Return of the King
When Grand Theft Auto appeared on the Playstation, it was an interesting distraction but many gamers didn’t take notice. Several years later when the series made the transition to the PS2 and created a sandbox world that had never been seen before, people fell in love. After a few era-specific spin-off titles and several years of development, Grand Theft Auto IV has finally arrived on the Xbox 360 and the PS3. The feelings that many players had the first time they played GTA 3 will be quite similar to what you will experience when you fire up GTA IV. As your jaw drops to the floor you quickly realize that it wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, things really are going to be different this time around.
GTA IV delivers a compelling storyline about morality and the American Dream , the likes of which we have not yet seen from the series. You will play as Niko Belic, a man from a war-torn country trying to make a new and better life for himself and his family. He travels to Liberty City to join his cousin Roman, who is already quite rich and successful. At least this is what Niko believes, until he finds Roman living in a dump of an apartment, running a small cab company, and constantly being beaten up by petty thugs. As family often does, Niko decides to help Roman get out of the trouble he has gotten himself into.
Niko is the best character that Rockstar has ever created, and as such, helps to provide the best single player experience in a GTA game to date. As with every GTA title, you will do countless horrible things for many disreputable people. While in the beginning of GTA IV you may think that Niko is just another guy looking to make money and gain status, you begin to see the effect of the pain and suffering behind every evil deed that he performs. Instead of just being another Tony Montana (Scarface) type character, Niko clearly demonstrates that he cares deeply about the differences between right and wrong. As the game progresses you will find yourself easily becoming emotionally attached to this inwardly tormented character as he tries to make his way in his new life.
Every interesting main character must also have an equally interesting backdrop to exist in. GTA IV, as with GTA 3, takes place in Liberty City. I have a hard time saying that because the two versions of this city couldn’t be any more different. Besides just the geographical differences, Liberty City has a completely different feel this time around. This is clearly a result of the increased power of the new consoles. Never before have I seen a living, breathing, sandbox world the likes of the new Liberty City. Each area looks distinctive, from the people who inhabit it to their buildings and even the condition of their streets. The details are fairly subtle, but amazing. The poorer areas of the city will have streets in horrible need of repair, crazy hobos and criminals lurking about, tons of graffiti, and a general sense of dilapidation. Rich areas however, will have much classier buildings, beautifully paved streets, more police wandering the streets, and nicer cars for you to steal.
The realism and differences shown in Liberty City only help to further convey this game’s main theme. That is, not everyone can live the stereotypical American Dream. The United States is the land of opportunity but not everyone gets a fair shot at it. This kind of heartfelt look at the status of our country is somewhat unexpected from the guys who have been constantly demonized by most mainstream journalists as creating murder simulators. For people who know better however, this game’s storyline clearly shows that there is more to GTA than just crime and destruction. I can’t state this enough, the storyline in the game really needs to be played through to be fully appreciated.
The gameplay itself stays fairly similar to past GTA titles, but with almost every aspect being greatly improved upon. The biggest improvement that fans of the series have been waiting years for is the game’s gunplay. While you are still given the option of the classic camera locked shooting with the full pulling of a trigger, you will also be able to enter a free aiming mode by only half depressing the same trigger. It does take a little time to get used to but it really makes a world of difference. Players will also be able to use the right analog stick while locked on, much like in the Godfather game, to target specific areas on your enemy. Becoming skilled at both of these new mechanics isn’t completely necessary to victory, but it does make it much easier. Unlike in previous games, one or two well-placed shots can end a firefight.
The use of firearms is further improved by GTA IV’s new cover mechanic. Instead of just standing in the open and firing a gun like a madman trying not to die, Niko can find shelter behind virtually anything in the game. This allows you to fight much more realistically and intelligently. With the click of a shoulder button you will take cover, using an analog stick to maneuver behind it. You then have the choice of blind firing or pulling a trigger to peak out for a more accurate shot. This mechanic utterly changes how you think about and complete firefights, all for the better.
Melee combat has also been greatly improved. In previous GTA titles, melee combat was very one-dimensional and almost a complete afterthought. Niko is given several different melee attacks including dodging and disarming your foes. The mechanics of melee fighting are quite simple and easy to learn, providing a much deeper combat system without really making the player painstakingly relearn how to throw down.
Physics also play a very large part in conveying realism in this new title. They effect everything from the way your car handles to the way your character moves. Niko has an odd weight about him, making you feel as though you are actually maneuvering a real human who has momentum and is governed by gravity. Vehicles also handle more realistically, which can sometimes have them feeling somewhat uncontrollable. Again this is something that may take a few minutes to get used to but is well worth the realism that it brings to the title. Also, if you hit a pedestrian they will no longer perform the same canned animation that we all recognize from previous GTA titles. Instead, they will flail realistically depending on how they are struck and how fast the vehicle is going. There are so many little things like this that will make you raise your eyebrows while you are playing that it is impossible to list them all. Rest assured however, they are all fantastic and add an astounding sense of realism to the game.
Besides all of the other vast improvements made by GTA IV in the gameplay department, several things have been reworked that make the game more accessible to the player. No longer will you randomly get killed while trying to return to you safe house to save your game after an insanely difficult mission. Finally, the game will automatically save your progress immediately upon successfully completing a mission. If you happen to fail a mission, not to worry, you can just open up your cell phone and open the text message you will receive to restart your mission.
Niko’s cell phone is at the heart of much of this game’s improved accessibility. You can use this cell phone to do everything from setting up a date with your lady to play a game of pool to calling the police when you are being outgunned. Using the phone is quite simple, just a few presses of the D-pad, but it really opens up a lot of possibilities that didn’t previously exist. Perhaps the most important feature of your cell phone is its link that lets you jump straight into one of the game’s many online modes.
Historically, GTA has always been thought of as a single-player experience. While the single-player experience is quite important, and really well done, the multiplayer aspect of GTA IV is downright shocking. You will be able to play with up to sixteen people online in a plethora of different online modes. There are around twenty different modes to choose from, and there is definitely something for every kind of player. You will get to compete in traditional car races, deathmatches, fight over turf, complete random tasks, protect a specific character, plant bombs, steal cars, and much more.
There are honestly too many options to list, but all work rather well and add a significant amount of replayability not typically found in a GTA game. My only real concern with all of these modes is that it seemed incredibly difficult to get a full (16 players) game in any of the modes. At least this is the case for all except the free for all mode. This mode basically just puts 16 players into the city with no objectives other than to have fun. If you want to jack a car and run over pedestrians, go right ahead. Want to find a rocket launcher and shoot at cars, no one will stop you. The real fun of this mode is just the freedom it gives you to do whatever you want with 15 other people doing the same.
Visually, this game is stunning. With all of the details in both the characters and the environments in the game, this is easily one of the most beautiful games that is currently available. Gorgeous cars show realistic damage from collisions, dramatic lighting effects will cast warm light and shadows on the world, and realistic facial expressions make every person in the game feel like a real human being with feelings. You can even have Niko sit on the couch and watch some of Liberty City’s fine television programming. All of the specially produced shows were done in-engine and look excellent. There is very little pop-up, although you will occasionally notice some, but it is only at a great distance and has absolutely no affect on the gameplay.
While your eyes are being delighted by the game’s amazing visuals, your ears will be in ecstasy as well. There are tons of great sound effects in the game that further aid the realism of Liberty City. Whether it is overhearing random passerby’s conversations or distant sirens, the orchestra of sounds that would normally permeate cities are always present. However, if that sort of noise pollution bothers you, just crank up the radio to drown it out. Since GTA IV isn’t era specific, like the last two GTA games, there is a wide variety of music from multiple eras in almost every genre. With over 200 songs, there is a ton of great music in this game that should suit just about anyone’s tastes. While listening to the radio, you will also be treated to the same humor that we have come to expect from the various ads and radio personalities from the previous GTA titles.
Simply put, GTA IV improves upon the GTA formula in just about every way imaginable. Almost anything that I can think of that frustrated me about the previous titles in the series has been fixed or completely reworked, leaving only an amazing experience in its stead. With one of the most compelling stories ever told by a video game, an extremely likeable main character, an insane amount of online modes, and virtually no flaws to be detected, GTA IV is even more than it was expected to be by fans. This is honestly a must own title for anyone who is of age and owns a PS3 or Xbox 360. The original kings of sandbox gameplay have clearly made this a game that will not likely be dethroned easily, if at all. But as with GTA 3, it is likely to spawn several sub-par imitations from other companies that try to recapture the same magic for years to come.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.9 Graphics
This game is stunningly beautiful, only a very slight amount of distant pop-in detracts from otherwise amazing visuals. 4.8 Control
The controls work better than they ever have before, but there is a slight learning curve associated with many of the adjustments. 4.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Amazing sound effects coupled with great music and voice acting make this game a gift for the ears as well as the eyes. 5.0 Play Value
With one of the best single player experiences in recent memory, a ton of optional “side-missions” and secrets to uncover, and a bevy of great online modes; this game will keep you interested and playing for quite some time. 4.9 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.