Tag Archives: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto V

Well, what I’ve actually been playing for the last few months is Grand Theft Auto V. I’ve been a fan of the series since the first game, and even dipped my toes into GTA V when my partner would occasionally recruit me to help her with her playthrough years ago, so I knew I’d be playing it eventually. Despite owning an Xbox 360 copy of it for years now, it showing up on Game Pass at just the right time inspired me to finally take the plunge and install the Xbox One version. Of course, it was removed from Game Pass well before I was finished, and by then purchasing it was incredibly easy to justify. Congratulations Microsoft, your insidious plot to make us buy games by giving them to us for free totally worked! *shakes fist*

Back behind the wheel again!
“Back behind the wheel again!”

I’d say it should be no surprise to readers of this blog, but honestly, my game logs from GTA IV (along with The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) weren’t really as positive here as they are in my head. Perhaps I focused a little too much on my criticisms? To save you some reading and myself any further explanation, let me just summarize by saying that I loved GTA IV. It wasn’t without its flaws, not by a long shot, but it was an amazing game. Thinking back to almost 10 years ago when I first played it, here are the prevailing impressions it left, in no particular order: the absolutely incredible job Rockstar did on Liberty City and its various simulated systems; the numerous improvements and additions to the series’s core gameplay systems (the cell phone, the GPS, improved combat, better mission checkpoints, etc.); the brilliant Niko Bellic and the noticeable “Ludonarrative Dissonance” around his story; the weird, weighty physics to everything, particularly when controlling vehicles; and the busted pacing of the story, which sometimes felt a bit aimless and certainly seemed to fail to really push most players through to the end. Obviously, those aren’t all positives. There I go again!

Well, I’m happy to say that it’s follow-up addresses or otherwise enhances every single thing on that list, and much more. I think that Rockstar might have literally bulleted every major complaint people had about GTA IV and used that list as the foundation for their design documentation. Really! It would be incredibly blatant if they weren’t improving what was an already great game.

GTA V's San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.
“GTA V’s San Andreas is a technical and artistic achievement.”

Going back through my list, to start, GTA V’s San Andreas is just as incredible as Liberty City was, and for every one of the simulated systems that’s been slightly dumbed down, another has been added. Plus, we have the expansive desert area to the north of the city, and even the underwater areas of the map (and keep in mind San Andreas is a coastal city) have been fully fleshed out. It definitely takes some cues from Red Dead Redemption, with more scenic outdoors areas, better natural lightning, and more wildlife than ever before. While I wouldn’t call it perfect, it is without a doubt an astounding technical feat. While I may not end up having the same long term emotional associations with San Andreas as I do with Liberty City, I’d chalk that up to my personal connections with the real-life locations those in-game cities are based on and not any fault of the games themselves.

Systems wise, pretty much every last thing I complained about from GTA IV has been “fixed” in GTA V, and even the major improvements GTA IV introduced have been yet further improved. For instance, the cell phone is less intrusive and more usable, the GPS is less finicky and much easier to read, the combat is even smoother, with things like targeting and the cover system being a lot easier to use, and mission checkpoints continue the trend of GTA IV’s DLC episodes (and the later Red Dead Redemption) of being more conveniently placed to make failing and/or dying on a mission way less of a headache. Every mission is also scored and easily replayable, not to mention better integrated into the open world in the first place. Perhaps my only real complaint in this department is that more and more of the side systems have become buried as the series has gone on. As an example, I didn’t even realize I could “hang out” with characters in GTA V until near the end of the story because it simply isn’t a feature that factors into the core gameplay. This has always been a thing in Grand Theft Auto though, and maybe it’s better than the alternative of the game forcing these little fun diversions on you by awkwardly shoehorning them into story missions.

Trevor being... Trevor?
“Trevor being… Trevor?”

While I wouldn’t claim there’s zero story and gameplay segregation issues with GTA V, Rockstar largely solves this problem by giving you three characters to play with their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations, all of which can, to some degree, justifiably engage in those classic Grand Theft Auto open world rampages. This certainly helps avoid situations like Niko complaining about how he just wants to live in peace and start a new life sandwiched in between the massacre of hundreds of cops and the slaughter of half of Liberty City’s gang population. Hell, the infamous Trevor Phillips seems to be largely designed to represent that most chaotic side of player tendencies, and they even brought back the old “kill frenzy” system in the form of side missions for him. These new player characters are a little divisive it seems, but I can’t really relate to most people’s criticisms of them and their particular parts of the story, as I found them all perfectly enjoyably, even if Trevor’s violent insanity sometimes slips from being hilarious to feeling genuinely disturbing. Hell, you’re introduced to him brutally beating Johnny from The Lost and Damned to death in probably the series’s most WTF moment, at least for fans of that story.

GTA IV’s weird take on “realistic” physics are, for all intents and purposes, totally gone. The game still feels a bit more grounded in reality than previous GTAs which is probably necessary to maintain Rockstar’s priority for strong player immersion with this engine, but driving feels more like an arcade racer yet again, and it really seems like everything has been repurposed with a focus of being, you know, actually fun, in mind. What a concept! Speaking of which, planes are back! There’s even submarines!

But there's still a bit of moody crime drama too...
“But there’s still a bit of moody crime drama too…”

Finally, the story definitely meanders a lot less than GTA IV and doesn’t run out of steam before the end despite being around the same length overall, if not a tiny bit longer by the time you throw in a healthy heaping of side missions. No, it’s not flawless. Everything you’d been doing in San Andreas comes to a screeching halt as you end up in a new setting and with a new cast of characters when Trevor’s first introduced, for example. Still, it didn’t feel like it dragged on anything close to as badly as GTA IV did. Despite being able to swap between 3 protagonists at will, the mission structure is more linear which helps a lot with this, and the missions themselves tend to be much less linear as a nice trade off. Tonally, it feels a lot more like The Ballad of Gay Tony than GTA IV proper, which is to say a little more action movie than moody crime drama, though, in keeping with that similarity, the missions are a lot more over the top (and a lot more fun) as a result. Besides, Rockstar has Red Dead Redemption for that mature, serious storytelling stuff now, right?

In the end, GTA V feels like a great summation of the entire series, with the best overall versions of almost all of its systems, a ton of throwbacks and references to earlier games, and quite a lot of fun to be had. I could go on and on about this game. I mean, I haven’t even talked about the new first person mode, the excellent soundtrack and radio stations, all of the new side activities, or hell, GTA fucking Online, but I’ll just finish up here by saying that I absolutely love Grand Theft Auto V!

PC screenshots car jacked from random Steam Community users! Braaap braaaaaap!

Gay Tony and Me

Well, I finally completed The Ballad of Gay Tony last weekend. I can’t say I’m quite as positive about it as I was about my The Lost and Damned playthrough though. I don’t know precisely what my main issue was. Perhaps I’m just experiencing some general GTA 4 burnout? Maybe this playthrough was a bit too soon after TLaD? I’m not entirely sure. While I’ll dish out some positives later let me continue this train of thought and bring up some of my specific negative issues first:

While the missions were generally more “over the top” and varied than those in the previous two installments of GTA 4, the disparity wasn’t quite as large as I was under the impression it might be after hearing so many other people laud the game for them. It still felt very much like Grand Theft Auto IV territory the entire time. The only real new thing was the parachuting/base jumping mechanic which would have been right at home in San Andreas or Saints Row.

Our protagonists.
“Our protagonists.”

Next, the characters weren’t quite as enjoyable to me as those in the previous two titles. Gay Tony himself wasn’t the easiest character to fall in love with thanks to his drug problems and the often stupid, reckless decisions he makes that drive the story. While the lead character, Luis Lopez, seemed quite interesting at first, I felt like his character actually devolved as the game came to an end. I went from intrigued about his history with prison, his relationship with his family, particularly his father, and of course his friendship with Gay Tony, to completely bored of him and his frequent comments about how he’s “a total psychopath, bro!” and “likes killing people for money, bro!” As a lot of people took issue with Niko’s various anti-social crimes and violent acts seeming to be at odds with his character in the main campaign of GTA 4, I found there to be something a bit disingenuous about the pairing of Luis’s character as it is presented to us with his apparent fondness for murder.

I still have some gripes about the checkpoint system. In my original rambling post about GTA 4 I had a few complaints about the system but only specifically touched on the number and placement of checkpoints being an issue. In my playthrough of TBoGT, however, I was completely annoyed by an entirely different aspect of the system: When I die during a mission (which is typically why I fail missions) I hate, absolutely HATE, having to wait to load up at the hospital, wait to get and reply to my “retry?” text message, and wait yet again to load back up at the mission checkpoint. I realize that Rockstar probably does it this way to give the player more options before retrying and ultimately help instill a further sense of persistence in the GTA 4 gameworld, but I’d so rather prefer a simple “retry?” prompt to pop up on the screen the second I fail a mission. Honestly, I can normally really respect the persistent world aspect to these kinds of game design decisions but in this case I feel like the fun factor should have weighed a bit heavier into the equation. The funny thing is that I didn’t even fail that many times in TBoGT, certainly not as much as I did in GTA 4 proper, so I’m not quite sure why it annoyed me so much this time.

This is for all of those food poisoning victims!
“This is for all of those food poisoning victims!”

Finally, after the much more streamlined narrative of The Lost and Damned, The Ballad of Gay Tony’s story didn’t feel quite as fetching nor as well told. There’s really no need to go into specifics about this point, it’s just my general take-away after playing both DLCs fairly close together.

Anyway, enough bitching! Is it good? Yes, it is good. I can safely say that if you’re a GTA fan and you enjoyed GTA 4 you should probably go out of your way to own both The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. In fact, save yourself some hard drive space and buy the Episodes from Liberty City disk. Plus you get to rock out to Vice City FM and the awesome RamJam FM.

Both times now when I’ve come back to Liberty City I’ve been blown away by what an amazing job Rockstar did on the city itself. Sure it doesn’t always look amazing (some of the textures, particularly) but the amount of detail is astounding! I always felt that much of that detail was squandered since there are so many locations you don’t really spend any time in or only see in a blur as you fly down the highway. Still, occasionally I end up on foot in a strange new place thinking “wow, this place is pretty neat for somewhere you never go in any missions or anything.” To that end I’m sure the guys who did the bulk of the development work on the city were quite happy to see it brought back in The Lost and Damned and again in The Ballad of Gay Tony.

Yes, there is finally a tank. Upgrade!
“Yes, there is finally a tank. Upgrade!”

I also still think the character and story crossovers are totally genius. Niko, Johnny, and Luis all influence each others stories, sometimes directly and sometimes more subtly, but it is there and it is often presented in such a way that you have to wonder if Rockstar didn’t have these different stories, and maybe others we’ll never get to experience, penned down from the get go. Again, totally brilliant!

Well, I’ve already written a lot more on this than I had planned too. Again, if you’re a big GTA 4 then you need this. I personally think The Lost and Damned was a better, more cohesive game but TBoGT is well worth your time as well. I have to wonder if we’ll see more, non Xbox 360 exclusive episodes in the future. I wouldn’t doubt if they’ve considered it but I’m sure all the guys at Rockstar are probably ready to move on by now.

As usual my Xbox 360 screenshots were swiped from far more reputable sources.

And I Can’t Deny.

Tonight there's gonna be a jailbreak... somewhere in this town!
“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak… somewhere in this town!”

I beat Grand Theft Auto 4: The Lost and Damned last weekend. I don’t have a lot to say about the ending – it wasn’t disappointing but it wasn’t as good as I felt like it could have been. Still, great game and, again, worth the 20 bucks if you’re a GTA fan. Oh, and I loved the ending credits which showed these slow motion, panoramic, birds eye views of scenes from both GTA 4 and TLAD and how some of them tied Niko and Johnny together. Very enjoyable.

The next game I’ve picked to play out of my Xbox 360 backlog is Battlefield: Bad Company. I’m a big fan of the series starting all the way back with the original Battlefield 1942 on PC but I’ve never really got into any of the attempts to bring the series to the console. I played a healthy amount of the demo of the Xbox Battlefield 2: Modern Combat and watched some friends play the Xbox 360 version when it first came out but these console version just never seemed to be as appealing to me as the PC versions. Bad Company, built from the ground up as a console game with actual effort being put into the single player mode, seemed like it could be a good opportunity to break the mold and indeed reviews of the game were pretty favorable.

The game greets you with an awesome little lounge tune on the menu screen that feels humorously out of place for a war game (obviously intentionally) and brings in some nice cinematic cut scenes as you kick off the campaign. A great first impression. Once I got into the game, however, I was immediately sapped by the odd field of view the game gives you – it seems super narrow and therefore feels unusually zoomed in compared to most first person games. This wasn’t a problem, per say, it just took a little getting used to.

Once I played around in the game a bit I was quite impressed by this new “Frostbite” engine that DICE put together. The graphics look pretty good with some interesting lighting and shadow effects. The maps are fairly large and the draw distance seems quite respectable. I didn’t really notice any crazy pop in or other issues like that either – in fact the only real immersion breaking thing I ran into was the disappearance of destroyed vehicles after a couple of minutes – it seems rather odd for destroyed vehicles and dead bodies to vanish when so much effort has been put on making the environment destructible. You can knock the side off of the building and it’s gone for good, yet the wreckage of the giant heavy tank next to it vanishes into thin air? Eh, that’s a little knit pick I suppose.

Yeah, it's kind of a fixer-upper.
“Yeah, it’s kind of a fixer-upper.”

Speaking of the environmental destruction though… Wow! It’s great. Trees, signs, fences, etc. all (finally!) fall down when your tank goes barreling into them. Some shots even seem to leave craters in the ground. The experience of walking through a forest only to have a group of trees suddenly fall all around you from a surprise cannon blast is totally unique to say the least. The world doesn’t necessarily feel too delicate though – your dune buggy won’t be knocking walls off of buildings and you’re not going to spray your assault rifle into a forest and watch dozens of trees come cascading down.

As far as buildings go I was pretty skeptical at first given that you can’t blow up everything. Indeed, only certain walls will blow out – you can’t completely knock a building down to it’s foundation or anything that drastic but it is an still extremely effective. With tanks firing cannon rounds, helicopter firing rockets, and soldiers lobbing RPGs and grenades all over the place in a lot of these fire fights it is great to actually see some tangible destruction as a result.

There was at least one occasion where a couple of enemy soldiers were holed up in a barracks and the door was on the other side of the building from where I was standing. I decided rather than go around the barracks and risk getting shot at from the windows just to lob a M203 round at the side of the wall and walk straight in. There have also been a few occasions where the illusion of safety presented to me by taking cover behind a wall in typical video game fashion suddenly went out the window as the wall I was hiding behind crumbled down and I was left completely exposed. On the other end of the spectrum during one firefight I was dashing between buildings evading enemy fire when an enemy chucked a grenade at me. It didn’t injure me notably but it did destroy the wall to a building behind me suddenly revealing another enemy who, apparently finding his morning shave to be much less of a priority, started firing on me from my other side. Neat.

Beyond the destructible environment the engine seems to have quite a lot of nice effects that help the action feel more alive. On that front the sound in this game is also great. While I wouldn’t suggest that the sounds themselves are particularly realistic they’re very satisfying. Thumbs up to the responsible parties at DICE.

Guns feel pretty good though I do wish the damage was a little higher. I just hate having to pump half a magazine into a dude to kill him. Vehicles, so far, feel decent enough though the controls took a bit of getting used to. I’ve still yet to climb into a chopper at this point though. The controls for on foot are pretty good though – you can swap between weapons with the right shoulder button and between other gear with the left. The right trigger fires while the left zooms to your iron sights. The other gear I mentioned can be anything from C4, RPGs, and laser designators to your trusty healing syringe. Melee (a knife) has it’s own button but seems to deploy a little too slowly for my tastes, especially after playing Halo 3 recently.

I've got my eyes on you, tree!
“I’ve got my eyes on you, tree!”

The healing syringe system is pretty different – you can switch to this item and heal yourself completely with the press of a button as often as you like. While there is a recharge timer to keep you from spamming your heal it is pretty short. It kind of reminds me of a manual take on the whole Halo shield recharge system that so many games have barrowed over the years. As silly and unrealistic as it is I think I actually like it. Speaking of health, when you do actually die you don’t really incur much of a penalty. You’re basically revived a short distance from where you died, with your squad, with everything you did just before dying persisting. Between those two features you can feel pretty invincible at times even during some of the more difficult sections that have you healing and respawning constantly.

Your squad mates have it easy too. They never really die, they don’t need to be healed, and they’ll even rubber band to your position when need be. In fact as soon as you hop in a vehicle, no matter where they are on the map, they’re in it with you. Pretty unrealistic but it works well enough. On the other hand it does give you the impression that your character is the focus of the game despite the story telling you otherwise – that is, your character is the new guy in your squad and you’re certainly not the leader, yet your squad mates follow you around and never seem to object to any decisions you make. To be honest this stood out as feeling a little odd to me from the very beginning – your squad leader pretty much only actually leads in cut scenes. Ah well, at least these AI squad members are actually capable of killing enemies from time to time.

One last thing to mention is the humor. I honestly thought there would be a lot more of it. Sure, there are a few funny lines here and there but what little comedy is there often fails to impress me and I’m certainly not one of those people who is exceedingly snobby when it comes to humor. Probably the opposite, even.

I’m about half way through the game and looking forward to wrapping it up relatively quickly. I haven’t even stepped foot into multiplayer which is a significant portion of the game, if not the focus. It seems to have a lot of great features and, given the rest of the game, could be great. If I started playing it when it was first released and/or had friends playing it on a regular basis I could definitely seem myself dumping a considerable amount of time into it but most likely won’t even try it during this playthrough.

Ugh, now I’ve got the song “Bad Company” stuck in my head now and I’ve had “Jailbreak” stuck in my head on and off for weeks now thanks to TLAD.

Screenshots lifted from somewhere else since I can’t easily take HD console screenshots.