Grand Theft Auto IV – Final Review

Grand Theft Auto IV is epic in scope; the journey the protagonist Niko Bellic embarks on is a long, winding one, a literal odyssey. Arriving in Liberty City, a supposed beacon brimming with opportunity, Niko is met with an affectionate reception by his loving if cowardly cousin, boyhood companion. Roman, though installed in Liberty City for some time, has little to show for that installation, lacking in both money and renown, receiving only oppression and squalor. Still, no matter the current fruitlessness of his endeavors, opportunity does exist, will always exist. Niko’s presence hastens the acquisition of that opportunity, frustrated also at his cousin’s blatant deceptions, his communicating of immense prosperity, completely illusionary. Narratively, in these opening sections everything is very grounded and human, Niko assisting Roman on a fundamental level, aiding his cousin in business endeavors – specifically, his taxi depot, sole marker of any success, meagre though it may be. Rapidly things escalate, murder and intrigue growing, the narrative becoming increasingly dark and bleak, a bleakness which characterizes many facets of the title and its sprawling open-world. Given this narrative ambition, many failings are present, many stumbles taken. Niko, so likable and endearing from the first, fast shows himself as a greedy, insatiable figure, even whilst seemingly dismissing wealth as frivolous, not something to devote total attention towards – his behavior and motivations are inconsistent, only resulting in frustration; his likability is almost totally destroyed, a tragic admission when considering the potential attached to his being.

Many other human elements are present in the narrative, with compelling side characters beyond simple, kind-hearted Roman. Certain of these characters are remarkable and endearing, not unlike Niko at the beginning of his journey. Others are bizarre exaggerations, totally unrealistic in terms of personality and demeanor, included mostly for comedic effect – there is steroid addicted Brucie, sweet and sincere albeit possessive of an overabundance of energy. Similarly, Little Jakob is present, a Jamaican fellow with a thick, barely coherent accent, smoking always, fast becoming a caricature of sorts. These characters, the dynamics which exist between them, help elevate the narrative into greatness, be they caricatures or no. But when this humanness is discarded, the faltering again shows itself, matters slowing to a halt; Niko becomes directionless, still focused on revenge and the dispatch of a traitor from the Old War, but the buildup to that vengeful act is unnecessarily lengthened and bombastic, Niko eventually working for the Italian Mafia, where the concern for wealth becomes predominant concern, Niko engaging in petty squabblings with these powerful figures, mentioning always his fee, spewing degrading lines like, “it’ll cost you.” It is precisely these exchanges, these fixations with wealth, which contribute to Niko’s unlikability. Dedicated to duty, indulging in violence without enjoying that violence, desirous solely of assisting his floundering cousin – these are all great things, as is Niko’s frequent display of restraint. The Niko at the beginning of the narrative is endearing; that attribute cannot be attached to the Niko at the conclusion of the tale, furthering the sense that he has embarked on some grand odyssey.    

Niko’s first motivation – the acquisition of wealth – monopolizes the narrative for a considerable duration, he becoming embroiled in dramas and tensions amongst the feuding McCreary family, joining them to hasten his monetary expansions, meeting also friends and a potential lover in the process; this humanness is welcome, as is the nature of the mission design. Acting towards a similar end, there is the mentioned Mafia consultation, Niko acting in a number of positions for these greedy, corrupt men, though the nature of these engagements is of a different sort, far from compelling, fast growing tedious, as all central characters involved here are despicable rather than endearing, even as they cleverly reflect the darkness present in Liberty City. Still, when considering the former, human mission strand, enjoyability is on offer – Niko’s desire for financial elevation can be an endearing objective, even as it corrupts him. Given these relative successes, the neglect attached to that second motivation – the exacting of revenge – did not result in an excess of frustration. Frustrating, though, is a sort of anti-climax, Niko finally locating the presumed traitor, a massive accomplishment in an environment as sprawling as Liberty City; finally, this portion of the odyssey is to be completed; but ultimately, this is not so, the located man not responsible for the offenses committed in the Old Country, during the shaping wars Niko was involved in. After this frustrating letdown, the game continues ever onwards, winding and winding unnecessarily, the narrative truly beginning to stumble and lose its way – the title is let down by its largeness, a mark of shame even the characters and world-building cannot completely rectify or cleanse.

Now, diamond heists are partaken of, as are kidnappings, bank assaults, heroin acquisition – it is disappointing; the title is overly ambitious. Stretching on seemingly endlessly, my engagement dropped considerably, replaced by a desire for the narrative’s conclusion. The final few hours are immensely enjoyable, but the protracted lull of mundanity which preceded this conclusion did its damage, preventing the title from achieving true, lasting greatness, at least from a narrative standpoint. A few morality choices are also present in the conclusion, some of which inspired sincere contemplation – here is surprising, commendable emotional investment. Illustrating this, the traitor being located, an option to kill or spare him is presented. Execution here seemed logical, if brutal. Committing this damming act would be consistent with Niko’s character, shaped by his journey. Sparing this man, too, would undo completely Niko’s – and the player’s – efforts. Still, hesitation was present. Here, standing alongside Niko was Roman, and a question promptly arises: will my dear, beloved cousin think me a monster if I kill this man, bound and helpless? It is fascinating that this question emerges, showing how much I have grown to value and respect Roman’s opinion – here is a narrative triumph, the game eliciting sincere emotion and affection.  

The world these characters inhabit is a remarkable one, totally unique aesthetically and atmospherically. From a technical perspective, admittedly, it has aged poorly; very few NPC’s walk the streets, no matter the time of day, while traffic is often quite slight, whereas an abundance of vehicles would be more realistic; here are limitations. Similarly, the variety of models for NPC’s is lacking, resulting in repetition and destroying immersion. The models which do exist are poorly done, the facial animations lacking in quality, even when regarding the principal characters or in the game’s many cutscenes. Finally, foliage modelling is poor, though given the urbaneness of the setting, it is understandably sparse. Technically, then, the game stumbles, though something indefinable, darkly beautiful, and singularly distinct is here attached to Liberty City. A sense of unparalleled density is present, even as the map is objectively rather small in size. With impressive weather effects and a dynamic day/night cycle, the world seems lived in, reflecting the passage of time. In certain instances, all saturation is drained from the screen, resulting in a grimy, cinematic quality, reflecting the darker aspects of the city, that darkness balanced by the shining lights of distant skyscrapers, towering far ahead in the central borough of Algonquin. Unlocking that alluring borough was gratifying and exciting, as for so long it was admired from a distance, tempting in its grandeur and beauty. Exploring the city by helicopter is also thrilling, even as considerable pop-in exists, while the helicopter can be occasionally finicky to pilot. But whatever technical failings are present, the game excels creatively – it has considerable heart, was lovingly crafted, and that immensity of affection shines through in every facet of the world design. Dense and beautiful, particularly at night or while far, far above in the clouds, looking down below, notions of progress and advancement are validated – despite the darkness, there is something beautiful and Edenic about this place, something reassuring, a promise of hope. 

Navigating the world is a mostly joyous experience, though hampered by certain restraints; on foot, Niko is relatively limited in action, capable to mount and climb certain surfaces, though any great verticality is lacking, save when the helicopters are piloted, liberating vehicles. This dearth of verticality is actually notable, as it restricts experimentation and flexibilities in combat. Beyond basic mantling, multiple speeds can be adopted, from leisurely walking through towards a spirited sprint. This infantry gameplay and locomotion, then, can be occasionally clunky, though being outside of a vehicle better communicates the largeness of the cityscape, seemingly amplifying its size. But the pace is naturally slower, so traditionally vehicles will be employed. Vehicles are initially unintuitive, the controls difficult to grasp, resulting in frequent frustrations. Later acquirable vehicles – stolen directly from inhabitant or snatched from some concealed, parked location – greatly increase the level of enjoyment, offering far greater, more minute control, and the sense of speed is unparalleled, with effective motion-blur, conveying the rapidity of movement, heightening the tension as Niko weaves through tragic daringly, the controls permitting cinematic feats.

But beyond this simple reliance on the luxury cars, almost every vehicle is functional and capable – certainly difficult to wield at first, a steep learning curve is present within the game’s driving systems; these systems must first be mastered before such stunts are feasible; accompanying that mastery is great enjoyment. With impressive damage-modelling, individualized for every vehicle, a sense of impactfulness is present in collisions, bumpers destroyed, loosened hoods blowing backwards into the wind when travelling at significant speeds. Similarly individualized are the vehicles handling, with subtle, minute differences existing between them, further encouraging experimentation. Bikes by nature encourage recklessness, with their high speeds and maneuverability, and as a class are compelling. A considerable portion of the game will be spent in these vehicles – failing to invest the time to grasp the nuances of the driving can understandably repel many players, though with the passage of time, a certain seamlessness arises, and the driving soars in triumph. Boats, while not piloted as frequently, afford a different sort of experience, speedboats bumping up and down, thrown about by the waves, providing a certain thrill; the water effects are commendable here, and passing below the game’s many bridges while battling the waves is quite cinematic.

Furthering the joy of vehicular locomotion is an eclectic blend of music, a plethora of different radio stations on offer, accurately reflecting the diversity of musical tastes which would understandably be present in a metropolis like Liberty City. Finding the appropriate, resonant tune, blasting the game at full volume – it only amplifies the sense of speed and satisfaction, simultaneously if indirectly encouraging exploration; driving merely to listen and enjoy the music becomes an active enjoyment. Indeed, it is in these relatively quiet moments of driving and exploration where the game excels; tragically, as the narrative progresses, these quieter moments grow progressively scarce, matters escalating rapidly and dangerously. Gunplay and wild vehicle chases dominate the later parts of the game’s campaign, any relaxation destroyed as soon as a primary objective is started – the quieter moments persist only outside of the central narrative, as the soothing, character-driven missions from the opening are discarded. These systems, fortunately, are competent, the gunplay particularly standing out, affording the player a great deal of freedom, even as that verticality is lacking. Playing cautiously, nearly every object in the gameworld can be used as cover – cars and walls can be employed to great effect, serving as beacons of security, minimizing potential damage to Niko, which can often be immense, when considering the damage output of many enemies. Shooting from cover, though, safe as it may be, is often inconsistent in terms of accuracy, thus driving me away from this approach and attracting me to the second combat option – a free-aiming system, which facilitates far greater precision. Cover itself is reliable, but the free-aiming system must be employed liberally if success is to be achieved.  

Enemies can unleash considerable damage quite swiftly, their own accuracy flawless, but these central engagements were never cheap, save for the placement of some enemy in an obscure location, huddled away in some corner, completely out of sight, ready to blast away Niko, who is comparatively fragile, even whilst wearing body armor, which raises his health by a considerable degree, thus becoming a necessity, purchasable at the game’s many hidden weapons dealers. Collectively, though, these sections were highly enjoyable, and I gravitated towards gunplay as opposed to vehicles, even as those systems of driving grow progressively charming. Some mistakes are made:  no weapon wheel is present; each weapon class must be navigated through sequentially by the movement of the D-Pad, and this oversight can result in many frustrations, Niko fumbling about clumsily to reveal an assault rifle or some other such weapon. Ammo is often in perfect abundance, save for the more exotic weapons, which contributes to an indirect deflating of tension. While these loud moments and combat engagements are bombastic in tone, ruining the more tranquil moments of simple exploration, they remain highly enjoyable, even as they have the tendency to outstay their welcome.

Totally unenjoyable, though, are engagements with the police force. Dogged in their pursuits, once agitated a protracted struggle is sure to ensue, countless cop cars spawning into the map, unfairly predicting the player’s motions, cutting Niko off or violently ramming him from behind, engaging in reckless abandon. The intensity of their response escalates in accordance with the severity of the action they are investigating. Higher levels, when they are achieved, are accompanied with a considerable, exaggerated police presence, helicopters being dispatched at certain thresholds. A stark picture of contrast is here painted – a long, intense gunfight has just been struggled through, resulting in an abundance of satisfaction. Then, promptly afterwards, a police chase occurs, instantly deflating the mood, replacing it with frustration. While exploring the world, I made deliberate decisions to avoid their ire, snatching cars from concealed parking lots or alleyways, rather than directly from the streets, clearly in their presence. The systems for evading them are intuitive and engaging in theory, but in practice the engagements are anything but, stretching on endlessly, needlessly.

In terms of secondary content, the game is particularly abundant, though the rewards for engaging in those activities are often paltry. A notable exception is related to the dating and friend system, where a companion – or Niko – can initiate an excursion around Liberty City, be it for drinks, eating, or more involved ventures, like an outing for darts or the shooting of pool. The minigames are decent, each with a fair bit of depth, particularly the bowling, which I never got a decent grasp on. What makes these encounters special, though, is the character development which accompanies them; riding to or from the venue, considerable dialogue is advanced, developing Niko and his companion, giving further depth to the world they inhabit. The amount of dialogue is immense and varied throughout, always unique and individualized. Admittedly, these friend systems can become a hassle in the late game, when a great many contacts have linked themselves to Niko, all eager to discourse with him. As player engagement falters, too, the allure of these scenarios – human though they may be – gradually wears away, the game suffering by nature of its protracted length. The expansiveness of the map, when all islands have been unlocked, furthers the tedium of these excursions, necessitating a long drive, made tolerable by the intuitive controls and compelling music, but only just. Further relating to this traversal, taxis can be hailed at any moment, admitting Niko as passenger, instantly driving him to a predetermined location, serving as the fast-travel system, lessening boredom.

Other secondary activities, though, are often far from rewarding, fast growing repetitive and unfulfilling. In these activities, quantity receives more emphasis than does quality, greatly tarnishing the missions, their potential resonances. As one illustration, police vehicles can be obtained, a dangerous task in itself; once therein, armed with a police computer, a listing of high-value criminals is accessible, their exact location provided. Arriving there, they are to be violently dispatched. In some hunts, great, intense gunplay is present, expectantly resulting in enjoyable exchanges. In other instances, criminals seek to flee by vehicle, and a flaw is here made apparent; if the right angle is obtained, and accuracy holds true, these enemies can be dispatched in mere seconds, being highly basic. No tangible reward is given for completing these missions, save an achievement and, to an extent, satisfaction. This basicness is also evident as Niko adopts the role of literal executioner, receiving calls from a pay-phone by some shady individual, also receiving instructions on who precisely to execute. Comparatively speaking, the monetary rewards are slight, depth often lacking; they seem a pointless inclusion, merely to add content and fluff, and they further destroy Niko’s character, as he becomes a literal hitman or bizarre vigilante. Collectibles are also present in the form of pigeons scattered about the city; existing in abundance, and often carefully concealed, they are a bother to track down, and no tangible reward seems in sight, repelling their active search.  

Despite its many hurdles and disruptions, it is the narrative which exists as Grand Theft Auto IV’s greatest strength, the marker of its greatest originality. Characterized by overwhelming darkness and bleakness, here is presented a brooding tale, with Niko as a brooding figure, a compelling protagonist even as he betrays his principles, bouncing from employer to employer, in search of wealth which serves no real function. Liberty City is similarly dark, though these grimy, mature themes are reined in somewhat by comedic flourishes, which echo forth from almost every location – the NPC’s spew comedic dialogue, the radios blaring always a forced satire, much of which falls totally flat. There is a tonal conflict present here, and I tend to favor the darker narrative aspects, with characters either compelling or vile, or a combination of both. As the narrative winds onward, ever onward, missions start to run together, blending into one another – the milieu may change, the mission giver also changing, but the game relies always on shooting and driving, almost to a fault. The cutscenes, well-animated and well-scripted, lose their luster as the title progresses, gradually becoming a husk of its former self. And then, everything coalesces in the conclusion, a tragic ending and a return to narrative form. But beyond these narrative strengths, impressively punctuated at times by moral decisions, the game feels rather generic, even as painstaking efforts were made to impart a sense of originality. Here, to an extent the developers were successful – Liberty City, countless years on, remains a marvel, even as it is burdened with technical issues, mostly stemming from that advanced age. A joy to explore, it becomes a character in its own right. Though the campaign is filled with anti-climaxes, many starts and stops, the overall experience is highly satisfying. A pioneer of the genre, much of the praise attributed to it is deserving, though at times an unoriginality in gameplay systems prevents the game from achieving true greatness.   

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