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Liberty City: The Place That Never Was

Feature; Mar. 30, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Tyrone M. Cato
Subtypes: Column
Why is it that GTA IV wasn't what we thought it would be?

A low-level shot of Chinatown in Liberty City

I recently watched this video.

It reminded me of the hype leading up to the release of the game. Take 2 and Rockstar raised expectations, survival being an important aspect to the game play. I thought of and expected gritty believability in a living-and-breathing world. There's a rumor going around that that GTA V will be announced soon, so I take this opportunity to ask:

Why wasn’t the game the masterpiece those previews said it would be?

The missions are irrevocably repetitive, even for the time when the game was made. It ran into problems generally present in free-roam games, including Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar North and Rockstar San Diego's latest outing: money that piles up without any true use, pacing issues and a disconnection with the environment.

The most impressive aspect of Grand Theft Auto IV was the city -- big and detailed. To this day, there are places I’ll find that I simply hadn’t seen before.

Even so, the city got old, along with the missions. You can go anywhere, but out of the three reasons to do something (i.e., you have to, you need to, you want to), maybe only one of those reasons exists at a given moment. You see the same places over and over with the occasional ducking into an alley or parking garage you hadn’t yet visited. So you are in awe of the city for a bit, until you’ve seen (part of) it over and over.

That video was of a considerably modded version of the game, so I searched through some old articles written before GTA IV came out to see if any previews looked different. 

All the images taken from within the game-world were at eye-level. If you were to take a photo of Niko driving though Liberty City, that’s the angle from which the pictures were shot. When you play the game, the camera is always at least just above the playable character’s head.

I turned on my 360, inserted GTA IV and started playing. It felt just like it used to. In an attempt to recreate the angle from the pictures in the game’s previews, I pulled the view in as close as possible.

The bride that leads to Algonquin

It’s when you change the perspective of the camera so it’s right behind Niko’s (or Johnny’s or Luis’) shoulder that the grandiosity of LC hits you. You’re not floating 8 feet in the air looking down at some guy running around (or even higher when driving a vehicle). If you don’t feel like the avatar you’re controlling, you feel as if you’re right behind him, walking between towers, under street lights. You’ll actually look at the crosswalk lights because you won’t have to constantly pull back (or push forward, depending on your Y-axis control settings) to see what Niko is seeing.

It’s then, at that angle, you gain more of an appreciation for how the benches, the steps and the parking meters are to scale. You notice that each light on top of a cop car has a plastic casing that’s separate from the bulb itself or that one can be broken and the other intact. You see how pedestrians glance at you as you pass by. The scope of the buildings becomes more evident. Roll a car while using the dashboard camera angle, and the shattered windshield fragments your view as the environment turns over repeatedly. You’re in that city, on the street, instead of hovering just above it all, separate from it like a god.

All that has to do with the design of the game world and how the player views it. The other strong aspect of GTA IV is its physics system. Using the Euphoria software and RAGE physics, no two car crashes happen the same way. These physics made controlling some cars more difficult than in past titles. Performing actions, like jumping out of a moving car, became much less viable because of how likely the player was to die, or just topple head over heels for a whole minute. Yet, these things were merely different, not inherently bad; being forced to plan where you might land if you dive out of a moving car makes for some intense moments if the car is about to explode. 

Niko takes cover behind a car as police advance

Granted, having the camera pulled in, the mini-map turned off, walking at realistic speeds, or obeying traffic lights would make GTA IV unplayable as it is. So why aren’t the game’s strong points congruent with the way it’s played?

The problem isn’t that Rockstar went in a different direction than the previous 3-D GTAs. GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas were great for what they were going for. The problem is that GTA IV’s missions don’t take advantage of those strong points.

Its car chases are structured like any other GTA, yet no other GTA had car handling as dynamic as IV (each tire can pop independently then lose all of its rubber; the very structure of the car can be changed, which can mess up the handling, etc.), and all of those little details get in the way instead of enhancing the experience.

The same issue arises with shootouts; most take place inside warehouses or other enclosed places where enemies pop up and down, forcing you to inch forward to make progress. Take that shootout into the streets more often, where random traffic and the city’s architecture becomes the player’s cover. The inherent uncertainty in the game’s physics could provide a shootout inside of a collapsing building.

Niko walks down a sidewalk in Broker

Those details one can see when the camera’s pulled in close need to be in the player’s face by default. The scene in which Vlad walks with Niko down a bustling street should be playable, using a follow mechanic, like Red Dead Redemption’s “hold A or X to match your companion’s speed.” Seeing people walking out of coffee shops or hearing pieces of their cellphone conversation as you walk by would show off those details more than just the cutscene they were relegated to. 

GTA IV’s “Free Mode,” the multiplayer game mode in which 2 to 16 players have access to all of Liberty City, can feature car chases, dog fights, roof top battles, combinations of those and more. In this “Free Mode” video from The Ballad of Gay Tony, a downloadable storyline for GTA IV, the action tells its own story. This video is only a taste of what's capable in GTA's game world. 

GTA IV had a relatively fleshed out protagonist and a written script to match (more or less). However, it seems that more polish went into the written story while the game play was developed separate from it. 

The game’s story and mission structure can’t be considered separate components. When any game is being played, the graphics, the physics, the sound, the controls, the script, and the design are all experienced as one whole entity. Each of those pieces must complement and support all the others. If they are grown in individual test tubes, then there will be a disconnection between them while playing the game. A lot of criticisms of GTA IV involve how boring and uneventful it was (which are founded criticisms). Had these touches to the game been more properly integrated into its game play (namely, its missions), then perhaps more people would've been able to see what made GTA IV special. The fault rests solely on Rockstar in this instance; people shouldn't be expected to have to dig to find what's good about a game.

A lot of these issues have been addressed in The Ballad of Gay Tony which had a much more engaging set of missions. Even so, with GTA V rumored to be announced sometime soon, fans are hoping it will be that living, breathing world they wanted GTA IV to be. It will fail to do so if it’s merely the sum of its parts, no matter how amazing those parts may be.

A video showing what GTA would look like in first person (WARNING: spoilers for GTA IV's ending in the phone call)

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