The Trouble with GTA IV

GTA IVI haven’t played Grand Theft Auto V yet. That’s due to several reasons – the late arrival of the PC port meant that I forgot about it for quite some time, I’m rather busy, and I still haven’t finished GTA IV.

I loved the game before IV – GTA: San Andreas is a game that I keep installed just to mess around in, one of the few games that I’m perfectly content driving around in aimlessly. But GTA IV leaves me cold; I’ve tried to complete it several times, each time losing interest and eventually giving up.

I re-installed it again recently, thinking that I would finally complete it before getting the next iteration. So far, I haven’t managed to finish it, but I have worked out why I’ve been struggling to maintain interest in the game. The reason is simple: GTA IV isn’t very fun.  

I could fill pages with discussion of what “fun” actually constitutes and the various different definitions that people work under. But that isn’t really necessary here, because I’d argue that, whatever your criteria for fun, certain things are definitely not part of it. Something fun isn’t tedious, and doesn’t require you to do thankless and dull tasks for very little reason or reward. Fun is the opposite of dull, and something dull, even though it may have many good qualities, is never going to be more than that.

That’s GTA IV’s problem; it’s not that it doesn’t have elements that would make it fun, it’s that it has all the elements that ensure that it isn’t. Good elements are there – the graphics are both coherent and closer to realism than most games manage, the city is filled with little details that bring it to life, and so on. Detail really is the game’s strength – NPCs put up umbrellas in the rain, the computer inside the computer game has a relatively fleshed out internet without much obvious utility, and so on. Effort has been put into making a living, breathing world.

But all of that detail can’t make up for the massive downside the game suffers from: it’s dull. The whole tone and atmosphere of the game is flat, even depressing. Playing it feels more like a chore than entertainment.

The GTA games have always been larger than life, filled with ridiculous caricatures and over-the-top action – they aren’t serious or thoughtful games, but they are engaging and engrossing. There isn’t time to be bored. In San Andreas, you steal jetpacks from the military and chase trains and planes on motorbikes. You loop-the-loop in biplanes and parachute onto the top of buildings. The game could genuinely be described as “whacky”. As a result of that, the game is definitely entertaining – it’s so varied and enthusiastic that you can’t help but be carried along.

That’s not the case in GTA IV. There are moments of the same enthusiasm and joy glinting through in places – the character of Brucie, for example, is an over-the-top caricature who would slot right in to earlier iterations of the franchise. On the whole though, the game aims for a much more gritty and realistic atmosphere. Gritty and realistic tends to mean needlessly depressing, and that’s definitely the case here – everything in Liberty City is grimy and delapidated, with streets filled with burnt-out cars and crazy ranting preachers.

Even during the day, at noon, in sunny weather, the game is dominated by brown and grey, with splashes of different colours in the same muted shades. Liberty City is dingy, run-down. It’s not a setting that allows for hi-jinks; there’s no room for remote-control planes or blind gunmen. The game is focused on being real, not being entertaining.

So many elements of the gameplay back this up – things that should be easy, or at least flow somewhat, are just needlessly awkward and “realistic”. Driving in San Andreas is a joy – it’s not automatically easy, but with practice you can drive accurately and fast, taking part in high-speed pursuits and quickly getting from point to point. GTA IV’s driving is awful – every corner must be taken at a crawl, swinging wide round , or you run the risk of spinning out and crashing into a wall. Cars steer sluggishly, responding very slowly to the controls.

The overall effect is to make driving something that you want to avoid. I found myself taking taxis to get to missions, resenting any time spent on the road. The game’s called “Grand Theft Auto” – driving shouldn’t be a neglected element, and it definitely shouldn’t come across as the worst aspect of the game. It might be more real, but it isn’t interesting, and people in real life don’t have to constantly stop and start again because the accelerator controls are suspect.

Similarly, GTA IV swaps out the massive variety of weapons from earlier games for a scant few black and functional weapons. There are less than half as many as there are in San Andreas. I’m not saying that a game needs lots of weapons to be good, but it is a change that shows a shift in attitude from one game to the next. Previous GTA games were all about profusion and excitement, sheer joy in variety. In GTA IV, weapons are strictly functional, without any allowance for ridiculous spectacle. I’m sure that real criminals do use the same tried and tested weapons all the tome, but having a range of ridiculous weaponry was one of the series’ hallmarks.

All of the changes are to make the game more realistic, to make it seem more grounded. I understand the intention – with GTA IV, Rockstar tried to tell a more complicated and serious story than in previous games. It’s just that every attempt to make the game more real ended up removing something that made the game fun.

The story is in itself the biggest issue – it’s the story of someone struggling for redemption and a new start, but finding that the land of opportunity is just as corrupt and difficult as the war zone he has left. It’s not a bad storyline. The problems arise from the fact that it’s the wrong storyline for this franchise.

Niko wants to be left in peace, to go straight, to led the violence and death fade into his past. Conflict arises when other characters won’t let him – they need violent, extra-legal assistance, or believe that he owes them something. Slowly, he gets dragged into crime and violence again.

Except that it isn’t slowly. It happens extremely fast – he goes from clearly regretting his previous choices to throwing thugs from windows all in the space of about a half hour. The gameplay demands crime and spectacle, but the story wants to be quiet and depressing. The end result is that you play the missions because that’s what the game demands, but you feel bad about it. The gameplay isn’t fun, because you wish you were doing something else, something that Niko could be proud of.

It turns out that a GTA game that tries not to be one isn’t a good, deep game. It’s a game in which the narrative is massively at odds with the gameplay, and one in which the entire game is just doing awful things for awful people. The overall effect is one of misery – people play games, at least in part, to be the hero, and there are no heroes here. Not only that, but the game goes out of its way to remind you that what you’re doing is, by many standards, rather evil. The city is a hive of villainy, and various characters beg you, fruitlessly, for their lives.

Added to that the “realism” of the setting and gameplay and the end result is a miserable game, a game where everything is more difficult than it should be, and everything is a little more depressing than it should be. The parts of the game that should be most entertaining are a slog, a tedious grind of slowing for traffic lights and inching forwards into traffic.

I’m still trying to play it, but it is hard going. I can’t lose myself in the gameplay because it isn’t fun enough, and I can’t mess around without doing missions because there’s nothing interesting to do (playing darts with your cousin does not count). I play it, currently, in short bursts to avoid becoming disillusioned.

In an attempt to make a deeper game, the developers have instead flattened everything; the valleys are no more extensive but the mountains no longer exist. There’s nothing that flows, nothing that catches the imagination and entertains. Just a slow grind in a depressing world.

Looking at the advertising and reviews for GTA V, it seems that the developers have backed off from the sombre and weary tone of IV, going back to the more exuberant style and atmosphere of the earlier games. I think that’s a positive – GTA should be big and dumb, and any deeper meaning has to come through that same style. You can make interesting points through something loud and flashy, but you can’t remove all the loud and flashy parts and still expect it to be interesting.

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