Down and Out in Liberty City

Against my better judgement, but driven by Pete’s positive impressions, I used some game trade money to get a used copy of GTA IV last weekend. By the convention of the Ebay Rating System the game is a high 3 or barely a 4. I have already listed the game on Ebay to raise funds to maybe continue my self-hating suffering with the next Metal Gear game. Since it is pointless to write a direct critique of this title, I will complain about the game indirectly. Here are some reasons why MLB08: The Show is better than GTA IV.

Better Camera

The camera in MLB08 is straightforward. It generally sits behind the player you are controlling, allowing you to see the pitch you are throwing or the pitch that is being thrown to you. It moves in a regular and generally predictable fashion with the player if you are running the bases or running around the field to make a play. For the most part you don’t notice that the camera is there. It just does the right thing. This is how a game camera should work.

In GTA IV the situation is different. The camera seems to have a life of its own. It swims and dances and bounces as you move around. If you are indoors it constantly runs into walls, which makes the swimming and dancing motions even worse. In one notable mission, I had to run up 4 or 5 flights of stairs, the camera trying to follow me but constantly running into the stair rail, the door jams, the walls and the floor. The one thing the camera never did was stay still and track my motion in addition to showing me what I wanted to look at.

Instead, the constant motion gave me a headache and nearly made me physically ill. It’s a good thing that the press has told me that GTA is such an innovative and technically brilliant franchise, full of an incredible amount of real life detail, because while I was playing all I noticed was how I couldn’t see anything because my vision was swimming around with the retarded camera.

Better Gunplay

OK. This one isn’t really fair because there are no guns in MLB08. On the other hand, GTA would be a much better game if Rockstar got rid of the horrendous half-baked barely working obviously tacked on gameplay system that they claim allows the player to shoot things. The mystical camera shooting system in Fatal Frame II is downright responsive compared to what you get in GTA IV. The only game I think of that is worse than this is Metal Gear. But in Metal Gear you can forgive the combat system its foibles because you spend most of your time watching cut scenes.

As I said before, MLB08 has no guns, but it does have gameplay systems that make sense and work smoothly. You can pitch, you can hit, you can run, you can throw the ball. So on core gameplay, MLB wins again.

Better Characters

In MLB08, the characters, like the camera, are straightforward and to the point. There are players and coaches and fans. The players play the game. The coaches coach the game, although they don’t have much to say. The fans watch the game, although again, they don’t have much to say either. Sometimes a player and an umpire will get into an argument, although these scenes are not voice acted so you are never really sure what they are arguing about. In all, what you have is a collection of mute cyphers that get out of the way and let you play baseball.

In GTA 4 there is a veritable Hollywood Lot full of characters, mostly either psychopaths or offensive ethnic stereotypes. They provide hours of voice acted cut scenes whose main purpose is to tell you one of two things:

1. Where in the city you should go to shoot someone.

or

2. Where in the city you should next be driving your taxi to pick someone up or drop someone off.

I’ve been playing the game for I would guess seven to eight hours and so far that’s all the characters in the game have done for me. They barely serve any purpose in the narrative of the game at all. But to make up for it, they are mostly loud and annoying.

Better Pacing

Which leads me to my next major complaint about GTA IV. The pacing is horrendously slow. I’ve played four disk JRPGs that deploy their story, such as it is, faster than this game. As I said, I’ve been though nearly eight hours of game and as far as I can tell I’m still in the tutorial.

The pacing problems in this game stem, I think, from two structural problems. First, Rockstar is overly enamored of its “living city” environment and thinks that you should be too. Therefore, you spend a lot of time with nothing to do when, I suppose, you are supposed to drive around the bitchin’ city and find stuff to do. Too bad most of the city is locked up until you finish the story missions, which are the second part of the problem.

The story missions go like this:

1. Drive 10min to get to the quest giver.

2. Watch an annoying cut scene with a lot of ethnic stereotypes screaming at each other to find out where you are supposed to go.

3. Drive 15min to get to the mission location.

4. Fail at the mission because the combat system is about as smooth as a seven year old with ADHD who is also on meth.

5. Goto 3.

The point at which I gave up on this game for good was the tutorial mission for the motorcycle. I crashed that god damned bike about eight times and then listed the game on Ebay.

MLB08 does not have these pacing problems. You play a whole season, or a few seasons, one game at a time. In the RPG-like “Road to the show” mode you make your own character and you only have to play the bits that involve your character. If Rockstar had built the MLB game, I’d have to drive to the airport and then fly the plane to away games before I got to actually play baseball. And then if I lost, I’d have to do the driving and flying all over again.

Better Audio

The play by play announcers in MLB08 are great. They are almost always saying something meaningful, and they are never so repetitive that you need to turn them off.

Everyone says that the radio stations in GTA are the best gaming content short of a live-action first person porn simulation. I don’t get it. Mostly the radio in GTA does to me what the radio in real life does. It makes me want to kill people and turn it off as soon as possible.

The cut scene dialog isn’t much better.

Summary

After suffering for about a week of this, I put the game on Ebay. I give it 4 horrendously painful gaming sessions out of a possible 5 before I decided I didn’t hate myself enough to keep going. Although I think the correct score is more like a high 3, I hated my last session with the game too much for it to count.