Game Review 002: GTA IV

PROLEGOMENAN

When playing on the console platform, racing games have always been a favorite of mine. I don't know if it is the extensive library of racing games available, the wheel and pedals that make driving that much more realistic (but unfortunately in some cases a bit too realistic), or simply the fact that I can play on a 50" plasma screen TV instead of a measly 22" LCD monitor. I really should hook up a media PC...

Racing games have also been a great multiplayer experience for me as well. Just about every weekend I would gather all my friends to my home, where I would have a nice LAN setup that allowed PC, console, and card/board games to be played simultaneously around the house. If you got bored with playing GTA IV on the console it was no problem to join in on the latest Supreme Commander game on the PC, or try your hand at a game of poker at the card table.

Unfortunately, even though racing games were a theme at LAN parties in the past, they have often lacked great multiplayer experiences. Don't get me wrong, there are some fantastic games out there, including GTA games previous to GTA IV, such as Wipeout, Ultimate Race Pro, Carmageddon, and others. Many previous games lacked either large multiplayer support, realistic and enjoyable physics when driving vehicles (Carmageddon for example), or simply very bad gameplay that was filled with bugs (again, Carmageddon...).

Fortunately, GTA IV seems to have to at least partially lifted the negative veil surrounding muliplayer racing games. Behold, as I give you my brief review of what everyone else seems to want to rate as a 10/10 game. Do I hold it in such high regard? Take a look...

WHAT IS UNIQUE

I'm going to go right ahead and throw out on the table the worst negative about this game... its unique qualities, or lack-their-of. While it has excellent gameplay as I will describe below, I found it to be lacking anything that hasn't already been introduced into previous GTA games. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No. Read my previous blog post about how I absolutely hate games in a series that are altered so severely they shouldn't even be related to said series.

What is unique and rather exciting to play are the stunts. While stunts are a trademark of GTA, GTA IV has introduced some exciting new ones that bring a breath of fresh air to those that want to go off the beaten path from the game's storyline and just mess around town with their car. How much punishment can some of these cars take when twisting through the air? Quite a lot. The "Broker/Bohan", "Alogonquin", "Alderney" island area stunts that are my favorites. Each stunt is fairly typical in design, with ramps and straight-a-ways that require you to jump over obstacles. It gets really interesting when attempting to make the correct landing, as many of the landing points can really throw your car around when you land improperly.

GAMEPLAY

The ability to shoot in any direction from within a vehicle is a quality I love about GTA. Chasing down other cars is now far easier than previous games, since you can shoot out their tires with greater accuracy than before. It can be a little awkward to pull off, but then you'd expect firing any sort of gun while retaining control of your car to be difficult. Some of the scenarios in the game even require you to practice this art of control.

On foot, shooting is even better. It used to be a real inaccurate mess even more so than when driving, but GTA IV is a vast improvement and brings it on par with some of the best FPS games. Your character can lock onto targets, with shooting guidance provided for better accuracy. The best part about this is that assault rifles and other heavy guns are as useful as a simple pistol. Elaborate shootouts are now far more feasible, with some excellent scenarios built within the game that are great fun with these larger weapons.

What I hate to waste is time. I cannot count the times in MMOGs and other games where I'd be searching for a particular item or location for hours on end. What is the point of wasting so much time when you could be enjoying the game's next scenario or storyline element? There comes a time when the headache of wasting time is not worth the time. Fortunately, in GTA IV the reduction in the time you waste driving around is minimized through the use of features that allow you pass an area when the game knows you're just not cutting the mustard on your own.

If you drive around endlessly and ultimately fail in a mission due to exceeding the time limit or some other repetitive waste of time, you'll get a text message giving you the option to immediately return to the point just after the initial cut scene. The game also autosaves after you complete each phase of the scenario. Simply getting to the next scenario marker is another area where time can be cut down; your character can now take a cab directly to a location, which can save you from taking a wrong turn when driving down the streets at maximum speed.

GRAPHICS, SOUND, INTERFACE

I was really annoyed with previous GTA games that provided less than stellar graphics. There always seemed to be something about GTA graphics that broke up the realism of driving through the city streets. The best way to describe the problem is to describe how each element in the game flowed with the others. Buildings would end too abruptly with the next, with colors and textures conflicting with each other. Lighting was poor, so shadows and reflections highlighted these problems. It's as if the designers didn't know what the words "transition" or "refinement" meant.

The series has never had and probably never will feature groundbreaking visuals, but fortunately this time around they obviously exceeded previous games with better graphics and a more fluid style. I think the designers this time found the word "refinement", but still got "transition" confused with "step". There are still glitches that are annoying, but when driving down the streets in GTA IV you get a sense of warmth and comfort in watching scenery pass by, instead of asking yourself why the tree branches looked like they came from a 4 year old's crayon drawing.

As far as what is brought to you via the interface, nothing too much has changed here thankfully. It's a racing game, how much do you really need to change? We have the radar, overview map, some indicators, and that's about all you need. The game's mini-map does combine some valuable health and statistical information about your character, as well as indicating how close you are to losing the police. When you're on the run, a blue circle appears on your radar and once out of it, your wanted level will lower after a certain length of time. Previously it was next to impossible to tell when you might be clear of the police.

Audio in games across all platforms has been advancing at a near snails pace over the past decade. Some attribute this to audio technology simply not needing any more advancement, but others argue that audio isn't an important factor in games beyond simply stereo output. I couldn't disagree more with the latter comment. When you have a racing game like GTA IV, not to mention FPS games in general, it is essential you have great surround sound support to know when and where someone is shooting at you. Or in GTA IV's case specifically, when a car might be coming up behind you to run you over.

Lastly but surely not least, there are the countless hours of licensed songs that are available over a dozen radio stations that give you music enjoyment as you bash up your vehicle or take down some poor soul on the sidewalk. Some of the radio channels are a bit "drab", in that they don't provide the greatest musical tracks. For example, there are too many soul, pop, and classical channels instead of rock or trance. This is taste preference though I suppose. Of course you have numerous talk radio shows, with the same sort of comedy that you'd except from the previous games.

WRAPPING UP

GTA IV provides expansive racing at its best, without the endless circles and mindless speed contests that are often associated with other more mundane racing games. While these other games are fun at times, how can you possibly beat a game like GTA that involves great music while driving, interactive gameplay, and in-depth storyline and objectives that bring you into the world better than any drag-racer game could ever do?

PROS:

- As yet unchallenged unique gameplay experience
- Expansive maps that are extremely detailed
- Plenty of cars to buy, or steal
- Controls and accuracy are refined from previous games
- A great way to unwind after a hard day at the office

CONS:

- Almost too many mundane radio channels to choose from
- Some minor visual quirks
- Loading times can be extensive on the PS3 version

FINAL OVERALL RATING

9/10

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