878,598 dollars earned (of which $376,945 was spent), 860 killed by one of my 161 cars stolen or ventilated by a number of my 16,367 bullets fired, 94 missions completed, and 28 hours and 34 minutes later I have completed Grand Theft Auto 4, a game sitting at a solid 98% overall score on Metacritic three weeks after its release. It’s a game that cost $100 million to make and a game which grossed $500 million in its first week. The question that no one is asking at this point in time since it’s been answered by eight media outlets already is: does Grand Theft Auto 4 live up to the incredibly high expectations? Absolutely.
Grand Theft Auto 4 starts with a sweeping introductory sequence designed to introduce the protagonist, Niko Bellic, as the fresh-of-the-boat Eastern European that he is. Once disembarking from the ship that carried him to Liberty City, USA, players are introduced to Roman Bellic, Niko’s cousin. At this point, the two characters which fuel the single-player storyline are introduced and the game’s pace begins at the snail level. Through the next ninety-three missions the epic storyline will unfold as missions progressively get more difficult, wider in scope, and the plot elements become more and more deadly. Rockstar is so confident in their design that it has the first five hours or so of missions serve as a running tutorial where the body count remains in the single-digits unless the player feels the need to cleanse the sidewalks of the first of the game’s four boroughs. This very slow, meaningful pace is the game’s greatest asset: the first time a player is thrust into a situation where numerous people have to be killed is about six hours and feels like the major turn of events that it should feel like.
At its heart, Grand Theft Auto 4 is still Grand Theft Auto. It does very little to deviate from the franchise’s traditional game flow: mission begin marker, cutscene, mission execution, cutscene, [...], mission end. Within the confines of the game, this formula works better than most games could ever hope for. The game succeeds because of this fact; every aspect of the experience is fine-tuned to perfection and is comfortable within the tapestry of mechanics that exist around it. The driving feels realistic (a first for the series), the gunplay is visceral and feels surprisingly natural once the unique control scheme is understood, and the gunplay while driving is a joy to engage in. A single bank robbery mission in Grand Theft Auto 4 is executed to a level of perfection that entire games based around the concept (Kane and Lynch) can’t reach. At no point throughout the nearly thirty hours of gameplay did I ever frown at the idea of a firefight or a high-speed escape from a four-star wanted level.
It is a surprise to me that the biggest complaints I have with Grand Theft Auto 4 are related to the cinematic aspect of the game. The epic feel comes natural to the game as a result of the developers’ patience with their storytelling so why, then, does the game start to fall flat in its final act? Every few hours spent with the game I feel as if I’ve reached the climax of the game and there was no way that a mission could be topped or a cutscene could enthrall me more and then, a few missions later, I’m overcome by the same feelings. But, as a result, at around the 85% completion mark (of the story which entails a total of 63-64% of the in-game “completion” marker) as the game’s various plot lines started to end and the sources of missions became fewer and fewer, Rockstar seemed to choose the least interesting plots available to them. Early in the game the player is introduced to a member of a once-infamous Irish family that, as one character points out mid-mission, used to “own” Liberty City. Niko comes in contact with every member of this family and each of these characters had a very deep persona with a wealth of available back story to develop on. Instead, the writers chose to go down the path infested with the scum that composed Liberty City’s Italian mafia. As I took each of the missions given to me by members of the mafia it seemed like I started dealing with very unlikeable two-dimensional characters instead of the vast number of the incredibly well-written people that made up the first three-quarters of the game.
While GTA4 puts a far greater emphasis on character interactions and the maintenance of relationships, I still can’t help but feel that the Niko I’m playing as I make my way through the game as a player is a vastly different one from the Niko I see portrayed in GTA4’s numerous cutscenes. These amazingly well-produced, directed, written, and voiced movies that serve as bookends for the missions given throughout the game are a joy to watch but I still feel that when it comes time to get in a car and execute the orders given to me during the CG movies that I’m disconnected from the meat of the story. The dates (casual and romantic) which make up a significant portion of GTA4’s sidequests did a remarkable job of lessening this feeling of disconnect, but it remains one of my primary problems with Grand Theft Auto as a series.
And since I don’t care to elaborate on these much since they’ve been harped on endlessly elsewhere, here are my only two real gameplay complaints: no checkpoints for the especially long missions and far too many artificial chase missions where I was not allowed to harm the targets of the chase until a certain scripted event happened.
It’s a shame that Grand Theft Auto 4 may be the last major single-player Grand Theft Auto game ever made by Rockstar North because the switch back to a very gritty, realistic setting with a scaled back map size and feature set made Grand Theft Auto 4 one of the greatest video games ever created and I’d love to see what the fruit of their future labors would produce. Just, please, don’t make an MMO. Please. I’m begging.