Grand Theft Auto IV – “Hail the Revol… ups, sorry, Evolution”
I don’t know about you, but right after a couple of interesting titles in 2007, I’ve found it hard to keep interest in recent games; every thing’s the same! Same genres, same mechanics, same art styles, same, same, same. It’s attack of the clones all over again. In one word: BORING. Move ON, mr. Developer. Please? Pretty please??? The way I see it, “GTA IV” had everything to succeed and turn things around: a huge budget, the backing of a series’ brand that would sell the game whichever the case, a new numerical character (hey, if the Housers think it’s important to state that, why shouldn’t I?) and all the buzz in the community, that repeatedly hauled the game as “revolutionary”, “wonderful”, “brilliant”, blah, blah, blah. But is it really so? Does GTA live up to the hype?
For a game that the media gave revolution as a tagline, “GTA IV” sure takes time to bloom… Hours into the game you’ll watch the same mechanics, the same design, the same mission structure, the same city as in past titles… again: same, same, same. The visuals are striking, sure, but hardly anything we wouldn’t expect by now. There’s also an eclectic, culturally rich soundtrack, that’s definitely the best in the series, even if it’s probably destined to be the least popular. But besides that, what’s left? A physics engine that hardly adds anything to gameplay? The cellular phone gimmick, that instead of serving gameplay, upsets you with silly phonecalls about how lonely your friends feel? Maybe it’s the Gears of War” cover combat system, but… haven’t we seen that before, and with better results in a game called er… “Gears of War”? So where’s the Revolution? Dead in the trunk, me thinks. And sure, *journalists* are quick to deliver the 10/10 “facts”: in GTA you can eat, drink, have sex, play pool, darts and arcade games, take pictures, send text messages, call 911, drunk drive, listen to radio, watch TV, surf the Internet, attend variety shows, flirt with naked girls in strip clubs, use ATM’s, etc, etc, etc; you name it, GTA has it (well, you can’t pee, but hey, nothing is perfect). The thing is, though these elements add to the sense of believability and consistency of this virtual world, they fail on their most important goal: entertainment. On that regard, “GTA IV” fails in achieving anything new. The game has, essentially, the same design as “GTA III”, going to the extreme of maintaining the same mission templates. It also fails in updating some essential elements present in more recent videogame currents, like more streamlined design, simpler controls, or even mission check-pointing (which would be essential, considering missions are composed of several lengthy sequences, that usually involve a lot of traveling).
The story does glue everything together to try and save the show: Niko Bellic’s tragic saga is the first decent script of the series (finally they got one right!), with some wonderfully depicted, morally torn characters (even if the main character is still Liberty City) and a series of well thought up social themes. Thanks to the dry wit of Niko’s remarks concerning life in the States, and the ironic nature of radio shows and commercials, the satirical nature of GTA’s universe maintains its verve in depicting modern day America, with its social paradoxes, corrupt politics, and moral inconsistencies. And it’s made all the more interesting thanks to a couple of interesting moral choices, that eventually change the ending of the game (nothing revolutionary, but still…). Yet, once again, in keeping with the industry’s flow, it’s marred by the use of the same basic narrative model as “GTA III”, which makes no sense in such a character driven narrative. Basically, you meet character -> character bitches about something -> you deal with it -> gain money -> repeat this N times -> say buhbye to character -> a new character comes along -> everything repeats again. The result is a structure that ends up leaving many interesting characters undeveloped, and that forgets each character as soon as you finish their “missions”. The social networking strategy from “San Andreas” does make a comeback through the cellphone gimmick, in an attempt to develop said characters, but the cost of some really dull minigames ends up destroying that potentially interesting story vehicle.
So why is “GTA IV” getting the glorious reviews its predecessors never had? Hype? Maybe so. In the end, I just think everyone was too eager to acclaim the game for its rich detail, absurd amount of work and sheer polish. It’s the kind of game that’s filled with those small details that really shine: the gorgeous lighting effects that can transform Liberty City into a living, moving painting, the wide array of interesting cultural activities, or those precious little moments when the game behaves exactly as you’d expect in real life. In terms of execution, it truly stands out as the grandest of all new gen titles: there’s just so much waiting to be found in this virtual “Liberty City”, that even MMO’s can pale in comparison, and it all works bug free (almost, at least). And it actually makes sense that the way forward for the series should be on a basis of “more”, instead of “new”, GTA’s always thrived on their ability to make the player explore wide open worlds, where everything is possible: freedom to go anywhere, to do anything, to be anyone – and in that regard “GTA IV” maintains the tradition. But the thing you have to ask yourself is if that “more” policy actually translates into new and solid game design ideas, and I think they don’t; GTA may have a big baggage of seemingly good ideas, but there isn’t one that you can actually name revolutionary, or that you’d actually want to replicate in another videogame. So, even though the title has a new number, it does little its predecessors haven’t done before, albeit on a smaller scale. And if you ask me, that’s one roman numeral the Houser brothers just wasted for naught.