Genre: Open World
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: April 29, 2008
The Grand Theft Auto series has become as much of an iconic landmark in gaming as it is within our culture, helping to challenge the perception that games are simply for children by providing adults with as much of a reason to enjoy the next generation. Rockstar continues to push the envelope with every Grand Theft Auto title, and with the hype machine in full swing behind a tsunami of expectations, Rockstar's worst enemy may be itself when it comes to raising the bar.
Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar's latest offering, casts players in the role of Niko Bellic, who is introduced during the stylish opening credits as an enigmatic expatriate from Eastern Europe who, along with many others on the ship he was working on, leaves behind his old life to begin a new one in Liberty City. Unfortunately for Niko, his cousin's description of "The American Dream" of a mansion and fancy cars boils down to a seedy apartment and some trouble with a Russian loan shark.
Niko has survived war and carries the kind of weary resignation of having seen and done things of which he's not proud. Now he's become an accidental gangster who's forced to do what he can in order to survive, although he's not intending to climb back to the top of a criminal empire anytime soon. His family, his agenda for revenge and his own second thoughts betray a kind of inner struggle that his predecessors didn't have to deal with, even though the gameplay occasionally paints him as a bipolar individual who expresses remorse at one moment but will happily kill strangers in the next. Most of the people who Niko will be dealing with are as bad as the people he's been cornered into working for, but his search for inner peace can often feel at odds with the casual nature of GTA IV's approach to wet work.
A cosmopolitan mix of chatty criminals from every corner of the globe nearly makes it a requirement to use subtitles as an occasional translator as Niko deals with Dominicans, Koreans, Russians, and Niko's own cousin. An additional twist to the formula will sometimes allow the player to make a choice as to who lives or dies, or what they should do next. As every scripted mission drags Niko deeper into the underworld of his past, the sobering finish provides a suitable finish to his story with the American Dream.
Rockstar's translation of New York into Liberty City succeeds in delivering a living backdrop filled with street chatter, hot dog vendors, and the blinding neon billboards wallpapering its version of Times Square. A radio station continues GTA's tradition of providing plenty of ear candy, with a decent mix of international tracks belted out by a colorful collection of DJs alongside every commercial, and I half-expected the included hardcopy map to be stained with greasy fingerprints and a coffee ring. The gorgeous visuals are stunning on either the 360 or the PS3, although the PS3's graphics appeared to be slightly sharper with less noticeable texture pop, but both deliver the same experience despite the technical differences. On both platforms, cars crumple and fly apart in exactly the same way, toppled fire hydrants threaten to turn over your ride, and explosions still soak the screen in greasy smoke and orange fire.
Both the 360's controller and the PS3's SixAxis work just as well with GTA IV, and I had no trouble with either one, especially after switching over to the "Classic" setting instead of the default "Standard." The SixAxis will feel a bit more familiar to series vets for obvious reasons, although the use of motion controls in the game leaves a lot to be desired. Reloading your gun by flicking the controls back was a neat option to have, but steering vehicles, especially the helicopter, was not as fun, and I found myself tossing out the motion controls altogether.
Car handling in GTA IV mixes together a little realism with its arcade action, which will take some getting used to since cars now have a lot more "junk in the trunk" and feel distinct enough from each other to force vets to learn new tricks. Rain will make you remember why it's a bad idea to speed brake on wet roads, and engines will catch fire or fail to start if you've smashed your way through one too many stoplights. The car chase camera hasn't changed much from its previous iterations and is still something you'll have to constantly fiddle with in order to keep it where you want it.
Polished gunplay mechanics, coupled with a new cover system and adjustable auto aim, are welcome updates to the series, and thanks to Rockstar's use of the Euphoria animation engine, scripted reactions might be a thing of the past, as foes stagger back depending on where you shoot them. If you shoot an enemy in the leg, he may stumble, fall and become an easy target; you might see him grab the front grill of your car before being sucked beneath it when you run him down; or you can watch as he staggers back when bullets hit his gun instead of his head. You can also leave the auto aim off, which works just as well in getting those precision shots. All of this noise might even bring in the police.
Cops tend to be smarter this time around, even without the military. When Niko gets a "star" rating, which indicates that he's on everyone's favorite hit list, a small circle surrounds him, which shows that he's got the attention of the local fuzz. Escaping the circle and laying low while avoiding detection eventually returns things to normal, but as Niko "earns" more stars, it gets harder to do this as the circle grows larger and larger. Veterans can also say good-bye to simply flying into a Pay 'n Spray with cops in pursuit for that last-minute escape. Certain areas of the city also have higher coverage than others, but it doesn't matter much when you have three or four stars to your name.
Niko will be using a cell phone to keep track of everyone he meets, as relationships are a key component to the gameplay. By doing activities such as visiting strip clubs, bowling or even going out for a bite to eat with his social circle, he'll eventually earn their friendship, which can translate into bonuses such as being able to call on a friend for weapons or a chopper ride. An in-game Internet filled with e-mail spam and sly social commentary hidden within the humor can keep you surfing, and Niko can even use it to set up online dates. Niko's cell will become the center of his social world, but there are also a number of things to do outside of it, such as running into random people on the street or cracking down on crime as a Charles Bronson wannabe in a stolen police cruiser.
Some options were shed from the last iteration, which fans of the series will undoubtedly notice between the carjacking and dates with women. There are fewer customization options this time around, leaving your wardrobe light on bling; you also can't set yourself up with a pad on the Triangle or even build your own empire of taxi cab depots. For as much money as Niko will fill his virtual wallet with in Liberty City, the only love he'll get will be from the weapons dealers, the sparsely appointed clothing shops, paying for health care, or in hitting up the local Burger Shot, where food won't turn Niko into a butterball but will help fill in his bullet holes with grease. You can also forget about heading down to the gym to turn him into another Schwarzenegger to work off those "vanity pounds" or jacking a cab to earn money as a crazy taxi. With as much detail as there is to soak up visually, once the main arc is completed, there's a remarkable dearth of places to enter or engage in interesting side-missions. For all of Roman's talk about living "the dream," there seem to be fewer varied rewards for what you can do in comparison to what was delivered in the previous title.
The series also continues to lean heavily on scripted events, such as making certain enemies indestructible until a certain point is reached. Most missions boil down to getting somewhere and killing someone, but there are a few exceptional examples, such as a bank robbery or a daring kidnapping, where sloppy driving can lead to unexpected consequences, even if you manage to survive. GTA IV also firmly sticks to its formula where failure in any part of the mission forces you to repeat everything. This isn't so bad with most of the earlier missions, but others late in the game are especially punishing; you're often required to get over to where the mission actually takes place and then engage in a veritable gauntlet of firefights and chases.
The included multiplayer is a first for the series and doesn't feel tacked on; Liberty City is your playground, and there are a whopping number of modes from which to choose. In addition to the typical deathmatch variants, players can defend a VIP or try to whack him in Cops and Robbers, compete against rivals in fulfilling the wishes of the boss in Mafia Work, turn the city into a battlefield by fighting over turf, or simply roam free and do whatever you want.
Want crowds in your game? Friendly fire? Fill it with cars? Almost everything is for the taking online. Hosts can even enable auto-aim or disable it entirely to make players work for their kills, and you even earn status ranks during play depending on how well you do, which unlocks options for your avatar. My experience was mostly lag free, and connecting to games for several hours wasn't a problem, which may be because of the new patch. All of this is also accessible from Niko's cell phone, which keeps you immersed in the game and makes it so you don't have to actually leave it.
Grand Theft Auto IV's caricatured slice of urban Americana is a criminal masterpiece. Even with the rocks found in its sandbox, GTA IV is undeniably the kind of technical milestone that fans have been waiting for and with which curious newcomers can get their hands dirty. Niko's story takes on a gritty life of its own, thanks to the gorgeous world delivered to your screen. With multiplayer modes packing even more action into your broadband, the $60 price tag suddenly seems like a bargain as you take to back alleys, bars, streets, and step behind the facade of polite society into an adult experience that shouldn't be missed on either console.
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