GTA IV - PS3
Two middle-aged women overheard talking in a New Jersey diner: "You got the three levels: everyone, teen, mature. So they said how old is the person you are getting this for? And I said, my son is twenty one. It was the Grand Theft Auto. Richard loves that - it's got the driving, the shoot 'em up, and the girls. So that's it. You can't get any better than that".
When people who have never played a video game can spend their lunch talking about them, it illustrates the upsurge in popularity of the entertainment medium. Now taking in revenue to match Hollywood Studios, the video game industry is coming of age. Some might even call gaming an art form in its own right. So when previous masters of satire in the medium Rockstar (the company behind Manhunt, Bully, and of course the entire GTA back catalogue) announced the follow up to 2004's GTA San Andreas, this reviewer couldn't help but get excited. Set in "Liberty City", New York by any other name, GTA IV follows the progress of Russian immigrant Niko Bellic, who has come to America to live the American Dream. However what he finds there is a deeply cynical and misogynistic take on it. Too much so, in fact.
While playing the game the tone is the first hint something is amiss. The whole intelligence level of the series seems to have been dialled down to puerile. I'll admit that perhaps in the past this slipped under my radar, but I felt embarrassed to play this game in company - I could see observers thinking, what the hell is this vile nonsense? Right from the opening shots featuring S&M sex. It was a strange feeling because some of my fondest memories from playing San Andreas are from sharing the experience with others. In GTA IV there is a cringe worthy lewd reference lurking around every corner like an LCPD patrol car, and where in the past Rockstar took a swipe at social trends and capitalism, here they seem to have made it all a tittering behind the hands moment for thirteen year old boys.
While it's true that the game is indeed full of the driving, the shoot 'em up, and the girls, the sum of these experiences feels a lot less satisfying than in the past. And there is very little else in there: the beautifully recreated city feels empty and devoid of life, interesting buildings that are so tantalising as to make the player get out of the car to take a look are mere impenetrable facades. It's hard to see the point of exploring it at all compared to an Oblivion-like experience where every object can be handled and collected, put to use. Rockstar may have chosen to do away with "videogame conventions" like Secret Packages and other hidden collectables, a trend that's been seen many times over in the recent past, yet they still cannot help but limit the players initial play area in the clumsiest of ways - the threat of a terrorist attack closing down the bridges, no less. Then again maybe that was the dose of irony I'd been missing?
Similarly it's hard to understand what happened to the creativity in the missions. In San Andreas there were stealth parts, rhythm action parts, on the rails shooter parts, and plenty of sub missions on top of all the driving, shooting, and girls. There were usually a couple of options to either use stealth or go in guns blazing, many ways to make money. Here everything is pretty much go to point X, shoot Y using new cover system, which is as poorly implemented as combat always is in GTA games, then escape to Z. It is incredibly dull for anyone who has played a few videogames, and for me reached its nadir when a character in the game told me he had hidden a sniper rifle on top of a tall building, and I should go and use it to watch over his drugs transaction. I switched the game off right there and it took a good long while to go back.
When it came out I awarded San Andreas a score of ten out of ten when I reviewed it for GamerArchive.com (now gone the way of the dodo). At the time it was a tough choice, because I had always said that full marks should only be awarded for titles that were truly perfect, or there-abouts, a philosophy drummed into me by a Latin teacher at school who never, ever gave anyone full marks, and promised a prize of ten Mars Bars if any one could achieve it. However the sheer variety and scope of San Andreas, the sweetshop nature of the missions, the fact that it left me breathless with laughter many times over, made it impossible not to give it a ten.
It pains me to say, but GTA IV is inferior to San Andreas in practically any way that counts towards the enjoyment of the game. Yes, it has better graphics, but four years have passed, and they are not THAT much better. Otherwise there is nothing else to recommend it. GTA IV has far less of the trademark sandbox landscape of its predecessors. There just isn't anything to do. It lacks shops, has no gym, tattoo parlor, or hair dresser. No business to invest in, property to buy. It is smaller in scale, lacking in contrast between the city and the open roads of the countryside. Money is too easy to come by, indeed finishing this game I had close to a million dollars in my pocket since there are so few ways to spend it. San Andres gave such a better feeling of working one's way up to the top from humble beginnings, which is surely what these games are about.
There are some brief highs in this game, but they turn out to be false dawns. Liberty City features its own internet (how very meta), which is interesting and funny in places, but ultimately let down by a lack of interactivity and the puerile humour. There are several television channels to watch, but what's the point when far better exists in the real world? When replaying missions the player will hear different dialog on the way, but when the end goal is so insipid it is hard to care. The idea of cultivating friendships with the people you meet is a good one, but ultimately it grates as they demand almost constant attention that amounts to - yes you guessed it - driving them to X, playing (if you are lucky) a dour mini game, then taking them home. Nothing San Andreas didn't do already with its dating system.
So, if you are twelve years old you might get some thrills out of this. For everyone else, stick to San Andreas, surely the series' pinnacle. It says a lot about Rockstar's views of who should be playing this game, the people who will ultimately buy it in numbers, or have it bought for them, when despite knowing all along it would be rated mature, they filled it with jokes aimed so squarely at the immature. The middle-aged women at the diner of this world should do us all a favour and stop buying games like this for their little Richards, or should that be Dicks?