Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the Grand Theft Auto series. Whoa now, before you start writing that highly offensive comment telling me how wrong I am, hear me out. I don’t like the GTA series, but I really really want to. I’ve tried so hard to like the games; I’ve played almost every title in the series to some extent, I completed GTAIV, I’ve even enjoyed many aspects of the series and had a ton of fun with them.
That being said, I think when it comes down to it, the Grand Theft Auto games could be so much more than they are.
Since GTA IV is the most recent entry in the series, the one I’ve actually played all the way through and the game which GTA V will surely be building on, I’ll be using that as my reference point.
Grand Theft Auto IV starts off so strong. You’re introduced to Niko, a fairly likable character with a dark past, and his cousin Roman, a man who clearly likes to think he’s more successful than he actually is, but remains endearing despite that. Niko wants a new life, one like Roman’s–free of death and crime. Unfortunately for him, it’s not to be, as Roman’s life has its own paths into the underbelly of Liberty City.
This sets up the game wonderfully, and as you play, you forgive the fact that the shooting isn’t all that great, climbing is clunky, moving Niko around is awkward and numerous other faults the core mechanics of the game have. You overlook those because the story hooks you, because Liberty City feels like a real place–a dense, populated, living city. Evidently, this seems to be the part that garnered the game such rave reviews. Whenever people talked about GTA IV, they always mentioned the amazing feeling of the city, never the actual gameplay.
Fifteen hours later, you are less forgiving. Now all those faults you were overlooking are infuriating; they’re prolonging this game which already feels too long. To top it off, the story starts to go off the rails. You’re given supposed moral choices, which you are seemingly meant to be invested in because they involved characters who are “friends.” But they aren’t, they’re just characters who have been around a while, and proximity to someone, of course, doesn’t make you invested in them. Just because I’ve completed five missions for this character, and seen them in 20 minutes worth of cutscenes, it doesn’t mean I care about them. Niko starts protesting that he’s just doing all this deplorable stuff for the money, so he can have the better life he wants, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. While you look to the corner of the screen and see he has more money than many people make in a year. Then you go murder 100s of men for a few grand, cause Niko really needs that money. Maybe it’s to decorate the several different apartments he now has? Who knows.
For some reason, Rockstar has it in its collective head that GTA needs to be a 30-40 hour game. With GTA IV, they made an attempt to go almost completely into a more serious tone, but it didn’t quite work out. At best, the narrative begins to meander off on tangents, at worst it barely makes sense and ends up painting Niko as a complete psychopath Perhaps it’s because they build this huge world for you to inhabit, and they don’t want all that work to go to waste–the shorter the game, the less exposure to the environment. Whatever the reason, GTA games need to be shorter, or they need to find a solution that allows them to be 30+ hours while not suffering for it. Hopefully GTA V‘s three protagonist route will help to alleviate this. Could that mean we get three super-tight, 10-hour stories? We can but hope.
There’s reason to believe Rockstar can and will improve on this, though. Since GTA IV, we’ve seen them release Red Dead Redemption, a game with a far more coherent and enjoyable story. It managed to tell a long-form story that didn’t overstay its welcome, even if it did trail off a little. Of course, Red Dead also has the benefit of being set in a completely different time period, one in which character motivations are far easier to simplify and make believable. John Marston rarely lost sight of why he kept doing the awful things he was asked to, he wanted his family back, pure and simple. The old west setting, and his background as an outlaw made his actions believable. He was reluctant but didn’t mope about it
One of the most recent and arguably best examples of a story-focused open world game, Sleeping Dogs, proves that you can make a 12-15 hour open world story immensely interesting and satisfying. The story of Wei Shen is intriguing and gripping while also serving up interesting gameplay scenarios, which take him all over the dense city. The narrative and characters do not fall to the same contradictions we see in GTA. Wei does not start complaining about lack of money despite having an abundance of it, he does not start bemoaning all the killing he is being forced to do. In fact, in Sleeping Dogs that last aspect is actually dealt with, as we see Wei start to become affected by what he’s forced to do while undercover.
Of course, as previously mentioned, the problems with stretching the narrative aren’t the only issue with GTA. There’s also the clunky gameplay, which is pretty unforgivable when you have to deal with it for almost 30 hours. Looking at GTA IV now, it looks downright archaic. When it released it wasn’t great, but in a world with Saints Row: The Third and Sleeping Dogs, the gameplay mechanics in GTA IV feel unplayable. That may be a bit harsh, but the core mechanics are certainly lacking in polish. The driving is probably the most robust part of the game, with shooting and general traversal mechanics being clunky at best.
While Saints Row‘s gunplay and general gameplay are arguably no more robust than GTA‘s, as Volition has iterated on the series it’s learned to put fun first. Which is why we have things like the so-called “awesome” button, which allows players to modify their actions and execute crazy but satisfying moves like jumping through a windshield to steal a car. Then most recently we saw Sleeping Dogs raise the bar by bringing in robust action-game mechanics to the open world genre, with satisfying melee combat, akin to an Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed, and shooting mechanics you might expect to see in something like Max Payne. That’s not to mention more than a few ideas from the underrated Wheelman implemented into to the driving portions of the game. Wouldn’t you much rather have fun while also experiencing a well crafted story? Rather than trudging through mediocre gameplay in the hopes that the fumbling story gets good again.
There’s no arguing the Grand Theft Auto franchise is important. After GTA III especially, the gaming landscape changed. We wouldn’t have those Saints Row: The Thirds and Sleeping Dogs in the world without first having GTA. But it’s a series in danger of forgetting what games are about, so here’s hoping Grand Theft Auto V can manage to be as fun and entertaining as it deserves to be.