There has been a lot of hype following Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV), the first step into the new generation of gaming for Rockstar. This hype has come in the form of ridiculously large promises, dramatic features, beautiful trailers and simply the fact that the previous titles were enjoyed by millions of gamers worldwide. Under such hype other developers have crashed and burned, however, Rockstar keep their cool and truly met demands with what can easily be titled the best Grand Theft Auto ever.
You take your first steps into Liberty City off a boat in the docks of the first island, thereby to be known as Niko, the immigrant. Niko comes across as a far darker and serious character than we have come to expect of the franchise, coming from a war ridden background which has clearly taken its toll, leaving what can best be described as a laid back killer with little to lose or care for. This however will soon all change when you see Niko develop not only the story, but himself. Niko is without a doubt the deepest and most realistic protagonist yet seen in a Grand Theft Auto game; and he certainly puts most other games to shame.
Without spoiling the story for those who have yet to experience the title, Niko begins the game with only his cousin Roman and a cockroach ridden apartment. Whilst the game does not feature dramatic mansions and businesses like Vice City, you earn a good living and more importantly make a lot of good friends along the way. The emphasis in GTA IV is not to get rich and take over the city; it is instead simply to answer questions left unanswered. This journey however has choices, much unlike the other games from the series. The choices you make will have a large impact on the storyline and will result in one of multiple endings. Thankfully Rockstar have recreated these choices perfectly, as none of them are ever ‘good and bad’ clean cut choices. The game is designed in such a way that all of your choices are difficult and have varied consequences. This style of choice making, and finale, results in one of the best examples on how to handle multiple endings in a game. When you have made your choices and seen the credits roll, you will wonder if you want to go back and see the other path. This is the life you have lead for the past 30 hours of gameplay, and the way you have developed the characters, do you really want to erase all that and see the other path?
Progressing through the game you will find yourself at home very quickly if you have played previous GTA games. In short, you control the character from a third-person viewpoint and roam around a city, in which you can do as you wish. Whilst GTA houses a lot of action, racing and adventure gameplay, it is without a doubt that it should be placed in the sand-box genre for its open ended nature. Limitations obviously exist due to technical restrictions, but you can mostly do as you wish in a town filled with life. If your wishes are to take a sniper rifle and start an epidemic from one of the rooftops, so be it. On the other hand you may want to race against others around the city in sports cars, smuggle drugs for cash, get a lap dance in a strip club, rob a bank, steal a helicopter for a private tour... the list could go on forever. Simply enough GTA IV provides a flavour of gameplay which means that when the storyline has been completed, the game does not need to end. The game completion ratio could be at 60% (when the story ends) or 100% (when you have done all the tasks set by Rockstar), but you will still always find something to do in Liberty City.
The single aspect that makes GTA IV’s gameplay endless is the attention to detail. This attention to detail can be found in every aspect of the game, ranging from the graphics to the gameplay to the audio. The direct resemblance Liberty City has with New York City is rather remarkable. The world of GTA IV might be smaller than previous games in the series, but the attention to detail and activity packed into every street result in a world in which you can truly get lost in. After finally finishing the game 30hours in, large and beautiful areas such as Time Square and the Empire State Building (to go by their real world counterpart) are left unvisited. It is remarkable to still be surprised with how detailed, vast and beautiful sections of the map are, after 30hours of not even witnessing them.
During this time you will get to grips with the improved and typically far more complex to use control mechanics. First is the advanced weapon targeting system, which thankfully gets rid of the old ‘lock on and press fire to kill’ method of combat that was common with the last instalments. You can free aim by half pressing the left shoulder trigger, which feels incredibly convenient thanks to the pressure control available. Pressing the trigger fully down will lock on to the nearest target. This lock on system works in a similar fashion to Crackdown, allowing you to aim from the body region to anywhere of interest on the target. You will find that before long a single bullet headshot is quick and easy, which is welcome considering you are hurt (and killed) a lot easier this time around. Another welcome addition is the cover system which allows for Gears of War style cover behind any object in the environment. With a quick tap of the trigger you will spring around the cover and fire, until returning back to safety once again. Even better, the cover system allows for diving between cover spots, sliding into safety and even blind fire; all of which come together to create a comfortable yet controlled combat system.
Whilst combat is the primary pastime in GTA IV, you will also be required to drive around the large city a lot of the time (unless you wish to take a Taxi or a Helitour, which is typically far quicker but obviously less fun). Thankfully everything from stealing a car down to driving it has been improved with an added sense of realism. No longer can you simply press a button to open a car door and drive away, you will first break the window, reach in to open the door and then hotwire it. When inside and driving your new reasonably cheap motor you will notice that each car has a GPS system which will display the path to your objective on the minimap. These can be set to any destination you wish, and if you happen to be driving an expensive vehicle the directions will be read out loud by the GPS system.
Taking the two main elements of GTA IV and combining them can have interesting and often troublesome results. When you are in a rush whilst in a vehicle you will soon notice that the steering is far tighter and can easily slide out of control if you are not careful. This would not be a problem if you were not typically being chased by the entire police department, SWAT vans and helicopters combined. The ability to smash the window and stick your arm out becomes rather redundant when you have 5 cars surrounding you, literally turning your vehicle into a battered tin can thanks to the fantastic damage modelling. Whilst the damage modelling quickly shows that your car is falling to pieces bit by bit, be it the wheel locked at an angle under the vehicle or the bullet holes riddled along the side, the vehicles can take quite a beating until they become prone to exploding. Take note however that at the first signs of fire or heavy gunfire, you will need to evacuate the vehicle promptly, as the time between a small flame and a mushroom cloud comes in the blink of an eye.
Graphically whilst the game features great attention to detail, the characters and generally style of the game holds true to the previous Grand Theft Auto titles. The characters themselves have extinguished facial features and render in a vibrant style, with a large emphasis on bloom effects. Previously blur and motion effects were a large feature used throughout GTA (particularly in GTA 3). This time around the effect of choice seems to be a combination of bloom and flare, as the heavy use of sun saturation can make the many varied weather effects look amazing, whilst being borderline a blinding nuisance.
The attention to detail is not only limited to the graphical beauty of Liberty City as mentioned previously. Every action, and reaction, allows for a similar detail of awe. You will find that most of the activities present in the game have been in previous versions, simply not to such a detailed degree. If you wish to pick up a prostitute for example (using a widely erratic example here), you will no longer simply have sex with her when you park up, you will be able to select how much you are willing to pay and which activity she should... offer.
Artificial intelligence is rather remarkable at times (not following on from the previous paragraph, honestly) thanks to some impressive new engine features which truly bring normal day to day activities to life throughout the city. Simply watching the pedestrians react to their surroundings can be interesting on its own. For example, if it was to suddenly start raining, you would see pedestrians run for shelter or even cover their heads with a paper. Place this increased intelligence, along with a new fantastic character physics engine, and you will have some memorial moments. Pushing an enemy over a balcony will typically have them grab onto the ledge for dear life. Driving off whilst someone is trying to pull you out of your car can lead to them holding on in sheer determination, before you drive them headfirst into oncoming traffic. These two advanced features truly do elevate the game to new heights, which were not capable in previous generations.
One of the more popular new features to the series is the phone. A simple concept in its own right, made as simple and fuss-free as possible. By a quick tap of up on the directional pad the phone will spring to life in the bottom right corner of the screen. Using only the directional pad, A and B you can navigate through the entire system whilst continuing to play the game at the same time. This combination of game interface navigation, easy to use minimal design and the fact that you can use it whilst playing along as usual is genius. Not once will the use of the phone remove you from the immersive nature of the game, as it often rings to continue a mission, playing a large part in the game from start to finish.
Not only is the phone used to keep in touch with characters requiring your assistance in missions, but you can use the phone to keep in touch with friends and any possible dates. If you wish to go bowling with your cousin Roman then ring him up and see if he is busy. If you wish to know the current song playing on the radio you can ring a number to have it sent to the phone. The favourite of them all is dialling 911 on the phone and luring a police car, ambulance or even fire truck right to your location. All in all before long after having a hands on with the phone itself, it is easy to understand why it is a positive inclusion and will no doubt be emulated in many games to come.
Following on from the level of quality currently set, GTA IV has without a doubt one of the best audio packages in any game, ever. Not only are the sound effects varied and fantastic through from simple environmental noise all the way to full out warfare and explosions, but the quality and depth of music available and superb voice acting is outstanding. Most games cater to a single style of music tastes; Grand Theft Auto on the other hand caters to all tastes with a long list of music tracks which feature some of the best artists available. Both of these however, no matter how great their quality, are merely average in comparison to the voice acting of every single character in the game. Everyone down to Little Jacob, the gibberish speaking rasta to Ricky Gervais in stand-up comedy sketches provide a true sense of realism and personality to their characters.
The possibilities, whilst with present limits, feel endless. If you do ever manage to get through all the content possible in the single player section of the game, you can always jump online for one of fifteen different game types. Whilst at first impressions it may seem like Rockstar have thrown a handful of small mini-game styled variants to the multiplayer portion of the game, the modes are fleshed and result in what could easily be released as a standalone game. Team modes such as Team Deathmath and Team Mafiya Work pit your team against others (2-8 teams) trying to score higher than the opposition, whilst objective modes such as Cops n’ Crooks and Turf Wars require communication and team work. Cops n’ Crooks (a favourite online) places a team of cops, and (you guessed it) crooks in an environment in which the crooks must make it to an extraction point whilst the cops, who can see all locations on the mini-map, must prevent this at all costs. Turf Wars works with both teams trying to race to an objective, requiring a single team to hold designated areas of the map for as long as possible. If all the gun fighting ever becomes tiresome, you can simply jump into a vehicle and compete in the Race and GTA Race game modes, which pit players in a race around the city, with or without added combat.
If direct competition is not to your tastes, you can always create a team and attempt to complete one of the three co-op missions available, or simply take to the skies to free roam and enjoy the sand-box style gameplay of single player with a handful of friends. It is a shame that the free mode variant of online play is slightly restricted by removing many of the pastime activities such as the strip clubs and bars; not to mention the lack of being able to earn achievements with a friend.
During your time with GTA IV issues will become apparent. The artificial intelligence can often get confused and act erratic, graphical flaws become apparent in certain areas (particularly with shadows or high speed), texture pop-in is clear when changing environment and physic based issues happen far more than desired. However these small issues and glitches are to be expected with a game of such size and detail. They can easily be overlooked and forgiven, without ever ruining the experience that is being had otherwise. Instead the area of criticism stems from the expectations set by Rockstar themselves.
It is hard not to put down GTA IV and question why so many features from Vice City and San Andreas did not make it into GTA IV. It is likely time restrains, lack of disk space or even funding, but features like planes, drugs and drink (when out of a date), taking over mansions/businesses, riding bicycles or even the popular jetpack are sorely missed. These features can be reasoned for not being present in the game, and ignored to some extent, however in the future we would hope that the two most requested features, replays with the ability to send clips to friends and split screen multiplayer, can become a reality.
If you have read the bulk of this review, or even had chance to play GTA IV yourself, you should have no doubt in your mind that it offers depth of experience unlike any other. GTA IV should not be missed and whilst the game does have its flaws and room for improvement, they are heavily outweighed by the sheer number of positives. From GTA3, Rockstar created the critically acclaimed Vice City. We can only wonder and anticipate where they will go next with the series. Rest assured that whichever direction is taken, the result is sure to be spectacular.