(Editor's Note: This is the second part of a short series looking back at the key video game releases of 2008, to inaugurate the new column The Gamer's PHILosophy. To read the initial installment, please go here.)
by Phil Kehres
2008 was not without its share of gaming disappointments, but they were few. Still, some stuck out like sore thumbs.
Disappointment of the Year — Ranked 2.5/5
Grand Theft Auto IV (Rated M [Mature], Xbox 360/PlayStation3/PC)
No game was more hyped in 2008 than Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV). None was a bigger disappointment. The Grand Theft Auto series has become another overwrought crime drama/shoot-em-up that takes itself too seriously.
Previously, I lauded Metal Gear Solid 4 for its superior cinematic stylings. GTA IV reaches for the same heights but comes up short. In telling the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European criminal that comes to Liberty City (basically New York City) seeking redemption, GTA IV tries too hard to be art in its own right rather than an artistic video game. What gets lost, unfortunately, is much of the style and fun that made the Grand Theft Auto franchise.
To give credit where credit is due, the Liberty City that Rockstar Games (the company behind Grand Theft Auto) has created is breathtaking, and features some brilliant takes on New York's landmarks (the Statue of “Happiness” and even versions of the subway and Coney Island). Graphically, it’s nothing earth-shattering, but still a considerable achievement given the size and scope of the environment. The problem is there’s just very little to do in that environment.
Unlike in previous installments of Grand Theft Auto, you can’t buy property, so that means you “earn” new houses throughout the game and can’t make money off of investments in things like movie studios. Diversions are more annoying than fun, and it is sometimes necessary to engage in them to progress in the storyline. One mission forces you to go to an internet café and find an online date, then wait for him to respond to your e-mail. The internet interface in the game is clever and contains much of the brilliant satire you expect from Grand Theft Auto, including spoofs of Facebook and eHarmony-type sites. But, ultimately, you’ll find yourself thinking, "Why am I surfing the fake internet on a video game?" There’s not much in the way of character customization either, like in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas where you had to keep your character in shape by hitting the gym.
Instead, there is a focus on combat and storyline. The combat is an upgrade from older Grand Theft Auto games, but overall feels clunky. Bellic moves slowly and crumples like a rag doll at awkward times, and the whole system feels like a burden to the player — there’s no excuse for third person action/shooting mechanics in this generation of games to be this ugly. As for the storyline, Rockstar checks all the boxes: revenge, murder, drugs, etc. It comes off as a cheap knockoff of a wannabe Scorsese film.
Ultimately, what the game comes down to is this: talk to somebody, steal a car, drive to your destination, kill your target/deliver drugs/steal another car, return . Sure, you’ll catch glimpses of a remarkably well-crafted, living, breathing city along the way, but it’s not enough to make up for the boring, tired gameplay. If you’re looking for a fun, pure escapist open-world game, check out Saints Row 2 — it’s all the fun GTA IV should have been.
Runner Up — Ranked 2/5
Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (Rated T [Teen], Xbox 360/PlayStation3/PlayStation2/PC)
It may or may not have anything to do with Electronic Arts taking over as the publisher of the Mercenaries series, but Mercenaries 2 is garbage compared to the original. The graphics are hardly better, and the first game was created for the last generation of video game systems. More importantly, the developers forgot what made the first Mercenaries fun: blowing things up. The original Mercenaries was simple: earn cash, buy bombs, destroy things. The story was only there to show you more places to bomb, and you had a deck of 52 bad guys to capture along the way to mix things up a bit. There are more side missions in Mercenaries 2, but they’re more of a chore than fun. The deck of 52 is gone, and the story is still terrible. In a lame attempt at political commentary, the storyline revolves around a war over oil in Venezuela, so now each bomb costs cash plus fuel which you have to find and extract. The explosions look excellent, but the burdensome cash+fuel system ensures that they are few and far between. Despite the promise, Mercenaries 2 bombs out.
So there it is — 2008 in gaming: a good year all round, despite these disappointments. Can 2009 measure up? It’s going to be difficult, but I’ll take a look at what’s on the horizon coming up soon.
(To see the first post in this series, please go here.)
(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)
(The screenshot of Grand Theft Auto IV is provided by Silvio Sousa Cabral of São Bernardo do Campo, Brazil via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a trailer for GTA IV, please check below.)
Grand Theft Auto IV
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