Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Grand Theft Auto IV, developed and published by Rockstar Games.
The Good: Large vibrant city with a variety of activities to do, somewhat interesting lengthy storyline, fifteen multiplayer modes, excellent audio
The Not So Good: Terrible performance, annoying camera, bloated extras required for online play, don’t bother rebinding keys
What say you? A fine game but a mediocre port: 6/8

I played the original Grand Theft Auto when it was released for the PC way back in 1997. The first two top-down games didn’t really garner that much attention, but the hot coffee hit the fan once GTA 3 and later iterations were unleashed on the masses. Nowadays, the developer obviously has their priorities out of whack, releasing the PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV a good seven months after the game came out on the PlayStation 3 and XBOX 360, whatever those are. We superior PC gamers get the original game plus some additional enhancements: a video editor, 32-player multiplayer, and custom soundtracks. Will this additional development time result in a quality PC title?

One of the biggest gripes about Grand Theft Auto IV has to do with performance, and the general outcry is mostly correct. Grand Theft Auto IV looks fantastic on a computer that has not been invented yet. For the rest of us that live in the real world where Rockstar did a sub-par job optimizing the game for the PC, you’ll have to settle for low resolutions and poor view distances in order to get the game to run (and not even run smoothly). Users that are going to be annoyed the most are those with widescreen displays: you’ll most likely need a 512 MB video card in the latest nVidia or ATI series to even run the game at that resolution. Personally, I clocked in between the minimum and recommended system requirements (sorry, no quad-core yet) and I’m able to run the game at 1280 by 1024 with low-medium settings. Honestly, the game looks OK, even with the draw distance really close (it’s stuff way in the distance), though it should look better for the system that I have and how every other PC game runs on it. I guess the developers concentrated on the ever-important video editor instead of optimizing the game engine. I don’t think I should get a worse visual experience than the consoles do with a more powerful system. The game settings don’t even let you go above their arbitrarily-imposed limits (using some number that is far below how much RAM I have on my video card), including screen resolution, without finagling the settings a bit. Grand Theft Auto IV ranges from great character models to varied buildings and vehicles. The shadows look absolutely terrible on the PC, with some weird pixiliating effect. It should also be noted that nVidia SLI is currently not supported (way to go!), there is no anti-aliasing (what?!?), and exiting the game slows my system down to a crawl enough that I typically have to reboot afterwards. The sound design, however, is excellent and one of the highlights of the game. The voice acting is quality stuff, the effects are outstanding, and the radio stations have their usual level of excellence, featuring famous and not-so-famous-but-still-good bands and artists and the trademark witty banter of the disc jockeys. You can also create your own radio station using MP3s on your hard drive: just create a shortcut to the directory in which they are located and the game will let you rock out in a customized fashion.

Grand Theft Auto IV features the story of main character and new immigrant Nico Bellic’s rise to infamy in New York knock-off Liberty City. The general gameplay is, not surprisingly, very similar to previous Grand Theft Auto titles: drive cars, kill people, complete missions by killing people, and, ah yes, kill people. In the first nod to the console-centered development, Grand Theft Auto IV still restricts saving the game only while in your home; once you start a mission, make sure you have enough time to complete it. In addition to the lengthy single player game, Grand Theft Auto IV features multiplayer matches against up to 32 people in fifteen various flavors. While some of the modes are pretty standard fare for any shooter (deathmatch), the game does take advantage to Grand Theft Auto IV’s unique features somewhat: Mafiya Work introduces more organized objectives (like stealing specific cars or killing targets), Car Jack City is a car stealing contest, Cops n’ Crooks has the cops killing either one or all of the crooks, Turf War is like domination (controlling specified points on the map), and there are also races and cooperative modes against the AI. Disappointingly, most of the games online just use deathmatch (or team variation) instead of taking advantage of the distinctive Grand Theft Auto IV modes. Plus, the servers were not as populated as I would have expected, possibly a by-product of the generally unstable PC port. Still, a lot of these multiplayer modes are very interesting and it’s close to being enough content to validate getting this game. It should be noted that Grand Theft Auto IV requires running Rockstar Games Social Club (which doesn't even connect most of the time, locking you out of multiplayer, even though LIVE works fine) AND Games for Windows LIVE while playing the game. At least I didn’t get the Steam version to review or I’d be running that, too. No wonder the game runs slow. The PC version of Grand Theft Auto IV also comes with a video editor for aspiring directors, perfect for capturing those unique GTA moments of vehicular homicide.

Grand Theft Auto IV has the tried-and-true mouse and keyboard control scheme that works decently well. However, rebinding controls is a complete pain in the ass so avoid that at all costs; good thing I transitioned to WASD a long time ago (I used to be one of those right-mouse-button-moves people). Grand Theft Auto IV also features are very annoying camera that you need to rotate using the mouse constantly and tends to refocus without your consent while strafing. I thought there would be a way to fix the camera behind you (especially while driving), and maybe there is, but I can’t figure out how to do it and the manuals are useless. Grand Theft Auto IV takes a more realistic approach to driving, this time resorting to exotic actions like “braking.” Personally, I actually preferred the more arcade driving from earlier GTA versions, as I felt it melds with the over-the-top theme of the game better. Oh well, the new physics do require more planning in advance, so that’s something. Combat is generally similar to previous games as well: you must lock-on a target (thanks, inferior consoles) for fisticuffs, but you can aim freely with the mouse assuming you turn off auto-aim like any true PC gamer would. Grand Theft Auto IV lets to use cover with a push of a button and use a variety of weapons, none of which are revolutionary: pistols, shotguns, machine guns, rifles, RPGs, knives, and grenades. As before, health can be replenished with food or prostitutes: what a country!

There is a lot to do in Grand Theft Auto IV, one of the game’s highlights. There are almost 100 missions in the main storyline, all of which adhere to a more realistic tilt than before (I still remember the remote control bomb mission from GTA 1). The game gives you a good amount of freedom in which missions to choose next, although you will eventually complete everything. Most of the missions involve shooting someone in the face, delivering a car, stealing something, or some other criminal activity. Missions are initiated by meeting someone on your handy minimap or calling them up on your cell phone. The phone is useful, containing all of your contacts, appointments, a camera, and access to multiplayer (because they couldn’t let you access it from the main menu). You can even change your ringtone and set your phone to vibrate (important for a particular mission). Other than the main missions, there is a lot of auxiliary stuff to do in Grand Theft Auto IV. You can take a date to a restaurant, club, bowling alley, pool hall, or bar for darts. Managing your relationships almost adds a Sims aspect to the game, and it’s pretty fun although you are somewhat limited in the people you can interact with (you can’t just date anyone walking around the street, sadly). Speaking of people on the street, Grand Theft Auto IV features some very solid AI that contributes a lot to making a plausible city: drivers act responsibly, people travel to plausible locations, and the city is a wonder to behold and one of the best game environments I’ve seen. Other side missions include meeting random characters (green icons on your map), earning achievements, killing more people, procuring specific cars, making deliveries, and crusading against criminals. There’s a lot of stuff to do here, and getting 100% completion would take a while. In this sense, Grand Theft Auto IV is a lot like Morrowind: a lot of content.

Grand Theft Auto IV on the PC is a dichotomy: a great game but less-than-stellar on the PC. First, the good news: Liberty City is an outstanding setting and there is a lot of content for both single-player and multiplayer experiences. But Grand Theft Auto IV is really very similar to previous versions in the series, except that it runs a lot slower. Performance is a significant issue in Grand Theft Auto IV: the game is horribly optimized for the PC. A good point has been raised: why should a PC perform the same as an XBOX 360 even though it costs five times more? This is a curious question that points the blame at the developer and not the end user. Previous GTA PC versions actually performed quite well on moderate systems, but Grand Theft Auto IV is unplayable on most computers. As it stands, everyone will have to turn down the settings that normally you’d crank up, settling for the same graphical experience as those dreaded consoles. And if I had a SLI setup I would seriously be pissed off as Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t even recognize it (although it’s better to be pissed off than pissed on). Add on top of the performance issues the requirement to have the pointless Rockstar Games Social Club running in addition to Games for Windows LIVE and our good friend SecuROM and we have a very disappointing gaming experience for the PC.