(Author's Note: Because of 20,000 character limit, this blog post in split into two. Read Second Part here.)
After playing so many fast-paced sandbox games (Prototype, Crackdown, Infamous, Far Cry 2) recently, I couldn't really get into GTA 4 at first. It has a deliberately slow pace, even down to story progression. Even after adjusting to the slow pacing, I kept on noticing problems that kept popping up. Which was weird, because I heard this game was on many people's best games of 2008, and it got 10s from some reputable websites. Maybe I was missing something, maybe I hadn't gotten to the "holy frickin' awesome!" parts of the game. Sadly after 50 hours with finishing the game, they didn't come.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is very misleading. I thought it was a sandbox game, where you can tackle missions in any way possible. Turns out, my playthrough of the game will be exactly the same as yours, since all the 100 or so missions are completely linear, down to the orchestrated car chases. What I personally consider sandbox games are the ones where you're given a lot of choice in going on about the same task, which could be through multiple gadgets (Batman: Arkham Asylum), going stealth or Rambo (Far Cry 2), pathways (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory), or side-missions (Knights of the Old Republic). Only once do you get a choice in who to kill, which ends up in different consequences. You can not sabotage any mission like the recent Far Cry 2 or Hitman franchise. Frankly, I was getting a lot of Assassin's Creed, and I didn't like it. GTA IV felt outdated to me in this linear mission's aspect, and the fact there is no sandbox game to speak of.
Not open. You get an island to mess around in, but you're locked from other islands, much like Infamous. I can't go into the police station or hospital, even if they're standing right in front of me. There are internet cafes, but they become useless when you get a laptop in your safehouse. There are restaurants, but they're pointless and take more effort than just going to a hotdog stand. Speaking of the stands, there aren't enough of them considering this is a dramatization of NYC, AND when you need more health all the time because you get hurt very easily. Some buildings have iconography of being a restaurant, but you can't go into them. So, even if Rockstar put a lot of effort into making all their buildings unique, you as the player are confused which ones you can interact with, and are therefore resigned to check the map for confirmation.
There is no exploration. This is not Oblivion or any other game with a slightly bigger world where you can find out stuff off the beaten path. You can't discover a single shop, club, or restaurant. For weapon shops, you can't buy any of the weapons unless if the game has made you use them in a mission. Then they're "unlocked" in the weapon shop. It's a huge tease, and is another example of bad design. Why not just show weapons that you CAN access at the time?
Another mark for GTA IV feeling outdated.
For a character who always
needs more money, there isn't much to do.
I was surprised that you could count all the types of activities outside of the missions on one hand (clubs; restaurants; indoor games; wanted criminals). You do get errands or "jobs" from people, which consist of being a taxi cab rider, assassin, or a drug runner but I barely got into them since I never needed more money. Which is ironic, because Niko in every cutscene says, "I always need more moneeeee!"
So, if Assassin's Creed can be criticized for giving no choice in how you go about your missions or tasks, so should Grand Theft Auto 4. But hey, the game got 10s, and previous games were apparently great, so Rockstar deserves the blind love assigned to them by fans groveling at their knees.
As a complete n00b to this franchise, I can only go by what other people tell me, and they say previous games had a lot more choice and exploration.
Lead by the Hand
From the moment go to the end of the game, you'll be seeing tutorial information constantly. This felt like a multiplayer-focused game that has singleplayer, just so you can become comfortable with the mechanics when you go into real battle. I don't even remember there being an option in the menus to disable the tutorials.
Not being able to discover any single thing in the game, and the pacing of weapons/locations to unlock, felt too dishonest to me. Doing missions in a very specific way, and the mission pacing completely dictated by the designers by forcing you down missions for people you'd hate reduced all the scope of what this game should be able to do. It just reinforces how little choice you have in the game and how anti-sandbox the experience is. You're just playing the game to the designer's intentions, rather than what we expect from sandbox games. Very misleading, much like Assassin's Creed.
Just Not Memorable Enough
For being 50 hours long and having more than 80 missions, GTA IV
is just not memorable enough. The dialogue to me wasn't either. The only memorable stuff was already in the trailers, like all of the 3 famous Niko Bellic quotes. C'mon, that's a little pathetic for a game with such a huge script. The very few memorable characters (Packie, Brucie, Little Jacob, Roman Bellic, Bernie) are outweighed by the majority of wannabe movie gangster parodies (Vlad, Faustin, Ray, Jimmy, Dmitri, etc).
There are some damn memorable dark and emotional moments like Niko kidnapping the Anceliotti's daughter and the friends' mission where you dump a guy's dead wife (he did it) in the river. These are very few moments to justify the darker, more serious tone taken with this new GTA game. However, there's hardly any comedy bits other than the excellent Brucie, which makes the story come off as an overly heavy-handed, disengaging mess. Also, Niko's a psycho.
Niko Bellic: The Immigrant Story That Never Was
I'm genuinely surprised at a game involving immigrants to not explore the issues or even give you an experience of what it'd be like to be one. There aren't any immigrant jobs like plumbing, car washes, or pizza delivery. The plumbing could have been a Pipe game, the car washing could be just clean up the whole car with the analog stick, and pizza delivery fits perfectly with the bikes in the game. There are so many other vehicle jobs I'd like to do, like helicopter rides for tourists or be a bus driver temp.
I know these activities don't really ascribe to the notion of being a gangster as what the GTA games try to be, but it would add a lot to Niko being an up-and-coming immigrant hitman. It would make you hate them and they should be boring mini-games or stale gameplay, which is a great metaphor for the real thing. So, before you're called up for a high-paying murder mission, you have to do measely tasks and live through the daily grind. That I think would be far more relevant and give more social commentary that the non-gaming public would respect. "So, these games aren't just about killing everyone? You mean there is some actual exploration of modern issues in real life through this virtual world?" I'm waiting for that GTA game.
Gameplay of Frustration
What about the mechanics? Combat, driving, phonebook, and health. Guess the only one of these I enjoyed. Nope, it wasn't the framerate-dipping combat. No, it wasn't moving the tank-like, unresponsive Niko around anywhere. Nope, it wasn't the flicking through the thousands of Contacts with the d-pad. Nope, it wasn't running around to the very limited amount of hot dog stands or having to fetch armor from weapon shops for EVERY single mission. All of these problems made me have to retry missions constantly, and all added to just bad experiences.
Which leaves the driving. Apparently, this is one aspect many previous fans didn't adjust to. It became more realistic, but for me as a PGR player, it fit. If you've played those PGR games, you know it's all about the Left and Right Trigger balancing. There is actual weight to the cars, but they look like low-riders in action with the body-frame always bobbing up and down. Bikes were even more fun, because you can go so fast that you murder the motion blur and framerate. Then crash to see Niko fly in hilarious, unrealistic fashion. I'll touch the "unrealism" later on.
I only liked driving in this game, similar to liking free-running in Assassin's Creed. Rockstar, did you purposefully try to make as bad a game as that?
The whole tamagotchi Sims
thing with managing friends and going with them on mundane dates got redundant real fast. Very quickly you notice the comedy or cabaret clubs don't have much content, yet the game forces you to see everything available or then you lose respect with these "friends". You only ever get to date 2 people out of a possible 20, and that's because they are actually cheat codes (Carmen and Kiki). Carmen's health boost only works OUTSIDE of missions, which just sucks.
At least Kiki's service of clearing your Wanted level works right? Yeah, it works on missions, but in many missions, she'll keep on saying "Sorry, Niko, this time they're really out to get you". And no, going on a date with her extremely recently didn't even work. Which missions it works and doesn't is inconsistent, because it worked perfectly for "Three Leaf Clover" which is a mission where you end up with a 6-star rating but doesn't work for the Gerry mission where you get a prison snitch out of prison (no, there is no actual prison breakout like in Kane and Lynch :(). Did I even mention how difficult it is to drive, and get to Kiki in your phonebook to remove the Wanted rating, when she's all the way down in the Contacts section?! Shouldn't Kiki be the first Contact during a mission? Handling the phone is very frustrating, to say the least. Again, GTA IV felt outdated in this aspect compared to other games where you handle several NPC relationships (Bioware, Bethesda).
The reputation stuff is just another pointless mechanic. So what if Brucie likes me 70%, but respects me 90%? None of this had any effect, other than either they stay as my friend and bug me every now and then, or just un-friend me like some Facebook weirdo.
Disconnect with Niko
I've never been this disconnected when playing a character in a game, even compared to first-person shooters. Niko is likeable to an extent because he wants to keep on the down-low from his traumatic past, but as soon as he didn't want to let it go in the second to third Act, I just couldn't care less. The more I played, I couldn't empathise with this hired killer "off the boat" who always had a hard-on for more money. He's a man of action and I get that, but do you need to punch everyone you don't like?
Also, I don't particularly believe that he's unwilling to do these errand-boy missions, and the money doesn't sound like a good enough excuse. The blackmailing from EVERY gangster so he did their missions was also unconvincing. He's a psychotic serial killer, deep inside. On top of all the unconvincing motivation, he has some of the most unresponsive controls I've ever witnessed. His tank-like walking and steering to rotate him, the cover mechanic being so shoddy, and him dying very easily was not very empowering or enjoyable to play as him. Dressing him up was the only hilarious fun I could have with him.