Everything you wanted to know about gaming, and less

by Jamison DeLorenzo

Promises are promises, and, this amazing revelation aside, I figure if there is a week to talk about GTA this would be the week to do it. There are very few stories in gaming news this week that do not involve this game, and rightfully so. Considering the sales numbers this game is putting up (6 million copies sold in week one) it would be rather silly to ignore this landmark game.

That was far more than just a play on words relating to the number of NYC landmarks in the GTA IV version of Liberty City. This is one of the few games I have ever seen released where every major gaming publication and review site is giving this game near perfect marks. I am not saying this should drive you to your nearest store and pick the game up, but so few games are ever given a high score, let alone from everyone. After taking a week off from work to plow through this game, something which I had planned since the beginning of the year, I find it very difficult to disagree with the notion that this game isn’t as close to perfect as a game can get.

There are many things this game does that its predecessors have done. All the basic gameplay elements that you love (or hate) about the game are back, the satire is still present, the detail in the city environment is amazing, the story is engrossing, and the characters and dialogue are movie-level quality. These are all things I expect from GTA. Games that step up to this level are almost always highly praised, including last year’s icon in this department – BioShock.

Where GTA has stopped before, IV has kept going. Let us start with what is in the forefront – the graphics. The work Rockstar has put into Liberty City has definitely raised the bar in the realm of the free-roaming environment. Combine the graphical power of Crysis with the city detail that went into Assassin’s Creed and what you get is Liberty City. Downtown is littered with gigantic signs that make you feel like you’re on the strip in Vegas. Seeing the city skyline light up at night is just like looking out of a hotel window. Those are the big visuals. The details – like movie posters and other ads inside buildings, the geysers of water that shoot up when you knock out fire hydrants, the debris that gets caught in a cyclone when a helicopter is flying nearby, being able to hear your car radio while outside the car – all of these experiences make you feel like you are inside a real city.

Next to the basic gameplay elements that make GTA what it is, the satire embedded in this game is easily the most enjoyable aspect of this. This is not anything new, but being able to see this in the form of television and the web are brand new experiences. One day I spent hours just watching TV in one of my safehouses. Is there any point in doing this? You don’t get missions or any real information on backstory in the game, but it sure is entertaining.

The only complaint I have is that the character movement is still a ways away from smooth. Running around, moving through crowds of people, breaking into cars or just hopping in them all have very natural movements. Jumping, however, is still atrocious. Trying to get Niko to jump between ledges, onto or off of a boat, or in between rooftops is still an ordeal. Jumping in wide open spaces is not nearly as frustrating as cramped spaces (I got stuck once under a staircase which forced me to reload because crouching and walking wasn’t working right), but jumping in a straight line can be a major ordeal at times. One mission I failed because I tried getting onto a dirtbike from behind it, only to walk in circles for over 10 seconds before my target escaped.

If those problems were not present in the game I would easily be able to state with conviction that this game is perfect. When I say a game is perfect, that means that while the game can still be improved to do things in different ways, there is nothing that I feel the game is lacking. For example, the cover combat system could be a little easier to use for getting in and out of cover or sprinting between cover spots, but it didn’t really cause any problems. The combat system was still much better than anything that has been in GTA games to date, so I cannot state with a straight face that the combat was difficult or frustrating.

There is one thing I should make a special note on. There is a mission that involves a bank job in this game. I thought this was going to be as annoying as the Vice City mission was, but it turned out to be the best mission in any GTA game I have played to date. The tedious parts of the robbery – securing the bank, subduing employees and customers, busting open the vault, were all scripted. The entire mission revolved around the escape from the bank. The adrenaline rush in running through the streets taking out cop after cop, running through the subway, avoiding helicopters, and the final escape back to the house provided more adrenaline and energy than I could ask for. I would need 3 Red Bulls back-to-back to recreate that sensation. This mission was the defining moment for the game.

Coming up with something different to say about this game is tough. You know it all and you’ve probably seen it all. The highlights of this game were the graphics, fighting system, environment detail, voice acting, character animations, story, dialogue, satire, and length. The driving, movement, and missions were good but could all have been improved. The multiplayer was new and fun, but still could be so much more. Every one of the highlights were near perfect if not perfect, which means that GTA IV probably didn’t exceed many people’s expectations, but it matched what most people were expecting from Rockstar. If that doesn’t say something about what the value of the GTA franchise is, then nothing really does.