Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

Developed by Rockstar North
Released in 2008
Played in 2008
Played on Xbox 360
Played to completion

What it’s about

Niko Bellic is a man who can’t escape his violent past. He arrives in America under the pretense of reconnecting with his Dionysian cousin Roman and trying to “make good decisions”, although we soon learn that his motives are more complicated. A decade-old betrayal haunts him, and he has tracked one of his suspects to Liberty City, intent on revenge. Before very long, Niko is making very bad decisions indeed, immersing himself in violence and crime while attempting to accrue the money and connections he needs to find his man.

How it plays

It takes some getting used to. That statement can apply to almost every system in the game. Movement is a bit imprecise and clumsy. Cover-snap is a welcome addition, but will frequently misinterpret your intentions and attach you to the wrong scenery. Target lock-on makes playing an experienced gunman much more plausible for inept players like myself, but it does so much of the work for you that combat’s only challenges are the aforementioned movement and cover mechanics.

I have heard and read many complaints about the driving controls, but to me this is where the game shines. The cars feel weighty and subject to inertia. You’ll hit a lot of things starting out, but you’ll adapt. Being able to participate in a high speed chase feels skillful.

The controls for shooting while driving are rubbish though.

How it feels

This revenge story closely examines the effects and cost of violence. It’s an unusually dour entry in the series, populated by unfulfilled characters chasing unlikely dreams large and small. The protagonist is a quiet, broken man who initially says little of himself; only through conversations spread over the course of the game is his backstory and psychology examined. It’s a moody game, deeply introspective, and startlingly at odds with the GTA franchise’s image as gleeful murder simulator. Niko doesn’t kill because it is fun, he does it because it is expedient. He has so much sin on his soul already. What’s one more?

Contrast this with Saints Row, a 2006 game that arrived on the scene intent on usurping the mayhem sim genre. It’s interesting to see that Rockstar North did not appear to be the least bit interested in competing for supremacy in that space. They reached the apex of batshit crazy crime fun with San Andreas and wisely decided to drop the mic and walk off. With GTA IV they appear to be pursuing entirely different ambitions, focused more on storytelling and character development.

What worked

The ambition on display in this game is truly laudable. It would have been so easy for Rockstar to play it safe. Yet the developers chose to try for something deeper and more meaningful than they had attempted before, and in doing so created what is easily the most polarizing entry in the series to date. This game is more thoughtful and more mature than anything Rockstar has ever produced. I hope they stick to their guns and continue in this vein.

The game takes its time in the early missions, introducing its mechanics gradually while giving the central characters a chance to establish their personalities firmly before the fireworks begin. Though the cast rotates significantly throughout the story, strong characterization is present throughout as characters make their entrances and exits. Even repugnant characters like Brucie and Mikhail Faustin prove memorable and curiously endearing.

The mechanics, meanwhile, continue to be introduced on a drip-feed throughout the game. Although I have seen many complain that this makes the whole game feel like a tutorial, I cannot overstate how much I enjoy it. The game is always showing you something new, instead of dumping a pile of mechanics at your feet and repeating itself for the next 50 missions.

The city feels like a living place. It is by far the best realized virtual world I have seen to date. Its verisimilitude practically demands a roleplaying mindset. I would find myself walking down the street rather than running, or stopping at red lights to let other cars (driven by virtual people with no demands on their time) go by. I would spend time hanging out with friends of Niko’s, drinking and playing pool and bowling, enjoying the copious amounts of plot-insignificant but character-revealing dialogue written for them. During the segment of the game which takes place in Hove Beach, I would frequently leave Roman’s apartment in the morning, turn left and head straight to the diner at the corner for a bite to eat. There was no gameplay reason to do so whatsoever; sleeping had already replenished my health, so I was just wasting a dollar. But crime is a hungry business, surely; why start the day on an empty stomach?

As always, the soundtrack is phenomenal. Rockstar’s musical tastes are impeccable.

What didn’t

As discussed above, the game’s ambitions are greater than its predecessors’. Sometimes its reach exceeds its grasp. Dialogue in early missions sets up significant moral tension around the life of violence that Niko is apparently trying to leave behind, but in a very short span of time that tension is gone entirely. Niko makes the jump to killer for hire with very little outward resistance. The first mission where you are sent to kill a man includes something of a moral choice, where you can save or spare him. This decision has practically no impact on the game afterward, and a few missions later you will be sent on another assassination mission by your new boss Mikhail Faustin and have no choice but to kill. It’s weirdly selective about how much agency you are given in this story as the player.

Part of the problem here may be that the player character keeps his cards close to the vest early in the story, and you as the player may not have a complete understanding of his motivations. Sometimes, the branching mission structure leads to situations where the character’s emotional throughline gets hopelessly mixed up. Likewise, the aforementioned save-or-kill decision actually works better on a character level if you opt to kill Ivan, an action which might seem out of character to a first-time player. In reality, Niko hasn’t really left his violent past behind at all; it’s the whole reason he’s here in Liberty city. And killing Ivan also works better to set up the explosive anger we see Niko express in the next mission regarding the situation with Roman, Vlad and Mallory. It all makes a lot more sense if you can interpret it as guilt and anger for being forced to commit murder, doesn’t it? But that only works if you made the counter-intuitive choice to kill Ivan.

The game is full of situations like this, where I felt puzzled about motivations during my initial play through, but was able to construct a remixed version of events by choosing more carefully the second time around. This is bad design. The player’s decisions — especially those which are explicitly designed into the game’s mission structure — should not break the story or characters. It’s especially egregious when these decisions must be made before the player has enough information.

A much less significant complaint about the game’s structure is that all missions are mandatory. You are often given some freedom in deciding the order in which to pursue them (leading to the above concerns), but sooner or later you will be gated from following story threads further until you’ve cleaned your plate. The problem with this is that you are often called upon to carry out repugnant tasks for repugnant cretins with very little in-story justification. There so often is simply no reason to be doing this crap. Allowing these missions to serve as optional side jobs would greatly improve pacing and give the player a greater feeling of agency.

What I’d change

Keep the binary choices in missions out of things until the protagonist has shown his cards to the player. Make sure the character motivations and emotional states make sense in every permutation of mission sequence. Separate a lot of the game’s scenarios into main and side missions.

Lessons learned

Sometimes when you shoot for the moon, the bullet still hits you in the foot. Grand Theft Auto IV is a brilliant game and a giant leap forward for the series and the genre. Even so, the problems with its story mechanics abound. The most important takeaway here is that you must carefully consider the interplay between the story you are trying to tell and the gameplay you are using to convey it. While there is a wonderfully nuanced and mature story present in this game, its willingness to let you remix it to the point of incomprehensibility means that few players will be lucky enough to find the right path through its themes on their first go around. Rockstar sabotaged their own narrative for no good reason.

Hindsight from 2013

I must have played this game at least 5 times through by now. It’s amazing to me how well it ages. I still love to revisit its world and its characters. I have mapped out what feels to me like the ideal path through its mission structure to hit all the most resonant thematic notes. It has its flaws, I don’t dispute that. But they matter less to me as time goes on. This is a modern classic, and while I am looking forward to GTA V, I suspect that this is going to be a hard game to top.

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