After spending 40+ hours with Grand Theft Auto IV, I thought I experienced enough of it to really share my views on this monolith sized game. Like many folks out there, I adore the game. More so than the previous installments where I found much of the praise to be misplaced — they were good games, but for good the sum of their parts and not the finer details. Did GTAIV change all that? Mostly.
Welcome Back To Liberty City
Liberty City changed a lot since I last visited it. It’s remarkable what a console generation leap forward can offer a game. An example? The ridiculous amount of detail into the world Rockstar managed to cram into Liberty City. While physical details are nice, what makes GTAIV “breathe” is the Euphoria engine. Thanks to this magical engine, nearly everything in the world reacts and behaves as you would expect. From cars and trash cans to people and traffic light poles, it can all be interacted with. It’s actually more shocking to find things that you can’t break or move. (I’m looking at you, trees.)
Holistically, Liberty City is a gorgeous place to live in. Weaving in between skyscrapers with a helicopter in the wee hours of the night never ceased to impress me. The murkiness of a rainy day was convincingly portrayed with glistening rain slicked roads and umbrella wielding denizens. And if that wasn’t convincing enough, wait for the literal rumble of thunder — I love the ever changing moods of Liberty City.
As a technical nut and one who values visual fidelity, I was both disappointed and impressed by Rockstar’s work. Impressed with the sheer scale, the minimal pop-in and the very tolerable load times however, frame rate, depth of field and the resolution of some of the assets was just off — not terrible, but off. Of course as I spent more time with it, the framerate became less and less of an issue — especially since I wasn’t playing anything else. (I suggest everyone play GTAIV for a significant amount of time and then go play COD4. It’s quite a difference.) When properly used, depth of field can yield fantastic results. Rockstar’s implementation was initially very jarring since the real world is not that blurry. The same goes for some of the world’s asset textures. Curse the technical limitations.
Expanded Game Rules
Every iteration of the GTA series expands/alters its core game ‘rules’. Rockstar’s ongoing commitment with creating a realistic world continued with more real world rules being incorporated into the very fiber of the game. ‘Realistic’ may be an inaccurate descriptor since most of these additions were parodies and mimicries of their real-life counterparts. The inclusion of the internet which included blogs, e-mail spam and dating services offered new avenues for me to meet characters, establish missions or entertain myself. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The list of additions in GTAIV is long and mentioned numerous times already, but I must stress that they were added with a lot of attention and care – they were definitely not added haphazardly.
The consequences of your actions in Liberty City were quite binary in previous GTA games. Conversely, GTAIV offers more leniencies when you don’t mean to cause harm, but strikes with fury when you antagonize too much. It’s a breeze to lose the cops at one star with new circle of police awareness feature, but as the stars begin to accumulate, their aggression, numbers and overall lethality increase almost exponentially. This time the LCPD weren’t created solely to police the player either; unsavory citizens who you pissed off are sometimes subject to the justice if they’re caught attacking you. You can use the police to help you with some missions, but these instances are very rare and require a fair bit of luck to co-ordinate.
It’s not reality. It’s GTA reality
Hit and runs still go unreported. Speeding is still a non-issue and your wreckless ways will often go unpunished. GTAIV is still very much a game and despite its expanded rule set, it is still grounded by that fact. GTAIV divides many GTA fans with its added realism. Some want more of it, some just want to wreak ridiculous havoc without the interference of reality. It’s a delicate balance which I believe Rockstar struck well. I appreciated their attempt at a cover system since it gave a methodical pace through the fire fights. I even liked the ‘first unwieldy, but satisfying to master’ driving model. The removal of random items such as armor, stars and other packages may irk the hardcore havoc wreaking crowd, but not me – I welcome this new “grittier and more realistic” GTA.
The cellphone is a vital piece of technology in GTAIV. Relationships, contacts and even access to the online multiplayer is established through the handheld communication device. It’s importance was elevated by the fact that plot pieces and missions are delivered to Niko directly via the cellphone. With the cellphone you can manage your relationships, set up dates, call for an ambulance and other services too; nearly everything stems from this device. Sounded great, but in practice you’re quite restricted. If you think you could summon the cops when you’re on a mission, you’re dead wrong. They’re mysteriously unavailable. If you think you can call one of your buddies for some assistance in a particularly difficult mission, they too will be conveniently busy. It sucks, but that’s GTA reality for you.
An Epic Script
Niko Bellic is a guy I can relate with. Ever since the story began with him reuniting with his cousin, Roman, I was intrigued with his life already. Why? Because he didn’t start off with the common crook vibe; he was down-to-earth, normal and as a new comer to Liberty City, it was easy to empathize to his unfamiliarity with the city. We could explore Liberty City together! A majority of the characters I met within Bohan and Broker became important people in Niko’s life. I even believed that these characters would be the sole driving factors in Niko’s story, but I was wrong. Eventually, missions boiled down to Niko doing odd jobs for the Mafia and other crime syndicates for money. Just money. And just before I lost complete interest in Niko’s money hoarding, Rockstar wrapped it all up with a triple dose of revenge – anti-climatic ending indeed.
Although Niko’s tale was diluted with senseless “money making” missions, occasional moments of character craftsmanship cropped up. These characters delivered their lines convincingly and gave minute amounts of reference as to why they need favors done. Storywise, some of their paths eventually crossed and then Niko had to decide who lives and who dies. The game makes it quite clear which one you should dispose of and if you do, you’ll be presented with additional missions. If you choose to eliminate the wrong one, nothing tends to happen. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter either way. At least the final decisions of the game yield different outcomes. I got the “good ending”.
Scripted events can work if you’re oblivious to the fact that it’s scripted. GTAIV has its fair share of scripted events during its many, many car chases from cued traffic accidents to pre-determined end points. The first time through, these instances are the most bad ass moments of gaming I’ve experienced, however once I died and witnessed the same exact sequences again, the illusion was broken. If only it stopped there. Unkillable drivers and inconsistent lethality of the police force were some of the greater offenders of GTAIV’s rule bending for the sake of scripted spectacles. Fortunately, the rare occasions of complete freedom provided some of the most enjoyable moments since I had free reign on how to dispose of my targets. Why scale three flights of stairs when I could pop him through the window?
Culture and Control
I’ve only played the Grand Theft Auto games on PC via mouse and keyboard so I lack the frame of reference for how improved the controls are for GTAIV. I’m not a fan of the inability to fully customize the button layout, but in time I did become accustomed to them – even the centered behind-the-back camera. I disabled auto-lock on immediately because I wanted to choose my shots without worry of how I much I pressed the L2 trigger. Shooting was satisfying in GTAIV. Being able to take out a guy’s knees and send him over the railing induced smiles. Shooting from cover is a little quirky at first, but with some practice, I got a hold of it. Additionally, Niko can also climb on or over just about anything in the world. Too bad I wasn’t given much opportunity to use it for vertical scaling.
Another area which I had a lot of control over was with the game’s cultural content. From cellphone themes, ringtones to Niko’s clothes: it was all customizable. Could have they provided more customizable options? Sure, but Rockstar provided a sufficient amount.
The soundtrack of GTAIV doesn’t have many standout pieces like GTA: Vice City, but it was well rounded and smart; I can tune into just about any station and find something to suit my mood. In fact, during the earlier moments of the game, I’d just cruise or ride in a taxi for minutes on end enjoying Billy Stratus or laughing at the absurdness of Integrity 2.0’s Lazlow.
Out of the handful of activities available for Niko and his friends to partake in, I spent most of my time at the comedy club. I didn’t care for the rudimentary pool or dart games. The drinking was amusing for about two or three times, but it was Ricky Gervais and Katt William’s antics which kept me going with the relationship building. I even enjoyed the TV programming available. I just wished it was a valid activity to please Niko’s friends with. Watching Niko watch TV with his friends…
Icing on the Cake?
The online connectivity with the Rockstar Social Clubis a nice gesture. I like being able to sample the songs I’ve sent from the in-game cellphone, but that’s all I care for so far. The most important feature, stat comparison, isn’t available. It could show up some day along with the multiplayer stat tracking, but as of launch it is nothing more than a nice gesture.
I don’t hate the multiplayer, but I wouldn’t be upset if it wasn’t included. You’d think a 16 players with countless weapons strewn across the entirety of Liberty City would be an invitation for awesome, but it just doesn’t tickle my fancy. There are interesting modes such as ‘Cops n’ Crooks’ where a team of cops must chase down and eliminate the crooks before they reach their getaway vehicle, but as a whole the online component seems to be lacking a strong sense of direction. I must admit that I haven’t spent many hours with it, and there’s always a chance that it could turn out to be worthwhile component. But then again, first impressions are everything these days and GTAIV’s multiplayer didn’t make the greatest impression.
The Best GTA Yet?
Grand Theft Auto IV was the first Grand Theft Auto game I have ever finished. To me, that’s Rockstar’s greatest accomplishment thus far. But how did Rockstar do it? They did it by delivering worthwhile mechanics and interesting content. Grand Theft Auto IV’s core gameplay components were well developed, with only a handful of issues plaguing them. Tie that with an attention grabbing first 10 hours and you’ve got one the best gaming has to offer. And with enough content to keep the most gamers entertained for weeks or even months, it’s almost unfair to only charge $59.99 for any other game.
Writing a review for a game of this magnitude is quite difficult and lengthy — it is sometimes easy to miss the big picture. Regardless of any of the faults I highlighted, GTAIV still manages to deliver an entertaining experience. It is the best Grand Theft Auto game yet and you’ll be doing yourself a great disservice by not playing it.
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