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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 Stee