Tuesday, April 29, 2008

GTA IV (360) Impressions

Before I tell you what I think about this game, you should know two things: one, my biases in regards to this series, and two, that the average Metacritic score after 27 reviews is 99.

My biases: here's an excerpt from the impressions I wrote for GTA: San Andreas in 2005 (full post here):
I am so tired of trying to like this game.

There's your review.

Everything, and I mean everything, can be found inside this game: freedom, constraint, brilliance, stupidity, immersion, detachment, laughter, frustration. It’s all there. It’s both exhilarating and shitty, often within seconds of each other. It’s fantastically creative and entirely undisciplined.

That’s Grand Theft Auto: a gaming Rorschach. It’s everything and it’s nothing at all.

The environments are phenomenal. The controls are lousy. The radio stations are unbelievably funny and brilliantly done. The mission difficulty is totally unbalanced. There are more things to do than in ten other games combined. The A.I. is horrific.

See what I mean?

I also said this in a later post about San Andreas: one of the strangest combinations of fantastic and shitty that I've ever seen.

Well, after three hours of GTA IV, I can say that all of those comments still apply. I hope that changes.

If you liked the GTA III and all that followed, I can promise that you will be 100% golden with GTA IV. It's going to be a great experience for you.

Those people all bought the game already, though. What about the rest of us?

Let's do a bit of level-setting first.

On the 360 version, at least, the aliasing is incredibly bad. The game looks quite good when it's not moving, and it looks better with overcast skies or at night, but some of the daytime environments have unbelievable aliasing issues. This game is Exhibit #1 when someone says we don't need another generation of consoles.

The PS3 apparently has fewer aliasing issues, but it's not even running at 720p (according to Beyond 3D, which is 100% credible, it's 1120x630). I'm not knocking how the PS3 version looks--many people have said it looks better than the 360 version--but when this generation of consoles strains this badly with open world environments, there's no way that we've reached the end of the road in terms of the horsepower needed.

The Liberty City environment is interesting and expansive, and it's well-populated. It's just that these people seem to have remarkably similar A.I. to the idiots that populated San Andreas. It still boils down to a bunch of pissed-off people who seem to run into each other with remarkable frequency, and it's so over-the-top that it's not immersive, at least to me.

Here's an example. Everyone seems to be dropping f-bombs in Liberty City. It's so frequent, though, that it doesn't seem edgy at all. No More Heroes, in contrast, used obscenity for punctuation, and used it brilliantly. Here, it's like a cursing buffet--lots of it, but none of it tastes very good.

Then we have the controls, which are ass. Again. The fighting controls seem to lag, yet the driving controls are so responsive that it's really difficult to drive a damn car. I've been told this "gets better" later in the game, as you acquire better cars, but right now I'm driving on ice with pogo sticks for a suspension, and it's exactly zero fun.

Oh, except cars look great in mid-air, and they land really, really convincingly.

I'm going to give you three examples of how badly immersion gets broken in this game, and believe me, they're not the only three I have.

The first is an early mission where I was supposed to throw a brick through a plate glass window. No problem. So I run down the street and pick up a brick from a trash pile, come back to the store, aim, and fire.

The brick goes through the plate glass window, but nothing happens.

Damn. I have to run back to the trash pile and get another brick, then I run back and stand in front of the glass doors this time. I throw the brick and it boinks off the doors. So I pick it up and throw it again.

Boink. Boink. Boink. Boink.

The guy inside? I'm bouncing heavy bricks off his front door frame, several times, and he's completely oblivious.

Finally, I move back in front of the plate glass window and try throwing it there again. This time, it breaks and the next cut scene is activated.

In a word: yuck.

The second is a mission where I'm supposed to chase someone with a car, then enter a construction site on foot and hunt them down. I run through the construction site like a complete idiot, blundering around for a ladder, but I quickly realize that it doesn't matter. The guy I'm chasing is shouting the same insults, and I know nothing is going to happen until I find that ladder and ascend.

That happened a second time during that mission, and it's a total atmosphere killer. If you're lucky enough to do the mission at just the right pace, it would be very exciting, but if you make a mistake, there's no coming back--it's going to seem ridiculous from that point forward.

How could it have been different? Well, if I'm blundering around like a fool, shoot at me. Push some construction materials from above. Do anything besides wait for me to find the trigger.

It's not that the missions can't be fun. They can be, certainly. It's just that there's a certain "slot" in terms of speed of completion. If you're inside that slot, there are moments where it can feel very immersive. It's a narrow slot, though, and if you're outside the slot, it feels fake and stupid.

Here's the last, and it's an example of how something really cool turns out to not be very fun at all. At various places through the city, there are food stands, and if you buy a hot dog, for example, it will restore your health.

That's a very slick idea--organic to the world and very immersive. I'd like it even better (in a gameplay sense) if the main character was an amphetamine addict, and he had to buy speed to replenish his health. The catch, though, is that while it would restore his lost health, it would slightly reduce his max health each time. That would make for some difficult decisions.

Sorry. Off track again.

So I was low on health after finishing a mission, and I walked to a hot dog cart to buy food. I accidentally bumped into the cart, though. No big deal, right? Oh, no--it was a huge deal, and I got some message about how the vendor wouldn't serve "unruly" customers or something like that.

I walked back into my cousin's apartment, then back into the street, thinking that it would reset the message. No dice. I had almost zero health, so what I wound up doing was having to reload a save, then walk back to the vendor and buy food.

Is that a big deal? No, but it's not seamless, and there are many things in Liberty City that initially seem cool but aren't seamless at all. There are so many clunky moments like that where something should be fun and immersive, but instead it's a reminder of just how thin the world really is, and it's frustrating.

That describes the game in a nutshell. It's vast, and detailed, and paper-thin. Put your hand on that paper and push, even gently, and your hand goes right through.

Let's go to the good stuff. The script is interesting. The use of the cellphone as a hub is an excellent piece of design, and it's well-executed, too. The radio stations, as always, are very clever and very entertaining. Auto-target has improved. The animation has improved. The architecture of the city is extremely detailed.

If you're wondering how I would compare this to the first three hours of games I've written about favorably in the past, I would put GTA IV well below Dead Rising, Crackdown, and No More Heroes.

That doesn't mean it doesn't get better, and maybe it gets great, but right now, not so much.

I'm going to keep playing, and I'll put up more impressions after I hit ten hours, so look for another post early next week.

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