Posted by: Ben | June 13, 2010

Silver Age: Grand Theft Auto IV

The first few missions in Grand Theft Auto IV are wholly impressive. You land in the big city as a penniless immigrant and are gently introduced to the game mechanics as you’re forced to watch your cousin being bullied by a cast of creeps and thugs. Five hours in, you’re still thinking that this might just be the most accomplished open-world game yet devised.

But that initial impact is short lived, and it’s not long before you’ve tired of the lack of variety and exhausted the limited possibilities of the setting. Even the Godfather trilogy only went on for nine hours, and GTAIV is no Godfather. You notice that despite the city’s impressive size, there’s really nothing there. You go from one bland, emotionless employer to the next, skipping mission briefings to avoid having to encounter the dreadful dialogue and increasingly hammy supporting actors (although the actor playing Nico never seems to lose faith, bless him.) Every now and again, sick of the pointlessness of it all, you take Nico to the top of a high building to watch the directionless traffic and no-longer-convincing AI of the people below. Sometimes you jump.

Still, you paid five whole pounds for this game in a Steam sale, so you’re bloody well going to finish it. Even if Rockstar, for reasons best known to themselves, have buggered up the driving to such an extent that an ordinary family saloon handles like a double-decker bus on a frozen lake. And even if you’re playing it on a gaming laptop with severe overheating issues that can’t run it for longer than an hour at a time at any resolution or detail setting.

Finally, after running errands for one hateful no-mark after another, you see a way out. A lowlife called Dimitri Rascalov, one of the game’s small roster of memorable characters, has initiated a chain of events that led to your cousin getting shot dead on his wedding day. If you can gettim, Nico will have closure and the game, hopefully, will end. If you can’t, well, it’s a long trip to the gun shop for you, sonny.

Gettingim involves a pleasingly long mission that begins with a car chase, followed by a shootout in a disused warehouse (organised crime in Liberty City could be eradicated if they just demolished all the disused warehouses), then he flees in a helicopter while you pursue him first in a boat and then in another helicopter, and then… I don’t know, and frankly I no longer care.

But first: praise for good design. Successfully complete the car chase and get killed in the shootout and you can skip the car chase next time you restart the mission. But you still have to go and buy more ammo and probably a new bullet proof vest too. Successfully complete the car chase and the shootout and the boat chase, then fail in the helicopter… and it’s right back to the shootout again. Which on the 10th attempt is not difficult, but is a complete waste of your time as an A/B professional.

Get to the helicopter and you’ll experience a brief moment of disorientation on realising that your co-pilot, having picked you up from the ocean, now expects you to fly the thing. During which time your quarry escapes by hiding behind a building.

Back to the gun shop then. And the shootout. And the boat. Ah, I see. Jacob wants me to steer the helicopter now. With the WASD keys and the numeric keypad standing in for my twin sticks. And fire the minigun by pressing the left mouse button? Talk about a late entry to the World’s Laziest Port competition. While I’m banging my head on the keyboard Dimitri escapes again.

Okay, if it’s twin sticks you need, twin sticks you shall have. I’ve got this handy Xbox 360 controller, which I keep in the drawer because it’s almost never been used. After all, generally when I play games I don’t enjoy running into walls and not shooting straight. I’m saving it just in case I decide to play a driving game, although to be honest Trackmania works perfectly well with the keyboard and I haven’t had the urge to play any other driving game since getting my licence ten years ago.

Somehow, I fumble my way through the shootout. Compared to mouse and keyboard, the joypad controls are like treacle and I waste virtually all my ammo shooting people who are obviously behind cover. The analogue sticks aren’t even implemented properly in that you still have to press a button to run. I don’t know how console owners cope. Then I get to the boat. Dimitri escapes in his helicopter while I’m jumping up and down on the boat trying to work out how to start driving it.

(As an aside, why are the allegedly prestigious Golden Joystick Awards named after a peripheral that has to be explained to most people under the age of 23? They very rarely give out awards to flight sims.)

OK, back to mouse and keyboard. Shop. Gunfight. I get to the roof. The cutscene plays out as usual. Nico grabs the bad guy’s helicopter. They kick him out. He falls. Not as expected, into the water and ready to jump into a convenient boat, but to his death. In a cutscene.

This time I’m fed up of the way the game makes me drive all the way to the weapons shop for more body armour in between retries, in order to limit my chances of dying during the shootout. (All of the weapon shops in this game are sited in the least convenient locations possible, right at the opposite end of the section of the map from where you want to be.) Since Rockstar have been good enough to put them in the game, and since that’s how I got through GTA III, I decide to use a cheat. I dial the cheat number on the mobile, and the game informs me that because I’ve used a cheat, it’s going to block an Achievement. Now I don’t know what Achievements is, all I know is that the game is not only punishing me, it’s meta-punishing me by withholding something from outside the actual game. For using a cheat. Here’s another Achievement that’s been blocked: the Me Buying Episodes From Liberty City Achievement. Feeling clever now, Rockstar?

(Not that I’m their best customer or anything.)

On the umpteenth attempt I actually manage to point the helicopter in the direction I want to go. I’m chasing Dimitri again. I’m making progress. I’m going to gettim.

A spare finger on my left hand (usually my mouse hand) taps the F key. You know, the Press F to Fail key, right next to D to steer right. Nico decides to dive out of the helicopter and jump in the river. I’m getting out too. I can probably watch the ending on Youtube or something.

Later I went back for “just one more go” and finally caught up with him, so I suppose you have to give it credit for that.

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