The Pursuit of Happiness
With the imminent release of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, I decided it was finally time to retire its immediate predecessor from my backlog. Add the same time, I’m finally laying to rest one of – if not the – longest-running unbeaten current-gen game I own; GTA IV was one of my first two 360 games way back when, and, ironically, I’d never gotten far beyond the first mission. Now that GTA V has hit store shelves in time for the holiday season, I can at last put it onto my Christmas wish list in good faith, knowing that I’m current and up-to-date as far as GTA retail releases go.
With a newly released game come fresh reviews, and with these came the first shitstorm (without a doubt of many) centered around the roiling cauldron of public outrage that is the Grand Theft Auto universe. Right out of the gate, a Gamespot review really got people’s engines revved by lowering its rating a point (to a 9/10) in large part due to the misogynistic elements of the game. Right on cue, outraged fans took to the virtual streets to air their grievances, inciting equally outraged supporters of Gamespot’s stance to take an opposing stance and return fire in kind. For a brief period, social media sites were abuzz with debates (more heated than not, in my experience) between people who’d never met before, eventually degrading into name-calling and other nasty exhibitions of silliness.
I’m sure next week there’ll be another problem with the game (I’ve already heard some rumblings about a torture mission that’s pushing the envelope). Personally, I feel it’s all a case of a sensationalistic media churning the waters of controversy for its self-serving ends, and keyboard tough guys (on both sides) poking at a hyper-exposed nerve in the public’s courtship of glorified sensationalism. Pretty soon everyone will just turn back to their Duck Dynasty and spit venom at the latest Kim & Kanye gossip. While that’s happening, the rest of us – the ones who want to play our games relatively free of the political roles they sometimes get shoehorned into – will quietly go back to playing our Grand Theft Auto peacefully and without oppressing women.
But I didn’t set out to write a lengthy diatribe about the sexist Dos and Don’t of GTA V (damn it’s easy to slip right into that, but it’s okay because this is my blog and I can do that here!). So while I’m climbing back down from my soapbox, which I oh so conveniently happened to have with me in case of a Grand Theft Auto article suddenly happening, let me get back to the issue at hand: my take on GTA IV.
During one of the discussions mentioned above, I heard statements being made about GTA IV being a very flat, dull game, and San Andreas being the series’ “high water mark” by far. I’m not convinced of the latter – I liked San Andreas, sure, but not more or less than some of the other entries in the series, barring its expansive scope, and would be hard-pressed to tell you much relating to the designers’ story-telling prowess – but I most assuredly disagree with the former. GTA IV was anything but dull. It was different from the last few entries, sure; in tone, I found it more in line with GTA III than Vice City or San Andreas. That’s a good thing! True, it took me many years to work up the stones to get into it, but that’s more a reflection on my tastes (and my overflowing gaming catalog) than a reflection of a poorly designed game.
My most salient impression of GTA IV at the moment is of its sheer length. With the sequel practically tumbling down my chimney in time for Christmas, I became more and more anxious about wrapping up the game as continued on and on. Every time I felt I was reaching a natural point for the story to reach its climax and wrap up, a new section began, new missions appeared, a new plotline needed to be explored. Although it sounds like a complaint, it was really quite enjoyable. (Luckily, I wasn’t under the gun to submit a timely review for a media outlet!) Getting more game than I expected is never a bad thing. Intentionally veering off every other mission to pursue some of the game’s myriad side activities added even more longevity to an already satisfying playthrough.
I thing GTA IV makes a considerable case of quantity over quality. Take the graphics, for instance. The sheer vastness of the game space you get to explore is staggering when examined for its visual variety and authentic feel. This has historically been something that Rockstar does well. I’m sure there’s some cookie-cutter cut-and-paste buildings in the game, but I didn’t actually spot any keeping a casual eye out for them. The streets and neighborhoods look and feel realistic (each street has a name, for God’s sake!), tourist attractions were unique and stood out, and the way the cityscape blended from industrial to residential, urban to (slightly) rural was seamless. Sadly, this beauty is only skin-deep, as buildings generally are empty facades with impenetrable windows that won’t allow a peek inside.
Graphics in general are kind of a double-edged sword: on one hand, characters look decidedly last-gen – better, perhaps, than in the PS2 days, and I continue to feel jubilant whenever I notice that characters actually have fingers in this game! – but on the other hand I can’t stay mad at the simplistic character models when I’m presented (not infrequently) with gorgeous postcard-moment sunrise vistas when driving across one of the in-game bridges, the sun throwing a corona of light across the waters of Liberty City’s bay as it slowly rises. Since I basically expected underwhelming character graphics, I had all the more time to be pleased at how the engine handled the look and feel of driving through inclement weather.
More so than the graphics, the in-vehicle radio station choices have become a phenomenon in their own right, reaching a sort of cult status in popular culture. And the audio choices are, in a word, immense! After playing through the entire game, I’m sure I haven’t heard it all yet, an issue compounded by the fact that any of the myriad radio talk shows have to be gleaned in snippets as you’re either getting into or leaving the car in the middle of the broadcast, or simply miss something because you tuned in too late. Thus, as a rule, I didn’t change any radio stations from their presets when commandeering a vehicle. Except the Russian station. Oh how I’ve come to loathe the Russian station…
At one point, at least three-quarters of the way through the game, I was happily cruising along the east shore in Algonquin, when I heard the beginning of a radio program I’d missed until that point (I must have been a good 20-30 hours in by then). Turns out, the “Just or Unjust” court drama is one of the most brilliantly offensive and politically incorrect pieces of audio in the game. I had to pull over to thoroughly enjoy all 20 minutes of it. I loved it!
I could go on giving my views on how the game veers away from the previous installment’s hyper-realism, blurring the lines by making it difficult to tell sometimes when the caricatured hyperbole ends and realism sets in. Or I could complain a bit about the lackluster post-game content, and how I wasn’t able to locate and kill more than about 10% of the game’s “flying rats” – and I looked! But I think that’d just be beating a dead horse. My views on the game are pretty clear, and if it’s any indication of what’s on offer in the next installment, I better go ahead and clear out a 2-3 month block of time on my calendar soon!