Grand Theft Auto 4, Good, Not Great

by Mike Shea on 10 May 2008

The current state of objective video game reviews is pretty sad. A lot of games not worthy of such high ratings end up with 95 and 100s on metacritic through a mixture of hype groupthink, good marketing, and idol worship. Bioshock is one such example, a good game but no where near worthy of a 96% overall metacritic rating. Gears of War, a game about shooting concrete, got a 94%. Again, it isn't a bad game but it isn't worthy of a score like that.

Now we have Grand Theft Auto 4, a good game but a game not worthy of the 99 it has on Metacritic. There's a lot of fun to be had in this, but it's far from revolutionary and far from perfect. It does a fine job bringing the Grand Theft Auto series to current generation hardware but that's about all it does. There's nothing unique and, while fun some of the time, a lot of it can be pretty tedious.

The World of GTA

The city in GTAIV is huge, rich, and detailed. It feels like New York even though I really don't know much of New York beyond what I've seen in movies.

The graphics are fine but not worth all the fawning people are doing over it. I've seen better looking games on the 360. For a game of this size, however, the graphics are impressive.

The character detail is fine but its Nico himself that steals the show. I never got very far in San Andreas mainly because I couldn't get into the main character, but I find myself roleplaying very well as Nico Bellec.

That's what GTA IV is, deep down. It's a roleplaying game. All throughout the game I found myself acting as Nico would act, choosing the sides I thought Nico would choose, and even changing his behavior based on random circumstance. I remember the clear moment when Nico went over the edge and lost any care for killing other human beings. I remember when Nico decided whether he would back Dwayne or Playboy X. I remember how different I felt after robbing the Liberty City Bank. As a roleplaying game, GTA IV is amazing.

The open-ended missions of GTA IV are really excellent. I found myself doing a lot of vigilante missions just for the fun of chasing a guy down the street. They're a fun way to play the game without actually moving through the primary plot line. It's that sort of open-ended game play that keeps GTA living and breathing when other games, like Gears of War and Bioshock, lay forgotten.

Poor Control, Tedium, and Crappy Load Times

As good as it is as a roleplaying game, it's not a very good action game or a very good driving game. For a game that spends as much time behind the wheel as it does, GTA's car physics are shit. When I find myself chasing someone, it isn't a competition between me and the other guy, its a competition between me and my car. More than once I slid into a 360 rather than a nice controlled power slide and ruined a 20 minute mission when my car got caught on a curb.

Nico himself doesn't control that well either. I remember how much I hated Splinter Cell when I found myself duck-walking away from cops who were repeatedly shooting me in the back of the head. How many times should Nico get caught in a door jam or get his head caught on a street sign?

The game I am most likely to compare GTA IV against is Crackdown, an amazing open-world supercop game that had much better control and much more empowerment than GTA does, though it lacked a lot of the detail and depth that GTA IV has.

While the graphics are good, the framerate drops a lot on the road and pop-in scenery breaks a lot of the immersive feel.

The load times are also maddening. The game takes two minutes to load from the minute you turn on your 360. More and more it seems like console game publishers are expecting us to treat our 360 like a PC. I don't want a PC, I want an instant-on instant-play gaming system. The load time doesn't improve my mood when I have to sit on a "loading..." screen every time I die.

Driving between missions is the eternal GTA IV timesink. The missions themselves are often a lot of fun but the constant driving between my safehouse, the local Cluckin' Bell, local gun shop, and whoever my next contact is take up about 70% of my playtime. The subway system is too complicated to use and my cousin's taxi service doesn't always seem to work.

I know a 99 and you, sir, are no 99

GTA IV is a fine game and I find myself enjoying it each time I play, but to see how the press, both mainstream press and gaming press, fawn over a game that is so clearly flawed upsets me. A game that simply moves the status quo ahead a notch isn't deserving of a perfect score. A game as flawed as GTA IV is doesn't deserve anything over an 80 or 85. The fact that nearly every game reviewer on the planet gave it a 100 shows that something is rotten. Whether they got caught in the hype, hope for a job with Rockstar, or don't want to be chastised by their friends - the media chose to give this one a free pass.

GTA IV is a fine game and worth the money but it isn't the second coming. Enjoy it, but demand something more as well.