Monday, November 2, 2009

Grand Theft Auto IV: A Review and A Revelation

I finished the first DLC expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV (The Lost and the Damned) this weekend. I have very little to say about it. If you love GTA4 then you probably already bought it. If you were indifferent or worse, then definitely give it a miss. It's all the same GTA gameplay with a shorter, dumber story and less compelling characters than the original game.

I did like how they called their biker gang a "motorcycle club" as if driving around on a Harley and beating people to death with a baseball bat is akin to bridge or needlepoint.

As I was playing the expansion though, I had a bit of a revelation that totally changed my view of the GTA games. You see, Rockstar has made a lot of these GTA games over the years (don't let the "4" fool you...there's like a hundred of these things) and they all follow the same formula: amazing technology showcased in a freeform universe, but with absolute SHIT gameplay. GTA4 stepped it up a notch by introducing high quality presentation, a relatively cohesive story (though it falls apart in places), and some genuinely sympathetic characters. And like always, as a piece of technology GTA4 is light years ahead of the competition. No virtual city has been more detailed and plausible than Liberty City. But the gameplay? SAME OLD SHIT.

Let me give an example of how a mission in GTA4 works to illustrate this concept. Spoilers abound, so if you want to play the game without hearing about one of the main missions, stop reading now:

Background - Your cousin Roman has been kidnapped by some nogoodnicks as a means of revenge against some of your previous actions. He's being held captive in an abandoned building near an oil refinery. You have to rush over to his location, gun it out with a small army of goons, and save him.

Attempt 1 - I picked up the mission halfway across the city from the abandoned building where Roman was being held, so the first thing I had to do was commandeer a vehicle and haul my butt over there. As I drove, my enemy Dimitri called to gloat about how he's got my cousin and there's nothing I can do about it. We hurl some generic threats and insults at each other. It's a moderately long drive and the conversation goes on far longer than is necessary. I finally arrived and stormed the building, killing wave after wave of enemies. You have to wind your way up to the top of the building and at each level more enemies spawn to attack you.

The first attempt seems to be going well...I've eliminated most of the enemies and haven't taken much damage. I'm being very careful to kill all the enemies on each level so nobody can get me from behind while I'm engaged with forward opposition. Imagine my surprise when I get near the top and suddenly find that I'm taking copious amounts of damage but no new enemies are visible. I quickly look around and discover that some baddies have spawned BEHIND ME on the metal girders supporting the buildings roof. So what, were these guys hiding in the rafters all day waiting for an intruder to show up so they could fire machine guns at him while precariously balanced 30 feet up in the air? That makes sense. In any case, this little ambush costs me most of my health and the next little group of enemies only need one shot to finish me off. Mission restart.

Attempt 2 - I start all the way back where I picked up the mission. Grab a car, endure another round of Dimitri's now-repetitive taunting, and arrive at the building. Same gunfight as before, but this time I know about the baddies that suddenly appear on the rafters. I blast them before they can get me this time, finish off the last group of thugs, and go through a door to an office. Another goon is using my cousin as a human shield and threatens to kill him. A prompt appears telling me that I need to pick off the bad guy before he kills Roman. Forget for a moment that it makes no sense for this guy to assassinate the person he's using as a shield. The game warns me that I need to use a steady, controlled weapon so I don't hit Roman. Bad news kids...I just got through a huge gunfight with a bunch of heavily armed killers and I didn't do it with a popgun - I was obviously using my assault rifle. I switch to my pistol and take aim at the bad guy, but IT'S TOO LATE! He kills my cousin, thus assuring a quick death for himself and a quick trip to Game Over land for me. Mission restart.

Attempt 3 - Steal car, call from Dimitri, battle through refinery, don't forget ninjas on the rafters. This time I make sure to equip my pistol BEFORE entering the office. Now that I know it's coming, I'm easily able to snipe the bad guy resulting in a cool slow-mo cutscene where the bullet just misses Roman and kills the bad guy. Awesome, though I'd have enjoyed it more if I weren't seething from having to go through this whole thing three times. Roman and I escape from the back entrance, head down a stairwell, and jump into the only available getaway vehicle, a semi truck. Roman starts shouting that the police are coming (you can hear sirens) and we need to leave quickly. Not wanting to risk a police chase in a semi, I make haste to escape. Unfortunately we're in the middle of the refinery and it's not clear which way we need to go. I turn the wrong way, realize my mistake, and carefully maneuver the truck to turn around. In doing so, I accidentally tap (emphasis on TAP) one of the many barrels littered throughout the place. It instantly explodes, as does (I wish I was kidding) our truck with us in it. Mission restart.

I got it on the fourth try, but only through gritted teeth. This is the essence of GTA games: you die over and over until you figure out how the designers wanted you to solve the mission. Every failure necessitates a restart from the beginning and a lot of pointless do-over bullshit. It's aggravating and unfair (they love to use tricks like making enemies invincible until they arrive at a preordained showdown location), but most of all IT ISN'T FUN.

I've always wondered how the same people who are so brilliant when it comes to world-building and utilizing technology could be so ignorant when it comes to making the dang thing fun. But while playing the expansion, I had my revelation and it was all instantly clear:


Despises them, as one would feel about crawling vermin that one might find in one's basement. The whole of the GTA universe was created as a giant monkey trap for gamers, who are then summarily tortured for the amusement of Rockstar's employees. It's not that they aren't competent enough to make a fun game that would complement their technological's that THEY DON'T WANT TO. The sprawling, detailed world is the sweet scent to draw you in to the Venus flytrap that is their shitty gameplay.

Dear Rockstar: I am on to you.


  1. commandeer? I like how it takes extreme anger and 3 attempts for the honesty to prevail... :)

    I also enjoy the use of "engaged in forward opposition" in reference to a GTA game.

    Do you think Rockstar puts little trackers into their games so that they can view the results of their monkey traps? I imagine a giant room full of monitors with a popcorn machine and each designer sitting around boasting about how often their trap gets the gamer.

  2. I assume they just go by sales numbers, like "We sold another ten thousand copies of GTA this month...ha, ha stupid gamers!" Although maybe they keep some gamers in a room with a two way mirror so they can watch the poor bastards tearing their hair out in frustration thanks to the tortuous and thoroughly retarded GTA gameplay we've all come to revile.