It's good to be back home: Grand Theft Auto IV is set in the familiar Liberty City, where the grass is green and the girls are definitely pretty...
You can say what you want about the blokes at Rockstar but there is no denying this: Much like the characters that star in their games, they know how to stay cool when things get hot and heavy.
As they showed seven years ago with their industry altering hit, Grand Theft Auto III, Rockstar Games is a company that can not only change the rules but completely rewrite the rulebook. And just when you think the controversial company has nothing new to say, they unveil Grand Theft Auto IV, a game that pushes the envelope further than anyone could have expected.
Though controversy, delays and other setbacks haunted the game's development, Rockstar still managed to produce a game that meets, and in some cases, exceeds, our ridiculously high expectations. Sure, it doesn't reinvent the wheel but much like Apple and its constant refinement of the iPod, developer Rockstar North has tweaked the GTA formula to the point of near perfection. GTA IV is not only the culmination of almost a decade of hard work, it also represents the pinnacle of interactive entertainment and game design.
With a simple yet compelling story, a memorable protagonist, top-notch voice acting, and an intriguing online multiplayer component that offers a long-lasting customizable experience, GTA IV is, without a doubt, the complete package.
Coming to America
Niko Belic arrives in Liberty City, a fictional yet strikingly accurate representation of New York City. Niko is an eastern European immigrant lured to Liberty by his cousin Roman, who fills Niko's head with visions mansions, money and beautiful women; thinking he is about to live the American dream, Niko arrives to a much starker reality: cousin Roman is not the self-realized success that he had portrayed himself to be. Instead, he lives in a rundown apartment and runs a struggling taxi business. But Niko didn't survive as long as he has by sweating the small stuff. He takes his cousin embellishments in stride and sets out on his journey through Liberty City if the good life won't come to him, then he'll go and hunt it down. And of course, there's something larger and more personal at stake for Niko. So begins the next chapter in the GTA saga.
Much like the previous titles, GTA IV sets you loose on the streets with a single contact your cousin Roman who slowly dolls out small tasks and errands. From there, Niko branches out from his dilapidated apartment in Liberty's take on Brooklyn, Broker, to more interesting and often times dangerous locales. These include Dukes (Queens), Bohan (the Bronx), Algonquin (Manhattan) and finally, Alderney (New Jersey). The story in GTA IV is definitely simpler and more streamlined than in past games and you never feel like you're muddling through the 25-plus hours of single-player mode, a testament not only to the developer's writing skills but the excellent gameplay experience that they've crafted.
Getting Into Character
And that single-player experience stars a protagonist that may ultimately prove to be the most memorable GTA hero yet. Niko is an interesting character with a style and vibe all his own. The game's entertaining cinematic cutscenes that precede each mission does a great job of setting the proper tone and mood. Mission variety is also a strong suit of GTA IV: Niko is always doing something interesting, from completing hits to drug raids to bank heists and more. One of the more memorable missions I played had Niko driving a Trashmaster garbage truck to pick up trash bags full of stolen diamonds. With two helpers swaying on the back of the truck fending off the pursuing enemies, getting the ice to safety required some fancy maneuvering through the city streets, a task made all the more harrowing by the Trashmaster's lack of speed and manuverability.
Niko's life is also far more streamlined there's no property to buy and you don't have to do mundane things like eat food (unless you want health) or exercise to put on muscle; in other words, the game is about quality and not quantity. When you need firepower, Niko can visit a local weapons shop or make friends who provide guns as a service. You'll meet other connected individuals but you'll have to keep up relationships to keep on their good side. You can engage in activities such as playing darts, shooting pool or even hitting a local bar to maintain good relationships; ignore a friend for too long and you won't reap the benefits. And, of course, you can also go on dates and try to establish "friendships" that way.
Most of the missions in GTA IV prove to be incredibly fun, and a new combat engine and targeting system makes firefight feel epic. A cover system that feels reminiscent to Gears of War adds a nice layer of strategy, allowing players to target enemies and free aim on different body parts. An enemy's heath is displayed around the round targeting circle, and a headshot can take most foes down in one pop. Rocket launchers and grenades can light up any conflict, but submachine guns, Uzis and shotguns will probably prove to be your best friends. A pistol lets you perform an execution, which ties nicely into assassination-themed story missions.
Of course, the variety of missions and weaponry speaks to one basic truth: the GTA franchise have always been about choice and empowering the gamer, concepts that GTA IV takes to an entirely new level. The game offers you a lot of freedom and gives you opportunities to make a lot of decisions. Some are trivial which type of car you decide to take on a mission, for instance while others have serious implications; I won't ruin any surprises but let's just say that there will be times when you will have to think long and hard before you take aim and pull the trigger. It's no exaggeration to say that GTA IV provides each gamer with their own personal gaming experience.
Thankfully, the game's presentation has received a major upgrade, making your time with the game feel far more intuitive and fluid. A prime example of this is Niko's smartphone, an all-in-one device that acts a telephone, organizer, and text- and picture-messaging device; it delivers pertinent information but never takes you out of the game you never need to access a submenu or hit pause. Contacts call you, and alternatively, you can call them, to initiate missions. Text messages keep you informed with quick updates and picture messages prove vital to locating specific targets. You can even use the device to replay failed missions, which is a welcome feature. And of course, in typical Rockstar style, the developers allow you to customize the smartphone with new backgrounds and ringtones, both of which can be downloaded through Liberty City's in-game Internet.
The City Is Alive...
But as interesting as those refinements are, and as interesting a character as Niko is, the true star of this show is undoubtedly Liberty City itself. The thriving metropolis seems to have a life of its own, with crowded streets and incredibly interactive pedestrians. Bump a woman on a sidewalk and she might drop her coffee, as well as a few expletives. Run over a mailbox and a fountain of mail will spew into the wind. Other GTA games have featured memorable locales but none can match the immersive detail, size and scope of GTA IV's Liberty City. Sure, those patented GTA glitches clipping, texture pop-in, and the like still abound but they can't take away from the majesty and beauty of the metropolis.
There's something interesting waiting around every corner, a feat which no other game has been able to accomplish before. Steal a car and a patrolman might attempt to drag you out; but push on the gas and you'll leave the unlucky copper hanging onto the open door for dear life. As you duck and weave around traffic, he'll slowly lose his grip and his body will flail around every turn until he eventually gives up. It's the little details like that that makes GTA IV more than just a great game. In other words, the story and the gameplay are the cake and the little details serve as the delicious frosting.
I Get Around
Liberty City is an intricately designed city; normally, this would make it difficult to navigate except for one thing: every car in GTA IV has built-in GPS navigation, which makes getting around the city a snap. It works exceptionally well, accounting even for one-way streets. It also comes in handy when you to evade police detection: a new "wanted level" system eliminates cop bribes of the past. Now, it's all about line of sight. Commit a crime and a flashing circular zone that represents the nearest pursuing officer's zone of sight lights up your radar; escape that area without being seen by another cop and you're golden. If you're on foot, a parked car will sometimes be your only way out, but be warned that you'll need a few seconds to hotwire it, and the nicer the car, the longer it takes to spark up. And of course, in a pinch, running your car through a Pay N' Spray can quickly get you out of a jam.
Cars are as fast and loose as ever, making super jumps and motorcycle wheelies a nice distraction unless, of course, you get stuck behind the wheel of a behemoth like a garbage truck or an eighteen-wheeler. Boats can also provide an easier getaway should you need to get wet to ditch the heat and helicopters offer up a nice aerial view of the city, as well as access to some out of the way places.
Public Enemy Number One
One other thing I loved about GTA IV: considering the fact that it's been a target of political and media pundits who keep harping on the infamous "Hot Coffee" incident, it's understandable to think that Rockstar might tone down the adult themes in GTA IV. But thankfully, that didn't happen. This is a mature game, and a devilishly good one at that. It never makes concessions in the name of being politically correct, living up to its M-rating with gusto there's tons of swearing, violence and sexual innuendo. You can visit strip clubs and pick up prostitutes there is no nudity from what I could tell, so don't get your hopes up.
As for the game's faults, there aren't many. As I mentioned, the standard GTA glitches like clipping still plague the game. And even though the plot line is simpler than previous GTA games, it still gets cluttered at times, with a glut of characters entering the scene; it can be tough to keep track of exactly why things are happening and to whom. Of course, this is offset by the fact that the game remains entertaining throughout and a new character introduction is usually a precursor to a set of missions that proves to be more fun that the last.
Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death
I could talk on endlessly about what makes GTA IV such an awesome game, but really, the only way to know is to experience it for yourself. It truly is the product of game design at its finest. In Liberty City, Rockstar has created a gritty yet lifelike atmosphere that is the perfect complement to the fun missions that drive the game. The graphics are on par with the best of this generation and the audio shines with a soundtrack that is arguably better than San Andreasmy personal favorite was the reggae station dedicated to Bob Marley. And I didn't even mention the massive multiplayer component which adds a ridiculous amount of value to what is already the must own game of 2008. (We'll have a complete breakdown on GamePro.com once GTA IV releases and the online servers reach critical mass.)
Any way you slice it, Niko Belic journey through Liberty City and his quest for answers to his shadowy past is an experience you just cannot afford to miss. Rockstar has created one hell of a vehicle that's driven by a compelling story, memorable characters and amazing gameplay. All you have to do is pick up the controller and enjoy the ride.