Gaming snapshot: GTA IV

There are 8,548 reasons why I love GTA IV. Here are a few:

I’m given a mission to go kill some guy for…something or other. First, I have to use a police computer to find him. Which means I have to steal a police car.

As the cut scene ends and the mission begins, I get a gimme — a police car pulls up right in front of me. The obvious technique would be to gun down the two cops inside and steal the car. But I wonder if there’s a more peaceful option, some way to get them out of the car without hurting them (and thus keeping down my wanted level). While I think about this, the light changes and they drive away, By the time I can give chase, I’ve lost them. I wonder, will the game give me another easy out and deliver another police car, or will I have to figure this one out for myself?

I remember that Niko, the character I’m controlling, has a mobile phone.

I pull out the phone and dial 911 (I nearly dialled 999. I’m Scottish. I’m sorry). The popo arrive within seconds. One officer gets out and has a look around. I wait for the driver to exit, but he stays where he is. I think again about how I can cause a diversion. But then policeman #1 says the place is clear and gets back in the car. I panic. I pull my shotgun out and kill them both, destroying chunks of the car in the process. As their bodies fall to the ground, I jump in and drive away.

Killing a civilian and stealing their car will normally get you a one-star wanted level (out of five). The more stars you have, the harder it is to escape. Killing these policemen gets me three stars. Still, I manage to escape easily enough. I access the police car’s computer, download a photo of my target from my phone, and find his location (I’m sure real police work is this easy). The hunt is on.

Police cars are great to drive in GTA IV. They’re fast, and hitting the siren makes other cars swerve dramatically out of your way. I reach my target’s location, a two-level piece of land full of storage containers and henchmen. I sit in the police car right outside and realise that the siren’s still wailing. Stealthy.

There’s a tall building across the street with fire escapes along the side. I wonder if I can get onto the roof. But first I cycle through my weapons to confirm I still have a sniper rifle. My attempt at climbing the fire escape fails, so I walk along the side of the building and set up far down the street. I have my sniper rifle, my victims have sub-machine guns. From this distance I can pick them off while staying mostly out of their reach.

As I drop the first person with a headshot, the rest get into action mode. They start firing back, but from this distance only the rare bullet hits me, causing little damage. The few henchmen that take bullets to the body need a second shot to kill them, the rest die from headshots. I check my mini-map — its two red circles confirm that my target and one other opponent remain, and are hidden from this angle. Now I’ll have to use movement and cover to get close enough to kill them, neither of which works well with GTA’s clunky control mechanics.

I run up to the location and press against a wall so no one can shoot down at me. I climb a ladder to the roof, stopping just before the top rung so I can angle the camera around to see what I’m up against. One man pops out from behind the cover of a container to shoot, then retreats. He does this at set intervals. I time it so that he’s retreating into a cover as I scale the ladder and rush forward, using the container’s opposite side to cover against. As I do this I realise I didn’t check where my target was. I could’ve walked right into his line of fire. Thankfully, I’m safe.

I rush around the container and, in a moment that seems to take an age, turn and shoot the guy. As he dies I notice a body at the other side of the canister. Is my target already dead? And, if so, how? Then I realise I’m stupid: this must be one of the guys I sniped earlier.

Now only the target remains. The map shows me he’s right round the next corner. I come out of cover with my gun high, expecting a cut scene. The target’s there. I shoot. He drops. Completion music kicks in, at the corner of screen I see my bank balance climb. I must be finished. Now I remember: this guy isn’t part of the storyline, he’s just someone I need to eliminate to further the campaign. People like him don’t get a cut scene. Still, it feels somewhat anti-climactic. Nikko phones the man behind this mission. By his tone, he also sees this killing as just another day on the job.

Most of these missions in GTA IV are great fun, despite the dodgy controls. And if you haven’t played it, you should. But if you’re someone who wants to find logical problems with games, you’ll find them here too. Why didn’t those henchmen get spooked when a police car with siren blaring stopped right outside? Why did they continue to fruitlessly return fire when I was picking them off one by one with sniper rifle? How are these wanted criminals still at large if they can be found within seconds on a police computer? Why would someone pop in and out of cover at very specific times, putting their head in the exact same place?

I, for the most part, don’t care. Would I like AI-controlled characters to behave more realistically? Sure, as long as it doesn’t make the game less enjoyable. Did these logical problems diminish the fun I had with that mission? Not particularly,  no.

As I walked away from this mission, once again free to wander Liberty City’s streets, I spotted a police station ahead with three cop cars parked outside. I strolled by — casual like — and looked inside the cars. They were all empty. I decided to steal one and park it outside my apartment, which means it would always be there if I wanted it. As Niko smashed the car window with his elbow, I realised a policeman had been standing outside the station the entire time, partially hidden by shadows. He exclaimed something I couldn’t make out as I drove off quickly, preparing for another chase. But nothing happened. For a second I thought about how illogical it was that I could drive off without anyone giving chase. Seconds later, that realism problem was forgotten, all I was thinking about was racing home.

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