Several years ago, in 2016, we decided to participate in a “favorite games” challenge. The premise was simple: choose and play single game that we each considered to be a “favorite,” and then report back on experience. At its core, the challenge was all about understanding what it meant to consider a game a “favorite” in age of top-notch gaming. What was it about some games that kept us coming back to them time and again? Was it simply a matter of great story and mechanics, or was the answer more complex than less?
My game of choice for the challenge was Red Dead Redemption. At that point, it had been many years since I touched it. But I utterly loved it (except for the ending) when I first played it, and I wanted to know if it still held up after I had taken so many different gaming deviations. (Spoilers: YES.) Though I didn’t know it at the time, this challenge would lead me down a path that would define most of the gaming choices for the rest of the 2010s. One that, while peppered with new releases, was mostly filled with replaying games I hadn’t thought of in a good many years. Between 2016 and 2019, I revisited three major franchises that I held dear: Fable, Mass Effect, Dragon Age. Aside from questionable choices made in the third entries of each respective series, the results were all around positive.
But, in and among all the adventuring, there remained one game that constantly poked at my side: Grand Theft Auto IV.
In short, before three particular games walked into my life – Fable, Mass Effect, and Grand Theft Auto IV – I was primarily a Nintendo gamer who had taken a few forays into PlayStation’s ranks. But these three games introduced me to the wonder that was the Xbox 360, and that was that. Between about 2006 and the start of the 2010s, you couldn’t get me away from my new console friend and these particular games.
So when I began replaying games that I had long considered “favorites,” GTA IV was always in the back of my mind as “I should retry that one, too.” But, for whatever reason, or maybe the existence of the great Grand Theft Auto V, I just never made that particular leap. And if I hadn’t recently found myself in a used game store staring at a copy of GTA IV: The Complete Edition for the PlayStation 3, I might never have.
TL;DR Oh, I lept alright, and landed…face first onto the beautiful concrete. Ouch.
I have to admit that it’s hard for me to fairly re-evaluate GTA IV, mostly because I’ve also just started playing Grand Theft Auto Online, and it (i.e. GTA V) is simply a better GTA game, mechanically speaking. Everything from driving to combat to basic interactions have been greatly improved, and just being in the wide open lines of San Andreas is far more appealing than the crowded streets of Liberty City. And speaking of San Andreas, I can’t forget my memorable first-time foray into that title (GTA: San Andreas), or, as well, one of my all-time favorite Nintendo DS games – GTA: Chinatown Wars. (Add that one to the replay list, too. /sigh) So, I suppose you could say that GTA IV has a lot to live up to.
My experience replaying GTA IV (currently sitting at about 25% complete) has been mixed, to say the least. On one hand, I find I’m well able to reinvest in Niko Bellic’s story. I don’t know that I’d call him charming, but he’s far funnier than I recall, and he offers up some fantastically wry reactions to his many acquaintances. And while the character models might modestly show their age, the overall voice acting remains excellent, so it’s easy to overlook the occasional blobby face or three. Also, I just like Liberty City as a game world. It’s cramped, crowded, and teeming with life of all forms. Its people are weird and wacky, navigating its streets and alleyways keeps one on their toes, and it’s chock-full of the charming cynicism that’s come to define the GTA games.
On the other hand, I’ve definitely been spoiled by GTA V’s much-improved gameplay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with GTA IV’s mechanics, the problem is me, and I don’t know that I’m going to find the time (or want to find the time) to “unlearn what I have learned,” so to speak. (This isn’t to say that GTA V is strictly easier than GTA IV, but it’s certainly easier to play.) The big hold-up concerns the game’s motorcycle missions. Managing them now in the game now is more awful than I remember; but I also remember that back then, when I was playing GTA IV as a new game, I had lots more time to put into mastering that set of controls. And to be frank, my aging reflexes aren’t helping at all with the game’s combat. In close-quarters combat, I find that my reaction times are just too slow for poor ol’ Niko as he runs around like a fish out of water while I’m trying to find a good camera angle at which to take down my enemies.
Though I’m not ready to give up on solving Niko’s plight, I also don’t want to harm my console, controller, or anyone nearby due to unnecessary rage-quitting. So my current path to finishing GTA IV (for only the second time ever) will be a slow walk. A very slow walk, as I can only play it when I have the time and patience to do so. Right now the GTA IV is giving off strong “you can never go back” vibes, which is certainly true with some games, and probably truer here with things being all-around more enjoyable in the game’s sequel. But if my year is marked only by seeing Niko’s story through once more, I’m here for it.
(Erm…maybe as long as GTA Online doesn’t receive any new updates, haha.)