Image: "Grand Theft Auto IV"
Rockstar Games  /  Rockstar Games
If perfection is unattainable, why did "Grand Theft Auto IV" get so many perfect scores from critics?
By Games editor
msnbc.com
updated 5/14/2008 8:52:41 PM ET 2008-05-15T00:52:41

By now, you’ve probably heard that "Grand Theft Auto IV" made a ton of money in its first week , besting "Iron Man’s" box office take for the same period.

Do a quick scan of Metacritic, a Web site that averages professional reviews for entertainment media, and you’ll see that "GTA IV" earns a near perfect score. Many sites, such as GameSpot, IGN, 1UP.com, the Edge – all gave the game 100 percent. That’s gotta juice a game’s sales, right?

I’m about four hours into the game, and I’m bored. The city is awesome — no doubt about it. But I’m impatient for things to get going. I’m tired of bowling, watching TV and waiting for people to call me.

I know, I know. Apparently, I need to devote a good 10 hours to "GTA IV" before I start to "get it." My Xbox 360 got the dreaded Red Ring of Death hardware failure over the weekend, so that’s stopped my progress for now. (Msnbc.com is a joint Microsoft - NBC Universal venture.)

But still, shouldn’t the magic of a "perfect" game be apparent to me after four hours? Shouldn’t a perfect game … well, be … perfect?

"That’s a real good question, and one that gamers debate a lot among themselves anyway," says G4’s Matt Keil. "Some people honestly believe that nothing should get a perfect score because nothing can be perfect."

Keil gave the game — which he’s spent 80 hours playing —  a five out of five score. "In the case of our review, a five to us is more that, we couldn’t recommend this game strongly enough, other than this game is perfect," he says. "We’ve given flawed games a five in the past."

Crispin Boyer, who reviewed the game for gaming site 1UP.com, acknowledged some of those flaws in his write-up. Those included difficult-to-master driving controls, and the improved-but-still-not-great-shooting controls.

But he says that the complete package of "GTA IV" was so good, so revolutionary, it would have felt like nitpicking to let those things influence the score in a negative way.

"Games have become so complicated and so big, making a perfect game is impossible," he says. "It comes down to the overall quality of the experience."

Mykola Biolkonsky, a gamer from Columbus, Ohio, told me that at first, "GTA IV" seemed like a retread of the older games.  "I just didn’t enjoy it," he says. "It didn’t strike me as at all interesting."

After about five hours, though and he says he started to see the depth of the game — and the world. And he points out that this is consistent with other types of art, like literature. Sometimes it takes a couple readings to really get what a book is about, or a few viewings to see a piece of fine art for what it is.

"As a medium matures, the artist that uses that medium has many more options for how he wants to express himself, and sometimes, that means that expression becomes a lot more complex," he says.

Speaking of mature, for a game that’s been lauded for its "Oscar-caliber" writing, I found it to be downright juvenile at times. Rockstar, the developers, have made lots of improvements in this game. The physics are spot-on. Visually, the game is stunning, with wholly believable environments. But the jokes are still straight out of the 15-year-old-boy gag book.

It wasn’t too tough to find other gamers — ones with a Y chromosome — who felt the same way I did. Steven Watts, a self-described hardcore gamer and freelance writer for 1Up.com, says that he’s reluctant to play the game in front of his wife.

"I’m 26 now, and I played the original ‘GTA,’ but I want the games to mature with me — and it’s rated mature," he says. "I think the Rockstar guys are clever enough to do really smart satire and really smart narrative … but I don’t think they went all the way."

To be sure, the protagonist in "Grand Theft Auto IV," a Serbian immigrant named Niko Bellic, is a deeper character than in games past. He’s a war veteran, a former human trafficker — not a guy that shies away from violence or sinister stuff. But he’s a tortured soul — you can see that on his craggy face.

So far, though, he’s a serious guy in a sea of boob jokes and hot-dog double entendres. Daniel Weissenberger, who gave the game a good review on GameCritics.com, wrote that the game suffers from "tonal schizophrenia." (Our contributor, Levi Buchanan, wrote about the fans' reaction to Weissenberger's review in a related story .)

"I doubt there's anything more unpleasantly jarring in the game than listening to Niko tell the awful story of how he discovered his aunt's body after she had been raped by soldiers and tortured to death, while driving past a salacious billboard for 'Pisswater Beer,’" Weissenberger wrote in his review.

But clearly, "Grand Theft Auto" gets a pass from critics where other games would be eviscerated. And maybe that’s appropriate for a series that has transcended games to become a cultural touchstone.

"It gets a pass on one hand because of how big and how important and how ubiquitous it is, and on the other, I think it gets (a pass) because of the scope," says G4’s Keil. "There are so many elements to the game that little flaws are easier to overlook."

Keil admits that he waffled between a four and a five before deciding on the latter score. And although he says some reviewers can be vulnerable to "first-impression score inflation," he stands by his rating.

"I have to deal with games all day at work and then I want to come home and play (‘GTA IV’) afterwards … that counts as a great game, especially considering how much time I’ve put into it,"he says. "Something that can keep me on it for that long, there’s something to it."

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