A Blast from the Past review

FBT returns to the mean streets of Liberty City. And finds them wanting.

The Past

The whole point of our Blast from the Past reviews is we reflect on a previous playthrough, then re-experience it and see if it holds true to the memory, be it good or bad. But, in the case of GTA IV I’ve technically never played it. But I do have a memory of it – a bad one.

When it came to GTA VC or SA, what my mates and I would do is let one of us play until the lead was a force to be reckoned with (funky outfit, tank in the garage, that sort of thing), then we’d load up a save and take turns trying to see how high a wanted level we could reach, and how long we could survive. For GTAIV it was my mate’s turn to hench up the lead, Nico. And he never managed it. I’d watched dejectedly as the cars behaved like boats, the cops were unstoppable, the streets impossible to have a firefight in - GTA IV was gloomy, washed out and boring. It was the only GTA where I passed the controller on without a fight. And when I did watch actual gameplay, each mission was the same and the characters all looked like something from a Harry Enfield show. I disliked it so much I never even bought it for myself.

But, having recently played through GTA III, VC, SA and 5, I figured this was the only one missing from my GTA 3D experience and I should give it a try. Time to see what Nico is all about. Turn up the Contrast and find me a driving mod, I’m going back to Liberty City.

Still a Blast?

Crap, it’s Niko, not Nico. Must have been the accent. Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City to taste the American Dream, as described by his cousin Roman. Of course, the reality isn’t mansions and stripper wives; stuck driving taxis for Roman, Niko becomes embroiled with loan sharks and the Russian Mob, who have ties to the shady past he was trying to escape. Resolving to carve his own slice of the Dream, Niko sets about taking over Liberty City. Well, just does odd jobs for folks until the game ends - or I end Niko.

It took me a while to realise why I find GTAIV so boring; it’s very closely aligned to GTAIII which I also found insanely dull. It follows the same beats; a nobody ends up as a lacky for a procession of mobsters, who each betray him or get killed by him, and it repeats until a bitter-sweet, low-ebb ending. I get that the Liberty City games are about the underdog, they’re less pop-culture cinema references like VC and SA, more realistic crime dramas, but life in Liberty City sucks; not because it’s rundown or dangerous but because we’re always just a gofer. Niko is entirely driven by others (well, drives them about) and most things that happen to him do so because of other events rather than him being proactive, just like GTAIII’s Claude.

At least he can speak, even though Niko sounds like Christopher Lambert’s Scottish accent, but I’d rather he shut up. Most of his dialogue is him moaning while never doing anything about it - ‘oh I hate running errands, anyway gotta run this errand,’. Niko might have some shady paramilitary/criminal past where wearing a brown leather jacket and trackie bottoms is cool but I never feel like I’m inhabiting someone who might go off, or can handle himself – I get no sense of danger from him. If he turned up at my door, I’d assume he’s here to drop off Amazon. He’s no fun to get into it with. He has a few moral-ish choices he can make, and certain decisions affect the outcome but not in a way you can anticipate making it pointless. Looking at this and GTAIII, it’s as if VC and SA were Liberty City’s out-of-town relations that you only see on the holidays. And they’re always the most fun.

Within a few hours, I realise it’s not going to get any better. At least in VC and SA you could take a break and create your own mischief. In IV, the thing you’re mostly doing is screaming at the cars. And when I say cars, I mean a shopping trolley in an oil slick.

Holy crap the cars are terrible. At the time, making the cars behave more realistically was decisive, with some saying it demanded you drive for real instead of arcade style, that each car’s differing weight, speed and torque made you concentrate, picking your escape vehicle carefully. Others, like me, just hated it. And I hate it now. You can’t have any fun, which is the reason we’re here. If you want to make a car-crim-sim then fine, but don’t put this dynamic in a game called GTA – there’s nothing grand about stealing a car that can’t corner. Or break. Or Steer. They take half a mile to stop and sway like you’re on one of these springy things in a kid’s playground. And crash, into everything, without fail.

You forget to have any fun, focused on nothing but your driving. My heart sinks when a mission requires me to chase someone. F’that. That’s no way to enjoy a game largely devoted to driving. Shooting is a little better but it’s dated now, ten years later. SA felt more thrilling and edgy in the shootouts than this does. This feels like a GTAIII DLC not the follow up to the epic SA. Which leads us onto the one reason most folks play GTA – to muck about.

You can’t muck about. Even getting into trouble is too much trouble. One star and you get tons of coppers on you and they’re lethal, unless you hide like a coward. Just staying out the way for a minute causes them to lose interest. Wow, I really am in the Mean Streets, a real Travis Bickle up here in Roman’s taxi. To be fair, Niko is a great deal more morally-centred than other GTA leads, and has a nice line in cynical commentary but that's not the GTA I'm after.

There’s not even anywhere to just lose your shit and let off steam. VC and SA had prime places to start sniping, taking out helicopters; you could get to a roof, annoy the coppers and FIB until the national guard came in, then time a jump onto a tank and make off. They had tons of open spaces for chases, narrow streets for close-quarter car crashes, but in IV it’s just ‘get stuck, get shot’. I can accept this isn’t supposed to be GTA Looney Tunes like VC and SA free-roam were, but it doesn’t feel like a New York gangster experience either. You have no room to lead them on a chase, no places to hold out in, no real verticality to outwit or hold up in, and of course since the cars behave like a freshly caught fish, a high-speed chase only lasts until there’s a corner to take.

1 Star, 5 Cops.

What really drains all the life out of it for me is the way everything is ashen, washed out and dull. I had to rock the contrast way up just to breathe some energy into it, and it’s not noirish as some said, it’s grey. I get that it’s trying to show a beaten down, deprived, scrappy side of the Dream and that could work as a linear game where all your focus is on the world they’re trying to escape, but in a freeroam it has the effect of draining all the energy.

Also, of course this being GTA most of the women are naggy or prostitutes. Roman’s beloved is like Chandler’s ex Janice on speed (who is also shagging one of the villains), the girl Niko hooks up with is obviously suspect but he’s too foreign to pick up on her wily ways so we have to wait for him to catch up, and that’s about it. We can now pick what services we’d like from the prostitutes (and watch) – of all the aspects to GTA’s female representation, prostitution is the one that gets the biggest overhaul? I need a drink.

One of the (many) things that outraged the morally outraged minority was that Niko can drink and drive. It is poor form, but we’re criminals. We kill people; a bit of driving under the influence isn’t going to weigh too heavily, and the second you get into the car you’re unable to drive – not that you can tell the difference. The key thing is you didn’t have to get into the car. You, the gamer chose to cos it’s funny. That’s not the game approving of drink-driving, no one made you do it and you’re not rewarded for it. There’s nothing funny about drink-driving of course, and it’s not like I tried it and thought ‘it’s not so hard’. So, it’s ironic that drunk-driving is about the only fun I had in this game. A drunk shootout was a highlight too.

Liberty City is a corrupt, mean, deprived place. Many of the streets are hidden under Elevated trains, the sun obscured by out of reach skyscrapers and litter and boarded up shops are everywhere, I completely understand what it’s going for; we’re not here to take over or change things, just carve out a place we can call home and I am up for it, but playing it is just a slog. I like the world, I just don’t like being in it. Well, driving around in it anyway.

One thing I will say, GTAIV has made me see GTAV in a new light. I found that too sprawling and unfocused, but after playing this I realise what a huge step-up V was, a carefully balanced return to what we loved about VC and SA with the bleakness of the criminal underworld of the main series. I still don’t like it much, but it’s way better than this. If you’re looking for a Liberty City experience, don’t. Stick to the west coast. San Andreas is the place to be. Pop down to Vice City maybe, but stay out of Liberty, it’s anything but liberating.