Dale Dietrich
friedman: always supply your comparative advantage
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Grand Theft Auto IV – Diary #1

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GTA IV Diary: Entry #1, Entry #2, Entry #3, Entry #4

It’s day 3 of my Grand Theft Auto IV adventure. Given the sheer size of this game and the fact that I may not be finished for a week or two,Chad Sapieha’s daily GTA IV Diary inspired me to write diary posts as I work my way through. I will write a detailed review when finished.

Wow!

I came in to GTA IV expecting to hate it as much as I did the earlier games in the series. Despite my reluctance, the staggeringly high review scores (see Meta Critic and Game Rankings) made it worth taking a look. The reviews got me to the party. The ‘atmosphere’, the scope, the beauty of the city, the cinematic feel and the well written story kept me coming back. Now despite some frustrations, I’m hooked.

Thanks for the May 6 netfiler, tax extension Revenue Canada! Otherwise I’d have had no free-time to play this over the last few days.

Initial Impressions!

Scope & Style: I was drawn in from the beginning with GTA IV’s engaging, Chronicle of Riddick-like interactive opening credits. The massive sand-box magnitude of the game is similar to Crackdown and Assassin’s Creed. The writing is good, very good. On par with Naughty-Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. But, not on par with The Godfather as some reviewers claim.

City Alive: You’ll notice almost immediately that this game is alive unlike almost any other game you’ve played. People are walking, jogging and driving around this huge city (see interactive ‘hood’ map), obeying traffic lights, conversing and going about their business  in a convincing manner (well, if you don’t look too closely). Neighbourhoods have their own distinctive feel. I feel, more than in any other game, that I’m moving around in a real city.

PS3 vs. 360: As always, there is controversy (see here and here) as to whether the game is better on the PS3 or 360.  The game is selling more on 360s than on the PS3 (see here). Near as I can tell from the rare rational discussion on the topic and my viewing of the side-by-side comparisons (see GameTrailers, 1Up.com, videogamer.com), its a draw. I have both consoles. As usual, I purchased the 360 version for three reasons: (i) I want the achievement points; (ii) XBox Live’s online multiplayer experience is always better than the PS3′s; and (iii) there will be future downloadable content for the 360 that won’t be available for the PS3.

Graphics: The graphics are great, but not on par with, say, Burnout Paradise. This is understandable give the massive city and it’s many moving parts. Given the scope of the game, the graphics are fantastic. I’m happy Rockstar took the time to get it right.

Atmosphere: The time of day and weather is constantly changing. Again, adding real atmosphere to the game. Shadows are cast and the city’s hue and texture change with the weather and the time of day. My only quibble on this point is there is way too much night. I wish there was an easy way to just advance the game to the next morning.

Subway: Terrific. I’ve used subway’s in other games (The Darkness for example). But this is the first time a subway seems so real. In other games, you enter a subway, the door closes and then the game advances to the next stop. In GTA you take the ride. When the subway is above ground you hover above the moving train and watch the subway wind its way through the city as you are travelling. I don’t know what happens when the subway goes underground yet because, so far, the game won’t let me take the subway underground.

Early Bridge & Island Restrictions: I’m 21.06% of the way through the game (the game tracks a large number of stats) and still not off the initial two islands. Assassin’s Creed kept you from advancing to new parts of cities by the artifice of repressed memories not-yet unlocked. In GTA IV the bridges are closed early in the game due to a terrorist threat. OK, sort of plausible. That didn’t keep me from trying though. If you want instant death, try to cross those police lines. I successfully found my way into a subway tunnel leading under the river to a verboten island. Alas, I was swarmed by a swat team at the first subway stop on the other side of the river. Suffice it to say, you aren’t going to be visiting the other islands until the game wants you to.

Violence Generally: Yupp, this is a violent and very explicit game. This one is not for the kiddies. But so far I haven’t had to kill anyone that wasn’t a ‘bad guy’. Err, well, you will accidentally kill hundreds of innocents just by driving around. You feel guilty at first but you’ll get over it.

Violence Against Prostitutes: The series has been criticized for its violence against prostitutes (rightly so in my opinion). Early on I wanted to test that so I picked a fight with a prostitute. I’m happy to report that in that instance, Rockstar’s prostitute was a better fighter than my character. She was whupping him so badly that I ran away with my tail between my legs! :) Quite unexpected and impressive. Than you Rockstar.

Achievements: I was quite amused at one of the early achievements ‘warm coffee’ – a play on GTA’s hot-coffee controversy. A complete list of achievements can be found at Will Tuttle’s Achievement Guide at Gamespy.

Paper Map: The game comes with a large paper city and subway map in the box. I’ve seen these in other games. They are mostly just gimmicks. But, in GTA IV I frequently turned to the paper map to figure things out. It is actually useful.

Early Tips

What Am I Supposed to Do?: As I’m relatively new to the GTA franchise I didn’t know what to do for the first few hours. Orders will come in on the cell phone from time to time but often you are left to roam free.  If you want to advance the plot, open the map, find a friend, boss, cousin etc. currently highlighted on the map and go there.  Otherwise the plot won’t advance. That took me a few hours to realize.

Learning the City: This place is huge (see interactive ‘hood’ map). You don’t need to learn the city to play. You can set the game up so it constantly tells/shows you the route (GPS style) to your next destination. I shut that off. For me, learning the city and driving around as if it was a real place was part of the fun.

Teleporation by Taxi: When you really want to get somewhere fast, hail a cab. For a ‘fee’ you can skip directly to the destination at the press of a button.

Saving Cars: Driving your first Harley, Ferrari or Porsche is very satisfying. Learn how to store your cars early (click here). The good one’s don’t come around often – at least not early in the game. So far I’m not very good at saving them. Yes, I can save them overnight, but often when you go out on a mission you don’t come back with the same vehicle. Unfortunately, at least 21% of the way into the game, there is no way to permanently save a car. But, I did find a rich neighbourhood where I am always able to jack a high-end ride! :)

Police Don’t Stop you for Traffic Violations: No matter how erratically you drive, no matter how many stoplights you drive through, no matter how many pedestrian’s you run down, the police won’t stop you. Just don’t accidentally bump into them or rip someone out of their car directly in front of them. They’ll generally leave you alone if you leave them alone.

Quibbles

As with many other video games (see my general discussion here), GTA IV suffers from some tried-and true gaming deficiencies.

Saving – Replaying Over and Over: My biggest quibble with the game so far, and a criticism that applies to too many video games, revolves around the save system. While you can save the game (trundling home from wherever you are) when not involved in a mission (of which there are many), you cannot save at will. The net result, you not only find yourself playing through a mission multiple times, but you must replay THE ENTIRE MISSION over and over if you fail. For example. If you are sent on a cross-town mission that leads to a battle, and you are killed (and you will be killed – frequently), you are revived back on the other side of town where it all began and you must navigate (usually for several minutes) your way back before you can take-up the fight anew. And, in too many cases, you finish a long battle, someone breaks free and you have to chase him down. If you loose him, you must start back across town, again, fight the fight you just won, again, and then do the chase again. This resulted in my having to replay missions way too many frustrating times. So much so that I almost tossed the game early on. Argh! It is time to put this gaming convention to rest. Developers, let us save the damn game wherever we choose!

Camera: As with too many other games (Resident Evil is the worst offender), I find myself fighting with the camera as it is constantly pulling the camera back to the centre when I’m looking around. Not only is this frustrating, but it makes me nauseous. Game Developers, give us an auto centring on/off option or take away camera control altogether (God of War II, for example, was terrific with zero camera control)!

Escort Mission: Yes, there is at least one escort missions. Have I mentioned I hate escort missions. You almost always die because of the idiotic, uncontrollable activities of the NPC you are protecting. Grr!

Moving On…

I have yet to try the online multi-player modes. And I’ll be going for a lot of achievement points. I’m most looking forward to the other islands opening up and taking a helicopter tour of the city.  I’ll touch on these points and whatever else strikes my fancy in my next diary entry.

GTA Resources

Read Diary Entry #2  >>

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