GTA IV Post-Mortem

So I finished GTA IV’s story last night after just over 43 hours of play (still only 75.5% complete overall!) and just wanted to put together some thoughts. Be warned that I won’t mark spoilers and although there aren’t any plot specifics in here, I’ll freely talk about mission mechanics. If you don’t want anything spoiled, stop reading and let it suffice to say that I loved the game and my immediate reaction would be to put it among my favourite games ever. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but that doesn’t make it worth any less than full marks to me.

My biggest complaint is probably the lack of mission checkpoints: there was one mission in the latter third of the game that involved a drive from southern Alderney to the north, followed by a drive all the way across Algoquin in the world’s slowest truck, and then into a gunfight and boat chase. Fail near the end and you get the option to skip to the start of the mission, which is an improvement on previous games in which you’d have to drive back to the starting point, but still archaic and frustrating on the handful of missions that are both tough and long, with the requisite lulls that would be ideal for a quick divider of some kind.

The other was that despite what almost literally every review said, it’s not a perfect “living, breathing world”. At times, the lack of scope for improvisation almost seems – and this could be nostalgia clouding my memory, so feel free to correct me – less than GTA III. Example: in an early mission you have to rough up someone at a launderette, who escapes through the back door and into his waiting van. The first time I did it he got away, so the next time I went behind the place and shot out the tyres on his van. Nope, that spooked him and immediately failed the mission. The third time I parked a car in front of his van to slow him down. No luck – the car had disappeared by the time I’d run to the front and chased him out.

Later on, a mission culminated in a gunfight at a car showroom. On my second attempt I decided to get the upper hand by planting a car bomb in one of the display models before triggering the fight, so that I could detonate it when it was surrounded by enemies and gain the upper hand. I did that, and by the time I’d gone through the chase my bomb had disappeared.

There’s also the way that people in chases are seemingly invincible until a certain point. A mission that involves chasing some bikers through the subway tunnels has you thinking that you’re shooting the Terminator until the game deems you worthy of killing one of them, at which point the other absolutely will not stop – ever – until you get out of the tunnels, when one bullet in the back becomes enough to send him sprawling from the bike.

These little inconsistencies are niggling more than anything, though. Out of the 90-odd missions in the game, the vast majority are superb, and I can point to only a handful that are less than fun. By the end of the game you get a run of several great missions – ones with interesting objectives and do more than just ‘chase this person’ or ‘fight through hundreds of goons here’, although those are obviously elements – and while the ending (meaning the end cinema) doesn’t do much, the finale is action-packed and just as satisfying as any cinematic cut-scene.

For me, though, the biggest revelation in GTA IV is how well it handled the story. Aside from the occasional bit of inconsistent Anakin Skywalker syndrome (the way he’s horrified to have killed someone… before agreeing to slaughter many more), I cared for him and his friends, and when events reach a head and there comes a couple of important choices and events, the production values invested in the performances really paid off. Niko’s increasing desperation at the end and the support of those friends who you’d spent so long cultivating relationships with was brilliantly done.

It’ll take something very special to take this off my top spot for 2008, and I honestly can’t see any of the announced games doing it. This has the production values, the story, the mechanics and, most impressively to me, a mind boggling amount of content. Just look at the first paragraph: 43 hours of gameplay and I’m still only 75.5% complete. I haven’t done all the car theft requests, I haven’t touched the assassination missions, I’ve only done one race, and I’ve only played multiplayer for a couple hours.

More than anything, I’m just thankful I got it finished before June when I’ll have to juggle Ninja Gaiden 2 and MGS4 within a week of each other. They’d both have to sit in their shrinkwrap if I hadn’t polished this one off.

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