on Apr 24, 2007
One of the things which bugs me about Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (and its many siblings) is the appalling lack of freedom when encountering challenges: There are a dozen apparent ways to attempt to solve a problem. One of them is correct. Retry until you guess right.
Most missions require a certain degree of foreknowledge. Going into a situation, you never know if you will need a fast car, a heavy car, a motorcycle, or if you will be fighting on foot. Will you fight many weak foes (bring a pistol) or a single strong one (bring a shotgun) or will you need to be shooting while driving? (Bring a submachine gun.) You have to try a mission a few times to know what you’re up against and use that knowledge to prepare, but then the game thwarts attempts to otherwise use that knowledge to your advantage. You have to use some foreknowledge, but not too much, and only when the game allows. Case in point:
Salvatore Leone, a Mafia Don, has been kidnapped. His kidnappers have him in the trunk of a car. They plan to take the car to the junkyard and put it into the crusher. Sal is a lying, murderous, drug-selling, wife-beating scumball, and my job is to rescue him.
The bad guys have the car in a garage. I dash in and gun them all down, planning to free Sal once they are dead. He should be fine as long as I kill them before they get in the car. Wrong. The car is already full of guys, and they were just sitting in the car, waiting around for no particular reason except that whoever designed the quest wanted a car chase. The bad guys could have left long before I got here if they wanted.
They pull away. I commandeer a nearby car but I’m too slow. They get away. I reach the junkyard just in time to see the car get lowered into the crusher.
Thinking ahead, I park a car in front of the garage. Traffic piles up and forms a roadblock. When they emerge from the garage they are forced to push their way through the mass of cars. While they are stopped, I make my move and run up and try to steal the car, planning to drive away.
Except the doors are locked. All cars in the gameworld – parked or moving – are unlocked in this game, except in situations like this where being clever would make a mission “too easy”. They change the rules on you, because if they decide we’re going to have a car chase then dangit, we are going to have ourselves a car chase!
The bad guys shove through traffic and pull away. I am stranded in the traffic clog of my own making and can’t catch them.
Fine! I’ll stop trying to be clever and do the car chase. I pick up a very fast car and just wait outside of the garage. The bad guys pull out. Their car is a very crappy model but seems unnaturally nimble and fast. Hmmmm. I strongly suspect there is a little cheating going on here. No matter what car I bring, I suspect theirs will be 10% faster.
Keeping up is hard. I get spun around in traffic and they pull away. I catch up just in time to see the magnetic grabber lowering towards the car. The game tips me off that I need to steal the car before it gets crushed. Oh so now I can steal it? Classic plot-driven doorlocks. I can see I won’t reach it in time, but I’m not willing to give up just yet. I floor it and jump a pile of debris, and land perfectly on top of the Car containing Sal. I bail out. Score! The grabber will take my car off the top and then I can drive away with Sal.
But the grabber goes right through my car, grabs Sal, and lifts the bottom car through my now-ethereal vehicle.
I don’t go to the garage where the guys are waiting. Instead of showing up and triggering the chase, I just head straight for the junkyard. Without me chasing them, the bad guys take their sweet time, so I have a generous wait. I’m right beside the crusher, so as soon as they jump out I can jump in. On previous attempts the crusher seemed to wait a bit before doing its thing, so once the bad guys get out I’ll have plenty of time to get in.
They pull in. Like scripted idiots, they don’t gun me down, drive away, or run me over while still in the car. They just get out. Rather than have them shoot up the car as I pull away, I decide to take them out first. But before I can even drop the first guy, the crane comes in and snatches the car away. Looks like the crane is triggered not just by time, but by how close I am. Whoever designed the mission wanted me to come in and drive away juuuust as the crane is coming down, so that I would rescue Sal at the very last second. My standing nearby just triggered it sooner, before the bad guys could even walk away from the car.
I have a perfect picture in my mind of how this mission is supposed to go: I get to the garage just as the car with Sal is pulling away. Then I have a high-speed chase across town, but the bad guys pull away from me. They park the car at the crusher and step away, thinking they won. Then I fly in, nab the car out from under the crusher at the last second and narrowly make my escape in a hail of bullets.
The author of this mission isn’t designing a game, he’s writing a movie scene, and I’m acting as a stuntman who isn’t allowed to read the script. I have to feel around for the railroad plot and figure out my place in it. If this was in any other game, players wouldn’t stand for this sort of thing. In a lot of ways GTA is a terrible game that takes place in an outstanding gameworld with high production values.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.