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As someone who played GTA from its very first incarnation, I was completely blown away when I started playing GTA IV; for the first time in the series I felt like I was in a real, functioning city, with millions of people living their own lives independently of the player's character. I was amazed at the level of detail that went into the world, in terms of visuals, sound, and the "flow" of everyday life. Then, when I started actually playing the game in-depth, its flaws set in.
First of all, there's a tonal inconsistency; on the one hand, the story is an exploration of Nico's dark past, the hole Roman has dug himself into, and more, but simultaneously half of the in-game names and logos have a sexual joke or toilet humor and the talk radio stations are often similarly "wacky" (but still not as funny as the GTA III Chatterbox station).
As far as the gameplay goes, the whole "friendship simulation" aspect feels like a chore, especially when you have to do this with several characters, not just one, and it's mandatory in order to unlock missions (I stopped playing when I got to a point that there were no missions available because I didn't have a strong enough friendship with any characters to unlock more missions, and didn't want to spend who knows how many hours grinding to unlock them).
When you do get a mission, there usually seems to be only one way to complete it (ie in the mission where you have to kill Mikhail's daughter's boyfriend, you have to chase him on a motorcycle and then get into a gunfight with him an his gang in a park; you can't run him off the road with a car or truck, shoot him while he's driving, or defeat him using any other method), but the game doesn't tell you what that method is, resulting in trial-and-error gameplay and making it feel a bit like playing a level of Stuntman, except you're not allowed to read the script beforehand. Another issue I had was that several missions introduced a gimmick that was introduced in that mission and only used for that one mission, such as throwing a brick at a window, using a phone camera, or using a car wash.
Other gameplay issues that showed up include several of the first missions being a back-to-back series of tutorials, Nico making a phone call and casually strolling along after completing a mission (even when he's getting pelted by a fusillade of police or gang bullets), and the less said about how some of the vehicle types handle, the better.
Graphically, while the game may have overdone Real Is Brown a bit, the visuals were stunning and as a lifelong resident of the New York City area, I found this version of Liberty City to be a real dead ringer for many parts of New York City.
Despite all of these criticisms I must say I still found it an incredibly addictive and absorbing game, and a true landmark in the history of video games that shows just how detailed and immersive of a world can be created. That said, this game could have done with a revision that made that world more open-ended, with less grind.
As I grew up GTA IV was one of those games that your mom would never let you play. It was a Moral Panic Game, the kinds of game that you wanted to play specifically because it was so taboo.
When I finally did get to play it as an adult, I was just sort of...acknowledging of its existence. You see, I've played so many sandbox games over the years that not only has the genre kind or worn on me as a whole, but that GTA IV lacks an interesting mechanic or setting or story in hindsight. I've played this kinds of game in the exotic locales of Far Cry or Just Cause, on Mars (Red Faction) or in Nazi-occupied France (The Saboteur) or in the Wild West (Red Dead Redemption). I've seen it parodied in the likes of Saints Row and seen have such unique mechanics as RDR's Bounty system (you get hunted even after the chase is over) and SR IV's superpowers.
Now, after having played all those games first, it's actually kind of shocking to see everything played so straight. Yep, there's a Wanted Meter. Yep, there's storyline and side missions. Yep, there's Standard FPS Weapons. About the only thing GTA has going for it is it's goldmine of licensed music and the somewhat awkward cell phone mechanic.
That "Russian Connection" theme song is still awesome, though.
That's the best way to describe this game, a chore. Compared to previous installations, and even the Saints Row series, this one fails in so many basic things. First, the controls. Cars drive terribly, taking turns way too long and spinning out all too often. Helicopters are even worse, and motorbikes will clip and turn at the slightest impact, and there's a lot of stuff to hit, especially with all the tedious chase missions the game takes you on. Especially when you have to shoot all the time.
Missions do have some variation, but they are mostly, go here, kill everyone. And there are almost no checkpoints. There is one in the final mission, but that doesn't excuse getting to the end of a mission and having to start all over, including driving there, because your health ran out. And it will run out often, because there is no way to heal yourself in missions outside of health packs in the mission, which are rare.
Music is bad, considering the series is known for great soundtracks this one is awful. So few songs are on each station and most of the time commercials or djs are playing anyway. Combat is, eh. Guns have auto aim, but it's hard to switch between opponents, and sometimes when the target you have dies, it won't let you get a new target without getting out of crosshair mode. Also, sometimes enemies will get up after you kill them for no reason.
The story is okay. It takes until the last third to get really rolling, but then the last missions are so difficult they lose any sense of fun you might have had. One tough spot in particular involves trying to speed up a ramp on a swervy motorbike on a sandy beach with obstacles right in the way, then trying to control a helicopter, fire a gun, and dodge rockets at the same time. He gets away here, or you die? Bye, back to the start of the gunfight. And when you do restart missions, you don't get all your items back, which makes no sense.
The friendship system isn't that bad, actually. They don't call too often and the minigames are pretty fun. The sidequests are a refreshing change as well. Graphics are kind of weird, some characters look good, some don't, and the city is very brown. Last things, picking clothes takes too long, cops come way too easily, and both ending are unrewarding, one slightly less so. Ten words left: Frustrating, boring, don't play, Saint's Row 2 much better.
Well, it is.
In the run up to its release, the game was hyped as a landmark game for 2008, and was initially highly acclaimed by review sites. Having only played the game when it came out for the PC in 2009 (because I'm a lazy bastard who can't save money for a console), I began to realize that the game, while still good, is filled with problems that don't warrant the game being praised as it did.
Let's begin with the positives. The amount of the work put into designing Liberty City is nothing short of impressive, with more than enough believable landmarks, detailing, and hidden gems to outshine the likes of Stilwater, Steelport or even Panau. Vehicle design is also far more convincing than the some of the abominations seen in GTA San Andreas, Just Cause 2 or Saints Row 2; ditto with character and NPC animations. Soundtrack? Not bad.
That said, too much attention to detail as well as the shift towards realism may have been the reason less work was devoted to other elements of the game.
There's significantly less character customization and weapons to dabble with, plus planes (which is understandable) and tanks are absent. There is also a notable reduction of side-missions, with the remaining missions unreplayable once done.
Driving may be annoyingly tougher to certain players as more realistic driving mechanics mean inertia has to be taken into account when braking or cornering, and it's too easy to be dismounted from bikes. While the refined driveby mechanics and more complex hand-to-hand combat are fairly well executed, I couldn't help wondering if the cover system was a little unfinished, as it seemed like more could be done to improve mobility under cover (i.e. moving around corners or switching cover). Plus it's way too easy to die. I'm not even talking about getting shot; falling a mere five floors, getting rolled over by a car tire, getting thrown, or just standing on a moving train with full health may easily kill you; it doesn't happen in GTASA.
The biggest thorn is the friendship system. You just can't avoid friends calling asking to go out even if you set your phone not to take calls, which can become very annoying. The outings themselves can be pretty tedious, as you waste time taking them places.
It's good R* North acknowledges some of these problems with the DLC episodes.
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