GTA IV Revisited, MGS IV Avoided

Metal Gear Solid IV is starting to get the kind of hype (see if you can guess the reviewer’s conclusions from the title of the review) that Grand Theft Auto IV just got, and will probably give the PS3 a huge shot in the arm. Although I will probably end up buying a PS3, it won’t be for some time, since I just bought an XBox 360. (And I’m still annoyed about backwards compatibility with PS2, or lack thereof.)

When I picked the XBox 360 over the PS3, I considered several factors:

First, I wanted a current generation console now in order to play GTA IV.

Second, I considered the expenditure to be significant, and planned to buy either the PS3 or XBox 360 and ignore the other platform for at least a year.

Third, I was well aware of the game pipelines for both platforms, including the not-quite-released Haze, the soon-to-be-released MGS IV, and at least one PS3 exclusive Final Fantasy title.

Fourth, I was also aware of the existing games for the two platforms, including Ratchet & Clank on the PS3 (the first Ratchet & Clank is one of my all-time favorite games and for a long time the new Ratchet & Clank has been the only current generation game I’ve found even slightly tempting) and a bunch of PC/XBox 360 titles that weren’t ported to the PS3, such as Bioshock and Mass Effect. (It didn’t hurt that every “me too” title on the PS3 appears to be inferior to its XBox 360 equivalent, e.g. Resistance: Fall Of Man vs. Gears of War. Or Halo vs. … Haze?)

In the end, PC/XBox 360 won over Sony lock-in. While I will one day get a PS3 and enjoy the latest Ratchet & Clank, the best games are generally targeted at computers still, and I venture that this has led and will lead to the XBox 360 having a better games library than the PS3.

As you may recall, I was withholding judgement on whether I think GTA IV deserves “10/10”.

First, let me say that it’s the first GTA game I’ve completely “unlocked”. (I’m about 50% “complete”, but I can go anywhere, have all the weapons, and am about five missions from completing the main arc.) Second let me say that I stand by my annoyance with the controls — almost every failed mission comes down to getting stuck on terrain or not being able to see incoming adversaries owing to the new “cover” interface. Third, everything Yahtzee complained about in his review of GTAIV is absolutely true. “Man Dates” in particular are the worst thing ever. (Woman dates are pretty bad too for that matter.)

So, I’ve played a lot of GTA IV, mainly in the wee hours after feeding babies and not being able to get back to sleep. The driving controls (once I got over the urge to use X to accelerate) are wonderful, and the person-to-person combat is generally great, although the “cover” stuff is still kind of annoying (and gets me killed once in a while). Once I realized how autosave worked (and stopped going back to my Safe House so much) I became much less annoyed at the save interface.

The game is a huge improvement over its predecessors in several ways:

  • First, the missions feel more organic to the world — it’s hard to pin down. For one thing, the really dumb missions (such as taxi, ambulance, and firetruck runs) are gone, while the cop missions are actually fun. For another, you seem to be able to pick your approach to a lot of them — whether it’s circling a target to pick a line of attack (or climbing an adjacent building to use your sniper rifle) or deliberately paralleling someone you’re supposed to be chasing to use easier streets. I’ve looked at walk-throughs to see how they recommend you do missions I’ve already completed and often found I did the mission in a way that isn’t mentioned (and not by using a “sploit”).
  • Second, the faux sat nav eliminates the constant navigation problems I had with every earlier game. I wish you could set multiple waypoints (e.g. I generally want to visit a gun store on my way to most missions, or a good place to steal cars on my way to a date).
  • Third, getting away from the cops is much more interesting (doing sensible things like zig-zagging through side-streets actually works, you can outrun a three star wanted rating on foot, cops don’t materialize around you the way they did in earlier games, and so on).
  • Fourth, you can shoot forwards from moving vehicles. (It’s quite difficult, as it should be, but a lot less annoying than the drive-bys in earlier games.
  • Fifth, as in San Andreas, gun combat is a lot of fun — the cover UI is flaky but generally more useful than not. (It gets me killed less often than it keeps me alive.) Before San Andreas, if a mission involved significant gunplay, it generally meant completing it was completely a matter of luck. With San Andreas and IV, I look forward to gunplay, and generally expect to win and turn a profit (i.e. collect more ammo than I use).

The thing that really stands out about GTA IV is the writing and acting. Even though the storyline is basically static (you can do quests in different order by visiting NPCs in different order, and you can sometimes make a binary choice that appears to have little impact) it’s so well written that I find myself watching cut scenes carefully and going back to them if I miss something. (You can skip cut scenes without even watching them once and still complete your missions, and many of the most entertaining dialog occurs in-game as you drive around, somewhat reminiscent of Interstate ’76. Aside: would someone please do a great ripoff of Interstate ’76 for the 360?)

As with GTA: San Andreas the acting is very good (simply unparalleled by other video games). E.g. Michelle, the first woman you date, always seems to be forcing her enthusiasm in the (tastefully discrete) bedroom scenes — I concluded she was an undercover cop or something, since the acting everywhere else in the game was so good I couldn’t believe it wasn’t deliberate.

I was right.

This marks the first time for me in a video game — that I can recall — where assuming the acting was goodturned out to be correct. Of course, knowing she was some kind of undercover cop made absolutely no difference, because your decisions have no effect on the plot.

Let me pause for a moment to consider GTA IV as a morality play. Much has been made of the series’s amorality. You invariably play a guy who steals cars, kills people for money, and kills random innocent bystanders in order to perform relatively trivial missions (in earlier games, this included delivering taxi passengers to their destinations and, even more ironically, picking up patients in an ambulance). While this trend continues in GTA IV, it is a remarkably moralistic game.

Niko Bellic — unlike almost everyone he works with — doesn’t do illegal drugs (he does drink himself stupid, and the drunkenness implementation is hilariously good) and constantly counsels his friends to perhaps cut down while in turn listening to them bemoan the costs (physical, personal, financial, and spiritual) of their habits both to him and one another. In one mission you help a gay “friend” by killing a gay bashing “hater” who has been stalking him and tries to beat him up on his jogging run in Middle Park.

Perhaps the worst piece of writing I’ve encountered is this:

Spoiler Alert

At one point in the game you’re working for a successful gangster and his long-time associate and mentor who recently got out of prison. Although very close friends, the former has tried to become legit while the older man remains an old school gangster, determined to regain his former crime empire. (Incidentally, this plot appears to be lifted directly from one of The Wire’s story arcs.) At the younger man’s behest, you start helping out the older man, but eventually and inevitably the two come into conflict. It has been established through cut scenes that Niko likes the older man, but he also reflects (accurately) that the younger man has never done him wrong. Eventually, after the older man has you kill the staff of a strip joint that (he neglects to tell you) happens to be run by the younger man, you’re forced to pick a side and kill the other. The younger man offers you a lot of money while the older basically asks it as a favor.

I killed the older man — not for the money, but because he had just screwed me (and betrayed his protege). But the game treated it as if I had been motivated by the money. (I looked for walkthroughs to find out what would have happenedt had I picked the other option — turns out I’d have gotten the younger man’s very nice penthouse apartment.) I found this very annoying… which is a sign of just how well-written everything else is. It’s also an example of the game’s moralistic subtext.

OK, so 10/10?

I realize that giving games a numerical rating is in a sense stupid, after all the New Yorker doesn’t give scores out of ten in its movie reviews (the New Yorker has lately begun reviewing popular music, which I guess means it should be discussing computer games by 2030 or so), but while I love the New Yorker’s reviews for their wit and insight, I’m often left wondering whether the critic enjoyed the film or might recommend it to a friend. (Yahtzee complains about numerical ratings, but often spews vitriol at games he pretty clearly enjoyed for the most part. His criticisms are on point, but was the game actually fun? And how much fun was it?) Numerical ratings are, in the end, a useful way of making the overall impression left on a reviewer by a game or movie unambiguous.

Thus, if you consider 10/10 to mean “any reviewer would recommend this game to a friend” then GTA IV deserves 10/10. If you consider 10/10 to mean “flawless”, GTA IV does not deserve it — it clearly has flaws and I’ve pointed a few out. If you consider 10/10 in the light of other games, such as Bioshock or Mass Effect which have received reviews in the 9.0 to 9.6 range, GTA IV unquestionably deserves a 10. In other words, GTA IV deserves a 10 the way Nadia Comaneci did in 1976 — if you’ve given high 9s out for a certain level of work, then something clearly superior deserves a 10.

Of course, the result of 10s becoming common in gymnastics was a revision of the scoring system to (no doubt temporarily) ameliorate grade inflation. If we recalibrate game scores so that an essentially decent game such as Bioshock gets 8/10, and a well-made game with stupid flaws that should have been fixed in QA such as Mass Effect gets 7/10, GTA IV would still easily rate at least 9.5/10. The problem isn’t that GTA IV has gotten too high a score so much as a bunch of mediocre or merely decent games have been getting 9/10 or more.

Bioshock is very pretty, and the artistic style and Ayn Rand references impress and amuse, respectively, but it’s an FPS with zany weapons game. It’s also a “shooter where shooting is remarkably ineffective” game. (I’m playing it on easy, and I it seems like I need to empty a clip into even the early mobs just to get them to notice me. And given that it’s a game where you scrabble for ammunition, this is not a recipe for fun.) This is not a worthy successor to System Shock or Thief or Ultima Underground or Fallout — and supposedly it’s something of a spiritual descendant of the first and has a clear aesthetic similarity to the last (By the way, in a Universe where Bioshock deserves 9.5/10, those four games deserve 11/10.)

Meanwhile, what of the other IV, Metal Gear Solid?

I loved the original Metal Gear Solid despite its glaring flaw — incredibly long-winded expository dialog that laid out a typical Japanese RPG back story… i.e. everyone was related to each other and had been betrayed, and powerful forces with unlimited budgets and no business plan were at work. (It’s possible that these back stories lose something in translation, but I’ve seen Japanese movies and comics with unquestionably solid plots, so I just think Japanese RPGs are badly written.) But, at the time, it was an incredibly innovative stealth shooter, and its understated features, such as that first moment when you use cigarette smoke to detect a security system, gave it an imaginative flair unmatched by games of its time.

Since the original MGS, as far as I can tell, all the progress that’s been made comprises saddling the gameplay with more of the latter. (The fawning review I linked above does say very positive things about the latest installment’s interface. If what they say is true, I will no doubt be very impressed when I finally succumb.)

Perhaps I am simply rationalizing my decision, but the MGS IV trailer thoughtfully provided at the end of the review I linked makes me completely uninterested in playing the game. It’s everything I hate about the original MGS and nothing I love about it wrapped into a long, boring, grey-brown video. (For a start, it looks like a cut scene featuring zero gameplay. And everything in the cut scene is stupid, badly written, and badly acted.)

At minimum, I’ll wait for Yahtzee’s review before I even consider trying to rationalize buying a PS3 to supplement my XBox 360…

Update: Yahtzee has posted his review of MGS4 and appears to have exactly the kinds of issues with itI would have expected him to, along with expressing considerable annoyance at his gameplay. Meanwhile, I’ve “finished” GTAIV (64.5% completed according to the in-game stats — WTF? I’ve completed all the plot quests and a ton of side quests. I guess I have to kill all the pigeons…).