Seven. It has been seven years since the release of what some would call the biggest innovation in video game history. A true open world was brought to us in the form of Grand Theft Auto III. That was back in 2001. Seven years later fans of the series are able to once again roam the beloved and chaotic streets of Liberty City.
When GTA IV begins you get a sense that this isn’t your average “video game.” From the very first credit that is meticulously placed on the side of your cousin Roman’s car when he picks you up from the harbor, you realize that GTA IV is an experience.
Let me introduce you to a friend of mine that I have come to know and love. His name is Niko Bellic. He comes from a European country, but you, the player, do not know specifically where. From the beginning you will get the sense that Niko has a laid back personality. As you play through the game you realize he is all about family, money, and relationships. He has a somewhat checkered past, but he seems to be fairly calm. He has done bad things, and run in with bad people, and yet he still seems to be human and not traumatized by it all. Niko has compassion and zeal, he’s tough, he’ll kill you in an instant, and yet part of him doesn’t want to hurt people. He’ll let you know how he feels and he’s a jokester, but he won’t give himself entirely away to just anyone. He is the epitome of what any great main character should be; likeable and yet mysterious.
As you, Niko, get picked up by your cousin Roman you realize that the American life is not all it’s cracked up to be; or at least not what you thought it was going to be. To get to the top, you’ll have to get involved in some bad things with some worse people. Ultimately, however, you build relationships.
One way GTA IV has set itself apart from most other video games, open world or otherwise, is the fact that it really brings the characters to life. One main way it does this is through your cell phone. Unlike other GTA’s, every supporting character you meet will give you their cell phone number. Some of these numbers are to just be called for business purposes, others can be business or pleasure. For example, from the beginning of the game Roman gives you his cell phone to have because he has a new phone. In between business you can call him to go play pool, play darts, go to the strip club, go bowling, eat, drink, or whatever other activity there is to do in Liberty City. If you don’t call for a while you’ll get a text message asking where you’ve been and why you haven’t hooked up in a while. If you do stay in touch you build a better relationship with Roman, or anyone else that you started a relationship with.
This act of keeping in touch goes beyond the cell phone. It branches out to the internet as well. A little ways into the game you get to set up an email account. This account can receive emails from other people and you can reply to emails as well. Sometimes job opportunities will come through email, and other times it’s just spam. Ultimately, between the cell phone and the internet you could technically play this game for hours on end and never do a single story-line mission.
The reason being is because most of the activities mentioned above are mini-games in their own right. When you play pool you don’t just watch the two characters play pool, you actually control the pool stick and hit the balls. There are so many different activities for you to partake in Liberty City that if you wanted to you could just treat this game like the Sims on steroids; which in many ways is what it is. You can cruise the city listening to the radio or you can go home and watch TV. You can even go to the clothing store and buy new clothes. Ultimately, Liberty city is your oyster and you can have fun without even progressing through the main story-line.
But let’s be real: the story-line and the jobs you take within the game is how GTA came to be GTA. At first you start to do little odd jobs for your cousin. Then as you meet more people you start to take down drug lords, drive bombs to certain destinations, kill people who are trying to kill someone else; simply put, you break the law to get as much money as you can. And that is one thing Niko is always clear on. He isn’t in the crime-spree just because he likes the person he’s working for – he’s in it for the money.
The way Rockstar portrays all of this is without question some of the best production I have ever seen, video game or otherwise. The characters themselves never appear to be in a video game because the voice acting is so incredibly realistic. Usually when I go see a rated R movie there are a lot of unnecessary (in my eyes) F bombs dropped. But in GTA, I’ve probably heard F you, or F him, or F, in general more times than I can remember. And you know what? Every single time it seemed natural and never once seemed like it was forced. If cursing does offend you to any degree, do not buy this game. But, even if you don’t agree with it, you have to appreciate the fact that every time that it is used, it seems natural and not forced.
What also makes this game a unique experience, unlike anything I’ve ever played, is the attention to detail. The graphics in this game are nowhere near the best I’ve seen (although when it rains the streets look beautiful under the street-lights), but the attention to detail is what really sets this game apart. For example, in most games when you run you are in a nice stride, even when you run up and down stairs. In GTA IV when you run up or down stairs, it seems more realistic when Niko steps on every step. If Niko gets hit by a car he doesn’t just stiffly plop down on the ground. In some cases he’ll fall on the hood of the car and slowly fall to the pavement. In other cases he will lean toward the knee that just got hit. I’m not just talking about the city, but every aspect of the game, from the voice acting, to the radio, to watching TV, to pushing the buttons for elevators, to hailing a taxi, to going in and out of buildings, reading comments on news articles on the web, surfing the web, going on the police computers in police cars; all of these things are included in this game and the fact that Rockstar took the time out to make sure that everything seemed natural and fluid, such as actually showing Niko on the phone when he’s in the car, is great. And it shows how much Rockstar cares about their product and giving the player the best experience possible.
One aspect of the game that should be mentioned is drinking and driving. For all of you that love to defend video games here is more ammo for your arsenal. GTA IV does not encourage drinking and driving. After Niko gets drunk if you decide to put him behind the wheel he will say things such as, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea,” or “I’m so wasted I probably shouldn’t drive.” The game itself actually encourages you to take a taxi if you are too drunk to drive.
What’s scary is that Rockstar has set the bar higher for itself. I can see a GTA game in the future that actually uses peripherals such as a microphone for a Karaoke bar, or a guitar, similar to Guitar Hero, for the main character’s band or something. Even though this game has pushed the limit, it’s exciting to think that there can be so much more sand added to the sandbox style of play.
The only problem I have with the game-play is the SIXAXIS controls. These do not have to be used, but if you are going to use them you ought to know something; they stink. They are too loose and I never feel as if they enhance the game-play. As smart as Rockstar is, this is just a feature that doesn’t even need to be included. I don’t fault Rockstar for this, they tried, but it just doesn’t feel natural to use the motion controls for any part of the game.
Other aspects of this game that make it unique is how alive the city is. I’ve played the game for over hours upon hours and I still hear new things coming out of people’s mouths as I run by them on the street or hit them with my car. Niko himself says and does a combination of different things when he is taking a car. He doesn’t just say, “Get out!”, he’ll do, things such as hit the drivers head on the horn and throw him out of the car, but instead he’ll say “It’s just a robbery, don’t get all worked up”; or, “It’s just a car, you have insurance.” The non-repetitive nature of all the speech in the game makes the game more fun to play.
Although the GTA series is known for car jacking, there are other ways to get around. You can get on motorcycles, hail a taxi, call Roman for a car service, or take the conventional walking method. The handling of the cars for some people might take some getting used to, but trust me on this, it’s not as bad as it may be made out to be. It simply takes some getting used to. The inclination in a game like GTA is to drive as fast as you can, all the time. That won’t work all the time. Sometimes you need to exude a little patience and a little touch with the break and you’ll notice that you won’t only get to your destination faster, but you’ll cause less commotion on the way their.
Speaking of commotion, getting the cops to chase you this time around is not as fun as it used to be. Because of the fact that there are so many other things to do in Liberty City, having cops chase you can become more of an annoyance than a fun challenge. Even though it is easier to lose your wanted level because you have a radius on the map that you must get out of to get away from, it still can be annoying. Maybe when you play you won’t feel like this, but I have had this overwhelming feeling of the cops actually being a nuisance more than a fun mini-game to see how long I can stay away from them.
For the online portion of the game, simply take everything in GTA, and throw it in an online arena for Free-For-All matches, team death matches, races, GTA styled races, and any of the other online modes. I’ve played online and it seems very fluid. I had trouble getting online the first time I played on my PS3, but the second time everything was ok.
Ultimately, the meat of this game is offline. There are so many other things I could mention in this review to explain to you why you should own this game. From the characters you’ll meet, to the missions you encounter, to the way the game feels. It’s all positive and it’s all an experience like nothing you’ve ever been a part of. Let me put it this way, there are times when I’m playing GTA IV and I forget that it’s a game. It literally is an immersive experience.