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I’ll sit this one out

“Technically it’s impressive.”

Technically. As my friend spoke of her experiences with GTA her qualifier was damning with faint praise. With my developer hat on I can definitely appreciate the technical quality found within GTA V: the world chocked full with life; Rockstar’s ability to make ailing consoles sing; and their satirical look at modern America. It’s undeniable that the world of Los Santos is truly remarkable but for all the plaudits I’m not interested in immersing myself in it. Technically it’s great but for me it lacks appealing substance.

There’s myriad reasons why I can’t jump on this band wagon, from fundamental disagreements with its core concept through to the feeling that I’ve played through its campaign many times already. That’s not to say I’m against the game, in fact I admire what it does and the aplomb with which it achieves it, but you’ll have to forgive me if I sit this one out.

Strangely, the primary reason is actually nothing to do with the gameplay itself. Some of this apathy harks back to GTA IV, which I left feeling disenfranchised. They had again woven an incredible city but I thought it was a waste as the move to a far more serious mood left me cold. It felt as though they had missed an opportunity with the playground they had created, as if more realism had meant a more sombre tone and an end to the antics of GTA III. I could have forgiven this if they had delivered on the dramatic potential but Nikko was such an unlikeable character that I never cared a jot about what unfolded. There are plenty of good anti-heroes in modern media but he missed the mark by a long way. Forever moaning about the injustices he had suffered and how he wanted away from a life of crime and yet choosing to commit countless brutal acts. He was a disjointed character that impossible to relate to.

The introduction of three leads addresses some of this, not putting undue pressure on a single character to lead a story arc that would otherwise fill two or three whole series of primetime television. In fact the interplay between the trio seems interesting to me as the unlikely gang cross paths and join together for criminal shenanigans. There is potential there as each of their disparate life styles clash and interweave, but the story issues go deeper than simple setup.

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Since the beginning GTA has stuck to a formula. Every world has been painted as one where males dominate and women come out as merely secondary characters, there to nag husbands or sell themselves on street corners. I can understand the marketing importance of casting a male lead but the lack of supporting females is disappointing.

After a recent debate on Twitter with a former colleague I now refrain from labelling it misogynistic – literally the hatred of women – but there’s a level of disrespect there that I find if not distasteful then lazy. The theme of men being powerful and women there simply to be either the butt of their jokes or their trophies has featured so heavily that I struggle to remember a single interesting female. There may have been a brief dalliance with an Irish-American wife for Nikko but as she was only introduced to ultimately be killed off I hardly think that counts.

Despite not having played I have consumed a large number of reviews and gameplay videos trying to get a handle on my feelings and from all that I can discern the latest release does nothing to overturn this precedence. I understand that parody needs a stereotype to work from but this one is wearing a little thin and for the sake of variety it would have been a welcome surprise to see the alleged weaker of the sexes playing a larger role.

It’s not alone as feeling familiar. The radio station’s once grand poke at American society now sounds tired, replacing the issues of 2008 with references to fracking and the mounting national debt. I can remember spending hours driving around town or parking up by the side of the road to listen to Ladlow’s radio show, now they are like a comedian whose set desperate needs refreshing.

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Admittedly there are some fantastic additions that add to the already brimming world. The heists in particular sound superb. No longer just a simple mission, the act of putting together a gang and balancing skills against cut could be a whole game in itself. It’s a shame they’re a comparatively small part of the whole which still appears to be mostly driving long distances to either drop off a package or to shoot someone (occasionally both) before driving an equally long distance back.

I miss the verve found in Vice City, where it readily paid homage to cinema set-pieces at the same time as adding its own twist of fun. Whether it was the neon colours or joyous soundtrack that makes me look on it more fondly, the more easy-going approach seemed far more enjoyable and varied. Today the additions of golf and darts are noble efforts to distract players when criminal life gets them down, but I can’t help but think that more effort should have been focused on the core missions.

Of course all this could be is because I’m growing old. Once upon a time I used to liven things up by holding down a crossroads with a boot full of guns and pockets full of ammunition, trying to get my star rating as high as possible and coaxing out the army with their tanks. When GTA III came out this was the height of emergent gameplay as the city would react and their retaliation was always a surprise. It was a challenge – it was the challenge – but I feel as I’ve grown older so have my tastes. Or maybe I’ve just seen it all before.

This familiarity is somewhat comforting; knowing that I could slip straight back into it should I so wish. But equally I’m sad that it hasn’t moved on to any great degree, especially when you consider the current set of rampage missions. If anything they show a further moral slip as where once was a silent protagonist simply causing chaos now there’s a psychopath visibly taking glee from his actions. Again this is subjective but it makes me feel deeply uneasy.

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If some of this seems at odds with my positive review of Saints Row, it comes down to two things: approach and setting. Compared to the realism being pushed in Los Santos, the virtual world of The Saints verges on the absurd. With superpowers and aliens it can’t be taken seriously and as such the repercussions are different; in terms of tone GTA is Scarface to Saints Row’s Avengers, though admittedly with more cursing. Furthermore the superpowers add new dimensions to the open world. I still steered clear of rampages or mindless chaos but the ability to fly and scale skyscrapers added more value than any bank heists. They pushed in a different direction and one that I wanted to toy with for hours on end.

It’s as if GTA has settled into a safe rut. Much like Call of Duty it has grown to such a size that it has become scared of change, worried that any alteration would deter its fanbase. It may not come out annually but we’re beginning to see it falling into a similar template of design as the developers know what has made the series successful and quite sanely are reluctant to change the formula.

Unlike Call of Duty however my worry is that GTA will never receive the impetus to change. Annual releases soon show signs of fatigue but there is such a legacy around this series that it seems impervious. It creates its own hype by keeping standards high and releases infrequent – a lesson many others could heed. More so, due to the interval they brings in a whole new generation of players who have never played GTA before and are ready to lap it up.

Given the current schedule I’ll be in my mid-to-late 30s when the next Grand Theft Auto releases and whether I play it or not is very much in the mix. With so few tangible improvements I can’t see myself ever playing this current version but if they decide to refocus and wipe the slate clean in certain areas then I may just join the midnight queue for a return (hopefully) to Vice City.

Will it happen? Probably not. There is a formula that raked in a billion dollars in less than a week and no one in their right mind would alter that.

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First Impressions: Henry Hatsworth

On a day like today, what on earth could be more British than Henry Hatsworth? Putting aside that it’s developed by a Florida based studio, Mr Hatsworth is the epitome of Victorian adventurers. A gentleman, if you will. With a bowler hat firmly on his head a fine moustache flowing from the upper lip, he’s ready to set off into the deepest darkest jungles to recover lost treasures from the savages and give Johnny Foreigner a damn good hiding, what, what!

Just as with the last DS eccentric, Professor Layton, the character style is the first thing to set this cartridge apart from the competition. Opening cutscenes will present Hatsworth, his younger friend Cole and their nemesis Weasleby as clichés of a by gone Britain. Cole, in particular, is only a hair’s breadth from uttering the word “Guv’nor” whilst offering to shine your shoes. Playing up to this, their speech, whilst presented in the form of text boxes, is accompanied by samples that match their character with Hatsworth continually huffing and making pompous noises whereas Cole’s sounds seem to be snippets of cockney charm.

The game itself, however, is a platformer. You’ll take control of Hatworth and run and jump him through jungles in search of a mysterious golden suit that is rumoured to have the power to control the world. The locals aren’t too keen on giving up their shiny attire and so their resistence must be put down with swings from your machete and shots from your hunting rifle.

The early levels are very straight forward and the only time that you should see your life counter go down is either through misadventure or experimentation from seeing if that pit in front of you is actually as bottomless as it seems. I’m told that later levels do gain in complexity with the addition of a walljump, allowing access to higher areas, but so far it’s quite a standard affair. Enemies are easy enough to dispatch given enough blows from either weapon, although the odd boss fight crops up, too, to test your resolve.

Where Hatsworth differs from traditional platformers is the delightful inclusion of a Tetris Attack style “parallel world”. Some how your hunt for the suit has opened up a rift between your world and the Puzzle Realm. Any enemies killed in your world are transported to this alternate plane and transformed into blocks. If they are not also disposed of in the Puzzle Realm then they will only return to try and thwart you again.

An interesting narrative but an even more interesting gameplay angle as also hidden within the puzzler are powerups and health boosts for you, too. A tap of a button will see you switch screens and then its a classic “match 3” puzzle setup. Link three of more coloured blocks together and they will be removed along with any monsters they contained and granting you any powerups that they held. Obviously the more that you can remove in a single go the better and so you can always find your eye drifting down from the platforming screen to the grid of squares seeing if there’s an opportunity to setup a devastating combo.

I think it’s fair to say that neither component is exceptional; I’ve played far better platformers and there are many addictive puzzlers out for the DS but both are good and what’s more important is that work exceedingly well together. Much like the Grand Theft Auto, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Considering the critical response given so far to Grand Theft Auto IV, it seems best that a retrospective review should start out considering that it is a ten out of ten as opposed to the more traditional five. I like to think that all games start out as decidedly average and then work their way up (or down) from there, but with the universal praise it seems better to work backwards in this case.

Let us assume that everything about the game is as good as it is currently going to get. The shooting is phenomenal; the driving is a joy to behold; and the missions dished out to you have been conceived by the finest minds in Scotland.

Can anyone who has played GTA for any length of time really say that this is the case?

As ever, Rockstar’s monolithic franchise tries to do everything under the sun and to a competent standard but rarely succeeds in doing any one thing to a high level; a jack of all trades master or none. This has always been the case and although all aspects have been improved since the last generation, all still grate in so many ways that I can’t ignore them given their importance in the game.

Gunfight at the OK coral

Gunplay has always been questionable and although we now get the bonus of free-aim and a cover system within the revamped Liberty City, it still falls far short of reliable. With an auto-aim system that has a tendency to select corpses as a threat and a reticule that likes to unexpectedly shifts position when you fire out from cover, it’s almost as if getting the bullets to hit your target is part of the built in difficulty level.

When your guns are however behaving themselves, everyone bar the highest level of police seems very easy to drop, with the positioning of your soon-to-be-victims being the bulk of the challenge. They’ll intelligently employ the cover system against you, but everything is just a waiting game before they pop out or run hopelessly towards you.

As the game progresses you’ll find yourself in a rhythm when it comes to shoot out. Being in the open is a recipe for death so grab yourself some cover and wait; “stop and pop,” as someone once said. You will never be flanked or even in danger of being surrounded so it’s more about patience and making sure you have a large supply of ammo rather than free-form combat.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it…

For the first couple of hours I wondered what I had signed up to; Roman’s Taxi company seemed to have spread out and enveloped a large portion of the game and I should have heeded it as a warning for what was to come.

A lot of the imagination and variety of the missions seen in GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas seems to have deserted IV. There are a couple of interesting escapades involving a bank heist, I’ll give it that, but on the majority of runs I was sent from point A to point B to either protect C, kill D or to drop E off. By the end, I didn’t given an F about any of it.

Where were the adventures where you took control of helicopter gunship’s cannon whilst your partner in crime flew through downtown for you, or how about when you were on a bike being chased by a truck down a series of drainage ditches? This new realistic Liberty City and straighter main character seems to have taken the inventive edge off of the possibilities.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Part of the reason I was really looking forward to GTA was Bully. There the story writing seemed to try and focus on characters and not just the “little guy pushing for top spot” that is a given.

To begin with in GTA, Nikko appeared to be a fully fleshed out man with a dark, war torn past and an unshakable loyalty towards friends and family. One early cutscenes shows him talking to a gangsters wife about the evils of his past and I really felt that they had nailed a believable and deep character.

Roll the game forward a couple of acts and despite his love of loyalty still being high on his agenda, it seems his main motivation is money and he will kill anyone for it. True, he keeps mentioning he wants to “find somebody” but this is played out and if there’s a pay cheque there for him too he’s not going to argue.

When this realisation hit, I didn’t care for Nikko any more. The odd mission where he showed his human side drew me back in a little but it is very hard to empathise with such a man, something that I believe is important if a game truly strives to be a masterpiece and recognised beyond the realm of gamers.

I know a shortcut

Driving is the standout aspect of the game and so I shall be positive, at least here. The actual mechanics are far heavier and more realistic than we’ve seen before in open world games and so take quite a while to get used to. To begin with you’ll find your car lurching through the city, its weight shifting unnervingly causing you to spin out on most corners you’ll take above 40 mph, but as time went by you should find yourself embracing this focus.

Car chases become an exciting prospect knowing that you have to consider your route and each bend found on it. Driving like a maniac will be of no assistance to anyone as telegraph poles and trees are permanently on standby to cut short your escape. There is a true art form in maneuvering your ride through the city and its backstreets to safety that is as about as cinematic and as satisfying as you can get.

The way the police operate plays well into this, too, with the aim to lose them and then escape their cordon undetected. There is the thrill of the chase and the satisfying smirk of knowing that you’ve out witted Liberty City’s finest, if done correctly. Highlight of which is when I lost my pursuers, swapped cars and then sat in my new ride as they drove inches past my bumper without realising it was me. I then drove at the speed limit out of their search area and was away.

The bigger picture

This was never meant as a boot into the game, more of a quick slap across the face to see if I’m the only one thinking like this.

Grand Theft Auto is obviously more than the sum of its parts. Combining all these elements together with Rockstar’s spark for satire and the knowledge of what gamers want produces an amazing game and there’s no denying that. Despite all my frustration at the camera, the shooting and the in-game socialising, I sunk almost forty hours into this and do not regret it.

It’s an amazing feat they have pulled off creating such a deep and varied world, but I don’t think that world should be confused with the game itself.

8/10

M.I.A.

I thought it was only fair I say good bye… for now.

Thanks to the events of last week, namely the announcement of the project I am currently working on and its imminent release date, crunch has now officially hit and it’s no use hiding any more. For the next couple of months I’m not going to have as much time on my hands to update this blog, I’m going to be bashing big bugs and putting polish on pinatas.

Hopefully I’ll still be popping up every now and again when I’ve got some thing to say but it’s likely to be infrequent at best. Which is a shame, to be honest, I really wanted to write a long article why GTA is definitely not a 10, more an 8.

And on that bombshell…

BIGsheep will vouch for YOU!

It’s been a lousy week for updates here at BIGsheep.net, which I apologise for. I’ve been overly tired for most of the last seven days due to a mixture of work and GTA, something that hasn’t exactly gone down well with Ali, either.

What has cheered me up immensely, though, is the arrival of a shirt I’ve ordered from America. It was designed by my friend and owner of PinataIsland.info, Jimmcq, and incorporates our favourite saying on the forums.

If you’ve a dispute that needs settling; if there is a contract that needs witnessing; if your honour is called into question… BIGsheep will vouch for YOU!

The monolith of temptation

The thought of expanding my console collection and adding a PS3 to the fold has been lurking in the back of mind recently, not least because of the 360 v PS3 for GTA IV debate. It wouldn’t be so much for the exclusive full-price titles but more for the PlayStation Network and the likes of Echochrome and Little Big Planet; those that could be considered truly unique to Sony’s brand

As it stands, the two key blockers are the price and my work load. Hopefully, though, by the time my current project is over Sony will have happily slashed their prices just a little more. Two birds and all that

The MGS4 bundle is looking like the most tempting bet at the moment, especially given that I am still a Solid Snake virgin and would love to actually get to grips with one of Kojima’s games, but are there any other full-price releases that anyone would recommend that could tempt me yet further? Any gems hidden in the bargain bins?

Online annoyance

Over the last few days, a reasonable chunk of my spare time has been spent tearing around Liberty City generally causing what’s known as a disturbance. Things are going well, I’m still enjoying the experience, but one thing has started to grate and that’s the online mode.

Put simply, where is the private match option? There is no way, so it seems, that you can create a closed party where just you and your friends can chill and try out the game modes on your own.

Prime example of this was where we decided to enter free-play mode and were causing an impressive amount of havoc, when a stranger popped into our game, walked up to us, blew us all up and then left, undoing all our efforts of the previous half-hour.

It’s a minor annoyance, I know, but when the game is so good you’d expect all the simple bases to be covered; I don’t want randoms I don’t know ruining our six star spree.

That aside the online modes seem really good, with the free roaming city a great achievement. Highlight of this mode was where four of us all stole attack helicopters and roamed the skies above Liberty City… until it ended in a bloody fireball as three of us met in a midair collision.

GTA IV

In short, it’s good. It’s very good. Still too early to say whether it lives up to the stream of 10/10s that it has been receiving, but it’s definitely on course.

The issue explaining quite why it’s on course is, however, hard, due to the sheer scale of GTA IV; in just a few short hours I have already played pool, darts and bowling, been on several dates, had some warm coffee, driven over 50 miles, watched trash telly, tried to derail a train, have helicopters gun me down, been beaten up by several tramps, caused a seventeen car pileup, taken down a local boss who lived across the road from me, located the strip club, pulled over in a lay-by to listen to talk radio and have only just found the internet. I’m just glad I’m not doing one of my 365 word reviews on this thing.

Say hi to Niko, you'll be seeing a lot of him

What first struck me about the game was simply how amazing everything looked. Previous GTAs have set themselves up as almost quantity over quality, where you could have your free-roaming city but it would be made out of comparatively low quality materials, something that was down to the Renderware engine of old. Here, though, everything is crisp and detailed, with an interesting almost painted look surrounding objects in the middle-distance. I can guarantee that on more than one occasion, usually when passing a high vantage point, you’ll look in awe at the cityscape presented in front of you.

Away from the visuals, Rockstar’s previous release Bully has had a definite influence on the game. The story seems a definite step up from previous instalments and the main protagonist has enough depth and personality for you to empathise with him. True, he’s still capable of going on a kill crazy rampage, but he’s infinitely more human than the hollow shells you played in GTA III and Vice City, with the game as a whole benefiting from this as you immerse yourself in his world.

The opening cutscene sets things up perfectly and drops you as an immigrant of unknown origin into the heart of the American Dream and it’s not too long before you’re drawn in to the seedy underworld that can be found in Liberty City.

Most of your early tasks involve you trying your cousin’s cabs around and here those familiar with a series will notice the difference. No longer are the cars simply bricks with wheels lashed to the bottom, they operate on a completely physics based system. The upshot of this is that controlling early cars is hard and the resulting crashes even more spectacular; their shifting weight and momentum meaning cornering at speed is hard, but ultimately more satisfying, in my opinion.

The combat has received a welcome makeover as in recent years the “clones” have been making a mockery of the original GTA control scheme, with both Saints Row and Crackdown having infinitely better setups. At this early stage, a lot of the problems seem to have been addressed and taking others in no longer a teeth grinding frustration. Aiming seems far smoother, with the choice of either locking on or free aim depending on how far depressed your trigger is.

Purdy, ain't it?

The freeform aspect of the game is obviously still there, just trying to steal a cop car is enough to let the sirens start blaring and your profile to be circulated amongst the cities Finest, but again I haven’t played long enough to unlock enough “toys” to truly take advantage just yet. With this play in mind, a welcome is addition is the new cover option, meaning gunfights can be more than just a spray and pray affair.

It isn’t all be about cars and guns for Niko, either. Socialising plays a large part in the game, to keep friends and contacts sweet whilst also giving you a chance to impress the opposite sex. These distractions from the main missions allow you to take your associates to various spots around the city to take part in some well fleshed out mini-games or cutscenes, the latter being represented by a cabaret with an incredibly roster of acts. The sheer quantity of shows available is testament to the amount that Rockstar invests in every single activity in the game.

The only thing that it’s missing is Agility Orbs.

Grand Theft Waiting

Ok, not the greatest title for a post, but I am getting a little too shirty to care; another lunchtime has gone and still I do not have my copy of GTA IV

I thought I wouldn’t care, I thought I could wait, but seeing everyone else playing and waxing lyrical about Rockstar’s new release means that the longer the postman delays the more uppity I get. I’ve been trying to play down the hype and quality and it’s done me no good

Pat has until 5 to get me my copy otherwise I might be tempted to swing by Sainsbury’s on my way home to grab a copy.

Anyone there?

Or are you all playing GTA IV?

Mine’s still in the post but I know we’ve got at least two people having today off to take full advantage of this mid-week launch.

If you’ve got it, what do you think of it? If you haven’t, what are you most looking forward to?