission what kind it is. You could unload clip after clip into the back of a nemesis’s head to no effect because it is pre-scripted.

Despite all my problems with the game play I can concede it has some plusses. Sometimes that 15 minute drive to the meat of the mission allowed me to rethink my strategy. Once I decided to take out two carloads of people with two rockets; another time I decided to kill the gang boss with a sniper rifle. I had previously been approaching both of those missions as out and out firefights. If I had restarted from a checkpoint I might have not thought of those strategies.  Indeed, glancing at message boards and faqs it seems there are multiple ways to approach many missions. 

There are also missions that are entirely optional: hit missions, package delivery missions, race, and grand theft auto missions. I found the hit missions the most fun; they stripped all the encumbering layers away. You simply go and assassinate a target; you do not have to deal with the rest of the rigmarole you do in story missions. The other optional missions I did not enjoy as much, but some might. The package delivery missions and car-stealing missions felt too much like chores. The races would have been fine if they were not so long.

Liberty City is a stunning re-creation of New York City. The sheer size and amount of variety in architecture is something never seen before in game rendering of the Big Apple.  The amount of detail in the buildings, parks, people, and objects is amazing. Liberty City has approximations of New York’s Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, and Statue of Liberty that are instantly recognizable. People wander the street acting like real people and there is a massive amount of them. You do not often see a background character that looks or sounds exactly like one you have seen before. The character models are very good; they are realistic with just some slight stylistic touches.  

The voice acting also helps make the game feel more like the real world. The cast list for this game is immense, there is easily over 100 speaking parts in the game. Very few of them are done by an actor who does another voice in the game.

The soundtrack I found incredibly weak. There are a number of radio stations, but each station only has about five songs on it. They are mostly good songs, but still a small amount.

Another way the game reflects America is through media parodies. The radio stations, TV stations, billboards, and a fake internet are all comments on American entertainment. The parodies are stupid; they writers clearly think they are cleverer than they actually are. America’s Next Top Model is parodied by a show called America’s Next Top Hooker. Elsewhere American liberals and conservatives are parodied by having outrageous talk shows. For examples there is the Weazel news service whose slogan is “It’s not news, its propaganda”. Satire is not funny when it is completely outrageous, it is funny when it just a notch above the truth. The game’s developers just do not get that. It is a shame they made this cartoony version of American life, because it totally clashes with their gritty story of Niko.

After finishing the game, there is some replay value. There are multiple online modes that I cannot really discuss, because I did not play much of them. I will say that during my short experience I managed to find all the jerks on Xbox Live at once. You can also try to complete 100 percent of the game. This requires finishing all the optional missions and meeting all the characters. If you liked the regular game missions you will probably enjoy doing that. You could also go back and replay the main story and make different choices and see how they affect the story.

This game does do some very impressive stuff, but overall it was more of a jack of all trades and a master of none. I was quite impressed by the scope of the city, but almost wish they had just given us one borough and let me interact with every building and every person in it. I think that would have been a more engaging experience than driving around a large city that did not feel that interactive at times. The game's controls and mission structure are hopelessly archaic, and truthfully come across as plain lazy. Giving the option to load from a checkpoint, restart, or quit the mission could not have been too hard to do. First person shooters have had that option for years.

In conclusion, you may have been told this is a must-play game – but it is not. If you love Grand Theft Auto, then yes this game is what you want.  If you are not a huge fan of the series or have grown tired of it, you might want to skip it. If you just want to wreak havoc and see how much stuff you can blow up or kill before you get arrested; you might as well play Grand Theft Auto III.

Grand Theft Auto IV is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs and Alcohol.This game can also be found on:PS3.

 


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About Mark Kalriess

  • John

    Lame, Lame, Lame! Weak review for a game that came out three months ago. Get with the program buddy.

  • http://gta4360.com seamus

    I’m glad you got around to reviewing this game.

    Given that the *primary* joy of the game is driving recklessly around a big, realistic city, this game is an A+. Agreed that the missions and storyline aren’t anything new or spectacular, but they’re always second fiddle to the game’s main purpose — engaging in general criminality and running from the cops.

    Also, there are a dozen radio stations, and each play about 10-12 tracks (check the manual), so there’s about 8 hours of music in there. That’s more than enough not to get bored.

  • http://www.theentertainmentcenter.us Mark Kalriess

    I did see, that the most of the stations had over 10 tracks, but while playing the game for 30 hours I hardly ever heard all 10. I listened to the classic rock station mostly and most of heard “Jailbreak” and “Straight on to You” a hundred times and heard the other songs on that station significantly less. I may be misremembering, but it seemed like in older GTAs you could find a station a you liked and listen to it for hours…