The term sociopath was coined primarily because "psychopath" had too many negative connotations. It describes people, the Gary Ridgeways and Henry Kissingers of the world, who have absolutely no conscience. It's a blanket term used to describe people suffering from a wide variety of mental problems, the most interesting and relevant to this review being Antisocial Personality Disorder. A combination of antipathy, violently impulsive behavior, and a general disrespect for the rules of society, APD is the medical community's way of explaining that criminals are, almost to a man, suffering from a psychological defect. What does this have to do with Grand Theft Auto IV? Simple. In their attempts to make a grittier, more realistic game, Rockstar North has offered the world one of the best fictional portraits of the pure sociopath in recent memory.
The ninth installment in the long-running Grand Theft Auto series, GTA4 doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor should it be expected to. The move from GTA2 to GTA3 was as significant a leap in gameplay design as Mario's move to the '64 had been, and could even be called the birth of a new genre, if DMA Design hadn't pioneered all the core gameplay mechanics in the underrated Body Harvest three years earlier. For the past seven years, Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) have refined and tweaked a simple trio of gameplay concepts: 1: Shoot people. 2: Steal their cars. 3: Use those cars to run other people over. GTA4 is nothing more than the latest refinement of that concept, offering only two major additions: A wonderful multiplayer mode, and a truly compelling story, replacing Bully as the company's finest.
Technologically speaking, GTA4 is a borderline triumph. While the graphics don't offer the fidelity of many other titles, and the textures are blurrier than next-generation gamers have come to expect, the game looks far better, and more importantly, performs far better than any GTA game before it. There's still the occasional "GTA Speedbump", that unhappy circumstance when a car crashes into nothing at all, and then a second later a telephone pole is drawn in, but by and large all issues of appearing scenery and disappearing behicles have been resolved, and it makes the game world seem all that much more authentic.
Authenticity is the watchword here, as the developers have gone to absurd lengths to depict a 1/5 scale (or thereabouts) depiction of New York City. It's nowhere near so exact that I'd imagine residents of New York are going to be driving by their own apartments and marveling at how well they were modeled, but it certainly has the look and feel of an actual city, one of the first in videogame history.
This push towards realism in game design has affected the missions as well, and it's a change for the better. While there are probably those out there who enjoyed the hugely pyrotechnic or otherwise outlandish missions of the last few games, I wasn't one of them, and I was pleased to see GTA4 going back to basics. Most of the missions involve driving to a location and shooting a couple of people, or shooting a couple of people while driving to a location. Every now and then I'd be asked to drive a boat somewhere or chase someone with a helicopter, but by and large I kept to simple gangland enforcing and executions.
What keeps the more basic mission structure from getting stale or tedious is the level of satisfaction the combat offers. This satisfaction is due in small part to an improved targeting system, and in a much larger part to the brand new progressive animation system called Euphoria. Instead of canned actions or string-cutting ragdoll physics, enemies are now made up of simulated skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems, allowing them to react naturally when shot, recoiling from the impact of a shoulder hit, stumbling if shot while running, or crumpling awkwardly when instantly killed by a bullet to the head. It looks so good and feels so authentic that I found myself eagerly anticipating each new gunfight, so I could watch the new ways there were for my enemies to crumple and die.
Just as developers fell all over themselves to include Havok physics a few years back, GTA4's release has not doubt led to the "Euphoria" people's phones ringing off the hook. Frankly, I'll be shocked if in 18 months time there's a shooting game that doesn't use this new kind of character animation, or some variation thereof. For that reason, I almost don't want to give GTA4 too much credit for the animation—after all, soon enough almost every game will sport it—but still, based on the game's sales so far, this is going to be most people's first experience with Euphoria, and the unbridled joy it brings to people looking to shoot fictional people within the confines of their television screens.
The one place these amazing physics don't appear, however, is the multiplayer. All human-controlled characters are immune to the effects of gunfire, and can soak up bullets unaffected until their health runs out and they collapse. I understand why this choice was made, after all, if player characters reacted authentically to wounds, whoever got hit first would lose the gunfight. Despite the rest of the game's shift in that direction, it's simply not the kind of brutal realism that most people going online are looking for.
Luckily that absence of physics and a needlessly awkward method of going online are pretty much the only things wrong with the multiplayer mode, which is something of a revelation in all other respects. I don't suppose it should really be much of a surprise that the game works so well with extra human players. After all, I've been riding along with AI partners for a couple of games now, and San Andreas featured an experimental co-op mode. What is surprising is just how naturally the game's aesthetic encourages teamplaying. Going online only with complete strangers, whenever I started a team adversarial mode I always found people willing to pull their cars to the curb and let me in so I could help with the shooting. Everyone I played with just seemed to agree that not only was it more practical to have a car full of guns, it made the game more fun, as well.
Even better than the adversarial modes are the co-operative ones. Made for four players, each of the game's three co-op missions have the players teaming up to take down armored cars, rob drug dealers, and blow up boats. The greatest compliment I can give these levels is that during the single player game I found myself wishing that I could invite a friend into the game to ride shotgun on some of the more difficult missions, rather than having to rely on the always-awkward AI partners. I don't know what Rockstar has planned for their downloadable content, but so long as there are new co-op missions, I'll be buying them.
While the multiplayer may be great, it's the story that really stands out in my mind. Well, not actually the story, but rather the story's main character. While the plot is the standard crime game tale of warring factions, betrayal, and revenge, Niko Bellic, the game's star, is anything but the standard issue anti-hero. Rather, he's a fully realized person. A tragic monster fuelled by nothing but hate, he's the best lead the series has ever had. Not that there's a lot of competition. GTA3 offered a mute, personalityless cipher, Vice City gave us Tommy Vercetti, a vicious psychopath motivated by an overwhelming desire to control everything around him, while San Andreas featured the most disturbed of all the characters, CJ, a self styled Robin-of-the-'hood who used claims of familial responsibility and moral relativism to convince himself that all of his mass murdering was somehow justified.
Niko Bellic is an entirely different breed of deviant in that he has almost no motivation of any kind, beyond a dedication to his cousin, and a simple desire to punish the people he feels are responsible for leaving him a hollow shell of a man. He finds himself swinging from master to master, playing both sides for his own benefit, but he never has much of an overall plan. Niko kills some people, has sex with others, and helps out a rare few, but strangely he doesn't seem to derive joy from any of it. Unlike the player's presumptive attitude, Niko never gets any pleasure from the mayhem he causes.
An entirely passive man, Niko fully believes himself to be a product of his environment. Various allusions are made to his time in the Army, and all of the atrocities he was forced to commit during the endless wars of the formerly communist republics. What makes him fascinating is that Niko has allowed himself to be completely defined by these actions—the government turned him into a criminal, so that's what he is, and nothing else. In one chilling speech, he mentions having been a slaver in passing, the way a normal person might talk about their time working at a fast-food restaurant.
Normally main characters in games are ciphers so that the player can make decisions without acting "out of character", since there's no character to be acting out of. Here the developers have done the seemingly impossible, created a character for whom no decision would seem surprising. Even suicide seems like a natural choice for a man so bereft of any emotion. At a few of points in the game the player is forced to make what would normally be a moral choice, but here is framed in a much harsher light, with Niko being forced to choose between a side that offers cash, and a side that appeals to his sentimentality. The player isn't asked to choose between good or evil, but rather greed or narcissism. By putting the player in such an unremittingly bleak position, the developers have done something amazing, and provided the game industry with one of its most well-rounded characters, up at the top of the heap with Kiryu from Yakuza.
It's in the shadow of the story's success that I began to find the game's failures, though. The first of these problems is the game's huge tonal schizophrenia. While the game's story does everything but stand on a desk and hold up a sign that reads "TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!!!" the rest of the game's content resides squarely in the middle-school potty-humor gutter that it's been wading in for over a decade. I doubt there's anything more unpleasantly jarring in the game than listening to Niko tell the awful story of how he discovered his aunt's body after she had been raped by soldiers and tortured to death, while driving past a salacious billboard for "Pisswater Beer". The series's attempts at satire have always been on the weak side, but they benefited by largely being set in the past—since the GTA games were the only ones still making jokes about Reagonomics or the Rodney King trial, at least there was an element freshness to them. Or if not freshness, at least an element of being the thing that doesn't get thawed out too often. Now that the game is set in the present day, the targets they choose to take shots at are all incredibly familiar: Fox News, spam e-mail, conservative politicians who are secretly gay—they've been covered by literally everyone else, and much better than they are here.
Things also get a little rough on the combat mechanics front as well. The hand to hand combat is pretty much a wash, but in the entire game the player is only forced to fistfight once or twice, and that's just so they can learn how to do it. The gun combat is definitely an improvement—finally bowing to the peer pressure of every other third-person shooter, GTA4 at long last implements a decent targeting and cover system. Aping Everything or Nothing, the targeting system allows players to lock on to enemies, and then fine-tune their aim with the right thumbstick. This lets players choose between spraying bullets in their opponent's general direction or carefully seeking out headshots, depending on their tastes. The cover system isn't quite as successful. While targeting and blindfiring work well enough, for some reason it's impossible to lean out from cover without shooting, despite the fact that every other game with a cover system allows players to do so. This means that in order to fire accurately, the player has to lock on to an opponent and pull the trigger, which initiates the "leaning out of cover" animation. The second this animation takes can mean the difference between a hit or a miss on opponents that use cover, and if the player wants to adjust their aim, they have to do so while continuously firing, since letting go of the trigger button even momentarily will cause Niko to duck back behind cover. I can't imagine how this mistake was made—literally every other game has figured this one out, so how did Rockstar not? Do they just not want players to have a good gunfighting system?
The combat is also harmed by the fact that the enemies have no AI to speak of. Once in a blue moon an enemy will run towards or away from Niko, but for the vast majority of the time they will either stand still, firing away, or duck in and out from behind a single piece of cover. Almost no strategy is required to kill them, just a basic understanding of how to use cover and the ability to flick the targeting reticle between a number of static targets. If the Euphoria-powered animations didn't make actually shooting people such a pleasure, I'd go so far as to call the game's combat a disappointment.
There's also a problem with the size of the city. While considerably smaller than San Andreas, the last game's location, Liberty City still takes an awful lot of time to drive around. The driving is fun enough that this isn't a chore for the first dozen or so hours, but by hour twenty, when every mission asks the player to drive from one end of the map to the other, let's just say I started taking a lot of cabs, the game's helpful way of allowing the player to warp around the map in a flash.
While Liberty City is a huge, beautiful location, I was surprised by just how little there was to do in it. Perhaps because of the move towards realism in the game, Ambulance and Fire Truck missions have been removed, as have the mysterious "packages" that seemed to litter the ground of Liberty City last time around. Gone with them are the unlockable perks. Players can't become fireproof, nor are there ever any respawning weapons available at their cribs. Luckily Vigilante Missions remain, allowing the player to clean up the streets, although for no reward beyond a sense of self-satisfaction. This seems to have been a last-minute change, though, since a line of dialogue in the game explicitly states that the police car missions should be paying, they just don't.
This dearth of activities also shows up in the social networking system, which has been expanded quite a bit since San Andreas. Now Niko doesn't just have to take girls out on dates, but all of his friends as well. When the player completes certain mission lines, his employer becomes a "friend" who will call him on his cell phone and want to hang out. This hanging out can involve getting some food, playing minigames, or going to see a show, and it takes up far more time than it really ought to. Not only because there are so many friendships that need to be maintained, but because there are so few places to hang out and do things in the city. One would think that a place like Liberty City would have a restaurant or bar on every corner, but one would be very, very wrong. Every time one of these "dates" begins the player has to drive to pick up their friend within an hour of game time (about two minutes), and then drive them across town to someplace they want to hang out. Of course, the entire social aspect of the game can be ignored, but since these friends and girlfriends are the game's only source of helpful perks, like cheap guns, health boosts, and resetting the wanted meter, the player would be put at quite a disadvantage by ignoring them.
Perhaps the most frustrating mistake the game makes is in the car combat. When this works, it's one of the game's bright points, as passengers blast away at other cars, shredding metal, blowing out wheels, and slaughtering the occupants, but when it fails, the game is crippled by that failure. I can't understand, for example, why passengers in a car are restricted to using pistols and submachine guns, the same way the driver is—sure it makes sense that a person driving a car has just one free hand, but why can't the person riding shotgun use a, well, shotgun? A far bigger problem is that the car-chase missions are divided up into two distinct styles: Free-form and Scripted. In the free-form chases the player can shoot out wheels, run the enemy off the road, really do anything they like. In the scripted missions, the enemy car can't be destroyed until it reaches a specific point on the map where an event is triggered. Unfortunately, the game doesn't tell the player which missions are which, so more than once I found myself emptying hundreds of round of SMG fire into a car, puzzled as to why it refused to catch on fire.
Some of GTA4's problems can be attributed to the developers' desire to hold features over from previous incarnations, and the rest seem to be caused by the understandable lack of focus that results from attempting to create a truly epic game world. All of these problems are outweighed by what the game gets right, both in the superlative story it tells and the unprecedented freedom the multiplayer mode offers. The GTA franchise is a funny one. Sometimes a sequel will be a leap forward in gameplay design and overall fun (like 3, or San Andreas), but other times they'll wind up being little more than an exercise in wheel-spinning or cashing in (Vice City and the Stories titles). GTA4 is certainly a step in the right direction, and I'm really looking forward to whatever the series has in store for us next. That being said, I hope that now they've produced a new engine that they can milk for the forseeable future the developers at Rockstar North take the time to iron out some of the larger problems next time around. Oh, and while I'm hoping for things, as a longtime fan of the series and knowing how much Rockstar North enjoys going back to the well, I'd like to formally request that the next game be set either in the near-future dystopian city of GTA2, or the "swinging London" of GTA: London 1969.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: blood, intense violence, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol, partial nudity, strong language
Parents should keep their children far, far away from this game. I know that all of their friends are going to be playing it, but seriously, you're a parent. Grow some backbone. The content listing should have made the point clearly enough, but just in case you don't know what those words mean, let me make this absolutely clear: among other things, the game features strip clubs, endless headshots, drug dealing, implied and threatened torture, and plenty of offscreen sex. If your older teens beg for it, fine, but it's not to be played by anyone who confuses fantasy with reality.
GTA Fans can rejoice, this is everything that you had hoped it would be. Sure, all of the RPG elements of San Andreas have been pruned out, but the tradeoff is a fantastic story and incredibly entertaining multiplayer mode, so don't be too sad that you can't make Niko eat burgers until he's a waddling tub.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should be pretty safe with this one. The onscreen HUD is great at keeping you oriented, the subtitling extends even to some of the incidental dialogue, and Niko's in-game cellphone can even be set to vibrate, so the controller shakes in your hand whenever you're getting a call. Rockstar North has really shown a dedication to accessibility with this one.