GTA IV review + tech stuff

Last month's mindless wishlisting aside, I'd like to present to my waiting audience of five my opinions on Rockstar's latest blockbuster creation, Grand Theft Auto IV. However, before I let rip I'd like to discuss lots of boring gaming technology which the average adolescent gaming halfwit probably won't understand, so if you match the above description or in any way find the Unreal Engine 3 to look 'cool', please skip down five or six paragraphs and then run head first into a wall.

Since the next-generation of gaming began there's been very little in the way of progressing next-generation games technology. People think that as soon as you add a couple of thousand extra polygons, a dogshit brown or gunmetal grey colour correction filter and a ghastly normal map to a game (QED UE3) that it automatically becomes 'next gen'. While EA and many other companies seem to agree with this philosophy, I do not. Graphics alone do not the game make. In recent years (well, year) gaming has taken great strides forward in realism and graphics, without actually advancing, and indeed taking huge leaps backwards in depth, gameplay and overall fun. What are games about, after all? It's all well and good to see a 7000 polygon gleaming bullet enter the shiny, tear soaked eyesocket of a normal mapped fat Puerto-Rican man in slow motion, but if your character handles like a diesel engine and has a personality as flat as a pancake without any toppings then chances are you're going to get bored and throw the disk out of the window. But I'm getting a bit away from the point here.

Nobody has really done anything to advance the technology of next-gen games aside from Crytek, who failed miserably to make a game whose hardware requirements are anything other than, to say the least, optimistic. Two little nuggets of hope have entered the crapper of sorrow however, in the form of HDR Audio and Radiosity lighting (Global Illumination).

HDR Audio didn't really seem to be anything special until I played DICE's Battlefield: Bad Company demo in which it makes its debut. It's basically an audio version of HDR lighting, which creates a blinding effect when you walk from a dark corridor into a bright, sunlit courtyard. It essentially drowns out the quiet sound of a mouse scurrying across some beams when you light up the little bastard with 30 rounds from your HK416. Every bullet in the ceiling above him, the audio adjusts to make his scurrying away sound loud again. In any other game the mouse would still have been audible under the gunfire. If you're a bit thick, there's an explanatory video here.
I'd imagine it's a relatively simple technology to code and implement (I'm sure DICE's development team will disagree), but amazingly effective all the same. If you haven't actually played the BF: BC demo yet I suggest you do so and experience it for yourself.

The other technology is Radiosity lighting, which is a form of Global Illumination. I can't begin to describe the technology myself in text, so here's a handy picture courtesy of Wikipedia:

On the left is realtime lighting technology up to this point, where nothing can actually be 100% dark. It's either illuminated or it's not. On the right is radiosity, which not only allows colour bleeding (notice the pink-ish walls and ceiling), but also reflects the light from the more shiny surfaces, allowing for a much more realistic and less binary fill of a room. It's by no means a new technology; Half-Life 2 was (I believe, please correct me if I'm wrong) the first to use radiosity lightmaps back in 2004, but since then nobody else has taken up the torch and used realtime radiosity, which is strange considering it's easy to implement with a relatively low impact on framerate, and adds so much more to the atmosphere of the game. Illuminate Labs' Beäst and Geometrics' Enlighten, which are third-party realtime Global Illumination solutions, have been on the market for quite some time now (along with many others), both offering integration with the Epic's Grey Environment Simulator Mk. III. Beäst is being used in this format in DICE's upcoming Mirror's Edge to beautiful effect (here, notice how the red of the crane has 'bled' onto the rooftop), but it's the first for four years.
Anyway, just a few pointers for any developers that happen to be reading this blog (yeah right).

So, onto my GTA IV review for those that care.
At a glance Grand Theft Auto seems to have taken the predictable path that most next-gen games have by investing in a shiny new game engine and then filling it with utter crap. Well, that's a little unfair. IV still manages to keep players entertained with a wide variety of stuff to see and do, but if you've played the previous three GTA games you'll probably be just the slightest bit disappointed with IV.

To begin with, IV looks pretty much as you would expect a next-gen game of this genre to, perhaps a little less so on first glance. The rain especially looks fantastic, adding a mild specular and normal map to the pavement which reflects light sources within the scene. While I don't want to go on about the graphics too much as aside from this they're really nothing special, this one effect pretty much makes up for the rest of the graphical shortcomings. Everything is really nicely detailed but there's not enough variation to keep you noticing the details for long. It's the same three dustbins, skips and empty coffee cups strewn down every alleyway in the whole bloody city. It is atmospheric, but nothing like as atmospheric as it should be. Rockstar's claim that you could stand in a random area of the city and tell exactly where you are by the ambient noise turned out to be a load of rotting bollocks; it uses the same ambient drone over the entire city with varying numbers of emergency vehicle sirens. After a while most of the sound effects become repetitive, and the music is abysmal
for the most part (that's not just my opinion, most other people agree), punctuated by Rockstar's humour which is either lacking this time around, or I just no longer find it funny.

Going back on what I said last time around, gameplay is below average for the most part. I've played better shooters, driven better racing games and can go bowling any time I want in real life. Fun and engaging gameplay have both given way to gimmicky crap stolen from other places, like Saints Row's mobile phone and ragdoll physics, Gears of War's cover system and a generic multiplayer mode, which is admittedly quite fun. I'm not particularly impressed by Euphoria now I've seen it in a game either.

The friends and girlfriends system SHOULD NOT have been carried over from San Andreas, and makes almost every waking moment of gameplay a nightmare where lots of psychotic, drug-addled freaks nag you to take them drinking every five minutes. And what's more the game genuinely wants them to be a chore; wherever you are, the game always places your friend's pick-up point at the other end of the map and his/her preferred destination just down the road from you, meaning you need to drive in an enourmous circle all around the city just to get a quick meal, which you have to pay for. All of the characters are genuinely unpleasant as well; Brucie's gobshite wittering about how awesome he is, Roman's constant snyde remarks whenever you miss a shot at pool, Dwayne's depressing whinging about prison and Packie's coke-fuelled rants about his lifestyle all make you want to stab them to within an inch of their lives and leave them to bleed to death in an alleyway, which I do frequently. Dwayne's heartfelt text message about 'dragging his sick ass all the way back home from the hospital' (because I'd shot him several times the night before and left him in an abandoned warehouse, then ignored his calls for me to pick him up from the intensive care ward) actually had me in stitches.

For a conclusion I'm going to reiterate what I said on GTA4.tv:
It's the same tired old formula in the same tired old city with little in the way of actual innovation, just gimmicky crap which keeps you distracted from the game's almost total lack of fun for a total of 2 hours. The new 'realistic' image hasn't done anything positive for the game and sits in jarring contrast to the childish sex jokes and radio adverts. Honestly, I laughed more at the radio on Saints Row more than this crap. It just seems as if Rockstar is following the crowd of realistic games which have so far characterized the next-gen with their dull, repetitive gameplay and bland environments, when instead we need more games like Crackdown and... well... Crackdown is the only example I can think of.

It's ok for the first of a trilogy, though. It's not an overly bad game, it's still okay to play but it makes a lot of bad choices. GTA III had a similar 'gritty' vibe to it when it first appeared, but Vice and San Andreas didn't continue it. If IV is setting the tone for the next two of three games then you can bet your balls I won't touch them, especially if they redo Vice and San An again, which would essentially mean paying £40 for a graphics upgrade. "BOYCOTT!" he screamed, with an air of Che Guevaran revolutionary authority in his voice.

TL;DR: If you've played San Andreas, don't bother.

Lastly, I guess I should stop ranting off about the games industry and start living up to the title of this blog by posting some WIP levels. I'll get around to it eventually... probably... maybe... nah.