For over a decade now, the good folks at Rock Star have visited hilariously entertaining carnage upon is with the freewheelin’, smash-grabbin’ Grand Theft Auto series. Set in a satirical sort of Ultra-America, the various games have used different periods and locations to make every one a unique and memorable experience: Vice City riffed on Scarface and Miami Vice in an 80s quasi-Florida, San Andreas took you to early 90s gangsta not-LA as seen in Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society, and the latest one – the inventively titled GTA IV – takes a (visually) more subdued turn into 2000s New York and the Russian mafia.
GTAIV’s greatest triumph is the world itself, the semi-New York of Liberty City. Just walking or driving through it is an amazing and completely immersive experience. People have car trouble, get into arguments (or even simple conversations) on the streets, a cop might start chasing a pickpocket, you can walk into bars (and get so drunk your controls and vision get fucked up) or just plain old watch TV in your apartment… and it’s funnier than REAL TV! And hey, it’s good to be a gangster, huh? Having car chases, blowing shit up, pulling off sweet getaways… awesome stuff! Killing dudes, shooting up anything that explodes, trying to get that helicopter or speedboat to go in the general direction you vaguely want it t—wait what?
Yeah, anyone who’s ever played a GTA game after the series went 3D knows its weak spots. Once you have to take control of anything but a car or bike (and even that last one’s iffy) the game’s tone of casually zipping along violence transforms into a no-disturbances-allowed frustration fest coupled with The Math Class effect – it’s in the curriculum, but at least it’s not trigonometry ALL the time.
GTAIV compounds this by actually making the (several stages) long final mission culminate in not only a speedboat, but ALSO a helicopter chase. It’s as if, in the climax of Spider-Man, Sam Raimi intercut Spidey and the Goblin’s fight with Aunt May telling the little black kid next door about which things she thought were the sun that day. The most frustrating moment in my gaming history was when the end boss I was chasing had crashed his own chopper into a crowded intersection. Trying to finally (after about a dozen tries) kill this fucker, I tried as best I could to put the fucking helicopter down relatively near to the downed one, which unfortunately was between a couple of blocks of skyscrapers. I don’t entirely manage to put it down without incident, but protagonist Niko has made it and the thing hasn’t even blown up. OH WAIT WHOOPS THO: red text informs me that The helicopter was destroyed. What??! That text only happens when… the… mission has… failed. And oh yes, I empty an entire clip in Dmitri Da Boss’ head but nope. The helicopter was destroyed.
A sandbox game should mean freedom. It should mean that every time I play this final boss mission, I should be able to kill Dmitri in a different way. I might shoot him out of the sky, both our choppers might break down and finish it on foot, I might simply maneuver him into a skyscraper through my great helicopter piloting skills (surely those players also exist, right?). Basically anything but having to go through pre-set motions to make exactly those things happen as the game designers thought cinematic enough to finish the main storyline. It happens in a few missions actually: shooting cars right in the gas tank doesn’t make them explode as usual (in the game, anyway) but rather the car you are chasing is invulnerable until the “right time” aka where the cut scene is supposed to happen.
If you put a million things in your game, a whole bunch of them aren’t going to be very good. Conversely, quite a few of them probably will be. Rather than force every one of them down a gamer’s throat, have them have a taste to be savored again later, if so desired, and keep the Good Things as the only ones that are mandatory.
And of course, GTA has the music that makes you go HAHAHAHWHATTTTTT
All in all, it’s atmosphere that pulls GTAIV to the more positive side of the fence, making it a Bad Great Game than a Good Bad Game.