When it comes to video games I consider myself very casual. Not so casual to the point where I think the Call of Duty or Madden franchises to be the only games in existence. Please, I have standards.
I’m casual to the extent that it may or may not take five years for me to finish the main campaign of one game. Some games, like the recent “Bioshock Infinite,” took me three days to plow through. “Assassins Creed III,” which I received for Christmas, didn’t get finished until roughly two weeks ago. It’s been three years since my last saved game on “Fallout: New Vegas.”
That’s nothing compared to the said five years it has taken me to complete the 2008 Rockstar Studios production “Grand Theft Auto IV.” That’s right, George W. Bush was in his last year of office, Leona Lewis’ (who?) “Bleeding Love” was at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and Tina Fey and Amy Pohler’s “Baby Mama” claimed first at the box office (“Iron Man” was one week away) when “GTA IV” hit shelves on April 28.
To say “GTA IV” was leaps and bounds above its predecessors would be an obvious statement. I have a lot of memories from junior high of playing 2001’s “GTA III” at friend’s houses, running amok in the open world of Liberty City with bazookas and the invincible tank (which cops could drag you out of, shouldn’t you be able to lock those things?). I have lesser experience with “Vice City” (2002) and even less with “San Andreas” (2004).
The biggest distinction between “IV” and it predecessors is in the details. In the high definition world made possible by what was then referred to as “Next Gen,” Liberty City really came to life after the dullness of the previous installments. If not in the people who inhabit Liberty City, the environment itself is the best quality of the game. The lighting in the game is remarkable, from sunsets to the rain soaked streets, and is probably the element which has aged the best in the 5 years since the games release.
Also, there’s no way I can write about this without mentioning the genius of the radio stations programmed into the game, which have been a staple of the series since GTA III. While GTA has tons of satire in its supporting cast, its the radio stations which contain the most. The most entertaining and by far the most satirically scathing is the station depicting a conservative talk-show, hosted by “Saturday Night Live” member Jason Sudekis. Some of the commentary, even if originating in 2008, is still relevant, most notably a segment devoted to the current status of the healthcare system.
However, the absolute most essential improvement over “GTA III” is in the narrative. Where you controlled a mute protagonist with a lack of a past in the “III,” Rockstar actually gave you a character and a motivating story to get you through the game. Niko Bellic’s quest for revenge on a figure from his past in Europe starts out as a vague hunt for one man and then turns into a sort of who-dunnit? Because Bellic works as a freelance thug for the criminal underbelly, his goal of vengeance sometimes becomes forgotten amid the endless missions for Mob bosses with names you can’t keep straight.
The abundance of mission availability means you’re getting your money’s worth (especially since I paid $16 for it). It also means you have to worry about missions as well as maintaining a multitude of friendships and romantic relationships in order to keep perks such as weapons, health and helicopter rides, which really don’t make much of a difference. At times the amount of story elements/optional objectives (which I always feel obligated to do) can be overbearing and takes a bit of fun out of the experience.
My only other complaints for a game that’s half a decade old are the lack of checkpoint saving (which was apparently fixed in the “Lost and the Damned” expansion) which makes repeating failed missions an absolute annoyance and the poor driving mechanics, especially with motorcycles (also tuned in the expansion packs). Other than that “GTA IV ” is a game, despite being released at the beginning of the current console cycle, which wouldn’t feel all that out of place were it released today.
I’m really glad to have “GTA IV” off my conscious with the release of the fifth installment coming in September. I really give Rockstar credit when it comes to the GTA franchise. Where other series, like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed pump out a new installment every year and diluting the brand, Rockstar has been busy working on “LA Noir” and “Red Dead Redemption” in the intervening years since 2008.
Because of this, they’ve been honing their craft in order to make an even better game with GTA V and making its release an event rather than just another money grab.