HIGH The first few hours of story.
LOW The driving.
WTF Driving into a barrier on an overpass, being thrown through the windshield, falling six or so stories, and still walking away.
I was never a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. The only one I sort of enjoyed being San Andreas, and I had mixed feeling about that one. However, due to an overwhelming critical response, and the return of the annual spring-summer gaming drought, I decided to give Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) a chance. After finally completing it, my feelings toward GTA4 are a mixed bag.
First off, the atmosphere was astonishing. I was amazed by all the little things Rockstar did to bring their created world to life. Things like actually having shows to watch on TV instead of just a picture and sound; being able to choose from a plethora of different radio stations while driving, each with their own variety of music and talk shows; and the way everyone pulls over and moves out of the way when I am driving a police car with the siren on. Rockstar also provided many options in places to go; such as playing pool, throwing darts, and even comedy clubs featuring real life comedians. The player may even date and hang out with friends. In fact, doing so is significant to the gameplay, since friends will offer special services when they like you enough. All these elements combined made me feel as though I was actually living the life of the main character, which is rare for the action adventure genre.
Unfortunately, this is where my compliments end. Everything else about the game became flat and annoying by the time I reached one-fourth completion. Take the story for instance. It started out well enough; with main character Niko Bellic stepping off a boat from Russia and entering Liberty City, where he wanted to live the "American Dream" with his cousin Roman. Well not only did Niko quickly discover that his cousin was not living the dream life, but that he was in debt to the wrong kind of people as well. Follow that up with about ten hours of Sopranos style mob drama, and some dialog about trying to escape the past, and you have the first part of GTA4's story in a nutshell. Unfortunately, everything went to hell when the game hit the quarter mark. At that point the story, once focused and well written, dissolved into an unfocused collection of subplots. The game did try to continue the same storyline, but those plot points were often more than four hours apart from one another.
Filling the gaps were many mission strands in which people hired Niko to be their personal hit man and watch over drug deals. While I did like the stories and characters associated with these missions, they had almost nothing to do with the original plot line and the game did a poor job in tying the different strands together; resulting in them feeling more like mandatory side quests and not part of a cohesive story. Furthermore, the only motivation Niko seemed to have for taking these jobs was needing money, but the game never said why he needed it. He was not trying to earn start-up money for a business, attempting to build a drug empire, or anything. There was not even a single bill that needed paying. Because of this, I never felt like I was achieving anything. I was just plugging away with no goals, only doing things because the game asked me to.
Not helping matters much, the controls could have used some serious tweaking. You would think that a game with "auto" in the name would have decent driving controls, but apparently Rockstar's focus was elsewhere. It seemed like every vehicle Niko tried to operate was without power steering as simply making a turn without hitting something was near impossible—without almost completely stopping the vehicle, that is. Besides that, the vehicle would start sliding and skid off the road any time I applied the brakes; not all the time, but about 40 percent of it. Considering that one of the main gameplay elements of the Grand Theft Auto series is police chases, buggy driving controls are just unacceptable (don't even get me started on the check points).
Even so, I cannot shake the feeling that Grand Theft Auto IV should have been great. The atmosphere of Liberty City is something that Rockstar North should be praised for, and I really liked where the beginning of the story was headed. It is just too bad that the buggy controls and the story's lack of focus kept the game from reaching its full potential.
—by Coy Simmons
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 40 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 3 hours of play in multiplayer modes.