Note: This is our Grand Theft Auto IV redux review. Our initial review has been removed.
Ironically, just a couple of days after handing in my review of GTA IV, I managed to get it working on my machine. I accomplished this feat by running in a small window – 600x400 to be precise. My frame rates are hovering somewhere in the twenties, though when a lot of stuff is going on in the game I’ve had it fall even lower than that. Keep in mind that this is with a system matching the minimum system requirements. Why I had it run for one brief, shining moment in full screen and with high frame rates (up around 50FPS or so) but have been unable to repeat that performance, I don’t know. Why the second patch, which came out recently, seems to have reduced my frame rates slightly (though that’s largely by feeling as I haven’t measured it) I also don’t know. Why I’ve got a friend with a quad core machine and paired SLI videocards, and he’s doing only marginally better than I am, I also don’t know. I’m sticking with my initial review opinion that GTA IV is among the worst console ports ever, and that its graphics engine, while doing plenty of snazzy things when it’s running right, is a bloated, inefficient resource hog, but for those who are interested I can now give a review on the actual gameplay. I’m also going to add that if you do have the urge to buy GTA IV that you do so from somewhere that will allow you to return it. Fair warning.
The last GTA that I played extensively was Vice City. I did buy a copy of San Andreas, but lost interest early, mostly because I got tired of the exercising minigames. Whose bright idea was that? What’s next, the balancing your checkbook minigame? I’m pleased to report that GTA 4 has done away with the need for exercise, and with it all of the pseudo-RPG elements that went along with it. In its place, however, is something that is equally if not more as annoying, which my editor absolutely nailed when he called them “bromances.” You interact with a number of different characters in the game – your cousin and his business associates, various drug dealers and such, and several women. These characters, if they like you, can do things for you, providing you with money or guns or jobs. How do you get them do like you? You can do jobs for them, but you also have to socialize with some of them. You call them on the phone and go someplace with them that they’ll like – the strip club, playing darts, bowling, shooting pool, etc. Rockstar actually went to the trouble of writing a bowling simulation, a pool-shooting simulation, and darts into GTA 4. I can’t help but wonder why. The bowling, for example, while far from crude isn’t as much fun as, say, Wii bowling. There have been over the years a number of better pool games for the PC. I’m here to drive fast, shoot stuff, and run from the cops, but need to sort of work on these game relationships if I want their help. The inclusion of Simdate inside GTA 4 is very strange, and while there’s no requirement to socialize with any of the characters in the game, there are certain perks that you’re going to miss out on if you don’t.
Driving around listening to the radio has always been for me one of the cool things about GTA. I like their sense of humor, and with a number of channels and an extensive programming line up it really indicated the time and effort put into polishing the game. GTA 4 has taken that concept to the nth degree. You can now watch television in GTA. You can also surf the Internet (at Internet cafes, sort of childishly branded TW@). I don’t know how many websites there are to visit, but there are lots of them. And here’s the strange thing about them: almost all of it has nothing to do with the actual game. You sort of stop playing the game to watch TV or surf the Internet. You’re not driving, you’re not completing missions; you’re watching TV, inside a videogame. There’s a level of weirdness to that which I feel like I’m having a lot of trouble expressing. Let me try it this way: it doesn’t IMHO serve to enhance the gaming experience at all. It’s a distraction, a chance for the folks at Rockstar to pack in several hours of sort of miscellaneous comedic material with no other purpose. The radio stations were and are an integral part of the game; as you’re driving around, you’re listening to the radio – the rest of this stuff is mismatched, poorly integrated, and while sometimes amusing ultimately kind of pointless.
While the characters in GTA have never been paragons of virtue, Nico is among the most unlikable ever. He’s a thug and practically a small-time gangster stereotype, and the fact that he’s working against people who are perhaps worse thugs than himself is not really sufficient to make me care what happens to him, his quest for the great American dream notwithstanding. Is he going to find true love, or at least someone he can have sex with? Ditto, don’t care.
It’s been a long time since I played a GTA, but I don’t recall the steering being this loose or the traction of the cars being quite this low. I’ve rolled more cars than I can count, and flown through more than one windshield. I’m not going to pass judgment on the driving physics, but I will say that it has become perhaps about as cartoony as it can possibly get.
When you burrow past all this stuff GTA 4 is for the most part the same game that is has always been. There are many missions in the primary tree as well as side quests, working for drug dealers, the mafia, your cousin, and others. Some of them present you with a moral choice of how you want to play them out, though what the game ultimately does with my selections of being “good” or “bad” is not clear as I play it out. The cell phone has been expanded so that you can now call people to ask for missions (and yes, dates as well) and receives text message updates for missions you’re on. The whole cell phone interface works very well, though the phone often seems to ring at the most inopportune times (though you have the option of not answering it, doing so often enough will, I think, piss off your friends.) Included GPS functions makes navigating around the city a breeze. Expanded movement options like shooting from cover and climbing makes the game feel much more like an FPS when you are on foot. All of these little enhancements make the game a lot more playable.
There are many multiplayer options for GTA 4; I haven’t even gotten around to trying them all. Of the ones that I have tried, I’d like to say this: GTA4 is neither the best driving game, nor the best shooting game out there, and it is, for me at least, some magical combination of plot, driving, and shooting that makes it fun to play. The multiplayer games lack the plotline, and in that sense most of the multiplayer options are pretty goshdarned dull. There are straightforward deathmatch and team deathmatch styles, but there are also a number of goal-based types involving stealing a number of cars as part of a theft ring, assassination, and a couple of cops and robbers variants. All of these are through Games for Windows Live, and by this time I’m sure you all know how I feel about that.
At the core, GTA 4 is a pretty good game in the GTA series, hindered by the “bromances” and bloated by 15GB of television shows I’ll never watch, joke Internet sites I have no interest in surfing, extensive and lengthy cutscenes, a mediocre bowling game, a downright poor darts game, and a middling pool game. Oh, and a strip club that, if it actually excites anyone, makes me feel bad for mankind as a whole. The stuff that has been added to make GTA 4 feel more like a free roaming world detract from the game, dilute the things that draw me to the GTA series in the first place, and I wish they had expended all that creative energy making more missions.