A Look Back At: Grand Theft Auto IV

Seeing as a huge number of AAA titles are to be released over the next few weeks, I thought I’d go back and, rather than make vague arguments loosely based around some topic which doesn’t really relate to anything I would, if not review in a literal sense, then at least talk a little bit about, so here goes!

Grand Theft Auto is a series everyone must be familiar with if only because, along with such others as Manhunt, Call of Duty and even its insane cousin Saint’s Row, it has been used as one of the main examples when discussing how video games are damaging the impressionable minds of today’s youth. You know, I hate that word. I feel like I may as well just stuff myself with tweed whenever I have to say youth.

In the most recent release, GTA IV (at the time of writing, I know GTA V comes out in, like, three weeks, but whatever) you play as Niko Bellic, an immigrant from the ‘old country’ probably some weird off-shoot of Mother Russia, who runs to Liberty City to escape his criminal past and live with his cousin Roman in the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy American businessman.

Of course, we all know that isn’t how videogames work. His cousin is a liar, heavily in debt and running a taxi cab firm from some grimy little office in Liberty City’s slum area. Within perhaps an hour, you are gunning down drug dealers and cops, stealing cars and running over old women, all the while ignoring Roman’s requests to do some inane activity with him. I hadn’t played this game in a while, and forgot just how annoying he was.

And no, no, Roman. I do not want to go bowling with you. Ever.

Of course, as annoying and pathetic as he is, Roman is a good character, and that is something that both GTA, and Rockstar in general, have always managed to do well. After playing the game, you will be able to remember most of the characters you have to fight alongside, or work for. Obviously, Brucie, the steroid-pumping car fanatic who could do with calming down, and Little Jacob, a gangster version of Bob Marley, who is so unintelligible in conversation it’s hilarious, are the two most memorable.

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One of the things I like about you character, Niko, is how absolutely hideous he is. Even when dressed up in a suit and tie, he still looks as rough as I can imagine a character looking. Rockstar haven’t gone for a tall, proud champion here, with golden hair and a finely chiselled jaw, he looks like a thug, a hired killer and, more than likely, one of the many unnamed villains someone like Liam Neeson would gun down in a heartbeat. He doesn’t have the same bearing as, say, John Marston, the protagonist of Rockstar’s next game Red Dead: Redemption, his shoulders seem hunched, his stomach flabby where Marston’s would be straight. Niko isn’t perfect. He’s a criminal and a killer, though compared to some of the other characters you meet, he is a veritable saint.

With the advantage of hindsight, which seems to be what everything I decide to write about relies upon, the gameplay feels quite jilted and clunky, the movement is unresponsive at the best of times, which is a problem when chasing someone on foot, but the part that really lets the gameplay down, for me at least, is the cover system. I had expected, judging by the amount of damage guns do to you, that sticking to cover would be paramount in surviving gunfights but I have been killed more often when glued to walls with strategically firing around corners, than when walking forwards with a goddamn double-barrelled shotgun.

One thing I have always hated in Rockstar games is the auto-aimer which seems to be used as a standard, which tends to make the title less of a game than an interactive narrative. I always switch it off when given the chance, but when you go online it is all but impossible to keep up with other players who do use the auto-aimer.

However, I’m more than willing to forgive this for the simple fact that the multiplayer is so damn enjoyable. Today I spent around four hours just in free mode with a few friends of mine, and never once stopped having fun. From racing across the city in stolen tow-trucks, to ploughing into each other with choppers, to simply racing across roofs shouting ‘parkour’, every few minutes would have us all but falling out of our seats with laughter.

Though the core game itself was good, it is in the DLC that it really shines. In the Lost & the Damned, the focus is on a group of bikers, which opens itself up to a much wider variety of gameplay and contains my currently favourite game type, Chopper VS Chopper. One player tries to pass through a series of checkpoints whilst riding a ‘Hog, whereas the other takes control of a combat helicopter and tries to hunt the Biker down. Though it sounds pretty one-sided, and I suppose it is seeing as the gunship will eventually kill the rider, it is actually a lot more tense and uncertain than it sounds. The race to escape the explosive rounds, and the tenseness caused by hunting a small target through a heavily-populated city seems to be the gameplay that the title was designed towards.

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The Ballad of Gay Tony seems to solve a few of the problems I had with the core title, though it could just be myself getting used to the sensitivity again. The gameplay seems more fluid, and the controls more responsive, along with adding a much more over the top and varied amount of weaponry. It seems to take away a great deal of the grit that acts as the main focus of the game, replacing it with a look and even physics more designed towards entertainment than realism. Of course, the physics could simply be the amount of unrealistic things we have done in the game, that rewards us with bigger explosions and more time spent flying through the air before landing face-first on the pavement.

GTA was never a series that particularly grabbed me and, to be honest, the single player still leaves a lot to be desired, but the multiplayer gameplay has kept me entertained than most games as a whole tend to do. It is the sole reason I’m looking forward to GTA V, not for the different characters or the seemingly over the top missions, but simply going on Free Mode with some friends and having fun.  That is what GTA has become about for me, not the narrative, or the characters, not the so-called corrupting influence on my relatively young and impressionable mind. With a few friends, GTA becomes one of the best games to play, even with all its faults.

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