Monday, May 12, 2008

Supreme Court rules Supreme Court rules

Above: Grander theft auto

My arch-enemies at Village Voice Media* have posted their review of Grand Theft Auto IV. They are fairly bold in giving it a tepid write-up. It's still positive, but it's certainly the lowest rating I've seen for the game thus far. The reviewer, Gary Hodges, gives it an 8/10, and spends the bulk of the text highlighting some of the gameplay problems.

They're good points all, and I can't say I disagree with any of them. In fact, the unflattering comparisons to Crackdown are well taken. If I had to say which was the better game, I'd go with Crackdown. It doesn't try to do as much as Grand Theft Auto, but as a result it's tighter and more playable. The makers of Crackdown opted to do a few things exceptionally well, rather than try to do everything passably.

For all the ways GTA lets you explore the open world of Liberty City, Niko and the environment never seem to mesh perfectly. He looks like he's being filmed against a green screen when it comes to scrambling up hillsides and other areas with irregular footing. By contrast, in Crackdown, characters really could go anywhere and do anything. If you noticed a little outcropping on the side of a building, your character could jump up and grab it. He could pick up any objects, provided his strength level was sufficient. The entire environment was usable. In Grand Theft Auto, much of it is ornamental.

And that's okay. Part of the reason GTA is so successful is that it puts the character in a living world in which he isn't always the focal point. Liberty City is full of citizens going about their lives. They don't know or care who Niko is. To them, he's just another stranger they'll encounter out of thousands -- you know, unless he happens to be running from the cops with guns blazing.

The Voice's criticisms of GTA are well taken, and I think any honest observer would have to admit that they are fair. In fact, it's strange to me that such a negative review still resulted in the 8/10 score, but I know from personal experience that sometimes the score you give a game and the review you write don't necessarily match up, even if you believe in them both. We in the alt-weekly biz have little space in which to work, and that sometimes means choosing one thing to focus on at the expense of balance.

Hodges does seem to give himself a 10/10 for his own critical prowess, devoting his introduction and conclusion to belittling the across-the-board perfect scores the game has gotten (this is mentioned off-handedly in my own upcoming review), and congratulating himself on standing against the tide of mainstream opinion. I'd like to be bothered by this a little more, but, damn it, he's pretty much right. The Metacritic score for the PS3 version is holding steady at 99, and the Xbox 360 version is just one point lower. That's crazy. It's crazy for all the reasons Hodges points out.

I've heard a lot of people praise the controls as being such a huge step forward for Grand Theft Auto, but they're exactly as far behind the curve as they were in past GTA games. Compared to San Andreas, sure, the shooting controls are phenomenal. Compared to Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas, not so much. Given how important shooting is to the game, you'd think this would have bothered somebody. No, it doesn't ruin the game -- not by a long shot -- but it's hardly compatible with "best game ever" accolades. If somebody wanted to catalog every legitimate complaint a person could have with this game, they'd soon have a novella.

So, Gary Hodges, I salute your vainglorious iconoclasm. You and your VVM cohort may have won this battle, but the war is far from over. The Phoenix will crush you!**

*Not really.

**Not really.


The Renaissance Man said...

I think the reason why the review seemed largely negative, yet still yielded an 8/10, is that with the hype, people are already expecting a perfect game. A legit review needs to more display what will not meet their expectations than what will meet their expectations. They know what's supposed to be good about the game, the information readers need is what they don't know.

Unknown said...

The comments about the vehicle handling really irk me. It's obvious the reviewer never played far into the game or travelled everywhere possible in a cab... Because the handling model in GTA4 is top notch, maybe the best I've seen in a game that was not a racing simulation. Its unfortunate is that the starting area is filled with cars that do a lot to mask this.

Benjamin Gilbert said...

There are some pretty glaring holes here that I'd like to point out if I may, in both the Village Voice's piece as well as your own agreements. Though flaws certainly exist (fairly large ones at that) regarding the actual gameplay of GTA4, the VV review in no way mentions the narrative involved in the actual game. While he touches on the culture presented by the city itself, he regrets to mention it's impressive aesthetic, it's depth of sheer things to do, and it's well polished overall feel.

I played and loved Crackdown. While I agree that GTA4 would have been better served simply copy and pasting the lock-on system from Crackdown, the existing system is in no way unusable and in many ways makes strides from the previous games (and isn't terribly different than the systems offered in it's competitors.)

An 8/10 is a necessary score, though not explained unfortunately in the VV piece, as the vast wealth of other elements within GTA4 help to make up for where it lacks in other areas. As for the driving, well, I couldn't disagree more. If you put it in first person view and have ever driven a car in real life, you're ready to drive in Liberty City. Maybe not on a 15 inch television.

Etelmik said...

Mitch, was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions for an article I'm doing at GSW, but I see no way to get in contact with you (not here, not from Phoenix without pestering an editor or three).



mikewalbridge @

Hope using an old post doesn't upset you too much. Delete this after you get it.