It’s hard to get perspective on some games, sometimes the hype machine has gone into such overload that by the time the damn thing is released it’s already a guaranteed hit, regardless of actual quality. I would have bet my house on GTA getting ten out of ten scores from the vast majority of reviewers before it even came out, and I would have won too, which is handy, because if I’d lost there’d be awkward questions to answer, like “How can you bet your house when you don’t own one?”.
GTA IV is, first and foremost, a GTA game, and this means that while all that is good about it’s predecessors still applies, all that is bad applies also. It’s still very hard to drive in a sensible fashion for instance, you’ll often find yourself bowling over pedestrians and trashing nearby vehicles quite by accident, which is problematic if your mission is say. ‘go bowling’. And that’s not a joke, sometimes that really is the mission, especially with the ‘friends’ system, where you can take various characters out on activities, getting their approval of you up to a point where they’ll offer handy services after a phone call. At first this seems like plenty of fun, but it rapidly becomes a case of grinding out various trips to bars and the like until they give you what you want, then trying to avoid them as much as possible when they inevitably call you when you’re busy with missions.
Ah the missions, long GTA’s achilles heel, they inevitably start with a series of tutorials that take significantly longer to complete than some entire games, followed by a parade of classic GTA staples such as ‘go here, kill him’, ‘go here, steal this’ and ‘go here, give chase’. Once in a while they’ll throw in a genuinely interesting mission, like the bank robbery for the Irish fellows, but half the time it’s only a humorous cutscene at either end that masks a rather simplistic affair. The enjoyability has been upped slightly by the nifty new (I say new, I mean copied from every other game of recent years) cover and mechanism, which makes shoot-outs much more fun. This is however tempered by the abundance of ‘give chase’ missions, which are about as fun as pulling teeth, requiring as they do, you to keep up with a fleeing adversary, who is inevitbaly a much better driver than you, and will set off staged events like a lorry losing it’s load to slow you down.
But enough of complaining about the same old problems, it’s not like Rockstar care about fixing them at all, not when every reviewer in the land is lying prostrate at their altar. What’s new? Well a big deal has been made of the mobile phone, allowing you to call to report a completed mission or activate one, call your friends for help or to arrange activities. and a whole host of other things, including the ever amusing prank 911 calls. It’s all about ease of use, so Rockstar say, which is also the reason for taxis, the other new innovation, which you can hail and have you take you somewhere for a negligible fee, avoiding the complication of accidentally running over a policeman on your way, you can also use it to instantly transport between locations (at an extra fee, which raises questions, implying as it does that the cabbie is aware of his magical matter transportation ability), there’s also a subway for fast transit between islands, but I rarely used it, as cabs were always much easier to use. All these combine to take much of the irritation out of day to day operations in the GTA world, although one has to wonder if this is just an end around that distracts from the real job of making it actually less irritating, like making it easier to turn a corner than it is to hit a wall. One improvement however is the ditching of the rubbish eating/working out system from San Adreas, hotdog stands dotted around now replenish your health and it’s easy enough stay alive.
All of which summarises the gameplay pretty simply, new features improve things, but many of the old annoyances remain, but those who love GTA don’t do so for the gameplay, they do it to explore the world within, so how is that world? First off it’s a lot smaller than San Andreas, and continues down that route towards a more realistic depiction, away from Vice City’s cartoonishness. The new graphics are admittedly very impressive, and the city now emulates the real New York in a wonderful fashion, complete with Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and Statue of Liberty. Once you unlock Manhattan (yes, they’re still making you work like a dog to unlock the map) you get a real sense of wonder, with the bright lights, skyscrapers and neon wonderland of the place looking truly spectacular, flying over it in the helicopter is even more beautiful. There does, however, seem to be a significant lack of things to do in the world, maybe I’m just not a GTA veteran like the others, but after a bit of nosing around and gazing at the spectacle I seemed to run out of things to gawk at and wander back to the missions, but then with such a large world to explore, it’s always possible I’ll find more things in time.
GTA IV, much like it’s predessors seems to follow a bell curve, at first it’s frustrating that they aren’t letting you out in the world, then they do and suddenly it’s wonderful fun and you’re enjoying yourself immensely, then it drops off as you you get back to the missions and the grind all over again. This is pronounced most obviously in GTA IV with the appearence of the third island, which is criminally poor, yes I know it’s based on New Jersey and thus isn’t going to be like the bright lights of Manhattan, but it could at least have some stuff in it, there isn’t even a clothes shop for crying out loud! In the end if you like GTA you’ll probably like GTA IV, but for me it’s just another big open world that inspires for a while, but ends up feeling empty and meaningless, I’m still having fun right now, but I can see it joining oblivion on the shelf in future.