Reviews are important. They help us ascertain what games are worth playing amid all the marketing hype and hoopla. They give us substance instead of sizzle. They protect our sacred dollars from those publishers who wish to take it from us by selling us a mediocre game. But what happens when the reviews themselves offer more sizzle than any publisher ever could? I’m not talking about a high review score. I am talking about actual words in the text of the review that sound as if they were written by the id of a PR rep. I’m not alleging any bribery or wrongdoing here. But I am going to point out the complete abdication of responsibility that occurs when a reviewer himself (or herself) gets swept up in the hype and then pays it forward to the rest of us. Using quotes from actual reviews, you will be astonished at some of the blinding praise heaped upon games that, though they may be good or even great, are not worthy of these particular accolades.
The first game who’s reviews we are going to examine is Grand Theft Auto IV. Yeah, it’s low hanging fruit, but it is still worthy of mention. One of the most anticipated games of all time, the first true sequel since 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III looked to blow gamers minds with a more complex open world, a great story, improved combat and even an online multiplayer component, something fans had dreamed about for years. What we got instead was a dense world with not a lot to do, a story that made little sense in terms of characterization, a combat system that was still years behind its contemporaries and a multiplayer that, when it worked, was disappointing at best. But I know this because I played the game. If I had just read the reviews, I would have an entirely different impression of the game.
We’ll start with IGN and their exhaustive review that somehow still glides over the faults of the game. I want to stress that I am not looking to nitpick the reviews, but merely point out how there seems to be an arms race to deliver the highest praise possible.
“Niko’s struggles with his ruthless nature never inhibit the gameplay, but instead enhance the emotional gravity of a brilliant storyline. The more absurd the action becomes, the greater we feel the very real pathos of Niko Bellic.”
I beg to differ, IGN. One of the biggest problems with Grand Theft Auto is that Niko doesn’t struggle with his “ruthless” nature. Sure, he pisses and moans when someone tells him to commit mass murder, but he does it anyway, every single time. And don’t forget the fact that this humane side of Niko is completely thrown aside if the player chooses to wreak havoc on the innocent citizens of Liberty City. Rockstar wants players to have freedom, but they also want to create a conflicted, complex protagonist. I didn’t feel his pathos. Better luck next time.
“A great deal of that pleasure is due to the refined combat system. Though Grand Theft Auto has always been about action, it has never provided a great targeting system. That has finally, truly changed with GTA IV.”
While the targeting system is better than it was on the PS2, calling it “great” is hardly accurate. This statement could be improved by simply saying the targeting system is better than it was, although still not anywhere better than other games in this genre. But hey, hyperbole FTW!
“I should mention that the driving has also seen an upgrade from past Grand Theft Autos. Rockstar’s RAGE engine coupled with NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine creates a game world with some stunning physics.”
Okay, this one really pisses me off. “Upgraded”? Seriously? All the cars handle like complete dog poop now. I won’t argue about the physics, but pretty much everyone in the world had the same reaction the first time they stepped into a car and started driving in GTA IV: “Wait, is this the drunk driving part? Why can’t I drive? Is my controller not synced? OMG, THEY RUINED THE DRIVING.” To say it is upgraded is a joke. It is different, but not for the better.
“The story is Oscar quality. The use of the phone as a gaming portal is genius. There’s really nothing more that could be asked for from GTA IV.”
Do I need to write anything here? Oscar quality? Even in bad year, like when “Crash” won Best Picture, GTA IV’s story wouldn’t be nominated for Best Screenplay, even if MTV had an award for it. The sprawling story, filled with all kinds of plot holes, inconsistencies and just some plain dumb, juvenile writing is not worthy of any award. Frankly, the press blowing smoke up Rockstar’s ass like this is what enables them to crank out more tripe in the future. Someone should have stood up and said, “Hey, we get what you’re going for, but you failed.” Rockstar seemed to realize this themselves (because God knows no one in the press told them), as Red Dead Redemption displayed the kind of maturity that GTA IV aspired to, but fell short of achieving.
“The dialogue makes the story. Without the excellent writing and the stellar voice acting, the story would fail. And the soundtrack kills — more than 200 songs and almost all are great choices.”
I can’t remember one line of dialogue from the game except for Roman saying, “Man can not live on titties alone”, which he says when you want to hang out at anyplace other than a strip club. Granted, that is an awesome piece of dialogue, but that’s it. I remember nothing else.The voice acting is awesome, as per usual, but the story does fail, despite the voice acting. As for the soundtrack, I think we all know that it is the worst GTA soundtrack since GTA III. Rockstar is quite proud of their soundtracks in previous games, but in Vice City and San Andreas, they had the ability to pick songs from those respective eras. By setting GTA IV in the present day, they compiled what they considered a prophetic soundtrack. Songs they thought would be the hits of tomorrow. They weren’t.
“The cover and targeting system work great. Blind firing with an RPG is a thing of beauty. Everything works in harmony and not a single one of the missions is bad. The most fun I’ve had in years.”
The covering system is touchy and the camera gets in the way too often. Everything works in harmony? I don’t even know what that means. And most of the missions are the same GTA crap we’ve been playing since 2001. This whole passage should be stricken from the Internet for all time.
So that covers IGN. But I don’t want you to think I am picking solely on them (See my twitter feed for that). Other websites got their hyperbole on and we are going to take a quick look at some of the more memorable quotes out there, starting with this doozy from Eurogamer:
“Almost everything you do in Liberty City would be good enough to drive its own game, and the best parts would be good enough to outrun the competition, but the reason it works so well is that Rockstar has made a game that requires no patience to play.”
If you played a racing game with this kind of driving controls, you would put your foot through the TV. If you played a shooter with the kind of targeting system, you would slam your hand in a car door to see if it would improve your aim. Most of us looked past the glaring faults of GTA IV in the hopes that the overall package would outweigh the immediate weaknesses. That didn’t happen for me and I know I am not the only one. So to say that any of these elements would be good enough on its own is asinine.
Kotaku, never one to miss a trend, jumped aboard the hype train as well:
“Rockstar North has addressed virtually every single one of my personal hang ups about the series, crafting one of the most memorable experiences in gaming. We hate to gush, but it’s just that good. Flawless? No. But it’s about as close to a game can come to being perfect.”
“Hate to gush”? Doesn’t seem like it to me. Calling this the closest a game has ever come to being perfect is seriously a dereliction of duty, as far as I am concerned. Perhaps they did fix the things that bothered him, but they still aren’t even close to being perfect. For the reviewer to even use that word in their concluding statement is just ludicrous.
Let’s jump over to GameSpy, a shocking contender for most insane praise given to this game:
“It’s not a stretch to say that, were this a film, some of the “performances” would be Oscar-worthy. Yes, we’re aware that the characters aren’t real people, but they are still better actors than many of the people in the yearly crop of summer blockbusters.”
Once again, the Oscars pop up as an example of excellence. I’m sorry, but I really disagree. I think we all are on board with the fact that the voice acting is fantastic, but let’s not forget that this was the same year The Dark Knight came out, a blockbuster that actually defied convention and garnered a Supporting Actor award for Heath Ledger as the Joker. Did anyone in GTA IV come close to that level of greatness? Not really. Rockstar is smart and they hire actors to say their dialogue, which, let’s not forgot, is usually juvenile humor, threats and monologues about whatever is on the writer’s mind at that moment. It’s frankly all over the place and it annoys me to no end when the Oscars get thrown about just because someone says their lines better than the low bar set by other games.
“The very nature of the American Dream is the central theme in Rockstar Game’s Grand Theft Auto IV , a gaming masterpiece that is a picture-perfect snapshot of the underworld of today’s big cities. This is not only the finest title of the generation thus far, it is one of the best games of all-time”
Picture perfect snapshot? First, how the hell would this guy know? Second, do you really think there are people like Brucie running around? Or the CIA getting involved in gang activity? What a joke. This whole sentence is put here with no facts to support it. It is merely there to praise the game in the most insane way possible. And GTA IV wouldn’t make my top ten of games this generation, let alone games of all time. It’s actually the least fun GTA since 2001’s GTA III. But whatever.
“You’ll quickly come to realize that the nuanced storytelling and presentation is on par with the finest films by directors like Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom know a thing or two about the criminal element of society and their American Dreams. Although it may not change the minds of non-gamers (we’re looking at you, Mr. Ebert), GTA4 should be labeled Exhibit A in the “Games as Art” debate.”
Wow. And I thought I was pissed earlier. The story of GTA IV is a mess. It doesn’t come close to the WORST films of Scorese or Coppola, let alone even enter the same stratosphere as their best works, which stand as some of the best films OF ALL TIME. You’re actually telling me with a straight face that GTA IV is on par with The Godfather and Goodfellas? Seriously? GameSpy should just shut down its entire site due to sheer embarrassment. As for games being art, GTA IV is one of the last games I would present as art to someone.
“Although its got plenty of excellent features, it’s ultimately the storytelling that makes it an instant classic, a game unlike any we’ve played before. As is the case with many great books and movies, you’ll want to know what happens to the characters after the game ends, and one can’t help hoping that all of their American Dreams comes true.”
I’m running the risk of repeating myself, but the storytelling doesn’t make this an instant classic. It’s honestly no better or worse than prior GTA games, except it attempts a more serious tone and largely fails at it. I haven’t given Niko or Roman a second thought since I beat the game. You know what I do think of though? CJ from San Andreas. Tommy from Vice City. Pretty much everyone from every GTA game except this one. Way to go.
One more source for GTA IV: Game Informer. Pretty much the only magazine that anyone reads these days, GI laid it on pretty thick for GTA IV as well:
“Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t just raise the bar for the storied franchise; it completely changes the landscape of gaming. Once you play it, you won’t look at video games the same way again.”
That’s funny because games have kept right on trucking. Indeed, the biggest games that have followed GTA IV have been nothing like it. Games like Uncharted 2, Mass Effect 2 and Batman: Arkham City have told better stories and presented better gameplay and emotion. They were also already in development by the time GTA IV came around. So I don’t see the great paradigm shift that has occurred. The only game it had a positive influence on, as far as I know, was Red Dead Redemption, where they fixed many of the problems of GTA IV. So there’s that.
“In true GTA style, you do the dictating with your gun. Some of the choices you make will have a dramatic “I can’t believe that just happened” effect on Niko Bellic’s life. This isn’t like Fable or Mass Effect where you can clearly see how your input is affecting the story. You just have to live with it, swallow hard, and hope you made the right choices. It’s an amazing story that ends up having a soul and isn’t afraid to poke fun at society’s hot topics.”
At the end of the game, you make a choice: save your cousin, Roman or save the love interest, who’s name I can’t remember and honestly don’t care enough to look up. Roman is the one who lived in my game and do you know why I chose him over the love interest? Because he comes with a taxi service that makes traversing the bloated city easier. I guess the emotion of the game didn’t resonate with me. Or maybe I don’t have a soul. As for society’s hot topics, the only one I really remember is an ad for “America’s Next Top Hooker.” Wow, they really nailed that controversial issue! Tyra Banks is going to be pissed!