May 18, 2008
Grand Theft Auto has always been a series that is loved by gamers worldwide and hated equally by the media. Grand Theft Auto III’s release back in October 2001 revolutionised the industry and raised the proverbial bar for others to aspire to. 7 years later, with a next-gen console at their disposal, the question is…What can Rockstar truly accomplish? Is the game set to revolutionise the industry once again? The answer is a resounding YES.
GTA IV returns to Liberty City, however this is not the same city that we saw in GTA III but instead based on the Big Apple; New York City. The main protagonist this time around is Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe and under the assumption he'll be living a life of luxury with his cousin Roman. The reality is Liberty City isn’t all it was made out to be and Niko quickly finds himself mixing with the wrong crowd just trying to make a quick buck. It’s a crime drama of epic proportions and one that will have you gripped from start to finish.
The main character in this game is not the humorous and likeable Niko Bellic, it is actually the city itself. The attention to detail is frankly quite astonishing and even after 50 hours (yes, that’s how much I’ve played it already!!) you’ll be noticing the little things and still be in awe. The pedestrians play a huge part in this immersive city, it’s as if you never actually see the same pedestrian more than once, and if by chance you do, you’re like “Oh, that’s the dude that I saw in Dukes yesterday”. Every time I see the preacher outside the Bohan safehouse to this day, I still get shivers down my spine… Will I see this colourful character anywhere else? Well I haven't. Even the dark back alleys are filled with homeless people sleeping under boxes and others warming their hands over a flaming barrel. The amount of different characters on show is a joy to behold and it really gives you a feel of what life in the City is all about.
Liberty City isn’t just about the people, but Rockstar’s ability to recreate all the major landmarks of the city so accurately that it makes you feel like you're actually a part of something bigger than one character. Star Junction is just as loud, vibrant and in-your-face as Times Square really is and trust me when I say that is a district that just never sleeps! Each of the 4 real life districts appear in the game as well as New Jersey and each area perfectly captures the spirit of its real life counterpart, and then some. If Liberty City had more interiors to explore, then the city would truly be flawless.
In previous installments of the GTA series the graphics almost seemed like they were an afterthought with the main focus on gameplay, but this time around this certainly isn’t the case. The game takes advantage of Rockstar’s RAGE engine recently seen in last year's Table Tennis title and it takes the GTA series to a new level. The graphics, in every sense of the word, have gone from mediocre at best in San Andreas to absolutely stunning in GTA IV. The lighting seen throughout Liberty City is some of the best effects you have ever seen in a game full stop, whether it’s the bright midday sun shining through the partially closed blinds in that crack warehouse or the massive city scale electrical storm you get caught in.
The environments are detailed to an unprecedented level on such a widescale and some of the textures will just blow you away. GTA IV also says hello to an improved draw distance that allows you to see as far as the eye can, but the game is still plagued by the occasional buggy pop-up problem, with both objects and textures. Not something that spoils the experience, however. More incredible still is the solid frame rate that the game can sustain. Not once throughout my adventure did I experience one single bit of slowdown which is refreshing in a game of this magnitude.
GTA also makes good use of the newly created Euphoria engine which ultimately means that pre-determined movements by NPC’s are a thing of the past and they will now react in different, more realistic ways. For example; when you jack a car, the driver might make a last gasp attempt to hold on to his pride and joy before he watches you drive off in to the sunset with it, whilst other times the driver will flee. This unpredictable nature of the Euphoria engine adds a great amount of realism to the game.
One of the biggest improvements this time around is the handling of the cars. Gone is the arcade style, easy to pick up handling. Say hello to a new and improved realistic, almost simulation style handling. Gone are the days where you’ll be able to slam the cars round 90° bends doing speeds in excess of 150 mph. If you try that now, I guarantee you’ll be spending most of your time face-planting in to a wide variety of things. Driving feels far more natural than any previous GTA title. Each car has its own traits and you can actually tell the difference between different rides. If you want something fast but light as a feather, the sports cars are ideal and you’ll be spending most of your time switching between Comets and Turismos. But if a bit of power and something that can pack a punch takes your fancy, then the muscle cars are for you. However, if you want to jack them this time around, don’t expect for their doors to be fortunately left unlocked for you. In GTA IV, Niko will have to break windows of his vehicles now before he gains entry, same if he wants to perform a drive-by.
As Rockstar looks towards realism this time around, we have to say a big goodbye to planes, bicycles and tanks. A welcome addition though is the ability to hail down the local cabs and use them to get where you want in the city. You can either take in the sights from a number of different views, tell the driver to put his foot down or skip the entire journey. I couldn’t imagine Liberty City without them!
Another one of the fundamental changes is the new combat system. The hand to hand combat has been seriously tweaked and improved. Niko now has the ability to block, counter, kick, punch and even head butt. One on one, the combat is great, but god forbid you piss off more than one person, especially with your back against the wall, you’ll be mince meat for sure!
As well as the new combat system, one of the greatest additions over previous GTA titles is the cover and targeting system. No more of those awkward battles where your character stands out in the open shooting the furthest target away while the rest of the gang sets up camp in your anus. Instead, we have a fight system that combines the panache of Gears of War’s cover with the extravagance of Crackdown’s targeting. Allowing you to duck in and out of cover and then target your adversaries is something that the GTA series has severely lacked over days gone by and Rockstar certainly got it right this time.
In addition, the wanted system has received a much needed revamp. It’s now possible to outwit the police rather than just outrun. This time around, if you upset the police, you will have to escape the wanted area. The more stars you attract, the bigger the wanted area will be and harder it will be to ultimately escape. Of course there are the Pay n’ Spray garages, but if you are seen going in, the officer won’t suddenly develop a severe case of amnesia. All in all, it’s a minor change, but one that was needed and has changed the dynamic of the game by adding another layer of realism to the title as you can actually outsmart the boys in blue and feel damn proud about it. It’s the adrenaline filled moments when you’re hiding behind a fence that make you feel alive in this game.
As usual, the GTA soundtrack is absolutely killer. The game has an incredible 19 radio stations, ranging from reggae to rap, there is something for everyone. As usual the game has some truly iconic songs across the 19 stations, whether you fancy a bit of Kanye West, Bob Marley, The Who, David Bowie or ELO, there is something for every occasion. I could spend hours writing about the soundtrack alone, but wouldn’t want to spoil every moment for you. I can tell you though, there is nothing like ploughing through Star Junction in Algonquin with a 6 star wanted scale listening to Queen’s One Vision… Classic! Of course, one of the major highlights of the game’s radio are the talk show stations and fan favourite, Lazlow, makes a triumphant return to the series after a few personal (in-game) controversies. The DJs across the board do a fantastic job and still keep up Rockstar’s trademark dry humour, honourable mention to Iggy Pop who heads up Liberty City Rock, a real treat.
As well as the soundtrack, Rockstar have done a fine job as usual with their casting of the characters. As usual, no Hollywood named stars are dragged in to fill the ranks, instead, a pretty much unknown cast performs a fantastic job in bringing their respective characters to life. Michael Hollick (who?) steps in as Niko Bellic and does an absolutely flawless job in portraying him as a troubled character motivated by money with a self-destructive attitude. The pedestrians as well do a fantastic job. No more talking to themselves, instead, listen in as they make cell calls and find out the dirty secrets of the Liberty City locals.
Liberty City’s entertainment this time around however is so much more than just a radio station. GTA IV has its own TV channels, comedy clubs and cabaret clubs, oh and how could I forget the strip clubs. The TV channel, like the radio shows are complete parodies of some of the junk we see on TV these days and take the piss in true Rockstar fashion. The comedy club however is out of this world. The virtual Ricky Gervais (yes, the very man himself) not only looks like him, but he acts like him on stage as well. Jeez, is this guy funny! Our North American friends may be more familiar with the funny Kat Williams, but for me seeing Ricky Gervais on stage made me stop in my tracks and cry with laughter for a few minutes.
Niko, via the use of various internet cafés, amusingly named Tw@, can now launch our main character in to the virtual, virtual information superhighway. The attention to detail here is phenomenal. It allows the gamer to log in, check e-mails, arrange to meet girls through online dating sites and even read two aspects of various crimes that you yourself have just committed. Surf your way through site after site of dry and outrageous humour.
How can I mention the internet without mentioning Niko’s best friend as well? Like most of us these days, Niko would be lost without his mobile phone which acts as his central hub of activities and is a key to your friends and missions around the city. Whether you want to initiate a date or a meet with a fellow friend, or trigger a mission early, so long as that person is in your phone book, open the phone a simple click of the up button and give them a call. You can even go so far as to change the ringtones and themes. It is also a portal in to possibly Rockstar’s biggest addition to the game this year; the multiplayer.
With such a long and extensive single player experience on offer, it would have been easy for Rockstar to have just left the multiplayer side of things out completely, or include a sub-standard Xbox Live experience like so many other games. Fortunately for us gamerholics, Rockstar were kind enough to provide us lucky souls with a quite incredible multiplayer experience. Even a tutorial is included to help take you from being a helpless noob to transforming you into the King of Liberty City. The tutorial will guide you through the basics such as how to set up and join matches, obtaining health and weapons, as well as giving clever tips to help you get one step ahead of the game.
To avoid every gangster in Liberty City looking identical, you are able to customize your character via the “Player Model” screen. The options are noticeably poor however, with only approximately 4 different choices given for each category. You might find it a hard task to give yourself an original looking character for your online experiences and this is a real shame. If only customization options were given like those included in the Tiger Woods games where even the shape of your face could be altered, the experience could have been improved; there are only 4 different faces you can choose from, let alone changing the position of your eyebrows! Rockstar missed a great opportunity to include the Xbox Vision Cam; running around Liberty City with your pretty face on the screen would have been an awesome sight, but sadly it wasn’t to be. However, new clothes and options are unlocked as your rank increases, and this adds an incentive to play the game more.
With every kill and objective completed, you are awarded a certain amount of money. As you gain more money, your rank will increase. Not only will this unlock new clothes and other goodies, but it will help to prove your gaming credentials as you are matched up against the game's other top players. You are able to easily check how much money you and your team have earned during the game by pressing down on the D-Pad, as well as the opposition’s current money. If you are new to the game or just lack skill, have no fear as money gained in team modes will be spread across the whole team, giving everybody a fair slice of the cake. This could possibly frustrate those who earned a large percentage of cash themselves and therefore feel like they deserve a higher percentage of the money, but it’s called a team game for a reason!
The one thing lacking in Epic Game’s fantastic title Gears of War was a party system which allows friends to join Ranked matches together. Rockstar have been clever enough to implement a party system into Grand Theft Auto 4, letting you wreck havoc amongst Liberty City with up to 15 other friends. This can be done in one of the 14 modes called “Free Roam”, where as the name suggests, Liberty City is yours to explore, destroy, and make unforgettable memories with your fellow gangsters.
I think you’ll agree with me when I say 14 game modes is a very impressive list, and one far bigger and better than most other games on the market. The popular Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are available along with the intense races you experience during single player. A mode aptly named “Cops N Crooks” is similar to Cat and Mouse gamemodes found in other titles. Starting a fair distance away, one team acting as Police Officers must track down and take out the team of crooks, bringing their antics to an end. Tactics and cohesive teamwork are the keys to success in Cops n Crooks, and this can also be said about the rest of the team based gamemodes. Whether you’re fighting to complete objectives before the opposition in Team Mafiya or stealing cars and dropping them off to the correct locations in Team Car Jack City, working together is essential to avoid being annihilated by the opposing gang. Would a gang in New York City stand by each other till the end? Yep, and therefore you’ll be expected to in the incredible Liberty City.
If you’re not a team player or simply a night owl and your buddies are asleep, there are plenty of gamemodes to keep you entertained whilst you’re alone. Solo versions of Mafiya and Car Jack City are present, along with the popular Deathmatch. Two other solo gamemodes will surely take your fancy as well, starting with Turf Wars. Similar to King of the Hill in the Halo series, you have to fight for control of a certain area and keep as much turf as possible as enemy gangs bombard your location, risking life and limb to for the coveted piece of land. If defending locations isn’t your thing, go break up a deal by killing all those involved, whilst at the same time stealing all the goods and killing all the eagle-eyed witnesses in Deal Breaker. There’s normally a lot of money involved in those secret deals, so go grab it and add it to your ranking before those sneaky enemies can. Overall, the 14 gamemodes GTA has to offer us provide great variety and will keep you from being bored for some time. Stealing cars, bombing ships and breaking up deals is a nice change from constantly shooting and killing people (even though that option is still there for the killaholics among you).
Possibly the coolest feature about the online aspect of GTA is that there won’t be any arguing over which map to play, due to Liberty City being one big playground. The whole city is yours to fight in and explore, with no limitations whatsoever. With such a huge map, the possibilities are endless. Your only decision is which street to run them down in next! The same gorgeous graphics which you would find in the single player experience can also be seen in multiplayer, providing you with a banana shaped smile as your car realistically runs over a helpless foe. Lag apparently isn’t in Rockstar’s vocabulary either, as I experienced neither lag nor slowdown throughout all of my multiplayer matches.
Rockstar really have raised the bar for both single and multiplayer games of the future. The multiplayer provides the same enthralling gameplay as the single player campaign, and with no less than 14 varying gamemodes, you’ll find yourself exploring, creating mayhem and fighting in Liberty City for many moons to come; that’s if you ever get bored of the fantastic single player storyline!
The achievements on the whole are quite hit and miss. GTA addicts like myself welcome the inclusion of the 100% achievement but loathe the Liberty City Minute achievement. Throw in a non viral (rumoured) beat a developer achievement with loads of ranked multiplayer achievements and you wonder if there is anything positive about the list at all. Fortunately for us, despite those just mentioned, the rest of the list is a great mix and will leave you scouring the streets of Liberty City for some time, especially after those pigeons.
So then… Hype… It’s a dangerous thing really. Especially when a title has been subject to so much before its release that when you do finally play it, it not only disappoints but it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. However, there is that odd occasion when a game not only meets its hype but it surpasses it. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you GTA IV, the “odd occasion”. Rockstar once again have raised the bar to an unprecedented level and created a gripping crime drama where the main character is a city that oozes style and class, oh and there is Niko… What a loveable chap that guy is (no really, that wasn’t sarcasm!). It has what every other GTA title has and then some. Trademark humour, check. Fantastic soundtrack, check. Flawless casting, check. Incredible attention to detail, check. New and improved car handling, check. Great new combat system, check. Multiplayer, check. Game of the year, check. If you haven’t played this by now, you should really stand back and take a look at yourself in the mirror and take stock of your life. Why anyone would miss out on the greatest gaming experience to date is beyond me!
GTA has always been known for its epic soundtracks and this one is no different. Great selection of tunes, awesome DJs and a fantastic cast. Most definitely an A+ and a cookie after class in this area.
GTA IV is the Pablo Picasso of the gaming world. A stunning environment with a realistic cast to compliment it. Fantastic lighting and animations. Only marred by the odd pop-up issue, but it's like complaining that your 52 inch monitor is ruined because of one pixel being out in the bottom left corner.
The car handling has been revamped, as to has the combat systems and to the better for sure. Fighting in enclosed spaces can be tricky at times. It may take some time to truly master the game but practice makes perfect.
No menus. Great innovative method of getting in and out of multiplayer. Plenty to do (even if slightly repetivive at times) but hey, did I mention the multiplayer. The sort of aspects that will have you playing GTA IV in a years time. Faultless.
A... "curious" list. The single player achievements on the whole are fantastic but there are one or two that the game could do without.... Liberty City Minute technically either requires multiple playthroughs or a rushed playthrough... Then there are the vast amount of multiplayer achievements *sigh* and the non viral kill a developer achievement *sigh* I give up sometimes!
It truly smashed the hype and shocked the critics. GTA IV is a game that MUST be experienced even if you haven't liked the game in the past... And what's better is that there is more to come. The DLC will be here around August and we can't wait!!!