Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Second Chance to Disappoint

I randomly decided to play GTAIV again. Started the mission where you have to taxi Little Jacob around, ignoring his incomprehensible babbling and relying on mission markers and tutorial text boxes to know where to go. I got shot up pretty bad in the first encounter, then had to waste time finding a burger joint to get my health back. So basically, major skill-oriented games are all going the route of pussified health auto-regen, yet a game that prides itself in gangster-tough immersion finds the need to force the player to drive out of the way in the middle of a mission to eat a burger instead of letting their health regen on the drive to the next mission point so they can keep the action going. Brilliant.

Got to the second mission spot, followed the instructions for taking cover, then my AI partner got shot after just a few seconds of entering the house, failing the mission for me. Awesome. I was going to force my way through the game so I can at least say that I've beaten it in case the need arises to defend my experience in a debate about the title. Sadly, this has become the main reason I complete most games nowadays instead of joy. Don't want to be that guy at a game development company that hasn't completed Halo 3.

I was going to beat GTAIV this week or next, but fuck it. I need to take another several month break from this overrated piece of mediocrity.

As I type this, a hotdog vender barks repeatedly every ten seconds, repeating the same line at least once a minute. High frequency bark repeating. In a 2008 title. Not a point I would normally drill on, especiailly in a world as large and asset-filled as Liberty City, but this game is full of such flaws and nuisances and yet still has a 98 on metacritic. And objectively-backed flaws aside, I will argue with my subjective liberties that it just doesn't provide an entertaining experience. I don't care if your world is so detailed I can watch TV in it - in fact, if you choose to implement this unnecessary functionality, chances are these are manhours that could have gone into fixing some of the questionable missions. No, I don't want a world where I can do many boring things - I want a world where the things I can do are fun.

This game is not much fun. Whatever enjoyment I started to have when I first played it has quickly gone out the window from the linear, frustrating missions whose failure conditions never cause me to think that I messed up. Driving between missions, a task quite central to the theme of the game (and implied in the title), has become a chore. There is a huge city to explore, and no compelling reason to do so. The difficulty, while not obscene, is a hindrance to the immersion, and forcing the player to chow down on fast food to regain health feels like a waste of time. Yes, I usually lament health regen in challenge-oriented games, but GTA has always been more about the experience than overcoming difficulty, so this design decision (or lack of real design thoughtfulness?) is painfully tragic.

To put things into perspective for anyone that thinks I'm just an artsy game designer belittling yet another high profile mass appeal sequel, I will go on record as saying that Halo 3 was a good game. It was enjoyable. It wasn't particularly special, but the action was streamlined. I hate its success in light of the failures of better titles, but I enjoyed completing it. GTAIV, not so much. Not nearly so much.

Can someone please tell me why this game has a 98/100 on metacritic? Or why I have bothered studying the craft of better game design via subtraction and pitching interesting and innovative gameplay ideas when groupthink shit riddled with high level and low level flaws wrapped in a controversial sandbox package with unnecessary simulation (TV shows???) thrown in to fill the void where good pacing should have been implemented sells millions and woos critics??

Okay, in a less bitter note, can anyone who enjoys this game tell me if/why you think it deserves a near perfect score, much more than SotC, Bioshock, or Braid?


Eric Ritz said...

It's simple really: GTA gets a high score on Metacritic because it's GTA. Or in more general terms, "Popular Franchise X gets a high score on Y because it's X." I doubt it's much deeper than that.

But I have never been to MC so I don't know, maybe popularity doesn't rule. I assume it does.

And at any rate I have to say I very much enjoyed GTA 4. I don't think it deserves a perfect score---show me a game that does. I enjoyed it because my expectation was to play "more of the same" relative to Vice City (I never picked up San Andreas). In that sense GTA 4 exceeded my expectations by introducing simple improvements like better combat controls.

I had absolutely no anticipations that GTA 4 would advance the medium of game design in any way. Nor do I feel it did after having played it; what was actually new about that game? Nothing. But that's perfectly fine, I wasn't expecting that.

You mentioned SotC. When I saw SotC and thought about it in light of Ueda's previous work on Ico I had not only expectations for fun game, but I expected an advancement in design. I felt SotC was successful there as its subtractive design and the totality of all its elements presented a haunting atmosphere of isolation; it was an approach in design I had not experienced prior.

I can't explain to you when GTA is more talked about and receives better ratings than games like SotC---I can only venture a guess. I suspect that your tastes are more refined than that of the average game enthusiast, considering how much of your life you have staked on this craft. Most people just want to enjoy a fun game. The intricacies and the ideals of progressive game design are wholly lost on them. I watched some friends of mine play GTA 4 for hours doing nothing more than running people down and blowing things up, never once attempting a single mission. These people would never care about a game like SotC or anything else that you may consider to be well designed. They are just seeking straight-forward fun, and GTA presents that nicely.

Maybe GTA just isn't your kind of game. For a large majority of people it (apparently) scratches an entertaining itch. It's too bad that it is over-rated, but I have no solutions about how to change such things.

eiyukabe said...

Metacritic is an aggregation of professional reviews, which is what baffles me the most. I can understand how people might find it fun, and maybe these reviews are catering to that - after all, they are suggestions for what one should purchase, not artistic critiques. Still, 98 is a very rare score. There are only five titles at 98 or higher, and GTAIV takes two of those slots (for 360 and ps3). There are 10,895 games ranked on metacritic.

I wouldn't complain nearly as much if GTA3 or Vice City got this treatment since they helped define the sandbox genre, but ever since San Andreas this series has felt only mildly incremental to me. Not something Rockstar should drop necessarily, but maybe something we should quit buying in droves while other titles get ignored.

eiyukabe said...

Oh, I should also add that while I find a little bit of fun in driving around and hitting people, I just don't think I can get enough hours of gameplay out of that to justify the $60 spent. Plus in a game about free roaming and toying with people through violence, it seems odd that it takes a few missions to even get a handgun.