Every Saturday, Cracked asks one of our favorite writers to fill in for us. Our readers get to learn about an awesome site, and we get to take a day off to pursue our career goal of finding a big bag of money. This week Cracked contributor Robert Brockway brings you a column from his honestly titled site I Fight Robots.
Like almost every other being on this planet with functional eyes and opposable thumbs, I've spent the last month playing Grand Theft Auto IV and neglecting my loved ones.
I've only just now gotten beyond the novelty factor of Liberty City enough to honestly consider the game itself, and I have reluctantly come to this conclusion:
It is shit.
It's repetitive, poorly implemented, riddled with design flaws, awkward, and above all, glitchy. Yet I understand every word of gushing praise. Everything the reviewers say about the city and its scale is absolutely true.
It's the little things that do it to you: Like how the fast food workers at the various restaurants actually have different duties. They come out from behind the counter and clean the tables. They sweep the sidewalks out front and wash the windows. Cars actually break down--even when they're not yours. I've driven by several random civilians causing massive traffic jams, standing in front of their overheated vehicles completely befuddled. This city is the closest gaming has ever come to a real place, a real New York. The flyers, the newspaper stands, and the grime--all of these aspects pile up to make a truly living, breathing environment.
It is indeed one of the single most impressive achievements in gaming ... so it's just too bad that Rockstar layered an irreparably flawed game on top of it.
It shouldn't surprise anyone. The actual gameplay in Grand Theft Auto IV is nearly identical to every GTA before it, and gameplay has never been their strong suit. They've added and tweaked, to be sure, but it's almost universally for the worse. Or maybe the flaws just stand out more this time because of how great it could have been. In any case, here are the five most infuriating:
The new implemented cover mechanic is ridiculously clumsy. You hit the button once to cover, and then as you try to move along whatever cover you've taken, the system often randomly interprets that movement to mean you want to switch cover entirely. So rather than sneaking along a wall to ambush an unsuspecting enemy, it's equally likely that you'll break cover, run two feet to a fire hydrant and crouch behind it while bullets rain into you--leaving you to die squatting in the middle of the road like a diarrhea stricken hobo.
I understand why they wanted to develop a cover system for the game--the idea of being pinned down behind a Dumpster in Brooklyn, desperately fending off the S.W.A.T team from a covered position is the stuff fanboy dreams are made of. But it rarely works out that way. If everything works like it's supposed to, the AI is simply no match for you if you're using cover at all. You can murder an entire city block in seconds by simply holding the cover button and selecting the next target. However, if you attempt to adjust your position in the slightest, you're leaving it entirely up to Niko's better judgment whether he moves further down the alleyway like you intended, or jogs across the street to hide behind a hot dog vendor's legs like a lost child at the county fair.
Hitting the jump button will now allow you to execute a number of new actions such as climbing, mounting or just hopping over obstacles. This revamped system allows you to seamlessly hurdle through this vastly detailed terrain without breaking stride ... in theory. In practice, however, assigning all environmental interaction to one button, a button that already has a vital function--jumping--is an exercise in stupidity. No, it's more than an exercise. It's a grand athletic competition in stupidity. It's the motherfucking Olympics of stupidity. Maneuvering through this city is complicated now by the very details that make it great. Because the path is no longer flat, some sense of agility on the part of your character is absolutely, fundamentally necessary. Ideally, small obstacles would be handled automatically--your character should step up foot-high ledges, hop over fire hydrants and make tiny-distance jumps on his own. But he typically doesn't, and you find yourself having to force him to do these things quite often, but not always. This uncertainty leaves you to continuously wonder: Is he going to just step over this curb, or am I going to get caught jogging in place alongside it? If I hit the button now, does that mean hop over that guardrail, or leap in front of that speeding bus? Does pressing jump actually mean jump, or does it mean vault over the safety railing and fall to certain death?
This is a hell of a snap decision to make at a tense point in the game. At no point should pressing one button mean either:
A.) Use the sidewalk
B.) Kill yourself
Maybe Niko is supposed to be dangerously bi-polar and this is just Rockstar's way of simulating his mental instability. Either way, it doesn't help me to not throw the controller at my neighbor's kids.
Repetition absolutely kills the single-player campaign. The missions and goals are little more than ultra-gritty deliveries--sometimes it's coke, sometimes it's a car, sometimes it's death--but it's always drive from point A to point B, kill or drop off something, escape cops. I know this is the premise of GTA, that you're a mercenary driver, but if you can't think of any variety to add to these missions outside of "use a different car this time," then you probably don't need 30 goddamn hours of them.
Also, why for the love of Christ are there no checkpoints in the longer, multi-stage missions? If a mission requires me to drive across town to steal a Ferrari, kill 45 cops in a parking garage, blow up a helicopter with a hand-grenade, deliver a boat full of heroin, and then dress up like a clown to perform at a children's birthday party, I shouldn't have to do every step of that again if my fucking seltzer bottle clogs up and the kids get bored. That's just shoddy design, and there's no justifying that.
The collision detection is sketchy at best. A poorly-aligned car too close to your leg could just knock you down ... or it could send you into an awkward, flailing convulsion that effectively incapacitates you until the driver decides that you've had enough of doing the Batusi and mercifully moves on. This may not be completely ruinous in the single-player campaign, but it's particularly noticeable in the multi-player. Easily half of all the multi-player games I've been in have been won or lost on a collision detection glitch. I've been gunned down in Deathmatch because my foot was too close to a moped, which causes me to inexplicably levitate in the air while the other players take festive potshots at me like I'm a blood pinata. I've lost games of Cops 'N Crooks when--after a flurry of amazing stunt jumps, eerily accurate sniper-fire and well-placed rockets, I hit the enter vehicle button at the getaway boat and my guy can't figure out how to walk around the seat. I stand there twitching in place, unable to move, while cops stroll casually up and slap me to death.
To be fair, you could just assume I suck at this game, but even when I win, half of the time it happens by glitch. After a long chase, I'll frequently see my enemies hitting the jump button to step up a curb, and instead go flailing off of a bridge. Or else they'll get stuck in buildings, or have cars materialize into existence directly in front of them, or most perplexingly, they'll suddenly lay down and zip around the street--their bodies rigid and motionless as they luge about the intersection while I fire rockets at their ricocheting, paralytic corpses like a twisted, hellish game of air hockey. It's frustrating to lose to these things, sure, but even the victories are hollow when you know the only reason you won is because your arch-nemesis' knee accidentally touched somebody's fender and he couldn't stop disco-dancing.
It's times like this when I really wish that media ownership wasn't quite so proprietary. Rockstar made a city worthy of a great game. They just forgot to do the great game part. If they could lease out their digital environments like other companies lease out their gaming engines, astounding things could be done with it. A million different games could be set within the borders of this city--stealth games, racing games, fighting games or hell, even sim games. I assume the bulk of the hundred million dollars Rockstar spent developing GTA IV went to the insane detail in this environment. Why not let another company buy some rights to it, and spend substantially less to develop working game mechanics? A lesser company could come along and just detail the insides of the buildings a little more, for example, and that would do wonders in effectively expanding your environment. They could spend a tenth of your costs and add a little something more to your city. With a little cooperation they could build modest profits, and your wonderful game environment could truly thrive. Why wouldn't you do that, Rockstar?
Oh, right. You actually want to make money. Well, fuck my beautiful dream, then.
I don't mean to imply that the flaws outweigh the perks--they don't. I won't stop playing it over these issues and I'm not suggesting you do either, both because the city and what it could have been are too tempting, and because the few times where everything does go right, it is nothing short of amazing. If nothing else Grand Theft Auto IV exemplifies why the scoring system of game reviews is so fucked at its very core. If I had to score it, I would've said it gets a 10 because this game makes you remember everything you dreamed video games could be as a kid. But does a perfect score mean a perfect game? Not in this case. But reducing everything to a number is such a black and white summation that there's simply no way to accurately tell everybody that this is the most jaw dropping game you've ever played, and at the same time you fucking hate it so much it's like a knife in your eye.