For the most part, the Grand Theft Auto series has built its reputation on offering a "living, breathing" world where the possibilities for interaction and decision-making have been described as endless and unrestricted. Dan Wiessenberger's review of Grand Theft Auto IV thankfully does not spout this rhetoric ad nauseum. Instead, he offers the characterization of the game's main protagonist, Niko Bellic, and the game's strong narrative, as the game's primary attractions apart from the obvious updates to graphics and controls. However, as I mow my way through GTAIV's seemingly endless variations of chase and shoot gameplay, I find myself more and more uneasy with the balance the game attempts to strike between an epic but linear narrative and the underlying promise of open-world gameplay. It is this brave, if near-impossible, balancing act that defines how I have come to experience GTAIV; a game that, from its main character to its core mechanics, is undeniably beautiful but full of contradictions.
Dan hints at these contradictions throughout his review. He comments on the game's "tonal schizophrenia" as it struggles between vulgarity, satire and serious drama. He highlights the confusing disconnect between "free-form" and "scripted" chase missions where the avenues for success are so wide for one but so narrowly directed for the other. These arguments point us towards the most difficult of game design problems involving the desire to tell the best and most dramatic story of the GTA series while simulating a realistic and believable world "open" to the players who step within it. The question is how GTAIV has sated these competing desires without losing complete coherency, logic or worse, the player's weight in the world.
It is clear that Niko Bellic provides at least part of the answer. As he steps off the boat into the new and vibrant Liberty City, the connection between the city, Niko and myself is immediately made. His commitment to a loyalty-based ethic, particularly to a dedication to his cousin Roman, is convincing enough in the first few hours of play that I carefully navigate my way through traffic avoiding pedestrians and the attention of the police worrying that if I play out of character I am somehow betraying the story and the game. Unfortunately, this connection with the game erodes as Niko's story and killing sprees progress. Dan describes Niko as a full-fledged sociopath. Ultimately, as he fails to even shudder at every brain blown or to seriously question the reasons why former allies or complete strangers have to murdered, this rings true.
While his sociopathic mindset and grim back-story allow for an underlying explanation for many of the choices and missions available in the game, Niko's lack of moral complexity makes him frustratingly two-dimensional and the game too preoccupied with well worn GTA themes. Unlike Mass Effect or Oblivion, GTAIV does not give the player a completely blank slate on which he or she can project his own personality. Rather the games tries to make Niko a rich and believable character while simultaneously offering enough leeway to accommodate and rationalize the player's variety of choices. Accordingly, Niko's actions are sometimes inconsistent and based on simple, primitive justifications like, in Dan's words, "cash or sentimentality."
As Niko's ethics system becomes less and less consistent and meaningful, the game changes and a different, perhaps more profound sense of freedom is felt. It no longer weighs heavy on my conscience that I have just run down hundreds of hapless pedestrians chasing a lone fleeing gangster or that, in a tense bank robbery getaway, I decimated what seems like the entire Liberty City Swat Team. Nevertheless, the methods I use to get through these missions and, more generally, interact with the world, are constrained by technical and creative limitations. I cannot, for example, block the highway exit with stolen cars in anticipation of a chase mission. I cannot run into any building with a restaurant exterior but rather must travel to designated points on the map to replenish health. I cannot, in some instances, take down my quarry through skill or ingenuity before he or she reaches the designated cut-scene trigger point but rather must indulge the game's insatiable need to follow its linear narrative. With all the possibilities removed, what is left upon the third or fourth mission attempt is a mechanical exercise lacking any dynamic decision-making, of doing just enough to finish the mission and move on.
To what extent do these constraints detract from GTAIV as a whole? At the least they highlight that GTAIV is clearly not the pinnacle of videogame history as it is held by some to be considering much of those arguments are based on the myth that Liberty City is a fully realized "living, breathing" world. Instead, the game leads players from cutscene to cutscene and develops its characters at the cost of true player freedom and to some extent the reality of the world. This does not make GTAIV any worse a game. In fact, the multi-part missions, though repetitive, are cleverly designed and make use of the game's varied locations and architecture. Rather the game's constraints shape the single-player experience into something completely different to what GTAIV it is often said and lauded to be. As Dan rightly points out, the multiplayer modes give players "unprecedented" free reign in Liberty City. Is it because such modes are free from the binds of linear narratives and characters? If so, the next problem for games of this genre is how to nurture the emotional attachment that is more easily developed through story and characters while making good on grandiose promises of freedom and interactivity.
After nearly 50 hours invested in Liberty City, these issues are moot. Liberty City is so dense with culture, from its varied architecture to its faux-internet websites and range of satirical television and radio programs, that it is easy to forget the boundaries the game has set and easier to get lost within it. The improvements on graphics, sound and design were always going to be a given though it is significant that the game controls are now adequate enough to foster a sense of empowerment in every shootout or cop chase. Moreover, every shootout and cop chase has the potential to become spectacular sequences of explosions and vehicular improvisation thanks to the game's durable physics engine and the realistic progressive animations of the Euphoria system. GTAIV, with its linear "open" world may be a game of contradictions, but it is also a game that aims so high and is so well designed it fascinates despite and even because of its failings.
–By Carlo Sta. Barbara
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.
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