I've got problems with Grand Theft Auto IV. I appreciate its ambition, and the storyline is suitably engrossing. Overall I'm enjoying it a bit more than I expected to. Yet it's far from perfect. I don't think a perfect review score means a game lacks any and all flaws, but when those flaws undermine what makes the game good, a perfect score seems more like wishful thinking. There are small things that take me out of the world of Liberty City, annoying gameplay quirks that may have been unavoidable but still smack of poor design, and, most regrettably, a sexist and homophobic streak that gets close to crossing the line for me in some ways.
When I read discussions of the game online, it seems like most people are awed not only by the scale of the city, but for the almost limitless minor interactions with city dwellers. Sometimes I get what this is about. Upon loading up one session, I stepped out of the safe house and heard somebody yelling nearby. I walked across the street to investigate, and found a manic street preacher with a bible in one hand, sharing the gospel with anyone who would listen. It seemed as though I was the only one who was.
Nearby, I saw an ATM, and thought I might see if I could use it. As I approached, another pedestrian cut in front of me and took some money out. I thought about beating him up and robbing him, but it's just not how I roll. Instead, I went back to my parked car and saw someone crouching behind it. Suddenly a cop ran over, gun drawn, and shouted at him to put his hands up. Another police car screeched to a stop, sirens blaring. Man, I thought. This is amazing. It really was. A whole city, teeming with life, regardless of what I was doing at the time.
Then it fell apart.
The criminal, apparently apprehended, never got in the police car. He backed away and put his arms down. The cop, still pointing his gun, seemed to lose track of what he was looking at. The criminal ran about half a block, then started walking as though nothing happened. The cop walked in a circle. What had been an amazing display of dynamic AI seconds earlier had turned into gibberish. And this happens a lot.
In another mission, I was tailing a drug dealer. I was warned repeatedly not to get too close to him, lest I arouse his suspicion. So I was wondering, as I stopped in the middle of the road blocks from a stoplight, how I was any less conspicious there than if I simply pulled up to a red light like every other driver on the road. As I was musing on this, there was something of a traffic jam up ahead. The dealer couldn't get through a couple of stopped cars. I waited a full minute, and they didn't move. I started to wonder if I would have to restart the mission, when suddenly the cars in the intersection vanished into thin air, and the dealer kept driving.
That's one of the problems I keep having. It's not catastrophic to the gameplay, but every time I start to get immersed in the world, something happens to shock me back to reality. Maybe these kinds of problems are inevitable, but it's hard to dismiss them when they undercut the main attraction of the game.
Another thing I'm less than thrilled about is actually intrinsic to the game design. I wish there were checkpoints within missions. GTAIV is actually a big jump forward in this regard, because it lets you choose the option to restart immediately upon failing, and even teleports you back to the starting point. That's helpful. Problem is, lots of missions take place far from their alleged starting point.
For example, in the mission "The Puerto Rican Connection," you have to follow the train as it travels along elevated tracks. But first, you have to drive from Manny's place in South Bohan to a bridge in Algonquin (I think? I can't keep the place names straight). Only then does the chase begin. When you fail, you don't start at the chase -- you start back in South Bohan. That's all added downtime, and it's a problem I've had with open-world games in general. Since this game lets you warp to the beginning of a mission, why aren't there sensible intra-mission checkpoints?
Lastly, I've bent over backwards to defend the content of Grand Theft Auto, even though my reasons for doing so are no longer clear even to me. I had a tough time reconciling one mission in particular, called "Out of the Closet," which struck me as cold and bigoted even within the jokey tone of the game.
I want to be clear on one point: There's a difference between portraying homophobic characters, and homophobic portrayals of characters. Brucie is a good example of the former. He's a shirtless, 'roided-up beast who's constantly angling for bro hugs and chest bumps, and then without prompting proclaims his staunch heterosexuality. It's as though he's trying to convince himself moreso than Niko. I also accepted Manny's continual accusations that I was gay when we were trailing a drug dealer and got too close to our quarry's rear. That's reasonable for the character, I think.
But in "Out of the Closet," you find out that a gay guy owes Brucie money, and therefore needs to be killed. Simply retrieving the money from him is not an option. You set up a date with him through an Internet dating site, which is a pretty inspired idea in itself. The guy shows up at the diner and is, basically, a flaming queen -- theatrical lisp, ostentatious clothing, all that. He chatters at you, still thinking it's a date. He's a little annoying, but nice.
Then you stand up and gun him down. That's it. That's the mission. You lured the gay guy into a trap and killed him. You win.
Maybe it would have been better if he'd fought back instead of run. If Niko did something to tip him off and he pulled the gun first. Or if the date had moved to business talk and I had any better idea of what the hell the guy had done to deserve getting whacked. I don't know.
It may be a fair question to ask why this bothered me, and it hasn't bothered me to run over drug dealers or shoot a bunch of cops. After all, gang warfare is a problem in real life. Cops are killed in the line of duty all the time. None of that is any more fantasy than gay bashing is. I can only say that I have mostly understood Niko's motivations in the game to this point, even though I wish they'd made him a bit more reluctant to dive right back into a life of crime. But this mission really seemed senseless to me. At least the victims in the other missions shot back.