Grand Theft Auto IV: Genetically Superior?

Look, it’s the game of the year! It has an “Oscar worthy” storyline!
… then why is it so limited in scope, even compared to GTA III?

In the things you can’t unsee department: she has six fingers on her right hand.

On his first day out of prison for armed robbery, Jake Blues is picked up by his brother, Elwood, in a repurposed cop car. When they discover that the orphanage where they were raised by Cab Calloway is on the verge of being closed by the state, they decide to get their band back together and raise some righteous dough! Unfortunately, Elwood has not been the most diligent of drivers, kicking off a series of cross country car chases, run ins with Nazis, and good old fashioned rhythm and blues! With cameo appearances from Aretha Franklin, Carrie Fisher and James Brown.

Wait, am I thinking of the wrong game here? Niko Bellic, from somewhere in wartorn Eastern Europe, is picked up from the Liberty City docks by his dear cousin, Roman. Niko wants money, Roman has criminal connections: what could possibly go wrong? The line of dialogue “I’m barely struggling to make ends meet, Bernie!” when Niko has $400,000 in his pocket, that’s what.

Grand Theft Auto IV is, more accurately, the seventh in the series (nine if you count Liberty and Vice City Stories, ten if you count that London expansion way back in the day), but it’s the first one to use the shiny new engine, so it’s IV. Is it automotive insanity? Is it a dating simulator? Is it ridiculously obsessed with homosexuality (way more than I ever have been[!])? Yes, it’s all of the above. But I don’t know, I think it’s missing something.

It took me longer to get into GTA IV than I would have liked. The early missions, which give you the early parts of a story that eventually only becomes a sort of backdrop to pointless “Drive from point A to point B; shoot stuff for guys you don’t care about” missions from people who you’re only after the money of. There is indeed a good story buried in the game, but it comes and goes, rather like a Karma Chameleon. You may say that stories still aren’t that important to video games, but I think that when the gameplay is simultaneously so simple and so frustrating, you want a little more to it.

I think it’s likely hypocritical of me to complain that there’s very little in the way of extracurricular activities in the game while also complaining that your friends are constantly on call. The fact of the matter is that you can do whatever you do with the friends … by yourself. The socialising aspect of the game, while little more than another lame mission gameplay wise – really, going to a restaurant with a friend involves picking them up, driving to the restaurant with them, and then driving them back. Don’t get me started on drunk driving in this game, and what a terrible idea going to a bar is. – does reveal the game’s biggest strength: characters the likes of Roman, Brucie and Little Jacob, the highest Rasta ever to be given charge of a rocket launcher and a car full of weapons. Picking up these guys involves a conversation between Niko and his passenger, which reveals something of either one or both of them – and can usually be pretty funny.

The purpose of doing these menial tasks repeatedly is to get added bonuses, like a free taxi service, discounted weapons, or helicopter rides. It’s a clever and organic way of getting unlockable content, and once you’ve maxed them out they very rarely call on you, but it’s not as interesting as it could be. The dating system is exactly the same, except almost none of the women are sympathetic or interesting and, while their bonuses are also variably useful, the whole experience just made me feel like a gigolo: business with no pleasure.

So when you’re not driving your friends around or doing missions, there’s not much else to do apart from shooting pigeons you see lying around the place. I’ve never actually played San Andreas, but I know that the amount of non-essential content was cripplingly large. Paring back GTAIV to the point that you can’t do ambulance or taxi missions (you can do taxi missions after and up to a point, but there’s not much joy to be had from it) – an actual step down from III, of all games – probably wasn’t the greatest choice because you feel more like you’re being railroaded than sandboxed. What’s the point of giving me a big city to play in if I can’t be arsed to do anything in it because my options are so limited?

A little bit more on the missions themselves: the taxi system is invaluable, because when I could avoid it I didn’t really want to have to drive to Point A – especially if it’s my fifty thousandth attempt at the mission. I actually failed one of the helicopter missions three or four times at the very end because I messed up the landing, drowning Little Jacob in the process. That weren’t much fun at all, I can tell you that for free. I think missions may have benefited from checkpoints. The final mission, which I think took me four or five hours to actually complete to anyone’s satisfaction, has one – where it could have gotten away with two because seriously, eff that bike jump. I also tried to go for the alternate ending but realised it was an exercise in tooth grinding and looked it up on Youtube.

Grand Theft Auto IV‘s problem is that it’s an intermittently interesting straight line with detours that serve to distract without being particularly enlightening. There are some nuances that I appreciated, but by the third island I was praying for the end. I was playing in tandem with a couple of my friends, who both got attacked by the red rings of death and lagged behind. Phill texted me upon his victory:

That’s it: you win?

That’s America, my friend. That is America.

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