Grand Theft Auto: Arrested
TomChick - News - 04/30/08 - Link

I am driver. I go left, I go right, I go straight ahead. That's it.
--Eastern Promises

So far, Grand Theft Auto IV reminds me of Viggo Mortensen's taciturn character in Easter Promises: fascinating, hard to read, a bit too slow for my taste, and leaving me wondering whether there's any point.

Okay, maybe that’s pushing it, but I really wanted to work in that quote from Eastern Promises, particularly since it was culturally relevant to GTA4's immigrant angle. But so far – it's been eight hours, thirty odd missions, a few dozen mission failures, a dozen deaths, and three coituses – I'm a bit disappointed in Grand Theft Auto 4.

I've spent too much of my time fumbling with combat. I've died by missed jumps, by ladder, by getting stuck in cover, by getting punched after jostling someone on the way into the Cluckin' Bell because I was a few pixels away from death and needed a burger to heal myself. I've failed by timer, by bad driving physics, and by not being able to figure out where I was supposed to go. I've failed because I couldn't keep up with the AI that can suddenly violate the internal rules of traffic and physics because it's scripted to do something that must be done. I've failed because I got too close to the guy I was supposed to follow.

But mostly – and here's where the Russian-accented Eastern Promise line keeps ringing in my head – I've done a lot of driving. A lot. I've had to cross a lot of distance, mostly by following a GPS line on the minimap. It's handy, sure, but I'd trade that GPS line in for a better map. I'd like to know where subway stations are. I'd like to be able to identify landmarks without having to fold and reference the included map. I'd like some easy way to figure out different activities I can do, which I'm not even sure are in the game.

Because right now, I feel like GTA4 is about driving from point R to point L to point V. Rockstar has made tremendous strides with their technology, but have they made so little progress when it comes to the gameplay? Did they not play Saints Row? And have they made so little progress with combat? Did they not play Crackdown?

I guess I've also done some dating in GTA4, which has included various man dates. Awkward! I have yet to see a dating minigame I'd care to play a second time. The darts and bowling were barely worth a shrug. The billiards game with Roman was interminable. And I hope to never again have to sit through another show like that cabaret abomination. Ugh. What was that?

Then there's the strip club. I don't know if I'm out of touch or Rockstar is out of touch, but isn't it conspicuous when women are all portrayed as strippers, prostitutes, or speed bumps on the way to sex? Eight hours in and I just met my first female character who wasn't portrayed as little more than an easy lay. So far, the dating stuff is just silly, and it's a shame it seems to culminate in nothing more than fucking without effect. Heck, even the fucking minigames in the last God of War filled your health bar. What do I get out of this beyond Rockstar making a joke about a woman orgasming to the power of conversation? I guess I need to date more women. Maybe one of them unlocks better weapons or a better map.

That said…if you're going to represent women as sex objects, what's the deal with being all coy about it? Hey, GTA4, you're M-rated. You just showed me a close-up of a guy getting shot through the face. But there's nary a nipple to be seen? The trashy cheesecake is embarrassing enough as it is, so why not take a lesson from God of War, a nippled game that has the courage of its convictions?

The music is also disappointing, partly because the song list is so…so…I don't know, full of stuff I don't know or don't care about. But it's mostly disappointing for how it's clogged with so much of Rockstar's funny radio station stuff. Which, granted, is indeed funny, but Rockstar seems not to know what it's like to drive these days. Who doesn't drive listening to his own music instead of a radio station? Saints Row got it right. I'm actually astonished – yes, astonished! – that Grand Theft Auto IV doesn't have a built in media player to let me listen to my own music through the Xbox 360. Last night, before I got the game, I specifically sat down and made a Cruise playlist and a Chase playlist, expecting to be able to use them in GTA4.

Finally, Rockstar continues to think they're making movies. At least they're better at it than 90% of other game developers. I like the characters for the most part, but I'm a bit worried about what they're going to do with the story. The first major plot point (it involves Vlad and you'll know it when you see it) seems awfully sudden and out of character. But Rockstar deserves kudos for Nikko and his cousin (who I'll bet you dollars to donuts gets killed for shock value). I also like that the gradual reveal about their ethnicity. Was this announced before the game shipped? I haven't followed the preview coverage, so I assumed everyone thought they were Russian. Furthermore, I like that they didn't once again play "spot the celebrity" with their voice casting. I'll take these talented unknowns over a Burt Reynolds cameo any day of the week.

And, yes, the city is absolutely gorgeous.

But Rockstar is still making Grand Theft Auto 3 after people like Volition and Realtime Worlds have taken Rockstar's own formula and dramatically improved it. Where are the awesomely chaotic street battles, the dizzying vistas, the thrill of exploration, the streamlined RPG progression, the car collection subgame, and the personal customization? And where is my dang media players so I can listen to my own music?

I don't mean to be harsh to Grand Theft Auto IV. I'm enjoying it, and I'm looking forward to exploring the city further. I'm looking forward to trying multiplayer. But I fully expected a game that would suck me in for days on end, a game I'd have a hard time not playing, a world I didn't want to switch off. Given the number of obstacles I've run into, and given how little it seems to have learned from its competition, I'm in danger of losing interest. Hopefully, I'm on the verge of discovering in GTA4 whatever game got all those overwhelmingly positive reviews, because that's the game I want to play.

As it is, when it comes to moving through an open and detailed world, I find my thoughts straying back to The World Ends With You, and wandering forward to Mercenaries 2 and Saints Row 2.

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