Grand Theft Auto IV is the highest rated entry in the franchise, which is bizarre to me since I think it’s the absolute nadir of Grand Theft Auto. The virtues of the series (the open world sandbox) were more restrained, while all of the worst faults (a heavy focus on a no-fun story that tries and fails to be a movie) were stronger.
The tone is even more self-serious than what came before. The world is drab and joyless. The driving and shooting are “realistic” by way of being sluggish. The lead character is a mope that doesn’t seem to enjoy anything the game asks us to do. Many of the supporting characters are grating. The missions are more scripted than ever, keeping the player on an even tighter leash in the service of set-piece driven mission design spiked with DIAS “gotcha” moments. The mechanics are cluttered with shallow, frivolous side activities like bowling and dating that don’t make use of the open world that is the strong point of the franchise. The gameplay / story dissonance is more noticeable than before, thanks mostly to the fact that Niko Bellic’s personal goals are completely at odds with the typical “boss of the week” mission structure.
No Fun Allowed
But for whatever reason this clunky, grim, humorless, aimless, dissonant, heavy-handed, frustrating, visually dull, thematically incoherent game has been elevated not just as the apex of the series, but as a crowning achievement for gaming in general. As of this writing, it’s the third highest-rated game on any platform, with an astounding 98%. Yes, Metacritic is deeply flawed. But it’s still an aggregate of critical reception, and it’s shocking how highly this game was praised in the face of so many glaring problems.
On top of all of that, the PC port is a complete shitshow. It’s the only game I’ve ever seen with three simultaneously competing in-game overlays: Steam, Rockstar Social Club, and the execrable Games for Windows LIVE. While some games have been mercifully patched to remove the now-defunct GFWL, Rockstar evidently doesn’t care. To this day the game still requires you to install itProtip: Skip the GFWL install and use the fan-made drop-in replacement that removes the need for Microsoft’s obnoxious malware..
Given the alleged prestige of this title, Rockstar’s famously deep pockets, and the fact that there was never a good reason to saddle this game with GFWL in the first place, their refusal to patch it out of this game is completely inexcusable. The cost to fix this would be completely trivial, but they can’t even be bothered to do this small gesture on behalf of one of the highest rated games ever made.
Rockstar loves using their cutscenes to take swipes at “evil corporations” and “greed” and “capitalism”. While I’m normally down for calling out scummy companies for scummy practices, I find their attempts at this sort of social commentary to be enraging. GTA V made one billion US dollars in the first three days of sales. They could have given away the game for free from that point on and it still would have made them back five times their purported development costs and ranked as the most profitable game since World of Warcraft. But then they went on to add the multiplayer stuff with PvP and scummy pay-to-win microtransactions. This company is the poster child for corporate avarice and contempt for the consumer, and if they can’t spend the small handful of man-hours to remove the now-defunct malware from GTA IVThat absolutely nobody wanted in the first place and which offered the consumer nothing but headaches., then I don’t think they have any room to be criticizing the likes of Apple computer, McDonald’s, or any of their usual punching bags. Hypocrisy is not a good look, and it’s completely destructive to Rockstar’s attempts at social “satire”.
Even ignoring GFWL, the rest of the game is still a technological mess. At launch it ran like a pig and was prone to glitches. Even today with now-overpowered hardware it’s still oddly sluggish at strange times. I can get a nice smooth 30fps out of GTA V, but GTA IV has these occasional inexplicable dips in performance that push the framerate down into the single digits. This is true even though GTA V has much sharper visuals, a larger world, a longer draw distance, and both games are running at the same resolution. There’s no justification for GTA IV running this poorly.
I realize the industry doesn’t care about the PC and that it cared even less back in 2008. Still, I’d expect critics explicitly reviewing the PC version to do a better job than slapping a 90/100 on such a deeply troubled port.
The Mud-Covered Lens
The performance problems might be more understandable if the game wasn’t so relentlessly ugly. In a baffling waste of both artistic effort and processing power, the game uses HDR lighting but does so without using all of the available black values. That is, if you take a screenshot indoors and analyze the color usage, you’ll find the darkest parts of the screen don’t get anywhere near the bottom of the available spectrum, and the lightest values barely register. Which means the overwhelming majority of the screen is filled with medium-brightness pixels. That would be bad enough on its own, but then the color filter drains all the saturation out of the scene and it tints everything slightly brown. Which means our final image is:
- Low contrast.
- Low saturation.
- Little hue differentiation.
You could get away with doing one of these for some stylistic effect, but all three together makes for incredibly bland images. I realize this game is a product of the Brown Age of gaming and this is just the style of the day. But even allowing for the icky brown filter, the complete lack of contrast makes the game tiring to look at.
Since this game is so enamored of the work of Martin ScorseseWhich is not a bad thing at all. Scorsese is a master and if you’re an aspiring filmmaker then aping this style is not a bad goal for learning the craft. let’s take a look at this shot from the opening moments of Casino:
Sure, we’re looking at a dark room. But notice how much the image pops. The foreground details have color. The bright light stands in stark contrast to the black room beyond, focusing our attention exactly where the filmmaker wants it. The fruit bowl gives a splash of color so the shot isn’t overwhelmed with earth tones. If you’re above a certain age, then you can probably taste the cigarette smoke in the air. And yet, the smoke isn’t fogging up the shot and getting in the way of the faces. The harsh lighting highlights the lines in the faces of these old dues, making them appear both ancient and sinister. While the subject matter is ugly, the shot itself is beautiful and clear.
For comparison, here’s a shot from the opening scene of GTA IV:
Here are our two lead characters standing in what I guess is supposed to be medium darkness. They’re not under a light and neither one stands out from the background. The only light in the scene is shining on some random junk in the background. No shadows. No color. No contrast.
I realize there are additional constraints placed on a game designer. You can’t get away with leaving large areas of a scene in total darkness, because the player will get frustrated if they end up blundering out of the light and into the pitch-dark areas. Total darkness is just as bad as a total white-out, and in the context of a game you can’t let the player to stumble around blind because you wanted to set up some fancy lighting arrangement. But that doesn’t explain why we have main characters standing around in cutscenes with flat lighting while the lights are aimed at the background clutter.
The difference between the visuals we’re seeing and the technology going on under the hood is really drastic. It feels like someone bought a $100,000 film studio camera and used it to record a school play.
A Good Idea For a Movie
I should make it clear that I’m not against serious stories. I like Niko and I think his story would be worth watching in the right context. GTA IV is the story of a man haunted by the horrors of an unnamed war in eastern Europe. During the war his unit was betrayed and led into an ambush. He barely escaped. Afterwards he went back and looked through the mass grave where his comrades were buried. Aside from himself, two other men are missing. He concludes that one of them must have been the traitor.
For years his cousin Roman has been sending him letters, telling him about his wild life in America. He tells Niko about his mansion, the sportscars he owns, and all of the hot models he’s banging. Niko makes his way to Liberty City to join Roman and look for the traitor.
When he arrives, Niko discovers that Roman’s stories were all bullshit. Roman lives in a cockroach-infested one-room apartment. The only thing Roman has are gambling debts.
From here, Niko begins working for the local crime bosses, hoping to make a living and find the man who betrayed his unit.
That’s a great outline for a story. We’ve got a solid protagonist, a great mystery to hook the audience, a lurid world of crime and violence to keep it exciting, and an annoying but lovable supporting character to give it a little heart. If this was a movie by Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann, I’d be thrilled to watch it.
But this isn’t a movie, it’s a Grand Theft Auto game, which means it’s a great idea tragically diluted by mountains of extraneous cruft, dragged down by sophomoric humor, and muddled by an inconsistent tone. The central mystery is a good hook, but you can play for hours without Niko ever attempting to make any progress on it. It’s supposedly his central motivation, yet for most of the game it feels like he’s forgotten his purpose. He spends most of the game working for a succession of unstable bosses who ask him to perform dangerous jobs in exchange for for money he doesn’t really seem to need or care about. And these bosses aren’t the amusing and outlandish weirdos we worked for in San Andreas. These guys are a drag.
It’s not that you can’t do a serious game in the context of an open-world city game. The Mafia series is a pretty good example of this kind of game that plays everything straight. The difference is that Mafia isn’t draped with childish toilet humor.
This is a world with an internet cafe called [email protected]If the English pronunciation isn’t clear from context, it’s “Twat”. Sort of. Close enough for the “joke” to work, anyway.. An innuendo-gushing donut place called Rusty Brown’s Ring Donuts. A World of Warcraft analog called Loot and Wank. The background of this game has the sense of humor of a 12 year old.
And I’m not against crass humor! I even laughed at a couple of the visual jokes. The problem is that these elements do not work with the self-serious story. This game wants so badly to be a Martin Scorsese movie, but Scorsese films don’t have Adam Sandler and the Wayans Brothers grabassing around in the the background while Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro agonize over whether they need to kill a guy. Tone matters. In fact, mastery of tone is one of the hallmarks of the movies these games are trying so hard to imitate.
This game doesn’t just have ludonarrative dissonance, it has comprehensive dissonance. The “wacky” world is dissonant with the serious story. The linear story conflicts with the open-world design. The open-world design is at odds with the rigid DIAS mission structure. And the mission structure doesn’t mesh well with the wacky world. This game is constantly pulling itself apart because it can’t reconcile it’s story, setting, gameplay, or tone.
The Simulation Stuff is Pretty Good. I Guess.
Let me end on the contents of this video, which asserts that “Grand Theft Auto IV is better than Grand Theft Auto V”, and as proof it shows all of these fine gameplay details:
GTA IV does indeed have more subtle transition animations, more fully developed brawling mechanics, less irrationally aggressive AI, a more diverse set of combat animations, far more detailed limb damage, more varied vehicle damage, and more destructible objects in the environment. The open-world systems are a little deeper and a little more interestingAlthough the video also portrays the over-exaggerated wobble-car suspension physics as a good thing, and I just can’t get behind that..
GTA IV has a lot going for it on a mechanical level, but we don’t engage with mechanics in a vacuum. This is a sad mope of a videogame. It’s a dreary world, telling a dreary story, using dreary visuals, with a dreary main character, that has NIKO MY COUSIN DO YOU WANT TO GO SEE SOME RIPE BROWN AMERICAN TITTIES?!?
You can’t fool me, GTA IV. Neither of us is having any fun and you know it.
 Protip: Skip the GFWL install and use the fan-made drop-in replacement that removes the need for Microsoft’s obnoxious malware.
 That absolutely nobody wanted in the first place and which offered the consumer nothing but headaches.
 Which is not a bad thing at all. Scorsese is a master and if you’re an aspiring filmmaker then aping this style is not a bad goal for learning the craft.
 If the English pronunciation isn’t clear from context, it’s “Twat”. Sort of. Close enough for the “joke” to work, anyway.
 Although the video also portrays the over-exaggerated wobble-car suspension physics as a good thing, and I just can’t get behind that.
Could Have Been Great
Here are four games that could have been much better with just a little more work.
A programming project where I set out to make a Minecraft-style world so I can experiment with Octree data.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Shamus Plays LOTRO
As someone who loves Tolkein lore and despises silly MMO quests, this game left me deeply conflicted.