Monday, May 05, 2008

Let's nitpick about Grand Theft Auto IV

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.


x said...

I totally agree about "Out of the Closet", but it sounds like you haven't seen the worst of it. Without spoiling anything, you're later tasked with performing errands for what has to be one of the most stereotypically swishy caricatures I've ever seen in a video game or otherwise. He even comes complete with a pink mission icon. Niko spends a lengthy amount of time relating his sympathies to this character's troubles, but it almost seems like a pithy concession on Rockstar's part -- given all of the reasonably levelheaded satire present in Autos 4, French Tom and this character in particular come off as huge blights in an otherwise great game.

Anonymous said...

Thankfully my future roommate has this game, so I shall be able to test it out and see this more in depth (though I had had no plans to play before you mentioned this "Out of the Closet" mission). It's curious that such a 'realistic' game still gets caught up in such portrayals as the only ones. Why can't we have a gay bear every once in a while? New York is definitely not unknown for its large and fairly diverse gay community.

This also makes me wonder what manner of internet dating site the game uses. Is it something more along the lines of or Manhunt? The latter would seem to fit the game's themes more, while the former seems to still put the realm of gay interactions squarely in a 'straight' realm.

Mitch Krpata said...

Lemmer, I guess I haven't made it that far yet. Can't wait.

Aeazel, it's a type of site. When you log in, you can choose to look for women or men, and then it's just headshots and profiles. I haven't looked at any of the profiles except for the one that was necessary for a mission, but it was actually pretty straightforward.

Anonymous said...

The AI observation is a great example of the difference between true AI and scripting, and I think it shows where the technology's at at this point. I've also been wondering for a while if the difference really matters. Would you have cared if the ATM/crook episode happened as a triggered script instead of a random AI-generated situation? In this case, I'm assuming you'd probably have preferred the script because it would have actually worked. I think in the end, an AI system that acts like a real life city will be incredible, but I think it's always going to be secondary to other game elements.

Unknown said...

I was thinking the same thing about the "Out of the Closet" quest. But then when you get to the date with the guy he's not just a queen. He's also a bigoted asshole. Listen to the stuff he says about handicapped people. After a couple of his off-hand comments I was ready to kill the guy, gay or not.

I fully realize that Rockstar is up to provocation here. I think they're trying to say that nobody is untouchable just because they're a minority group that's frequently and unfairly prejudiced against.

It's a complex and incredibly loaded situation to be sure.

Turtlepants said...

I'm not sure it counts for anything, but the game is a tad apologetic for that. Later on, Niko confronts Brucie and it turns out that the first two missions were basically done due to his roid rage. So in essence, the game does answer the earlier 'Did I REALLY have to kill this guy?' doubts. I'm not sure if that makes it any better XD

The Bernie missions, I don't know. I never noticed the pink mission icon. And as far as swishy caricatures, that generally goes the same for the other characters. They're all caricatures if you really think about it. It's whether or not the caricatures are a bad thing is what's to be debated.

Matthew Gallant said...

I haven't completed that missions yet myself, but the first part bothered me a little as well. If I recall correctly, Brucie goes as far as using the word "buttmonkey" at one point, or something similar. Things get complicated with a game that's intentionally sarcastic, but the words and attitude didn't sit very well with me (joking or not.)

Daniel Purvis said...

Ahh, I hadn't thought too deeply about the mission "Out of the Closet", you know. To me, that was just another mission and it could have been a chick, or a dog, or yeah, a gay guy.

In fact, I still don't really have a problem with it. Admittedly, I sat there and listened to him, as I did with a certain lawyer later, and found that his constant self-profession of greatness fucked me off for me to want to shut him up, but then again, I had the same urge with one of the female characters you can date later (SoHo or something?).

Still, I didn't have a problem with that mission, I actually just assumed the reason Brucie didn't want to do it was because he was scared of his sexuality. However, now you've brought it up, I didn't pay that much attention to it either because I thought of it more as a side mission.

Regarding the AI, I've had similar experiences. Sometimes the police with force someone into their car, other times they'll get stuck on the door of their vehicle. Sometimes characters will walk around in circles, and other times whole traffic will pop in from no where.

Mitch Krpata said...

Thanks for all the great comments. It sounds like I didn't listen long enough for French Tom to show his own uglier side. If nothing else, Rockstar are equal opportunity offenders.

ill_lo9ic said...

I agree with the somewhat shoddy AI. And I think most open world games suffer from this. They seem amazing at first, but never fail to let you down. Look at Morrowind: Oblivion for example. I've broken into homes, been told to leave by the owner, and then chatted with them about rumors. Little things like that detract from the immersion and it sucks. But I'll take shoddy AI over scripted AI, as in mmorpgs, any day.

As for the "Out of the Closet" mission, I think you summed it up in your comment. Rockstar is equal opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I definitely agree about the checkpoint thing. To be honest I just want to unlock the rest of the city, nothing more. Some of the missions are fun, but too many of them aren't and I've even had the game cheat on me a few times (such as when I swam to get rid of the cops, and then my companion who had so far been swimming beside me quite happily spontaneously drowned, failing me the mission ... unfair)

As for that closet mission, I have to say, I didn't think so much about it. It seemed to be a bit more senseless than other missions, but I'm gay and I didn't find it offensive for THAT reason.

GTA's morality has always been a little schizophrenic, but never more than in this game I think. It keeps on making efforts to give you lesser of two evil style choices, but too often you're forced to carry out the just-plain--no-foolin'-evil. It doesn't really make sense as a game if you're really trying to 'roleplay' Niko (which I started out more or less wanting to do).

Unknown said...

My personal nitpicking:

I just beat the game today at around 70% completion and I'm left wondering where certain features are that existed in San Andreas: mini-games and money sinks.

Where's the pimping, fire, ambulance, and police missions? I know you can use the police database, but it's not really a mission near as I can tell.

And where's the property to buy? Or the car mod shops? About halfway through the game I had over a million dollars and nothing to spend it on.

Mitch Krpata said...

Inso, you're right. The game gives you all these opportunities to be the "good guy," relatively speaking, but even if you do that there are still plenty of times where you just slaughter people. Collateral damage, I guess. But I never really have a problem with violence in games when I'm fighting criminals, or even just when my character is acting in self-defense.

Strangely, the scenario in the "Out of the Closet" mission was later replayed almost exactly with a lawyer, and there I had much less of a problem with it. In that case, I also didn't stick around to find out if I had any other options. I did enjoy making my escape through the lawyer's office window, as well.