Grand Theft Auto 5 is coming. That’s essentially all most folks need to know to get in line for it. Rockstar does some high quality work, and if the previous game is any indication we’re in for another tremendous game full of explosions and Euphoria physics and social commentary. I’m hoping it’ll also not have the things about GTA4 that bugged me and possibly no one else, because a man can dream.
Don’t get me wrong, in many ways GTA4 is a legendary achievement in game design. Liberty City looks and feels like a real city that folks have lived in and dirtied up, and the Euprhoia engine helps the artificial populace give the place life. Indeed you can spend quite a lot of time just living a normal life in the game, hanging out with friends and watching tv and going out to restaurants and bars and shows and such.
In contrast however to all this amazing new technology, I saw a lot of design choices that as I understand it are the old way of doing things as far back as when GTA3 pioneered the modern sandbox game. Specifically I don’t much care for the way GTA4 handles mission design.
GTA4 deals heavily in scripted events that would feel right at home in a tense crime thriller, gunfights and car chases as far as the eye can see. However it felt to me like a good chunk of these, especially the bigger dramatic ones, were not as well-designed as they ought to be. Especially because it takes some of the wind out of a big plot moment when you have to repeat it so many times. There were a few times that the disc would have been on the way to the trade-in pile if not for my interest in seeing the next chapter of the excellent story.
When I bring this up I’m likely to hear two criticisms of my criticisms. The first is that it’s all a matter of skill. My critique is that the opposite is true; in the most difficult missions I often found it was foreknowledge, not skill, that would turn the tide. Foreknowledge often bought by bloody and repeated failure.
I dunno if it was actually worse in motorcycle missions or if it just seemed that way because just one impact would send you hurtling off your bike and into a game over screen. I recall one in particular where I had to tear through the city streets at high speed (following a car that was programmed to always maintain a set distance ahead of me despite its model’s speed and handling capabilities, natch) and at a particular point of the mission a bus would always come across an intersection and block most of it off.
First time through I naturally plowed into that bus at a speed sufficient to create molecular fusion between my face and the bus’ back tire. Next time through I tried keeping to the right while keeping my speed up to follow the vehicle. I wasn’t able to weave through traffic nimbly enough and the bus speedily backed into me, taking me out of the fight again. Third time I tried to go as slow as possible while still maintaining the chase… and this time the bus pulled out slow as well.
It was timed to the approach of the player so that it would always back across the intersection at such a rate that exactly this space will be open at exactly this time. This vexes me because the only way to know where that space will be is to get lucky or die and observe.
This is all well and good for some, but for my part I prefer the sort of challenge where I can attain victory through planning, attention to detail, and good reflexes. Demon’s Souls was great about that. Brutally unforgiving of mistakes, but it very rarely killed you unfairly; keep your eyes open and you can see every danger coming.
Naturally I still died approximately eleventy hojillion times because this is Demon’s Souls we’re talking about, the game that uses player suffering as an alternative fuel source, but it made victory all the sweeter because I had to be smart to achieve it. I’d rather spend all day preparing for and running a flawlessly executed mission than spend an extra hour chewing on a fetch quest through ignorant trial and error.
The second criticism of my criticism that I hear often is that well of course going off the rails gets me killed, you can’t expect to do whatever and win. Well, to a point I kind of can if it’s a game like GTA4. It’s a game all about having the freedom to do anything and everything.
I’m not expecting the game to adapt to every possible idiotic thing I could possibly do, but in an open world game there ought to be possibilities. It feels to me a bit like a football game where they set up a story about an underdog team winning the superbowl, but then victory is difficult or impossible unless you use a particular sequence of plays and execute them in just the right way. And it’s difficult to figure out the sequence aside from trial and error.
Good of example of this later on, there’s a mission where you go up in an apartment building with a sniper rifle to provide cover for a gang meeting or drug deal or something (I forget what the meeting was about but there was a meeting). First time through I’m watching it go down through the scope and I see a guy reach into his jacket. I think he’s going for his gun and I peg him, mission failed. Turns out he was getting out a cell phone, as I find out on the next playthrough. But the other guy does get out a gun and shoots the guy I was supposed to protect. Mission failed.
Next time through I keep a bead on the guy that I know through foreknowledge is gonna pull a gun, and as soon as he goes for it I peg him… and mission failed. Why? Because I killed him before he started shooting, therefore I messed up the meeting. You have to let a guy shoot at the guy you’re protecting before you shoot back or you fail.
And I’m not even gonna go into how many missions went from regular hard to Nintendo Hard because I’d come out of a building expecting to drive off in the getaway vehicle I brought with me and instead be forced to use some rusted-out old clunker that’ll handle like a lethargic cow on top of an anesthetized cow.
Or how failing a mission leaves me standing in the street with my cops after me and no health and little ammo, all of which I have to take care of before I can try again instead of just clicking ‘retry’. It already autosaves when you start a mission. Just load that save. It can’t take that much programming time to add a prompt to the game over screen for ‘load last save’.
But I digress.
What I find especially tragic about all this is the glorious possibilities granted by the Euphoria engine. Many of my favorite moments of GTA4 came when the game went off the rails. When it let the game world just live and let you get into crazy shennanigans just by virtue of how the world reacts to you driving around like a maniac and shooting your way out of trouble.
I remember one mission very early on being a tense and amazing experience. I dunno if it was scripted or if it just happened that way but it was aweome. I think the goal was to take out some gangers or something. I forget how it started but at some point I’m tearing down the street shooting at gangers’ cars who are in turn trying to shoot at an allied NPC’s car I think, and halfway through it the cops get in on the action. At this point I’m trying not to hurt cops if I don’t have to, so all three factions are roaring down a busy highway while I try to shoot up the gangers’ cars, not hit my friend’s car, and evade the cop cars because I don’t want to shoot them. And then afterwards I have to keep rolling in my tore-up car to try to lose the police pursuit. It felt natural and freeform and it was awesome.
So, that’s the sort of tomfoolery I hope to see in GTA5. I want to see them really embrace the possibilities of Euphoria and their world-building technology. I want to see missions that reward the player for thinking things through and coming prepared rather than punishing them for not having psychic foreknowledge. I want less taking my cousin out to play darts and more fleeing the cops in a stolen car that’s on fire while I’m trying to shoot down a chopper during a sweet jump.