Grand Theft Auto: Sentenced
TomChick - News - 05/06/08 - Link

After 50 hours and 22 minutes, 15,036 bullets (9,172 of which actually hit what I was aiming at), 857 murders, 206 pedestrians run over, 211 cars stolen, an average speed of 31mph, 9 exterminated pigeons, and a single soda, I've finally finished the story mode in Grand Theft Auto IV. And I'm only 71.25% done.

It was a leisurely 50 hours. I explored. I rode around. I did a lot of side activities. I raised all my relationships so I could use the buddy and dating bonuses. (By the way, Carmen Ortiz is a liar. Do not date her. She has what is arguably the most useful buddy bonus in the entire game, but it doesn't work. Health boost, my foot, Carmen! All those times I took you to Burger Shot and this is how you reward me?)

First, I'd like to comments on some of my earlier complaints. After maybe ten to fifteen hours, Liberty City is marvelously non-linear and wide open. There's a lot to do here. I'm baffled that Rockstar didn't give the game a better opening, as the slow start is going to confound a lot of people who weren't sequestered in hotel rooms for five days. It's pretty sad when a game this generous demands so much patience so early on.

The combat gets easier, but it's still clunky. Battles are speed bumps more often than thrills. In Crackdown, I looked forward to every battle. In Saints Row, every exchange of gunfire while speeding down a freeway was a joy ride. But in GTA4, I mostly just wanted to get past this stuff. Once you can afford to be free and easy with explosives, and once Packie warms up to you, there's a hint of the Crackdown thrill. Shooting while driving is terrible throughout.

As I mentioned before, there's a lot of driving. A lot. And this is a solid foundation for two reasons. First, the driving model is on par with some of my favorites: Carmageddon, Test Drive: Eve of Destruction, and the last Midnight Club, for instance. I adore the physics here, which are both serious and fun. As the game progresses and more vehicles unlock, getting from point A to point B is a choice, similar to which gun you're going to use in a shooter. Loud Freeway chopper, twitchy NRG 900, sloppy muscle car (preferably a SabreGT over yet another Dukes), high performance sports car, hearty SUV, or just a reliable sedan? Or maybe a relaxing cab ride? Or just skip it all for a minimal fee?

But the main reason I didn't mind all the driving is also the main reason I was so completely sucked into the game: Liberty City is an amazingly realized place. If any part of Grand Theft Auto IV lives up to the hyperbole, it's the city itself.

One of the greatest missed opportunities sadly, there are many is that there aren't more missions like the text message car hunts. These are the single best parts of the game for how they combine exploration and gameplay. A friend of Brucie's will send you crappy cell phone photos of specific cars, with clues as to their locations. If you want to ruin Grand Theft Auto IV, simply go to Google and look up the locations of these cars. Otherwise, you have to study the photograph for visual cues and then drive around the neighborhood, looking for the car. At this point, you can no longer regard Liberty City as someplace to traverse by following a GPS route on the way to a mission loading chevron. Instead, you're forced to examine Liberty City as the inventive, sly, funny, detailed, evocative, and atmosphere place that it is. There's a public pool in Steinway? There are towers in Meadows Park? There's a sugar refinery in BAOBO called Twitches? Hey, look at all the sweet cars in that auto showroom I've been speeding past! Sometimes it pays to stop and read the signs.

Also, I maintain that Rockstar's portrayal of and attitude towards women is juvenile at best, and deplorable at worst. A lot of the misogyny is well disguised as humor, most of which is actually funny, but seriously guys, grow up and get a wider perspective on the world. You've made enough money pandering to boys, so maybe now you can afford to elevate the industry a little.

Although I'm still disappointed there's no built-in way to listen to your own music via the 360's media player, the song list eventually grew on me. Although if you listen to anything long enough, you're liable to end up liking it. How else can you explain Wagner, The Doors, Bob Dylan, and Nine Inch Nails?

After fifty hours of GTA4, I've come to the conclusion that Rockstar sucks at UI. There's some good stuff here, such as the target tracking button, quick zooming the minimap, and checking the name of your current street, neighborhood, and car. It's great how much ingame functionality you get with the cell phone, particularly once it's got a backlit screen (protip: Release Gum wallpaper or the default Whiz theme makes the text pop). But there's also a lot of sloppy stuff here. The controls are as unintuitive as could be, which is going to make it easier for people who could enjoy this game to instead write it off as another ultraviolent hooker killing sim.

I hate that the music stops when you bring up the pause screen to set a waypoint. Anything that interrupts the flow of a game this immersive needs to be fixed (see also, "switching guns in Resident Evil 4"). I hate how much important map information is either on the ingame map or the included paper map, but not both. Why are you telling me the location of the nearest carwash (ingame map) or fire station (included paper map), but I have to grope blindly through these mean streets when I need the life-giving power of a hot dog?

And I hate that I have to go to a screen clogged with stats and then click and scroll around to check my buddies and dates. That's a significant enough part of the gameplay that it deserves a clean dedicated screen rather than an entry at the bottom of a list of superfluous stats. Because I don't mind admitting that I got heavily invested in GTA4's social game. Didn't you? What? You didn't? Really? Okay, me either. I was just kidding about that one. Ha ha.

When it comes to the missions, a city this wondrous deserves better gameplay. Instead, it gets a lot of unimaginative retreads. If you've played a GTA, you've done most of this stuff before. And now you're going to do it again. And again. And again. And, in some cases, yet again. I did enjoy the variation on the "don't let your car take too much damage" mission. The Heat homage/rip-off was a hoot.

But I came to dread those mission chevrons, mostly because I knew this wonderful world was going to be put on hold while I plodded through whatever scripted hoo-ha Rockstar had in store. Anytime I passed through a doorway into some indoor environment, the fun factor plunged into single digits. And, lordy, some of those final missions are awful. The very last mission is yet another example of a developer who doesn't know any better than to end a great game on a sour note.

The writing gets progressively weaker as the game goes on. Niko's arrival and gradual introduction to Liberty City suggest a compelling immigrant's story, but Rockstar can't quite do it justice. Niko's background is a great throughline, and it has its payoff. An enormous amount of credit goes to the cast, and particularly Michael Hollick for his confident performance as Niko.

It's disappointing that the writers don't seem to appreciate how rich the McCreary storyline is, because it should have been the game's focal point. Instead, it's a sideline that turns into a loose end. There's nothing in Grand Theft Auto IV quite so memorable as Niko's relationship with and his direct impact on the McCreary family. The decision you're forced to make should have been just the beginning, and it leads to a few scenes that had me wondering whether Rockstar even understood the subtext. They do know that Niko just did what he just did, don't they? And they do know that we know, right? And this is going somewhere cool, isn't it?

Instead, Rockstar just moves on to some badda-bing badda-boom budget-level Sopranos stuff. The last third or so bogs down with their tired tropes about feuding Italian mafiosos, gay people being knee-slappingly funny, and random betrayals and revenges.

I've variously read that the GTA4 storyline is "Oscar worthy", "Oscar-caliber", and "our Citizen Kane", which makes me cringe. It just goes to show that the average games writer wouldn't know a good story if it played itself for him. I still think it was a great game yes, great in spite of significant shortcomings. But now that I'm done, I wish Rockstar had made a better game for Liberty City and I wish they had written a better story for Niko Bellic. Because these are two of the most memorable characters you'll meet in any videogame.

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