Caught in a strengthening trend toward striving for realism in video games, Rockstar North made some notable changes to their sandbox formula when concocting 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV. Featuring modern settings and inspired by crime dramas and action movies, the series has always had to strike a careful balance between realism and over-the-top theatrics in all aspects of its presentation. Given the success their previous balance has enjoyed, it’s important to ask if these changes are actually for the better. The answer is an unenthused “sometimes.”
When realism was forced on Grand Theft Auto IV’s writers, they responded by giving us a believable main character in a scenario drained of the pizzazz on which their other stories run. Following the plight of Niko Bellic, a Balkan troubleshooter with a shady past and out for revenge, GTA IV’s plot is smaller in scope than its predecessors. While the stars of Vice City and San Andreas become kingpins in their respective locales, Niko’s tale prominently features only a handful of characters. Moreover, when all is said and done, it’s questionable whether or not he’s really any better off for the player’s efforts. This makes Niko easier to relate to, perhaps, but not without costing the player much of the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing some of the earlier GTA games. Accenting that shortfall is the loss of much of the character depth that marked the supporting cast of Rockstar’s other offerings. The series thrives on parody and satire delivered with an intelligent edge that preserves the quality of the setting and characters. That edge wasn’t sharpened before GTA IV was written, and only Niko consistently turns out as anything but a bland caricature. The uneven writing results in the series’ most compelling protagonists occupying its least interesting script.
Fortunately—and surprisingly—the gameplay suffers less for the added realism than does the writing. Some additions, like watchable television and a detailed faux internet, neither add nor detract from the experience. Others, like the expanded relationship system (featured in San Andreas and now extended to characters other than girlfriends) and missions from random citizens, break the game’s flow enough to be annoying without actually ruining the experience. The rest sound far worse on paper than they are in practice and represent a solid step in the right direction. Cars handle more realistically, fairly increasing the challenge of some missions and creating satisfying differences between available vehicles. Additionally, the player character is much less durable than in earlier games, justifying the addition of the cover system and forcing a more cautious, tactical approach to combat. The missions get a bit repetitive, but the action manages to stay entertaining until the credits roll.
Ultimately, Grand Theft Auto IV is a better than average game, if only slightly. The real crime is that it’s more a lateral move than a vertical one. If Grand Theft Auto is going to reclaim its place as Rockstar’s flagship property from the Red Dead series, it’ll need to up the creative ante for GTA V.