GTA: LCS: Grand Theft Railroad

 By Shamus Apr 24, 2007 32 comments

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:

The Setup:

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.


Attempt 1:

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.

Attempt 2:

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.

Attempt 3:

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.

Attempt 4:

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.


201225 comments. Neato.


  1. Rob says:

    Sounds frustrating. But your post is a good, clear example of why it’s so frustrating. I wish more game designers would think some of these things through.

  2. Phlux says:

    This really just illustrates that the “stories” games were hackjobs thrown together in an attempt to make money. this is nearly universal when it comes to porting console games to handhelds (and in this case: back again to consoles).

    There are examples of this type of thing in the “genuine” GTA games, but I’ve never found any quite so pronounced as this one. Plot doors, sure, badly scripted sequences, definitely, but nothing quite so lamebrained as this one.

    I don’t entirely disagree with their methods, just the extremes to which they take them on occassion. To me I would feel sort of cheated if I had gotten to the garage and been able to wipe them out and beat the mission before it really began.

  3. pdwalker says:

    As much as I loved driving around in the game world, this is exactly the reason why I absolutely *detested* the missions.

  4. Woerlan says:

    Why do I have the feeling that if there was a living GM involved in this mess, I would have shot him with a 12-gauge after attempt 3?

    Suddenly, I’m glad I didn’t buy or play this game.

  5. Corvus says:

    The Hitman franchise is equally infuriating. Very little margin of error and no true opportunities for creative approaches. This, despite having the groundwork laid for some truly impressive sandbox style missions.

    That being said, I stopped playing GTA: Vice City when I realized that my one successful attempt to subvert the limitations of the provided missions was an accident of luck (I jumped a motorcycle over the gold course fence, thereby keeping my weapons).

  6. Lo'oris says:

    That’s great. I completely agree with you: trial and error games simply suck.

    This problem also happens in GTA: San Andreas, where wondering around is very fun, but doing the missions is a waste of time.

    I remember that GTA2 was way more flexible, or maybe it’s been so a long time since i played that, that my memory has made it better ;)

  7. Daemian Lucifer says:

    Ah yes,the numerous reatempts on GTA missions are frustrating indeed.I cannot count the times when I thought I was too clever and found an easy way around a mission when suddenly mission failed shows up.

  8. Teddust says:

    Sometimes I wonder if the fun of GTA was just a lucky accident on Rockstar’s part, because when you actually play the ‘real’ part of the game it has some of the worse game design I’ve ever seen.

  9. rflrob says:

    Phlux Says:
    To me I would feel sort of cheated if I had gotten to the garage and been able to wipe them out and beat the mission before it really began.

    I feel cheated if the game obviously cheats to enforce some pre-determined notion of what’s supposed to happen. If there was one guy in the garage who was, unbeknownst to the player, actually invincible (or alternately, the last goon alive can’t die), and was close enough to the car to make it out before taking too many hits, then he would be able to force a car chase without making it look forced.

  10. Hagan says:

    I remember one mission in San Andreas where it was very similar. I gun down a warehouse but the last guy was going to get away, it didn’t matter how good I was, it didn’t matter that I had the drop on him, it just didn’t matter. He got away everytime and a car chase ensued.

  11. Lee says:

    This is why I’m so fond of Crackdown. It’s different than GTA for a few key reasons.

    First, and the most obvious, is that you’re a building-leaping, truck-throwing, explosion-making supercop, but that’s beside the point.

    The more interesting aspect is that the game sandboxes its entire plot and rips out the rails completely. Your objective is to kill 21 crime bosses; these bosses are accessible from the start of the game. One or two may require you achieve a certain level of Agility to climb to their general location, but Agility can be (and usually is) leveled independently of missions.

    These bosses are not invulnerable, not hidden; they’re sitting in their houses or businesses, nothing preventing you from killing them except the guards inbetween you and them. If you can drive a vehicle through the complex and run the mob boss over, then he’s dead… no scripted dodging or invincible run to an escape car for an exciting forced sequence.

    The best example was, during my first run, I confronted a boss at a lighthouse. The lighthouse overlooks a valley, and guards swarm the cliffsides and ledges… walking through is asking for the worst possible scenario. In other words, what GTA would make you do. After trying and dying once, I swam around the peninsula, climbed the back of the lighthouse, dropped down onto the platform where the boss was standing, and kicked him over the side. One satisfying THUD later, mission completed. I didn’t have to attack anyone else.

    Granted, things are presented in a relatively linear fashion. You’re instructed to take out minor bosses, then the kingpins, as each miniboss that goes down removes a layer of resistance at the kingpin’s estate. (Taking out the arms dealer means the guards have worse guns, for example.) You’re also supposed to take on one gang at a time, Los Muertos to Volk to Shai Gen. But you don’t have to. You can start the game and drive your car down the tunnel to Shai Gen territory; your CO tells you the area’s for Agents with more experience, but nothing stops you. You get instruction (because really, “what do I do now” is the top question a player will ask) but not a mandate.

    I had a blast with Crackdown specifically because it almost never put me on those rails. One exception: one Volk boss is in a building with plot doors and won’t come out until start blowing up parts of his operation. This fact was never communicated to you; I blew the right things up because I was bored. When you blow the first one up, you get no feedback that you did the right thing, unless you are watching the boss, see him go up a flight of stairs, and for some reason attribute that to what you just did. It’s bizarre that for exactly one boss, they reverted back to GTA-style design.

  12. ngthagg says:

    I’m going to quote myself from the last GTA comment thread:

    “There is nothing worse than knowing you could get past a part of the game if you went and looked up the walkthrough online.”

    I’m starting to think there is no game I want to play less than a GTA game.

    ngthagg

  13. GEBIV says:

    Sounds like Crackdown is a load of fun. Too bad I can’t afford an Xbox 360.

    …stupid mortgage payments.

  14. mr k says:

    Argh I hate stuff like that I have to admit. Countless times the game has prevented me cheating through a mission… but why? If I’ve thought of an ingenius way to win, why can’t I do it? It frustrates me no end when my cunningly placed car in the race course has vanished…

    One particularly annoying example was in Vice City when you take a helicopter ride to attack some enemy gang members who are on a large boat. Midway through a rocket hits the helicopter, and you end up in the sea with no weapons. Thinking I’d messed up, I reloaded and tried again, this time shooting at the guy with the rocket…. Oh. He is invincible. Silly me for thinking I could change the course of the game.

  15. wildweasel says:

    The one thing I hate the most about GTA games is the car chases. I’m not that great at driving. My average vehicle lasts for all of thirty seconds before it’s bashed into oblivion, flipped, or so far off course that I’m unable to rectify the mission.

    And in no GTA mission was this more unbearable than in GTA: San Andreas, on the mission “OG Loc”. The objective: go pick up Jeffrey. Yeah, no big deal. That’s the easy part. But when you take him to his house, some guy on a bike pisses Jeffrey off, and so you steal another bike to chase the other guy down. Ordinarily, you could either ram the guy off the road or shoot him with an SMG, but not only is he invincible, but I have never once managed to get close enough to him to actually touch him with my own bike.

    Then at the end of the chase, the guy runs off, leaving you to deal with a bunch of hoodlums with guns. And of course, Jeffrey has to get involved, and the mission ends if he dies. And he dies easily.

  16. Zerotime says:

    The Hitman series works pretty much like this, too – do it exactly how the developers wanted it done, or die repeatedly.

  17. Deathblade_Penguin/aka Minion of Darkness says:

    Shamus

    Also if you chase the car with a motorbike (i always preferred a motorbike to a car when driving).. you could riddle the boot with bullets killing Sal yourself…

    Steve

  18. Zaxares says:

    I’d just like to add a comment regarding the Hitman series. You’re quite right about the earlier games being extreme examples of railroading, but the latest game in the series (Blood Money) is much more open-ended. There’s a bunch of ways you can complete each mission; some are just tougher than others.

    A big change to the way the game works is via the Notoriety factor. Depending on how professionally (or messily) you complete a mission, and whether or not you’ve left any evidence at the scene (like being caught on camera, leaving witnesses, and in the harder difficulty settings, leaving spent ammunition casings lying around) your notoriety goes up. The more notorious you are, the more easily you are recognised, making it nearly impossible to go anywhere without a disguise.

    However, with the Notoriety factor in place, it DOES allow you to complete missions by, say, gunning down every last man, woman, child and dog in the mission and STILL get a 0 Notoriety factor, simply because there’s no one left alive to point the finger at you. You won’t get a lot of money for the mission, since you’re considered ‘sloppy’, but it IS a perfectly valid way to get through the game.

    P.S. And yes, I DO include dogs in that list, because for some bizarre reason, in one mission I killed everything in the area save for my target’s annoying little mutt. And mysteriously, I had 1 witness at the end of the mission. Repeat the mission, kill the dog, 0 witnesses.

    Soooo… The courts accept testimony from animals now?

    P.P.S. My first post!

  19. empty_other says:

    Yes, Hitman is nothing compared to GTA in linearity. Sometimes i find it fun to just walk into the mansion like i owned the place, placing a perfectly placed bullet straight in their head.. “Michael from the Nikita series” hitman-style. Other times i take the “Thief” mode, distracting guards and never actually in combat. Other times, when possible: Find The Perfect Spot; snipe the target down without even entering the compound. At least these degrees of freedom was possible in “Contracts”.

    Hmrf.. Now i want to play Crackdown :( . To bad i dont want to pay 1 088 USD for just one game. Because when i have finished playing the game, the console-machine is more or less useless for me…

  20. Michael J. Anderson says:

    I remember that mission from the PSP version. There are a bunch like that – like driving around in the warehouse. Fail a half dozen times figuring out the pattern and then finally win (of course, in that case I was fighting the PSP controls as well!)

  21. Scatty says:

    Keep in mind that likely all frequenters of your blog are experienced gamers. I started reading your material because another experienced gamer friend directed me to your DM of the Rings comic, and I am his DM. Experienced gamers are known for their endless bickering at the Games Industry, and it is far more common to see a well-constructed criticism than a well-constructed compliment. The same holds true for the more pre-teen comments, but we all tend to ignore those anyway.

    My neighbour was Spanish. Coming from Spain, he spoke little English, loved Star Wars and Jurassic Park (It was the mid-late 90′s), and generally Video Games were never around much.

    Now, as we grew up, I got into games, and he got into girls. I had my Sega MegaDrive II with Golden Axe and Streets of Rage, he has his girlfriend. I was always better at the games, but took them more seriously and nit-picked their flaws. He went with the flow and forgave the games. Time passed, until GTA3.

    When I played GTA3, I revelled in the sandbox. I collected Hidden Packages that were cleverly placed but not in tedious, precarious locations (such as garage rooves). I killed grannies, then stole the Ambulance and ran down the Ambo’s. And more than anything else, I detested the scripted missions.

    My neighbour relished in the missions. He found the movie-style script enthralling, and whenever he failed or died, no matter how frustratingly, he’d try again, often the same way. He took thrice as long to ‘beat the game’ as I did, but he loved every minute. And he hated just driving around with nothing to do… there had to be a gangsta in need of a ride, or a boss in need of a bullet somewhere.

    Different strokes for different folks. I guess Rockstar knows their game is incredibly popular, perhaps they’re thinking this through further than yourself. To the new gamers, to the black or black-wannabe rap freaks who idolise gangstas, springing a car chase on the mob and saving the informant is a thrill ride. To the middle-aged disgruntled newcomer to the games scene, the shallow story is enough to keep their attention and carry them through on the rails, whereas the sandbox is just confusing, and they need to be told what to do. When the The Sims player goes hardcore to GTA, the missions is a new addition to the sandbox they know. Its scripted. Its predictable. Its repetative. Its shallow. Its like they saw themselves on TV. “I was there when that happened!”

    The sandbox, the open-ended freedom, the hidden packages and weapons and ambulance-hijacks… those are all there for the veteran gamer who has seen it all, who knows how games work, who has done every mission in one form and context or another a hundred times to date, and just wants to drive around and smash a car up. The missions… the missions are made that way, I believe, because the appeal for veteran gamers in every release is the new sandbox city, with faster cars, sleeker bikes, bigger guns and hotter graphics. Shamus, and most every other commenter here, have played or purchased every GTA game since at least 3. The missions haven’t changed much. Some they just changed the names and the street map. But we keep coming back to the Sandbox for more explosions, and we keep hating the missions designed at, ultimately, the diametrically opposite end of the market.

    If newbies had a forum, they’d be discussing how annoying it is driving between cities to go from one mission to the next.

  22. Joseph says:

    Seriously? I gotta say, I’ve been paying attention to this thread, and I think you’re giving GTA way too much credit. Maybe the game I played wasn’t indicative but… Yeah… Big world. Clever application of chunk-building to allow for a huge world which doesn’t repeat on the large scale (but sure as hell repeats on the small) and presumably LOD to display same…

    And that, to me, was where the game ended. Open-ended? What, because you can wander all around this huge city with nothing in it, and beat up cops, pedestrians, and drivers anywhere?

    Are console games really so bad that people can get away for how many years now with calling this game open-ended? I didn’t get very far, because I found a ‘mission’ I was unable to beat, no matter how many times I repeated it, and I couldn’t see any good reason to keep trying. The game was hollow, a series of twitch mini-games connected by an impressively large and completely vacant game world. Everything in the game is the same. Remember ‘procedural content’? GTA is an example of where one can take the technology of procedural content and abuse it to the point where its virtues are completely wasted.

  23. ryanlb says:

    I can’t think of a mission in San Andreas that’s really given me too much of a problem. Oh wait, there’s the one where I have to race next to a train so that Big Smoke and cap a few guys on top of it. That one took me too many tries and was rather frustrating. Other than that they’ve been sufficiently difficult but not too much so. I don’t mind dying once or twice and having to try again.

    I also haven’t had an issue with the missions, I can’t really think of one that was incredibly irritating by how they made me complete it. The aforementioned mission where you get shot out of the sky and have to assault the boat with nothing more than a knife was fun, in my opinion, as I had to try a Hitman-style approach to it.

    The Stories games on the other hand, sound like the stink.

    And for the record, with most missions on Hitman 2 & 3 there were a few ways to complete the mission, and in fact I replayed those missions more than I have Blood Money (so far) attempting different methods. On Blood Money I’ve so far kept to just gunning everybody down, or at least everybody with a gun.

  24. Dr-Online says:

    I always got pissed off in Hitman contracts, because of the first mission, I’d snag a sniper rifle, shoot the guy, then not be able to get into the locked down compound.

  25. Mark says:

    I find myself thinking of “Cop Wheels” in GTA: San Andreas. You’re instructed to steal four police bikes within the time limit and drive them onto a truck that’s circling the city. I didn’t like the idea of spending the whole mission with the police after me, so I figured I’d steal four bikes beforehand and stash them in a garage, then just wheel them out when the mission started. Yep, you guessed it — of course those bikes don’t count, even though they’re completely identical to the bikes you’re instructed to steal in the mission.

    (And don’t get me started on the time limit. This mission is theoretically part of the player character’s own plan. In other words, the truck driver works for me! He should stick around as long as I tell him to! Ugh. But that’s a bit off topic, I guess.)

    Overall I found San Andreas’s missions to be better designed, more fun, and less frustrating than the previous GTAs, but the on-a-rail factor was also higher than it needed to be. Nothing like Vice City where I beat the last guy using a Hunter helicopter. Ah, memories.

  26. Kevin says:

    Yeah, excuse me, Mr. game-designer, I WANT to get rewarded for thinking outside the box. If I derail the bad-guys plot at the very beginning, so much the better for me! I think what this really amounts to is using various game-mechanical railroading techniques in lieu of smart quest writing. It’s just a crutch for the creative team.

    However, as I have seen expressed here before, this kind of frustration is why I don’t play GTA anymore, and I’m guessing you’d be happier walking away from it as well.

  27. Ben W. says:

    My attempts at the mission went something like this:

    1. Arrive at the garage, advance slowly to size up the situation, and almost get run over as the bad guys come barreling out and make for the crusher. I give chase, get utterly outrun by the bad guys, and arrive just in time to watch Salvatore get crushed.

    2. Pull up to the garage entrance, hop out, and start shooting. I somehow do just enough damage to the bad guy’s car to force them out without killing Salvatore, and they promptly gun me down because I forgot to go pick up body armor.

    3. Wait for the bad guys to emerge, and do a drive by on them. Somehow kill Salvatore in the trunk with bullets through the passenger side door.

    4, 5, 6. Arrive and immediately open fire, but manage to accidentally kill Salvatore in the firefight.

    7. Drive over the workers protesting at the docks, get the obscure body armor next to a crane, and grab a big truck (Yankee I think). Drive back out over many very angry dock workers who are chasing me and start the mission. Tail bad guy 1 to the garage, skipping over to a parallel street right at the end in order to line myself up with the garage entrance. When a cutscene triggers, run the truck full throttle into the garage and smash into the front of the bad guy group’s car. Hop out, shoot them all very carefully, so I don’t put any bullets into the car with Salvatore in it. Move my truck out of the way, and finish the mission.

  28. Marstov says:

    Well, let’s keep in mind we are talking about games here, not “Gangsta Life : The Simulation. A Doctoral Dissertation in Sociology by Rocky Star”. I mean, if you’re worried about “realism”, what kind of city has $5,000 sniper rifles lying in an alley some where? What kind of city would stay populated if someone killed 75 people by driving down the street and wasn’t arrested? I once joked with a friend that the city in GTA:III was Hell, populated by damned souls and you were one of their tormentors.

    While I agree with everyone that games where the designers don’t “cheat” are better, let’s keep in mind that in a number of the situations described in previous comments the player is “cheating” too. The player is a psychic who knows the future: “Hmm, I bet Sal is in the trunk of a car and I’ll need to keep them from driving away with him. I’d better block the entrance”. With the exception of the phantom car effect Shamus describes, most of the designer cheats are in place to keep the player from short circuiting the content based on their foreknowledge.

    Now you want to talk about designers cheating, let’s talk about the end of Manhunt…

  29. Rick the Wonder algae says:

    I remember when I was playing GTA2, there was an early mission to kill a bunch of guys when thye showed up at a diner or something similar.

    #1- I drove up, got out fo the car, and approached their car with a weapon. They drove away and I couldn’t catch them.

    #2- I drove up with a semi and started ramming the crud out of them. they drove off and quickly outdistanced me.

    #3- I drove up in a faster car and started ramming them. They drove off and I gave chase but my car took a heavier toll from the damage than theirs and I lost them.

    #4- I parked a semi in the lot and got out, hijacked a pair of cars and blocked the exit to the diner, then proceeded to whale on them with the semi. It went well until they pushed past the cars. Then they handily escaped.

    #5- same thing except I stole about 20 cars and made a massive blockade in front of the diner so they couldn’t get away before I was ready for them. I went to get in the semi but it had disappeared, and of course I couldn’t get a new one through the blockade.

    #6- same deal, smaller blockade so the game wouldn’t lose track of the semi. I started ramming the car and it drove straight into the blockade, pushed the first few cars out of the way and *poof!* the rest just disappeared!

    #7- Much cussing.

  30. Pidmon says:

    My friend finds it odd that I enjoy playing GTA4 mainly for physics abuse. I love the freeform, and one definite perk is driving full speed alongside a bridge or somesuch and then forcing Niko to bail, flying through the air like a ragdoll.
    One highlight last night was getting a shotgun from cop cars and wailing on a petrol pump, just to try and fling Niko’s corpse into the ocean.

  31. Noumenon says:

    How come Legend of Zelda doesn’t let me build up 1000 bombs and crack Death Mountain open from the surface? Why do they make me do that dungeon crawl before fighting Ganon when I could just use the Red Candle for infinite fire and smoke him out?

  32. RCN says:

    GTA: It’s so cinematic it’s actually a movie!

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