I’m destined to be eternally behind the curve, which is why I didn’t first listen to Arcade Fire’s Funeral until five years after its release and why I’m only now getting into Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV. I had played about an hour of the game back in my second year of university but with the sheer number of games I was playing that year it kind of got lost in the shuffle.
Come January of this year and I was finally getting around to playing Batman: Arkham City and realizing how much I love sandbox video games, so I picked up the Game of the Year edition of GTAIV from a grocery store electronics section for pretty cheap. While it took a few months for me to truly warm up to it, I can say without hesitation it’s up there with Arkham City and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask as one of the best games I’ve ever played, and for the most unexpected reason: not the open world (though I love that) or the characters and dialogue (love them even more), but because of its shooting mechanics. GTAIV beats out Mass Effect 3 and even Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 in that department, managing this not in spite of its flaws but because of them.
Flaws might not be the right word. Compared to its admittedly more out-there predecessors GTAIII, Vice City and San Andreas, GTAIV is a noticeably clunkier beast to handle. Most cars can no longer turn on a dime, your run speed is significantly decreased, and it’s far easier to draw the attention of the fuzz. In my numerous—disquietingly numerous—escapades fleeing from the police, I’ve found myself depending more and more on cars that can safely round a corner without sending me into a wall than the speed demon you only think you would want for that situation.
Likewise, I’ve also learned to pick my battles and not wantonly engage with the police unless I’m having a Michael-Douglas-in-Falling-Down kind of day, because…
Shootouts are Hell
In previous GTA games, the most fun was had by building up a five or six star rating through calculated destruction, leading the cops on a merry chase and then fortifying yourself on the roof of a parking garage and blasting at anything that moves with a rocket launcher—you know, mayhem. That kind of chaos was fun and something you would actively strive toward initiating.
Not so with GTA IV. As I mentioned earlier, the police response is much swifter and much harsher. Maybe the best part of the game—the mission “Three Leaf Clover,” in which you as Niko and two of the McReary brothers have to escape the small police army their botched bank robbery provoked—requires you to vacate an entire island on the world map in order to evade capture or death. I had to play through the mission a few times before I was able to successfully complete it, and I don’t think my adrenaline ever abated during any of those iterations. I felt genuine relief after finishing it. In most contemporary games—Gears of War, say—I’d just plant myself behind a convenient waist-high wall and pick off my enemies as they came toward me, but it turns out holding out behind some cover doesn’t do too well when a nearly infinite stream of police are coming down on you. Not to mention…
Cover is a Genuine Hindrance
Cover-based shooting is the norm for the vast majority of third-person shooters these days, inadvertently turning every big budget action game into a prolonged and very bloody session of Whack-a-Mole. I’m not entirely opposed to it—I adored R6:V2’s fluid cover system—but it’s made a lot of would-be excellent games tedious. GTAIV was the first game in the series to implement cover, right around the time that system was hitting the mainstream. In contrast to its contemporaries, however, GTAIV’s cover system managed to avoid turning into the aforementioned boardwalk game by having cover impede you as much as it does the people shooting at you.
While the cover available in GTAIV does a good job of protecting your criminal ass, the only way you’re able to get off an accurate shot is by exposing the top half—i.e. the very important half—of your body. Otherwise, you’re just blindfiring and hoping you hit whatever cop/Russian gangster/pimp on your tail in a vital organ. Plus there’s also the fact that you spend a decent portion of combat ducking behind a car, so there’s a good chance a steady barrage of bullets will turn your sanctuary into an explosive device, given enough time, which reminds you that…
You’re Genuinely Vulnerable
Not long after Niko and Roman are forced to flee to Bohan, you’re tasked with tracking some drug dealers to their warehouse hideout and dispatching them en masse. I managed to severely handicap myself beforehand by reducing my health by half, all thanks to a poorly-thrown Molotov cocktail, so I had to make my way through the cramped facility crouching and at a snail’s pace, pistol always at the ready. I weaved my way between crates, checked every corner and didn’t move too fast, lest some drug pusher pop out of hiding and blast me in the face with a shotgun. Save that stupid Gerudo Fortress stealth mission in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it was maybe the tensest few minutes I’ve ever played in a video game.
And that’s ultimately what I love about the combat in Grand Theft Auto IV: there’s no regenerating health system to save you when you’re down to that last blinking wedge of HP, no convenient cover that turns you into a borderline omnipotent—if mostly immobile—god. It’s perhaps the only game I’ve played that constantly reminds you how fragile your character is, whether you’re sailing bodily across the city because of a poorly-executed motorcycle jump or tumbling from a bullet in the back—and always in that slow-motion, equivalent to rubbing salt in a digital wound.
So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to turn my 360 back on and see how long I can last against the Liberty City PD this time.