Grand Theft Auto IV or GTA IV as it’s more commonly known, has been a long time coming for fans of the long running series. Xbox owners managed to grab the last game GTA: San Andreas after a long wait, whereas the PS2 masses were able to sample its delights from day one. During X06 Microsoft made a huge point about GTA IV being released at the same time as the PS3 version despite paying a hefty sum of cash for the privilege. Well, the wait has been long, and the developers Rockstar North have pretty much kept a lot under wraps. The hype machine has gone into overdrive the last few weeks and with the game’s imminent release means that gamers once more can enter Liberty City (a recreated fictional version of North Americas New York City). Liberty City was actually the city which featured in the ground breaking GTA III which launched on the PS2 many years ago.
Times have changed and with GTA: Vice City and the aforementioned San Andreas offering a whole heap of additional gameplay features compared to GTA III, expectation is extremely high for GTA IV delivering the all encompassing experience gamers have come to expect from the series, and then some. It’s hard to believe that the once top down viewed game, which caused so much controversy has evolved into this huge sprawling series that has many fans the world over.
GTA IV offers a new character Niko Bellic, an illegal immigrant from an Eastern European country who is lured to the US in a search for the American Dream as well as some other reasons based on his past. Niko hooks up with his jovial cousin Roman, but upon arrival Niko is surprised to find that the American dream Roman has described in his emails is nothing like what he’s mentioned. In fact, Roman is up to his eyeballs in debt, and whilst he owns a small taxi firm to make ends meet, he’s got loan sharks putting the squeeze on him, with an outlook that’s not too bright. Niko ends up getting caught up in Roman’s escapades and thus the game centers around the duo getting in and out of trouble, whilst aiming to fulfill that far to reach and illusive American dream.
Unlike previous GTA characters, Niko has a history of violence and experience in killing, he’s survived a war in his homeland and has stories to tell. As a war vet he’s obviously a bit more skilled in armed, unarmed combat compared to his counterpart GTA leading characters, and so gamers can get stuck right into the character as the missions dictate.
GTA games have offered an open world for gamers to explore and GTA IV is no different. Liberty City is a huge place with three main islands and some smaller off shoots. Each area has a different theme which you won’t notice immediately, because in typical GTA fashion you’ll only have access to one of the islands until you reach a certain point in the story which unlocks the next and so on. At the game’s beginning you are basically coerced into a tutorial of sorts, where each mission highlights certain game features that’ll come in handy throughout your escapades. As the name implies, you are able to steal cars from the unsuspecting, and drive around the expanse of the city, but there’s more than just a driving game here. Obviously you’ve got places to visit as part of a living breathing city, and this is not restricted to mission based locations either. There’s shops to visit where you can purchase clothing, places to eat and venues providing various forms of entertainment, such as pool, darts and bowling. These mini games can actually be played rather than being fixed animations, which is great when you tire of driving shooting and want something different to do. There’s also an in game Internet which provides a wealth of information as well as providing Niko with emails and such like; Liberty City is a fully interactive place. Other places of interest are things like comedy clubs which offer some deliberately bad entertainment. What’s more, as you progress you’ll be able to visit these places for some entertainment with girlfriends and acquaintances met during the game’s story. The system is unique and means that keeping your friends and lovers happy reaps extra rewards for the player.
On top of driving you’ve also got a comprehensive combat system – which you’ll be using constantly. There’s plenty of characters you’ll be required to take down, and with Niko’s war experience means that he’s more adept at taking out foes. Niko can press up against any surface for cover, and pop out and take shots. There’s an auto aim option, but also the ability to free aim if you’d rather get in quick headshots. What is very cool is the fact that opponents take location damage and so will stumble about of shot in the legs for example. Firefights are intense and just as good as a game that primarily focuses on this element. The enemy AI is reasonable although they do tend to stay within cover and pop out as much as you do -sometimes rushing you depending on how close you are to them. Niko is also pretty handy with fists and will change his stance accordingly when no weapons are equipped. I’ll say that the hand to hand requires a little practice to get the hang of it.
Let’s talk about the missions and the people who give them to you. To begin, Niko simply gets caught up in his cousins affairs and is thrust into bad situations unwittingly. He never sets out to be this cold bloodied killer but necessity has other ideas. Throughout the story, Niko is introduced to various characters who each have their own stories and plans to carry out. Eventually Niko becomes a gun for hire character that is willing to do whatever if the pay is good and this seems to be the main motivation. Each character is pretty fleshed out using some excellent cut scenes. You’ll learn to feel a bond with each one whether its a good or bad one. you’ll instantly spot the crazy death wish type characters and those that are a little more laid back. The acting is spot on and combined with the witty and intense dialog offers an experience of movie like quality that really sets the scene for each mission. You’ll also gain valuable insight into Niko’s character as the story progresses. It’s impressive to see how easily he develops and adapts as an individual fresh off the boat.
Roman gives Niko a mobile phone and it’s this device that connects him to Liberty City’s underworld. During play you’ll receive phone calls from the people you’ve met (and some that you’ve not) where you’ll be asked to meet at a certain place and such like. This is how missions are instigated, and with a map screen in the menu means you’ll be able to visit the residence of the various characters for new missions. The phone is a vital tool and seems to be a constant hive of activity. What is cool is that you can actually use it to phone your employers after a mission to get a further insight. Outside of missions you’ll also receive plenty of phone calls from your acquaintances asking you if you’d like to simply go to strip club or play some pool etc. As mentioned this is a friendship system where you do have the option to turn them down but you’ll lose respect from them and perhaps miss out on certain benefits/side missions they offer. Also, going out with friends offers further insight into their characters as well as Niko’s as conversations are initiated en route to and coming home from your entertainment time. So, with the many things to do, and many friends you gain there’s some minor management involved. Luckily you’re able to switch the phone into sleep mode which puts on hold all missions and phone calls, allowing you to simply do as you please uninterrupted.
The actual missions themselves are extremely varied and involve the obvious driving/shooting elements but also there’s some multi layered approach to them as well. Some missions actually can run in the background whilst you are doing other jobs for different friends. As you’d expect there’s the element of getting from A to B to carry out the tasks laid before you. Sometimes you’ll have to find a car (if you don’t have one) drive to the location, have a shootout and then drive off to escape. It certainly adds a very realistic slant to proceedings although at times can prove annoying, especially if you die and have to restart. The driving is excellent and offers some great vehicle physics when going fast or around corners or simply smashing into other vehicles. Some cars handle better than others and you’ll find cars in various states of wear and tear, you can even go to a car wash for a clean up if the car you drive is muddy. You can store your favourite vehicles in the safe houses which you are given throughout the story, although you can only park two cars in each one. I tended to keep the best sports cars parked for use when going out on dates, especially as the dates themselves comment on your clothes are vehicle. I found that taking a taxi (cab) to locations proved to be the most efficient time wise, but obviously you miss out on the build up of driving to a location. Taking a cab ride can be skip-able or you can sit and watch the world go by as your driver takes you to your destination. Liberty city is a large place and once you start opening the city up you’ll find that taking a cab is probably the best option for getting around. It’s nice to be able to stand on a street corner and hail a cab or simply kick passengers out of taxis driving past.
Liberty City has been realized extremely well and is filled so much with the minor details that you’ll notice them as you play and not necessarily right away. There just seems to be so much attention to detail it’s staggering to compare them to the past games. The whole game world justs feels more realistic, where clean is clean and gritty is more grotty. Each area has its own theme and character, and that’s where the game shines as it’s great to drive around at different times of day to witness the fluidity of transition from day to night. Pedestrians are more realistic looking and varied and it’s great to see how many different people there are. You’ll see repeated faces, but due to different clothing you almost feel like everyone is an individual.
The animations are excellent and this is what really puts you into a living breathing world. There’s people simply hanging around, solo or in groups, people sitting down, people smoking, drinking, using mobile phones, carrying stuff but much more realistically than in previous games. It’s all very believable and runs regardless of your input. It’s nice to pull up in a car and just watch the world go by, it’s such an impressive achievement on a technical level. Walking the streets adds another layer and it’s great to see that people will react to being pushed or bumped into.
On a negative note, there is some minor pop ups and some graphical glitches from time to time, but these are a lot less frequent than previous games, and due the game reading data off the game disc is rather subjective. Perhaps getting a lens cleaner if you’re using an older console might offer some improvement? I didn’t notice any real issues with framerate other than some minor slowdown in the more open areas. If I am to complain, then that has to be when viewing some of the texture detail, especially on store fronts. There’s some horrid looking stuff, especially when you are up close. It’s shame because it takes away a little from the realistic nature of the game. There’s also a background blurring effect which takes away some of the clarity in the distance; it’s shame there’s no option to toggle the effect on/off. I also found that you’ll notice more jagged edges when using a larger display – which is a given for any game. Simply put, the game looks much better on a 26″ HD TV than it does on a 40″ HD TV.
As with previous games in the series the audio is of a high quality with some excellent performances from the leading characters in and out of cut scenes and DJs on the various radio stations and characters in the adverts. Niko is certainly a character you’ll either love or hate, and whilst he’s not as cocky as Tommy or CJ, he has an air of authority about him which develops as the story progresses. Other ambient audio is of a high standard and with the pedestrians engaging in their own conversations or speaking on mobile phones offers an aural palette that will assault your senses. However this assault can get too much at times especially when in vehicles and the radio is blaring out during a conversation. There’s an option to make the music dip when people are speaking, but with so much going on, it is hard to hear what people are saying at times. The same can be said of the games sat nav which some cars are fitted with. The default music volume can make it hard to actually hear what instructions you are being given. I guess tweaking of the options is the order of the day to get the sound suited best to the set up you have.
Every other sound effect is fitting, such as car horns, sirens and even the crumple of metal when two cars collide. The guns sounds are also pretty good, and it’s nice to hear Niko shout out to his enemies (and vice versa) at times during the more intense fire-fights. The sound compliments the graphics in every way and like the visuals the attention to detail is great. Yes, you can even purchase additional ringtones for your mobile phone, including a naughty lesbians ringtone that will draw attention to you playing the game if anyone else is around!
The music on offer via the changeable radio stations is of a high standard and of course, featuring licensed tracks means that you’ll no doubt hear some recognizable tunes to tear up Liberty City to. There’s something for everyone here whether you like Reggae, Rock, Jazz, Electro, Pop, Soul etc and if you don’t like what’s on offer you can use custom soundtracks, although the option to play your own soundtracks via the radio is absent.
GTA games offer an open world filled with activities with almost infinite possibilities. If you want a break from the story missions, you are able to carry on with goofing around the city or embarking on the many side missions available – such as vigilante cop missions, racing or taxi driver missions. There’s certainly a lot on offer for the lone player, but a first for the series there’s the inclusion of Online Multiplayer where gamers can team up and free roam the city (minus some activities) or get competitive and challenge others in various versus game types. It’s great to have this option, and like last year’s Crackdown the possibilities when teaming up can offer some awesome gameplay moments. What’s more, inventive gamers will be able to conjour up all manner of modes of play, the options for 16 players is tremendous.
Playing GTA 4 is a great experience that any gamer should enjoy due to the diversity of gameplay on offer, but let’s not forget that the experience is a familiar one when you strip away the extra spit and polish afforded due to the hardware. In fact in terms of gameplay features, for every new addition, it seems like several others from previous games in the series have been cut out, which is a pity. San Andreas offered a gang slant, and plenty of character customization options without losing the identity of the leading character. There were also several related criminal activities available for players to dip in and out of such as burglaries and turf wars. However GTA 4 doesn’t provide this element as Niko is a more refined criminal which then leaves the extra activities being a little bare. There’s only so many times you’re going to sit in a strip club or get some head from a hooker before you ignore the activity entirely for the rest of your play time. I also found that money seemed to have little purpose and as my funds increased dramatically as I piled on the hours, there was actually not much to spend it on. This is a shame because you are offered a huge open world to make money, but the incentive for doing so is somewhat hampered if there’s no real point. It’s fine to say that Downloadable content might add some extras, but that’s not really an option or a factor in this review.
GTA 4 is a grand and ambitious game all round and on a technical level, Rockstar have done an excellent job of bringing Liberty City into the current generation. Niko and his cohorts are well realized characters of a movie like quality, and the missions in the story, whilst somewhat familiar are compelling and entertaining. With all the complaints I’ve had and the somewhat step back in terms of features from San Andreas, GTA 4 is still a remarkable game that shouldn’t be missed by anyone calling themselves a gamer.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype for games, as rarely do massively hyped games live up to the high expectations gamers have. In the case of GTA 4, I think there’s a little bit of over hype and expectations being overly high, but when the finished product is as good as what’s on offer here, then it’s satisfying that GTA 4 certainly delivers a full and rounded package that will please the vast majority. The game might be a little flawed in some aspects and devoid of some gameplay features from previous GTA games that could have been refined and included, but is still grand enough to warrant high accolades it so rightly deserves. If you were forced to play just one game over and over, then GTA 4 would make a great contender to have in that situation based on the current library of games on Xbox 360.