By Etienne Vlok
So, it’s finally here. After waiting for 4 years since its original late 2004 release on PS2, Grand Theft Auto has finally made the leap to next-gen. Along the way, we’ve seen all sorts of shenanigans: Peter Moore tattooing his arm with a GTA IV logo would categorize as â€˜memorable’; Jack Thompson blaming everything that ails America today on the series would probably slot into â€˜annoying.’ But when all is said and done, these are mere sideshow distractions to the main event.
GTA IV is the best game released on any platform this year, and it will take a monumental effort to take this label away from it. The sheer scope of activities available, combined with extremely polished gameplay in nearly every respect ensures that GTA IV has no equal when it comes to free-roaming titles. Even the plot and characters take a step up to match the top-notch design and technical achievements of the game, finally delivering a GTA experience that tells a truly epic crime saga, yet still manages to be funny in a lot of places – avoiding some of the more absurd plot points found in previous entries in the series.
GTA IV centres on Nico Bellic, an Easter European immigrant who is lured to Liberty City by promises of living the high life by his cousin, Roman. Fresh off the boat, he discovers that Roman was lying: he’s running a small taxi company, living in a dilapidated apartment, and has none of the wealth he claimed to have. From this rude introduction, Nico initially starts out with the goal of making a new start in America, but finds himself quickly drawn back into the underworld of being an enforcer for the Russian mob, who has a strong presence in Broker (analogous of Brooklyn in the real New York), the area you start out it. Suffice to say that Nico’s hands are by no means clean, and his coming to Liberty City is as much an attempt to escape his past as it is to find prosperity. However, try as he might, his involvement with criminal elements quickly escalate, and the cousins Bellic find Liberty City a very unwelcome place fairly quickly. What follows is a truly well written series of betrayals, bloody tales of revenge, and ultimately the complete loss of innocence Nico experiences – as he often laments, at the cost of his soul. This actually becomes the central focus of the game, and lends the game a dramatic depth I would never have expected from a GTA title. With this release, it can truthfully be said that the series has grown up, acknowledging that the actions of its’ protagonist is, essentially, wrong.
The game features a huge cast of interesting and colourful characters: from Roman Bellic, perpetually in debt but always prepared with the next big scheme to make him rich; completely stoned Jamaican drug dealers and violence-prone Russian hoods; to some more calculating foes that would spoil the plot if I were to reveal them.
Nico Bellic himself is an interesting protagonist, as mentioned above. Looking like a fairly decent guy when you first meet him, you can see he is a man running from his past. As the plot progresses and his history is revealed, you come to realize that the choices he made in his past – and will make again during the run of the game – creates a character that is more than the stereotypical moral blank slate. His choices and tragic spiral into the criminal element of Liberty City is actually tragic to behold.
A final note on the plot: it is at heart a serious indictment of the American Dream. Presenting you with a hopeful immigrant coming to find greener pastures in America, the brutal reality of seeing a corrupt, violent and xenophobic society assimilate the newcomers speaks volumes to what people like Jack Thompson sees wrong in America, but erroneously places the blame on games. It reminds of something Alan Moore once wrote. To paraphrase: if people are wondering what happened to the American Dream, GTA IV loudly answers â€œit came true.â€
As mentioned above, the scope of the game is without compare. Mostly, you’ll spend your time travelling through the city in the myriad cars available to you, although you can also use helicopters as a means of travel (no planes, this time around.) As always, the game presents you with an astounding variety of cars, each handling differently. One of the true highlights of the game remains the helter-skelter improvisation you engage in when trying to escape police pursuit. It makes for action packed – not to mention highly entertaining and visceral – gaming. You have the option of the traditional camera view, behind and above your vehicle, but there is also a cinematic view. While impractical, it does tend to give one a very good look at the action.
Speaking of action, allow me to mention one mission in the middle of the game that leads to one of the most awesome action set pieces I’ve ever played. It’s a bank robbery gone horribly wrong, with the escape becoming a running gunfight in the streets, much like the one in Michael Mann’s Heat. It is bloody, but it’s awesome (bloody awesome would be accurate too.)
This may be an appropriate time to delve into the awesome graphics for this game. I reviewed on the 360, and I have to say I am completely blown away by the graphics. While there is some minor pop-in and minute clipping problems, this is completely dwarfed by the beautifully detailed and rendered cityscape of the redesigned Liberty City. The facial animations in the cutscenes finally lend believability and emotion to the characters, and make all such encounters much more interesting than the mannequin-like interaction seen in previous entries in the series. Character models are detailed and the animation life-like.
The true star of the game – graphically – is Liberty City itself. It has no â€˜dead space’, like the vast tracts of desert in San Andreas, so it constantly offers you something interesting to see or do. It’s divided into three major areas, unlocking as you progress into the game. Looking utterly believable and lived in, it’s a complete virtual cityscape, teeming with life – and the attention to detail is staggering. Whether it be places to buy clothes, restaurants, bowling alleys, pubs, cabarets, night clubs (complete with… exotic dancers) or sidewalk vendors – Liberty City features all of the above, and more. Seeing Star Square at night – the in-game equivalent of Times Square – is an awesome experience. As you walk through the city, you’ll see a criminal knock someone over and make off with a purse, shortly followed by an overweight policeman. You’ll see the citizens cause accidents and traffic jams, and react realistically. Nico will look both ways before smashing the window of a car he’s trying to steal. Beggars and cocaine addicts will stumble through the alleys, begging for money. Citizens will impede your progress when you commit crimes. In short, you’ll see people living their daily lives.
You can take â€˜regular’ jobs, like being a taxi driver. You can hack into the police database from one of the various internet cafes’ (named tw@, in typical Rockstar humour) and complete the bounties on the ten most wanted criminals in Liberty. You can register a profile on an online dating service, or converse via e-mail with Mama Bellic back in Russia. You can have a girlfriend and go on dates with her, which includes fully implemented bowling and pool minigames; call up Roman and go out drinking for the evening, ultimately getting drunk and having to stumble back to your car. By interacting with various characters in manner, you can become close friends with them, eventually unlocking a special ability: for instance, your Jamaican friend delivers cut-price weapons from the trunk of a car, while another will send two hoods along with you on missions as backup.
This game is a better â€˜life’ simulator than The Sims, in my opinion, since it gives the player the opportunity to actively perform actions themselves, as opposed to merely ordering your Sims around. In this regard, GTA IV offers up much, much more than many other games can ever claim to do, and consistently makes whatever you are busy with fun.
The combat features a cover system that works surprisingly well, being activated by clicking the right bumper on the controller. Nico will stick to walls, and alter his position automatically as you approach edges or gaps in cover. You can blind fire, or lean out and take aim – basically, a classic Gears of War style cover system is implemented. It’s a big improvement of the run and gun mechanics of the previous games, and gels very well with an AI th
at can definitely pose a threat in large numbers.
The â€˜wanted’ system works differently in GTA IV, with police searching for you within an indicated radius of where you were spotted. If you can escape the radius and avoid detection, the police presence will disappear. If you are spotted again, the radius relocates to the last area you were spotted in. As such, it’s much more important to hide than simply outrun the law. Switching cars in secluded locations becomes a valuable technique to escape, since the traditional spray-job is a lot trickier to achieve, with these locations now few and far between.
The game features a number of innovations that seems so natural and fits in so well with the times, it’s a wonder no one has implemented it before. You have access to a GPS that plots routes to your objectives, and recalculates as necessary when you veer off-course. Your cellphone will become your best friend, being the way in which you receive phone calls and text messages that leads to new missions that advance the plot. By accepting or rejecting certain missions, a branching element is built into the plot, which means the game can play out differently on various playthroughs, depending on your choices.
You can call up contacts, merely to chat or to invite them out for a night on the town. Hell, you can even call 911 and have them send a patrol car along to your present location! (I did this a few times – it’s the easiest way to hijack a police cruiser.) You can even alter the ringtone of your phone, for crying out loud!
The multiplayer aspect is also accessed through your cellphone. At the time I was playing the game for review, there weren’t a lot of people online yet, so I wasn’t able to review it fully. Look for this to be rectified by a follow-up review that deals specifically with the multiplayer aspect of the game to be released by (hopefully) the weekend.
On the audio front, the game features very good voice acting, and a host of mock radio stations, with quite a few big names appearing on playlists. Black Sabbath to Queen, Miles Davis to ELO and everything in between all make an appearance. Radio Vladivostok! is a particularly hilarious Russian station – given the Borat treatment. My favourite remains the chat radio stations, which serve up truly hilarious content. The mayoral candidate intoning â€œRemember, parents: the internet is a series of tubes, and on the other end of that tube is a terrorist who wants to insert his privates into your living roomâ€ is side-splitting – and there are a lot more gems to be heard. There’s even a lawyer who likes to blame all the ails of the city on violent video games.
On that last note, the game definitely has its tongue planted firmly in its’ cheek, and pokes fun at almost any sacred cow you can imagine. The humor is often subtle, and sometimes pretty dark, but guaranteed to be funny. Look at the ads on billboards for prime examples, or go watch some TV shows in your apartment to see Paris Hilton lampooned to hilarious effect. There’s even an achievement for 360 players called â€œWarm Coffeeâ€ – you earn it by convincing your girlfriend to invite you up to her apartment for some caffeinated beverage which may (or may not) possibly be hot…
On that note, it’s definitely worth mentioning (in bold lettering) that this game is intended for a mature audience. With the amount of swearing, over-the-top violence and sexuality available to explore, this game is not intended for younger players. The latter, particularly, involves a lot of (virtual) skin being on display and booty being liberally shaken.
A few closing remarks: the control scheme is very intuitive, and you’ll be moving through the mean streets of Liberty City with ease within 20 minutes of starting to play the game. Also, the load times on the Xbox are few and far between, but can take up to 10 seconds when loading up a mission. Thankfully, there is no loading when moving between various game areas.
GTA IV is as close to a perfect game as I have seen this year, and must rank in the top 5 games that I have ever played. It is polished to near perfection, and gives the player instant enjoyment, no matter what he/she chooses to do. It was definitely worth the wait, and is easily the best GTA yet released. Looking at a playing time in excess of 30 hours – more likely approaching 50 – this game will keep you busy for a long time, and the sheer amount of activities to engage in delivers tremendous replay value. Unless you dislike the mature subject matter, I can’t think of a reason not to own this game. Go and buy it now.
Gameplay: 100 %
Originality: 100 %
Tilt: 100 %
Overall: 100 %
While it feels strange to do so, this is the first review for LazyGamer where I feel comfortable in claiming that a perfect score of 100% can be justified. It’s just that good.
Last Updated: April 29, 2008