There are few titles that can match the power of a Grand Theft Auto release. To even come close, you'd have to check either similarly big name titles such as Halo or Metal Gear Solid, or guaranteed hits like Madden. Ever since Grand Theft Auto III propelled the once-obscure series into the limelight, every title in the franchise has been a smash hit. From the streets of Vice City to the shores of San Andreas, gamers have followed the franchise for seven games now, from the PlayStation to the PSP and onward. Grand Theft Auto IV could almost go without a review, since the Grand Theft Auto franchise has never failed to deliver an excellent gameplay experience. Rockstar hasn't let down its fans: Grand Theft Auto IV brings another fantastic addition to the ever-growing Grand Theft Auto library.
GTA IV returns to the old stomping grounds of Liberty City after a two-game break to visit Vice City and San Andreas. Set in the modern day, GTA IV puts you in control of Niko Bellic, an ex-soldier and illegal Russian immigrant who arrived in Liberty City after his cousin, Roman, promised him that America was a land of wealth and happiness. Upon arriving, Niko discovers that Roman had been lying, and he ends up in a dingy one-room flat in the dirtiest part of Liberty City, doing odd jobs to get Roman out of his ever-increasing gambling debts. Before long, Niko ends up embroiled in the criminal underground of Liberty City, slowly moving up the criminal ladder from drug dealers and car thieves to Mafia kingpins and corrupt cops. Niko has a few dark secrets of his own that come back to haunt him, ensuring that this most certainly won't be a fresh start for the unlucky Russian.
Expanding on the themes introduced in Vice City Stories, GTA IV adds a novel concept for the series: Crime doesn't pay. Every character you meet in GTA IV has had their lives ruined, or in the process of being ruined, by their connection to crime. Mafia kingpins live in paranoid fear and without friendship; ex-cons find themselves alone and suicidal; and the few who travel on the dark side seeking to do good, such as corrupt cops, will find themselves either dead or ruined. Niko is no exception here, and as he delves further into the world of organized crime, he too finds himself facing no-win choices that take him down the path to destruction. Niko's a charismatic and likeable guy, almost enough to make you ignore his murderous and violent streak, but as the game progresses, you see how his time with crime lords influences him and those he loves.
The player can influence these choices by deciding exactly which path Niko decides to take. Some plot threads allow you to kill or spare a certain character, which could have consequences later on in the game. Choose to spare an individual, and he could end up a new mission contact later … or he could show up in a mission with an Uzi. One of these choices even changes the game's ending. The difference from games like Knights of the Old Republic is that you're often asked to choose between the more profitable of two evils, and neither choice is inherently correct. With that said, some choices tend to be more correct than others. Midway through the game, one decision makes you choose between two friends who want to kill each other. Kill one, and you get a minor amount of cash. Kill the other, and you get a new save point, cash, and a potential friend with a very useful special ability. It takes away a bit of the bite when one choice is inarguably better than the other.
GTA: San Andreas had a huge, explorable game world that crisscrossed an entire state and three cities. GTA IV's focus is less on the world itself and more on the people populating it. If San Andreas was built around exploring a physical world, GTA IV is about exploring a social one. You can make friends and allies from the various people you meet, chat with people on the Internet, and discover the inner workings of the city.
Making friends isn't quite as easy as simply encountering them. Oddly, GTA IV veers into almost date-sim territory, very similar to how dating worked in GTA: San Andreas. Once Niko has made a friend, he can use his cell phone to call them up and invite them to do something. Each individual Niko meets has different likes and dislikes, so you can't just take every friend you meet to the local Cluckin' Bell or Burger Shot. Some, like the eccentric nurse Carmen or the ex-con Dwayne, prefer seedy dives like strip clubs; the members of the Irish McReary family stereotypically enjoy bars; and the lawyer Kiki prefers the local comedy club and gets quite annoyed at seedier locales.
It isn't just where you take them that will influence your friendships; Niko's clothes and car will also affect your friends' opinions. Some like stylish clothes, some hate seeing Niko in the same outfit or vehicle more than once, and others get a rush out of stealing a car rather than having Niko show up in one of his own. As if all this social networking weren't complex enough, Niko can't keep frequenting the same locations, either; each successive trip to the same place tends to decrease the overall effect of the bonus. Even with the diminishing returns, though, I found it significantly more effective to take a character to a place he liked multiple times in a row than to take him to less popular locations.
What are the benefits of making friends? Most friends will offer bonus missions that can be completed to increase your cash flow. Brucie, the steroid-pumped adrenaline junkie, has Niko race fast cars for him, and occasionally sends him to a friend who asks Niko to steal those same cars. The biggest benefit of friends comes in the form of special abilities. Once characters go beyond the 80 percent friendship mark, they'll take a specific liking to Niko and offer him a unique special ability. These abilities are neat, although not all of them are hugely useful. Roman sends a free taxi cab to wherever Niko is at the moment, Carmen heals damage, and Kiki instantly nullifies your Wanted Level. Other skills, such as Little Jacob's ability to sell you guns or Brucie's ability to summon a helicopter as a less effective taxi, are fun but mostly useless, since gun shops are available at the push of a button and it's usually faster and easier to take a taxi than Brucie's more limited helicopter.
However, GTA IV's focus on the social aspect of Liberty City comes at a small price. Liberty City is big and detailed, but compared to the huge state of San Andreas, it's not very fun to actually run around in and explore. Niko spends most of his time boxed in by restrictive streets and huge unscalable buildings, so his exploration options are fairly limited. There are hidden Easter eggs and a healthy dose of nooks and crannies to visit, but it's a definite step down from San Andreas. Even after Niko gets access to his own helicopter, there isn't as much to do. Parachutes are gone, so his vertical exploration is limited to finding a rooftop big enough to land on and parking there. Liberty City has its fair share of hidden secrets and bonuses, and dedicated completionists will most certainly spend countless hours tracking down hidden items and "flying rats." (As a tip, would-be explorers should investigate the inside of the Statue of Happiness for a big surprise.)
There are also fewer ways to get around in Liberty City than in San Andreas. You can drive a car or motorcycle, ride the subway, or steal a helicopter … and that's about it. There are no bicycles or planes in Liberty City, let alone less realistic things, such as tanks and jetpacks. There are a few unique new ways to travel around the city that really change the game. Since Liberty City is a faux New York City, taxis are available on almost every street corner, and for the first time, Niko can actually hire them. By paying a small fee between $10 to $100, Niko can be driven anywhere in the city. Players can choose to sit back and watch the ride or pay a nominal fee to instantly skip to the location of their choice. Taxis are both a boon and a curse: They make it incredibly easy to get around town with just a button press, but they render obsolete other forms of transportation. As fun as it is to ride a subway train, there is almost no reason to not just take a taxi everywhere, unless a mission specifically requires another mode of transportation. Taxis are faster, avoid any trouble with the cops, and are terribly cheap.
While money has never exactly been rare in a GTA title, GTA IV gives you an overabundance of green and not enough on which to spend it. There are very few things to buy in Liberty City, and most of those things are terribly inexpensive. Hospitals no longer take away your weapons if you get killed, opting to charge you a small fee instead. The only way to lose weapons is to get busted by the cops, and that is almost impossible to do unintentionally. If held up by cops outside of your car, you can press the A button to break away and risk a bullet to the face, but the chance to escape and keep your weapons is preferable to an instant arrest. The police can still arrest you in your car, but the odds of that happening are nearly nonexistent, and the only time I encountered it in-game was when I specifically allowed the police to do it. It feels silly to complain about having too much money, but it would have been nice to have more to spend it on; it makes one miss purchasing storehouses and businesses in prior GTA games.
Liberty City may not have as much to explore in the physical world, but its electronic world is so detailed that hours upon hours could be spent on its in-game television and Internet offerings. Most of the TV programs are little bonus features, but they're not a bad way to waste time while waiting for the days to pass, or when you need a break from crime. By visiting Internet cafes, Niko can sign on and explore the vast in-game Internet. He can send e-mails, discover new social contacts through an online dating site, or arrange missions. He can even check the countless fake Web sites that Rockstar created just for the game, which range from silly MySpace and YouTube parodies to helpful sites that point out game secrets or hints for later missions. Start browsing the in-game Internet, and when you look up, you may notice that four or five hours have passed. I told you GTA IV was realistic!
If GTA IV has one significant weak point, it involves the in-game missions. Compared to GTA: San Andreas, the missions in GTA IV are lacking in variety. Most of the missions boil down to "go here, shoot someone" without anything to really differentiate them, besides the location to which you're driving. San Andreas switched between outrunning gangsters in a rail-shooting minigame, piloting explosive remote-controlled planes, and parachuting into enemy-held bases and sneaking onto an aircraft carrier. GTA IV is just … well, less interesting. There are a few particularly memorable missions, such as the bank heist where you evade the cops through the subway system, but they're few and far between. The most interesting part of the missions isn't the gameplay itself, but the plot and resulting conversations. More often than not, I'd find myself eager to get through the repetitive shooting and driving involved in the missions so that I could see the next conversation or cut scene. It's a side effect of GTA IV's more realistic and character-driven focus, but it leaves the actual missions feeling more like work than fun.
The good news about the less interesting missions is that some elements are less frustrating as well. In particular, the gunplay in GTA IV is significantly more fun and less annoying than the lackluster gun controls offered in San Andreas. Shooting folks as Niko is a breeze. Hold down the left trigger, and Niko will lock onto the nearest enemy. You can then adjust the aim by using the right analog stick, allowing you to score easy headshots or kneecaps without even trying. Those who prefer a more manual aim can lightly hold the left trigger, which puts Niko into free-aim mode; although it's significantly better to use, the free-aim mode is also more aggravating to set up, since you have to hold the trigger lightly. Beyond his improved aim, Niko can instantly duck behind the nearest convenient cover with a tap of the right bumper. When behind cover, Niko, like so many post-Gears of War shooter stars, can either choose to jump from cover to fire at enemies, or blindly fire from around corners for a less accurate, but far safer, method of fighting. Aside from the slight awkwardness of the free-aim system, GTA IV's shooting is fantastic. It's not going to replace Halo as the best shooter anytime soon, but it's revolutionary when compared to the series' prior efforts.
Niko may be a more efficient killer, but that also comes at the cost of more efficient cops. One of the biggest and best changes to GTA IV is how Wanted Levels work. In the previous GTA titles, Wanted Levels were almost a joke. Find a Pay N' Spray or a secluded corner, and even a six-level Wanted vanished in a flash. No longer. Now, whenever Niko gains a Wanted Level, a large flashing circle appears around his location on the radar. His goal is to escape this circle, which represents the police's searching zone, but it isn't quite as easy as it sounds. If any police officers see Niko, the circle follows his location, so the first thing he has to do is ditch the cops. He then has to escape the circle without being seen again, and if he's successful, he needs to spend time outside of the circle while waiting for the heat to die down. Niko can still use Pay N' Sprays if the cops don't see him, but the odds of being near one when the cops aren't within visual range are pretty slim.
As if all of the above weren't enough to sell the game, GTA IV ventures into territory hitherto only explored by modifications on the PC versions of the GTA titles: online gameplay. There is a wide variety of available game modes to play, ranging from Cops vs. Robbers to Street Races, to one exciting mode where you have to escort an NPC away from AI-controlled cops. By and large, the mode that will get the most play is Free Mode, which puts a group of friends together in Liberty City and encourages them to do whatever they want. This tends to degenerate into people taking rocket launchers to one other, but it's a total blast. The online gameplay is fairly close to perfect. In my time playing these online modes, the lag was close to nonexistent, although there are scattered reports of serious lag from other sources. Assuming you're not one of those unlucky folks, GTA IV's online multiplayer basically gives the game unlimited replay value, and it's a fantastic addition to an already great game.
GTA IV is a visual improvement in every way over its predecessors. Liberty City is a near-perfect replica of New York City, and while it is a bit sparse in objects to interact with, it is absolutely packed with details. The character models are a massive improvement over their last-generation counterparts; they're more natural in movement, more detailed, and have individual fingers instead of large club hands, like those found in GTA: San Andreas. There are a few minor issues to detract from the overall effect. The Xbox 360 version, at very least, suffers very heavily from popup. The large buildings tend to prevent this issue at first, but any time you're looking at things from a distance, the popup becomes quite obvious. On some TVs, the text is also incredibly small, and that can be frustrating on a few missions, although there is no mission rendered impossible by this issue.
GTA IV is absolutely packed to the brim with tiny details that you might not notice at first, but significantly increase the realism of the title and make Liberty City feel like a living, breathing place. Pedestrians will react realistically to various events; cars will suffer actual damage; blood will splatter on floors, walls, or even on Niko's clothes; oil barrels leak petrol when shot and eventually explode ? the list of tiny details goes on and on. Most of these little touches are fairly pointless as far as gameplay goes, but seeing two pedestrians get into a fender bender or a police officer track down and arrest a criminal, all without your prompting, is really quite impressive. If you hop on a motorcycle and gun the engine, Niko will take off without hesitation … but get on and wait a moment, and Niko, ever safety-conscious, will don a special helmet he pulls off the back of the bike. Things like this really make GTA IV stand out.
One thing to keep in mind with GTA IV is that, like every other GTA title, it features a few nasty glitches. I encountered a handful of glitches that instantly killed my character. In one mission, I was chasing a motorcyclist through the subways and hopped off my motorcycle for a moment. Niko was teleported through the roof of the subway and to the bridge above, instantly failing the mission for getting too far away from the target. Another time, I took a taxi back from a mission, only for the AI to drive directly off a bridge into the river, instead of to my destination. Since I chose to automatically arrive at my destination, I instantly drowned. However, these glitches were fairly rare, and most of the errors I encountered were of the more humorous variety, such as a pedestrian deciding to suddenly dive off a cliff.
GTA IV continues the series' reputation for excellence in audio design as well. The voice actors are excellent, although there are a few duds, such as an Irish ally whose "accent" is an utter joke, but they're more than balanced by the good ones. The biggest problem with the voice actors is that some of them are difficult to understand. The biggest offender here is Little Jacob, a Rastafarian drug dealer who is almost completely incomprehensible without subtitles and only slightly better when you can actually read what he's saying. Make sure to have subtitles on, as the focus on foreign languages and accents is quite heavy. GTA IV has a soundtrack that would make anyone drool. Ranging from classic orchestral hits to Kanye West, the massive multi-hour soundtrack is varied and large enough that you'll never run out of things to listen to. In previous GTA titles, there were hours of unique and hilarious radio conversations on the radio stations, and that is back with a vengeance in GTA IV.
Without seeing sales numbers or charts, I can safely say that Grand Theft Auto IV is going to be the biggest game of the year. If you're even vaguely interested in GTA, then you're going to enjoy GTA IV, and if you're not, then GTA IV probably isn't going to change your mind. It's not a perfect game, as there are a number of minor graphical and gameplay glitches, missing features from San Andreas, more restrictive exploration, and some rather lackluster mission design. However, those minor flaws are overshadowed by the improved gunplay, amazing multiplayer and shockingly addictive social interactions that really turn GTA IV into something special. With a large, detailed city to explore and a nearly infinite amount of replay value, Grand Theft Auto IV is most certainly a game worth buying, and it should keep even the most hardcore of gamers busy for weeks, if not months.
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