It’s Not Vice City
I’m now pretty heavily into GTA IV – far enough that I feel I can talk about it with some authority and not have it be entirely “first impressions.” A lot of the initial “wow” factor has worn off now – I’ve been playing it pretty solidly for a couple days, given that the start date for my new job got pushed out to Monday (hey, free vacation).
I’m going to quote my friend, Marc:
“I wish it were a little less simulation and a bit more game.”
That said, I want to prefix with “it’s hellaciously fun.” I’m not sure I’ll be sick of it any time soon, and there’s a ton of stuff to do that I haven’t even touched. I don’t know that it is as mind-blowing as GTA III. It’s far better than San Andreas.
But, you know. It’s no Vice City.
But more on that in a minute.
The world – the game – everything in it – is a rich, detailed tapestry of Big City Life. All these weird details in our lives that we take for granted are in this game, and no two areas look the same. I remember when Maynard and I were playing Crackdown and we were happy that the “cut and paste” buildings were actually designed in such a way as not to appear “cut and paste.” In GTA IV, even buildings that could conceivably be cut and paste (like projects) are not. They may have the same physical shape, but each has its own details. It is several square miles of flavor.
Everywhere I go, I’m constantly seeing new things. New behaviors in the NPCs. Small things. My character met a woman through an internet dating site and we went out and then later she blogged about it. And you can read the blog.
However, it is the realism that gets in the way of a lot of the fun.
Not that I want to indicate that running and mass murdering people is a good thing, but come on. This is a GTA game. That’s half the fun: load up a save and start butchering people. See how long you can last versus the computer.
It’s one thing to pop a cap in someone’s ass while playing GTA III or it’s child games and quite another to do so in GTA IV. In GTA III, there was, despite its attention to detail, a “cartoony” atmosphere about everything. The violence was most assuredly comical in the ACME “Road Runner” way.
But in IV. . . well. You shoot someone in the skull and there’s blood. A lot of blood. People twist and scream and cry. I’ve shot people in missions and had them crawl behind couches – and then, when I go over there, they try to scrabble away, begging for their lives.
This evening, a bunch of people were over and we were screwing around. I went in some “internet cafe” place for some reason, and as I was leaving, the guy behind the counter made some sarcastic comment to me about not leaving a tip.
So I mustered my best Russian accent, said, “Here’s your tip,” tossed a grenade at him, and ran out the door.
WHAM. There was thunder! All the glass in the shop blew outwards, and a car alarm went off. Totally awesome.
But then, I heard people sobbing inside. The grenade had killed maybe five people and crippled another ten or fifteen. They were crawling away and crying, and – honest to $deity – I could swear I saw one girl cradling another in her arms.
We just stared at the screen, Maynard, Golden and I, stunned. It was. . . it was visceral. It was suddenly not so funny anymore. These are not faceless MOBILES who will just respawn as soon as I turn the corner; they are people whose digital “lives” I have permanently altered.
It has a subtle emotional grip.
The GTA III gameplay had a bunch of stuff in it that was obviously cartoonish. Stuff like floating stars that you could hit to reduce your wanted level. Those things – these game play elements – they’re gone. I haven’t seen a single “Unique Jump” or “Hidden Package” yet, though I know they exist (at least, according to the XBox Achievements list). The “Hidden Packages” are now apparently pigeons that you exterminate instead of floating bags of cocaine or tiki idols. And the jumps. . . well. They’re not obvious.
There are a great many things that the game nails on the head. San Andreas seems now, in retrospect, almost like a test for a lot of gameplay elements. In that game, you were forced to eat food. You were forced to go to the gym. You were forced to get a haircut. It was tedious work. I mean, I am forced to eat in the real world already; not so hip to doing that in a game. A lot of those elements are there but none are “required.” Eat food all you want – it restores health. But you don’t have to worry about getting fat.
San Andreas was also. . . too large. Movement between areas was hellish at times: we’re talking ten to fifteen minutes of travel time – if you were lucky enough to have a jetplane nearby that you could jack. Argh! GTA IV solves that problem, even though I think the square footage between the two games is the same. The cabs! The cabs are awesome. Hail one, and it takes you where you want to go, instantly. No cabs around? Call your cousin, Roman, and he’ll send one to you.
The cop car “vigilante” system got a realistic revamp. I’ve only skimmed the surface of it, but you can pull up the cop car computer and get a list of known criminals and then hunt them down individually (instead of the old “just chase down the cars they give you” bit). It’s a much more realistic interpretation of the gameplay.
Which brings us back to the “simulation” aspect of the game.
A huge (and I mean “hyoooge”) portion of the gameplay revolves around relationship management. Not just with the random women that you date – in fact, that’s almost irrelevant. No, I’m talking about friendships with other characters. Your character meets other people and makes friends with them and they call you up and say, “Hey, let’s go shoot some pool” or “let’s get hammered and go to a strip club.” You don’t have to go hang out with them – it takes time away from doing your jobs – but if you ignore them eventually they stop calling. Again the game comes down with this emotional grip.
For example, at one point I meet a guy named Dwayne who was just out of prison. And he’s trying to get his life back together. There are several conversations between your character and him, and you see that they are very similar – that they would be friends.
Later, you have to choose between him and another of your contacts. One of them must be killed. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style storytelling here: if you whack Dwayne, you lose a friend. But if you choose to kill the other guy, you may be screwing your future opportunities.
(I spared Dwayne.)
The next game “day”, I got a phone call from Dwayne. And he says, literally, “I don’t got many friends, but hey, would you like to go bowling?” It was weirdly heart-wrenching: I could feel his loneliness, and further that is reflected in my character’s loneliness (which is a running theme). Some of your friends are eager to hang out with you (Brucie); others are more distant and guarded. Roman just loves you – you’re his cousin, after all, and it’s a big deal to him.
The soundtrack is a collection of great tunes, and is well thought out. However, it isn’t clicking for me in the way that the Vice City soundtrack did (or even the San Andreas one). Laszlow is back, of course, and that is awesome, but he’s turned vicious and mean and says “fuck” a lot, and it just feels weird. I also heard an interview with the real life Ricky Gervais (who is in the game, playing himself), and that doesn’t feel right, either (kind of like Phil Collins being in Vice City Stories). There’s a merging of reality and fantasy there that doesn’t quite fit.
Finally, the game feels almost . . . unfinished. There are only two kinds of helicopters that I know of (the Maverick and the police “Blue Thunder” wannabe super-copter). There’s only one videogame that can be played (Bully had like, ten, and San Andreas at least three). It’s the kind of thing that that just feels weird to me: there’s so much attention to detail, and yet, everywhere I go it’s the same goddamned Tetris game. There are only three different clothing stores and they all sell the same stuff (you have a choice: look like an investment banker, a hipster douchebag, or someone from Borat’s village). It sticks out, and only because I sort of expected the same degree of detail to go into those sides of the game that have gone everywhere else.
There are several things that got cut (or I haven’t found, but I’m suspecting they got cut). All sorts of side missions, like pizza delivery or even the ambulance rescue games. The GTA III games had several “Remote Control Car/Plane/Helicopter” minigames. There isn’t a shooting range that I have found. The Coney Island analogue doesn’t have ridable rides (even though they did them for Bully). I haven’t earned any unlockable clothing items (half the fun of Vice City was running around in the hockey mask with a chainsaw, and Bully had hundreds of weird clothing options that you earn over time).
Maybe a lot of this will be in the “downloadable content” that’s been promised. I hope so: I’d hate to find that a bunch of fun gameplay got left out so that they could include “realistic” gimmicks like automatic car washes (there is one).
So. It’s a great deal of fun, definitely an A+ title, but I don’t know that it has the same soul that Vice City does.