Before you ask, no I'm not planning on buying GTA IV today.

I've bought two of the three earlier games in the series only to be completely entertained for an hour, then miserably bored thereafter. But rather than criticise or falsely condemn the game for things its not (i.e. just about everything you'll hear on the news this week) I think this may be one of those times when the phrase it's not you, it's me is appropo. When it comes to the GTA series, I just don't get it. People love its adult content, they love it's grittyness and the lack of what I call the Fisher-Price sheen that adorns too many otherwise worthwhile games, and they love the sandbox aspects of it. I'm in favor of all these things too, but for some reason the game always leaves me wanting to play something else.

GTA IV will no doubt sell a million copies today and I expect that by the end of the year -- especially if there's a price drop on the Xbox 360 or PS3 -- the industry will have its first billion-dollar game. 16 million copies worldwide? Doable. Thanks in no small part to the tax rebate checks Americans will be getting this week (I bet Bush's Christian Conservative constituency didn't see that one coming). But if American Idol has taught us anything, it's that popularity and ratings don't mean quality. This isn't to say GTA IV is as substance-free as manufactured television, but I don't at all buy the reasoning that something must be good because it's popular. Millions will flock to the stores to purchase GTA IV because they either loved the previous games or because the game has an average review score of 99.6 on, the highest average I have ever seen. They'll point to the open-ended world, the hundreds of hours of gameplay, the multiplayer mode, the bonus content coming soon on XBL, and myriad other features of why this do-anything you want game must be theirs.

And I alone sit on the sidelines wondering if, yet again, somebody peed in the sandbox.

The talk of revamped controls gives me hope, and significantly addresses one of my biggest complaints about the previous games, but it's still a no-sale. I need to hear from someone who had also been bored to tears by the previous games. I need to find another holdout like me stand up and preach to me the gospel of Rockstar Games. Only then will I be convinced. Only then will I join the flock of millions and tithe my $60 and hop the crazy bus to Liberty City.

In the meanwhile, I just hope there's someone around to play a different game with.


Joe said...


Joe here. I was in exactly the same boat as you. Ready to not care about GTA, a series possibly overstaying its welcome, just as I find myself underwhelmed by the looming MGS4. However, reading about the 'cops n crooks' multiplayer mode a few weeks ago rekindled my interest, and I picked it up yesterday.

To delve into the past, briefly: I found the older, top-down GTAs to be amusing diversion games, interesting for the novelty of their perspective and their irreverence. I felt GTA3 was a gaming watershed, but so do most others. And Vice City and San Andreas were basically enormous, RPG-game-sized map packs. Vice City advanced the series forward somewhat by adding more identity to the protagonist and therefore a more focused, pointed narrative, but san andreas was only almost ludicrously larger. I made it through Vice City, preferring the arrangement of the city in GTA3 the whole while, but i quit san andreas almost immediately. i realized it was absolutely titan in scope for no good reason. the release of the two PSP titles left me mostly incredulous; did anyone need more of that, after GTA3, VC, and SA? any one of these games is easily 80-150 hours of content. i love cheeseburgers, but i wouldn't like one better just because it's as big as a table.

so, i was ready to find only more of the same, with higher fidelity. and what i've found so far is: yes, that's what it is, but the increased level of fidelity and move into a realistic artistic style has warped the experience into something new again. while you can still engage in cartoonish, ghoulish GTA behavior (the killing-cops-running-over-people routine the news makes seem like the entire game), it no longer LOOKS cartoonish. your mileage may vary, but this completely changed the way i view the game world and the way i play. something as mundane as driving from one mission to the next becomes compelling due to the sheer level of detail in the world and the enhanced visual feedback. there's a new driving camera angle - it's in close, centered on niko in the driver's seat rather than on the center of the car itself, and it doesn't 'snap' to turns as quickly as other views. while this angle sounds weird, it is basically perfect, and compliments both aspects of the best aspects of GTA4's graphics: extremely close and extremely far. the graphics engine gets a little muddy in the midranges, where the detail switch from mid-to-close range is a little obvious. but things far away and things close up both look spectacular, and this low, wide-angled perspective (which allows nice views of the spinning tires and shining/banged-up chasis of your vehicles, since it lags pleasantly into turns a bit) does nothing but flatter them. aided by this camera angle, GTA4 is graphically astounding in ways that are not readily apparent. it wasn't until after a couple hours of gameplay that it dawned on me, like an epiphany, that GTA4 is incredible-looking.

because the level of detail is so high, because of the more immersive camera, because of the increased visual feedback (from impacts, from shots, from accidents, from simply walking around), because you can finally see further than 3 car lengths ahead of you in a GTA game, because of the increased persistence of NPCs actually existing and not being just redrawn every time you turn your head, because of a wanted system that makes more sense, i found that my overall GTA experience changed for the better. i actually try not to needlessly hit objects and pedestrians. i avoid minor scrapes with other cars. i avoid busting headlights, because i need those at night. i avoid needless wanted rantings, while enjoying outrunning them when they occur. in a way, i feel like this might be the level of immersion they wanted all along, though they lacked the hardware to do it. because of the very nature of the genre, this is a case where the level of polish amounts to much more than the sum of its parts.

worth checking out.

Doug Walsh said...

Wow! Thanks for the lengthy comment, Joe! That was excellent.

And to be honest, the more reviews I read, and the more I get harassed by my friends for not buying it, the more I'm starting to relent.

One question though: what always killed my enjoyment was how much a PITA it was to restart a mission after failing it. Can you just jump right back in? I believe I've read that you can, but that you still need to return to a safehouse to save. Is this true?

Joe said...

repeating missions when you fail them is pretty painless. you bring up your cell phone after failing (just a masterful addition in general) and right away there's a 'replay last mission?' option. you are simply returned to wherever the first cutscene in the mission was. if there was somewhere you need to travel, you have to do it again, but thanks to the GPS system in the game this is mostly painless. and hell, you can even hail a cab, tell the driver to take you to your destination, then SKIP the actual drive, essentially traveling anywhere in the city you want with just 10 or so seconds of load time.

in short, getting around (and repeating missions) is not a problem in GTA4.

Doug Walsh said...

Okay, now I'm definitely interested. If the on-foot controls are improved and you can instantly retry failed missions, then my two biggest gripes have been addressed.

I won't rush out and pick it up right away, but I'll at least give it a shot one day. Thanks for the tips, Joe! Hope they're not working you too hard over there!

Joe said...

i'm actually going to indy in a couple weeks, and am currently wrestling with whether to ship my 360 and GTA4, or pack it. :p it is doing to me what culdcept does to you, i feel. clearly the most prudent decision would be to take it outside and burn it on the grill, right now. very rarely a game comes along that seizes me firmly in its jaws and shakes me ravenously, like a rabid dog. i usually resist the pull for a few days, as a person of varied interests who tries to avoid being any one thing to the exclusion of others. occasionally though i realize i just need to give in, and offer up my throat in entire, and just let the game in question throttle me for a few days or a week or whatever, in slothful 10+ hour unshaven, irretrievable chunks. it's over sooner this way. bioshock and mass effect were the most recent titles to hold me in such a manner. GTA4 is clearly attempting to, amusingly when i really can't afford it. stupid rockstar.

the penny arcade guys, over the last few entries, have completed a transition from gamers completely disinterested in GTA as a whole, to those willing to admit GTA4 has 'OMG' moments in bunches and bunches. so, there's another solid opinion for you, in exactly the vein you desired.