Step 1: Tighten up that gameplay
Say what you will about its rampant immaturity and glitches, Saints Row 2 had much tighter and intuitive basic gameplay than any game in the GTA series. I think it has something to do with Volition guessing that players don’t want to be fighting the game mechanics half the time, while Rockstar assumes anything with Grand Theft Auto printed on the box will sell a million copies. The hard truth is that GTA has a number of gameplay conventions and quirks that are too inefficient or awkward for today’s gaming environment. The theme of GTA should definitely get more serious than that of Volition’s crime franchise, but in terms of basic mechanics GTA should learn some lessons from Saints 2.
GTA 4 is chock full of annoying quirks that kept me from enjoying the core game. Why do I have to pay the rude cabdriver more money just to skip past the long, boring travel time to get to my destination? Why are there only a handful of safehouses in the city, requiring tedious transportation to missions in a distant corner of the map? Why am I playing darts with my depressed, co-dependent AI pals or worse, taking the game’s various emotionally damaged women on boring dates? These features aren’t realistic or challenging or even entertaining, they just break the flow of gameplay.
GTA 4 finally addressed a couple of the series’ issues by automatically saving right after a mission, or letting you replay a failed mission right after you failed it. However, when you were busted or killed you’d still respawn without any weapons. There were certain perks late in the game that prevented this—unlocked through the aforementioned dating grind—but for most of the game you were forced to re-purchase or relocate all of your stolen arms.
Saints Row 2 had a similar penalty, but you could always return to one of your many safehouses and rearm. Once you purchased a gun it was permanently unlocked in your safehouse—I guess the assumption was your gang kept its safehouses well stocked, or your character picked up plenty of duplicate guns while scrounging ammo from fallen enemies.
And really, why wouldn’t Niko Bellic have extra guns stored up? Would he carry his entire arsenal with him all the time? In my opinion it would be more realistic if he could only carry a set number of weapons at a time—in other words, you could plan your mission by pulling certain guns out of your armory. If he loses one, no big deal; he can pull another from storage when he gets home.
The safehouse system in general should be reworked to imitate Saints 2. That game made every single one feel like a separate base of operations, with full access to vehicles, weapons, outfits and even teammates. There were also a lot of them—once you had enough cash you could purchase strongholds in every major district. Some of the features, like an infinite supply of any car you’d stored, were a bit too unrealistic. Still, the rest of the safehouse abilities were just common gameplay features that prevented a lot of headaches and extra steps.
GTA4’s other main stumbling block was the car physics. They were certainly realistic but as a result they fell straight into the uncanny valley of game physics. At first I didn’t mind that every vehicle handled like a 1960s Volvo cinderblock on square wheels—hey, if that’s what Rockstar considers realism—but when I was forced to race in the damn things I got a little annoyed. Every other driver apparently held an expert stunt racing license, weaving in and out of congested traffic while I clumsily wrapped my vehicle around strangely obstinate trees. If you’re going to put sluggish, molasses-wheeled cars in your game, make sure they’re a pain for everyone to control, not just the player. Otherwise go with the elegant, just-realistic-enough vehicle handling from Saints Row 2.
Last but not least, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the next GTA should use some form of recharging health. I typically hate recharging health—it’s a lazy gameplay technique—but in a sandbox game where you don’t always have access to health restoring items, it just makes the most sense. Saints 2 handled this brilliantly. Your health would recharge very slowly, but you could use stored health items to give yourself a quick boost.
Rockstar could use this method, or something similar to FarCry 2. In that game, as you got injured your maximum health diminished sequentially. Until you used a health item or returned to a safehouse you’d never be restored to full health. It’s more realistic and less cumbersome than Niko’s old school method of pilfering random medkits.
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