Grand Theft Auto 4 PC: Reliving The American Dream

Grand Theft Auto 4 PC

Steam sales did it again!

There was a “Rockstar week” of sales running all last week on Steam, and Grand Theft Auto 4 came on twice for $7.50.  The first time didn’t catch me, but after I read stories of the Friday night multiplayer battles still raging on Shacknews and watching a good number of hilarious videos care of the PC-exclusive video editor feature on the game, the second time roped my wallet in.  The big download finished when I came home late last night so I did what any guy who had his first Sunday off in around a year would do: play a video game until around 4 AM.  Now, I’ve played GTA4 to a good percent of completion on 360 already, including both of its amazing expansions (Gamerscore: 955/1500 ranging from 4/29/2008 [Release Night] to 11/10/2009 [completed story on Ballad of Gay Tony]).  Playing it again on PC seems to be scratching the same itch again and is somehow pretty satisfying again.  This isn’t a complete dressdown of GTA4 as a game, but I just want to hit on a few points about the PC version that is doing it for me.

Rockstar Can Make A Damn Trailer: This trailer they cut for the PC version starts running when you visit the game’s Steam page. It’s just… good.  It jogged some good gameplay memories and had me jazzed up a little for another casual romp with my Eastern European friend.  It’s dated as an engine now, but the amount of detail that was assembled in the art that makes up that Liberty City was so monumental that it just pops with a kind of life that few other game worlds can’t even try to accomplish.  Its rendering style gives it a slight painterly look in the calm scenes and has enough realism grounded into it to make the action scenes engaging and not overly cartoon-like (although there’s some of that too, being a GTA game and all).  It’ll be great to see a similar engine in action with whatever insane amount of detail Rockstar has aimed for this time in Red Dead Redemption.  Too bad that game will probably not have a horse radio featuring stations playing songs they can run over their trailers.

On A Monitor: I played GTA4 on a console with decently sized TV while sitting back on a couch or a bed or wherever I was.  This time, I am in the same chair I sat on when I did my taxes this year, inches away from a monitor from which I was viewing a draft of a sixty page design document for a website a few months back.  It’s been said before by others, but gaming on my PC monitor has an effect that pulls me into a world compared to sitting back from my TV.  Having a majority of your vision enveloped by the image instead of the crap around the TV helps.  With that said, the intense detail and immersion-factor of Liberty City is amplified greatly sitting in front of a monitor.  There are few clues of the real world grabbing my attention; the LED on my cell phone might be blinking in the corner of my eye and maybe I’m popping Bottle Caps while I’m playing.  The pixel real estate my virtual cell phone takes up is the same size as my actual phone.  GTA4’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is its game world and having my monitor place it front and center in my experience vs. the TV hooked up to my 360 is dramatically increasing my connection to the game.

Cool Runnings: My first recollection of the PC version release is the complaints on performance, which scared me when I purchased it yesterday.  I don’t have hyperconductive thinking aluminum in my rig, but she’s still up there.  Still, I remember those complaints being applied to the whole spectrum of PC builds; it just ran like a dog wherever it was.  Suffice to say, GTA4 is running admirably on my computer, with some texture and shadow detail above the 360 version.  GTA4’s still a relatively older engine with some blemishes here and there, but it is still gorgeous and runs pretty smoothly.  There’s still fear that it might not hold up in high-octane situations like multiplayer.  The in-game benchmark tool uses such a scene, however (a running firefight between a group of people on scooters), and my computer was able to handle that pretty well, so we’ll see.  Rockstar’s history is rooted in PC gaming, and it’s great that they still show some ongoing love for the platform with the increased fidelity and feature set of the PC version.

Good Eye, Sniper: I am most impressed so far with their control implementation. I played GTA 3 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PC with a keyboard and mouse, and I’m not sure how I would’ve received that game if I had been playing on a gamepad.  Mouselook in action games is just so good.  In the first mission I was handed a gun in GTA4, I was already liberally applying bullets into brainpans with ease, without the console lock on.  Lock on is still prevalent for fist fights, but otherwise, it’s all mouselook, like the PC gods intended.

The Wheelman: I did, however, miss the finer control that a gamepad might offer in other areas, especially with vehicle controls.  Driving a car in WASD means you’re hitting the pedal or you aren’t, or you’re tilting the wheel in extreme directions or you’re not.  After stopping under a bridge mid-mission, I plugged in my wired 360 controller.  Literally within the span of three seconds, I heard the telltale Windows 7 sound of new hardware acknowledgement, and off I drove with the accelerator tied to a trigger capable of multiple stages of activation and a wheel tied to a stick with multiple stages of tilt.  GTA4 handles these two input methods far more seamlessly than any game I have ever seen in my life.  Even menus and tooltips update what keys and buttons are being referenced according to whatever you’re using at the time.  It is simply remarkable.  PC games will always hold a place in my heart for just the sheer possibilities of interaction methods with games (joysticks and beyond).  Consoles have guitars, turntables, skateboards, motion controllers, giant mech controllers (COME ON CAPCOM, YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO) and so on, of course, but where would you see such freedom on how you want to play in an dense, open-world, 3rd person action game?

Creepy DJs: Finally, here’s a quick shout out to Independence Radio, the station in GTA4 that will play my MP3s, slickly intertwined with its own British DJ and the game’s classy radio ads and news breaks.  MP3 stations have always been present in PC GTAs, but the implementation of that in GTA4 is really neat.

As I was driving in the First Date mission, where Niko takes a girl to the Coney Island-like place for a date, the British DJ said something about how he was going to play a song that will remind me about falling in love for the first time, and then proceeded to play Coney Island by Death Cab for Cutie.  Seriously.


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My name is Anthony Munar, a computer programmer in Utah. I also play a bunch of video games every now and then. I talk and think a lot about them, but I never really solidify those thoughts anywhere, and writing is something I like doing, so I thought I'd do it right here. I don't intend to be high-and-mighty authoritative about what I say and I don't really have any sort of standing in the games industry. This is just for me to muse about games when I want to.

Naming a blog these days was harder than I thought. In calculus, the inflection point on a curve is where its concavity changes between upwards and down. So, maybe, the inflection pixel is the pixel which represents something that turns my opinion around on a game, like the pixels representing a beam cannon firing in FreeSpace 2, the pixels representing a flying car wreck in Burnout, or the pixels representing my own sentry gun holding off an army in Team Fortress 2.

Using the word 'pixel' in naming something game-related seems clichéd, so sorry about that.


May 2010
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