Breaking news: ‘GTA IV’ not perfect

No doubt about it: “Grand Theft Auto IV” is a really fun game. Over the past week, we’ve spent nearly every waking hour (except the ones when we’re chained to our desks) guiding Niko Bellic around Liberty City, from the slums of Firefly Island to the uber-posh urban lofts of Algonquin. And thanks to the game’s sprawling ripe-for-exploration cityscape and fun multiplayer modes, there’s a good chance we’ll be playing it for a long time to come.

But that won’t keep us from nitpicking. The game has its share of flaws, and your friendly neighborhood Couch Potatoes—having trained their whole lives to find the cloud in every silver lining—feel it’s necessary to mention a couple of them in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”

Game Design: One of the most frustrating aspects of “GTA IV” emerges the first time you fail a mission. The game’s early missions are easy enough that it doesn’t happen for a while. But once it does, prepare to be annoyed.

Here’s an example: In the mission “Hostile Negotiation,” Niko’s cousin Roman is kidnapped by Russian mobsters. You get a frantic call from Roman’s girlfriend, at which point you have to drive across town to the warehouse where Roman’s being held. (Alternately, you can take a cab and sit through the ride or endure the load time if you skip it.) Of course it’s a trap—they’re expecting you—so once you get inside the warehouse there are dozens of armed thugs waiting to kill you. As Niko, you have to slowly and methodically work your way up to the fourth floor, staying in cover and picking off enemy after enemy until you finally reach the room where Roman’s being held. After a brief cut scene, you have to take out a guy who’s holding Roman at gunpoint while using him as a human shield. So you aim and fire and—voila!—Roman is saved. But guess what? The mission isn’t over. You have to take Roman back home.

So you follow Roman back downstairs and, hey, there’s a truck right outside in the yard behind the warehouse. Sweet! You hop in the truck and start driving. And then … BOOM!

It turns out there are mines or something combustible hidden in the overgrown yard behind the warehouse. The truck explodes, killing you and rendering the mission a failure. You have to start over at the beginning—on the other side of town—and work your way through the whole thing again … just so you can perform the seemingly simple task of driving Roman home.

This scenario happened to both Stephen and me. And I’ve had at least two or three other similar mission “failures” that were equally frustrating.

I’m sorry, but there are only two possible explanations here: Either (1) the explosion was a fluke that Rockstar didn’t anticipate, or (2) Rockstar planned that little booby trap. In the former case, that’s bad game design—the mission should’ve been successful as soon as Roman’s captor was shot. In the latter, that’s just evil.

Thankfully, we’re not alone on this.

But we also have to acknowledge this: “GTA IV” is also not alone. Off the top of my head I can think of countless games that made we want to shatter the TV screen with my controller for the very same reason. Most recently, it was the interminable three-stage final boss battle in “Dark Sector,” which required no small amount of sheer dumb luck to defeat. I had to fight him no fewer than eight times before I won by doing the exact same thing I’d been doing since my first try.

So it’s not just “GTA IV.” That’s how video games work. And that’s … kind of sad, actually.

Many hardcore gamers will argue that this kind of gameplay is simply “challenging” and that it gives the player a great sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed. I not-so-humbly disagree. That’s not a sense of accomplishment you’re feeling. It’s a sense of relief.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I complete a game, I don’t want my last thoughts about it to be, “Thank god I never have to do that again.”

Main Character: In my review of “GTA IV,” I said Niko Bellic “may be the most finely nuanced character the game industry has ever produced.” In ensuing conversations, Stephen disagreed, and I have to admit he made some pretty solid points. He argued that Niko only has two modes (detatched, aloof smart-##### and cold-blooded killer) and noted that “the motives the developers give Niko are as shallow as [any other video game protagonist]. ‘He’s got a past and he wants revenge. Oh, and money.’”

True. True.

But I still think Niko is a big step up from the Marcus Fenixes of the gaming world—those one-dimensional, testosterone-fueled cartoon characters who owe more to Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator” than to Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.” Hell, when you think about most game characters, it’s tough to even remember their names, let alone the details of their personal lives. What can you tell me about “Soap” MacTavish? Or Logan Keller? I mean, just because there’s a picture of a baby in Gordon Freeman‘s locker, does that make him more human?

By those admittedly pitiful standards, Niko Bellic is a richly drawn character.

But if you compare him to, say, Humbert Humbert or Hannibal Lecter, he’s barely a sketch.

Again, that’s not necessarily “GTA’s” fault. It points to a weakness in the industry.

Part of the problem is that game developers often intentionally create the most generic character possible. Theoretically, that way anyone who happens to play the game can project their own personalities onto an everyman avatar instead of being force-fed one they may not like or relate to.

OK, great. But does it have to be that way? Probably not. Hollywood gives us countless protagonists with strong personalities, and even when we can’t necessarily see ourselves hanging out and having a beer with the character, we can almost always relate to their fundamental humanity—assuming there’s a decent actor in the role.

So, as Stephen asked, why can’t game characters’ personalities be as customizable as their faces or wardrobes? Sure, it would require a whole new technology, probably. And, yeah, it would change the game and probably make the story different for each and every player. But that’s a good thing, right?

Video games have come a long way in the last 10 years—and one look at the top-down 2-D graphics of the original 1998 “Grand Theft Auto” is all the proof you need—but there’s still a long way to go. If Rockstar isn’t prepared to put its $500 million toward taking the next giant leap, let’s hope another game developer is.

In the meantime, “GTA IV” will suffice. Quite nicely, in fact.

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