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A True American Tale

About a year ago, I finished playing the main campaign of Grand Theft Auto IV. It's one of my favorite games. The open world, satirical culture, and action-filled gameplay make a great experience. In honor of that singular experience, I have extensively edited and rewritten my original review of the game to make it more readable. Tell me what you think.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Concept
A sardonic immigrant
tale about crime 
Graphics
Muddy and poor 
Sound
Stellar voice acting,
great radio stations 
Controls
Decent, although
the running mechanic
is annoying 
Technical
Terrible. This is
the worst PC
port in years 
Replay Value
High. There's a
main campaign,
side jobs, and
television. 

Overall Score

9.5

 

In gaming, few series command the same level of respect as Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar's flagship franchise has been innovating and setting the industry high-water mark for years. The latest entry continues that tradition with style.

GTA IV is set in Liberty City, a massive urban center that sprawls across miles of virtual roads and buildings. Although not as geographically large as previous games, IV's world is diverse and well-done. The scale is amazing considering the amount of detail. Pedestrians have vulgar phone calls, drivers get in accidents and shout at each other, and ambulances come for injured people (usually victims of my poor driving). Bump into people and they'll yell profanities at you. Knock them over enough times and they'll even start a fistfight.

There's an astounding amount of extra content like that. The radio has a dozen unique radio stations. Each plays music from a specific genre while actively ridiculing said genre through satirical fake DJs. The insanity coming from the car speakers is entertaining and terrifying.

Well, it's not fair to call GTA insane. The game is actually an elaborate satire of American life and consumerism. The radio, television, internet, and inhabitants are all in on the joke that is America. Rockstar developers are perceptive comedians, too. Although ironic and humorous, GTA IV finds our country's flaws with uncomfortable accuracy.

Nowhere are these failures more evident than in the people met by the protagonist, Niko Bellic. He arrives in Liberty City expecting a better life. That idea dies. The city's inhabitants are irritating, hypocritical failures. All of them are chasing some form of the American Dream, but none realize that they'll never reach it.

Grand Theft Auto is unabashedly didactic. From the opening to the final moments, Rockstar emphasizes that the American Dream is a lie. Niko comes to America under the expectation that America will be different, that hard work will translate into success and money and women. The crime, government corruption, and general hypocrisy of the city quickly debunk that dream.

Then again, success and riches aren't the sole cause of Niko Bellic's journey to Liberty City. Several forces from his past converge and force him onto a quest for revenge. Sounds cheesy, but Rockstar pulls the story and the character off with gravitas.

Niko's a fascinating character and a good guy. Interesting thing to say about a murderer, but he's the only person in the entire game who is able to acknowledge his true nature. That and his perpetual cynicism constantly set him at odds with the dreamers and idealists of Liberty City. It lends him a sort of dignity the other characters lack.

If only the rest of the story was that good. The game seems content to exist within itself, indifferent to whether the player is emotionally invested in its results. GTA IV tried to create antagonists and friends, but no one felt notable. What's left is a group of mildly irritating caricatures.

That goes for Niko too. He's likeable but not sympathetic. We're supposed to care about events that happened to him off-screen before IV's story, but we don't. We never saw it happen. Thus, choices such as whether to execute a past enemy don't resonate because it means nothing to the player. Choice-centric franchises like Mass Effect work because the player is invested in his/her character and teammates. GTA never inspires that investment, so the decisions feel bland.

Still, I can't really complain about the game too much. There's a lot to enjoy. Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the longest games I've ever played. It took 64 hours to complete 94 story missions. The best part, though? After the credits rolled, I was only 62% done. There are a lot of side jobs.

The content is varied as well. Producing 94 mostly non-repetitive missions is an impressive feat. Some will be put off by the slow start but things quickly snowball in scale and intensity. Struggling through shakedown jobs at the start is worth it when you get to rob a bank.

However, it's the missions that are home to my single greatest frustration with Grand Theft Auto IV. There are approximately zero checkpoints in any mission. Failing for any reason requires a total restart. For multi-part jobs that involve driving across Liberty City, this is agony. Worst of all was the final mission, a massive affair involving a huge shootout, vehicles, and helicopter sequence. I got incredibly frustrated with the lack of checkpoints, especially after restarting because of floaty flight controls.

At least the gunplay is solid. Aiming is done via an odd lock-on system that can be discarded for free aiming. It's a different but enjoyable approach.

Rockstar also omits recharging health and the classic Halo two-weapon loadout. Limited health added weight to every battle and forced me to fight tactically. And of course, being able to carry an arsenal of pistols, knives, baseball bats, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, and sniper rifles is just awesome.

The arsenal can be put to good use with some creativity. There are plenty of opportunities to create your own fun in GTA. Dropping a hand grenade into rush hour traffic and using cheats for unlimited rocket launcher ammo never gets old.

Granted, that fun won't last forever. Sooner or later (depending on your body count) you'll get noticed by the cops. That's when the real fun starts. Avoiding the Liberty City PD is a game by itself. Police chases escalate rapidly into massive run-and-gun affairs. The LCPD plays hardball- they bring in SWAT teams, armored vans, assault helicopters, and attack boats. It's fun trying to escape manhunts of the size usually reserved for John Wilkes Booth.

One thing you can't escape, though, is the shoddy technical work. Grand Theft Auto IV is notorious for running poorly even on high-end systems. Driving at high speeds crashes the framerate like the Hindenburg. Considering the amount of time spent in the car, this is incredibly annoying.

However, the things that don't work are microscopically small compared to the gargantuan pile of things that do work. Grand Theft Auto IV is such a success that its minor failures stand out more. It's an amazing game. All of the frustrations melt away when you jump the river on a motorcycle. GTA IV might start slow and occasionally sink into frustration, but stay strong. You owe it to yourself to experience the greatest crime epic in gaming.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play darts with Little Jacob. Can't understand a thing he says, but damned if it doesn't sound cool.

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