Grand Theft Auto IV
Let’s begin this review with the question I’d imagine anyone who doesn’t already own Grand Theft Auto IV is asking – is it worth the incredible level of hype surrounding it? In answer: Yes it is and so much more.
Pimp my ride
From the very introduction sequence it is clear that no expense has been spared on the production values of this first GTA game on the newest consoles. Stylistically it’s spot on and the sheer size and detail of even the intro only barely prepares you for what is ahead.
And what does lie ahead is a personal revenge mission for your character Niko Bellic (below), an eastern European immigrant and former soldier come to the promised land with a clouded past and plenty of enemies. As you progress more and more information becomes available until the missions catch-up with the back-story.
GTA IV’s scripting is highly enjoyable if recognisable fare as you familiarise yourself with the world through Niko’s introduction to ‘America’. The character acting and animation is a significant improvement from the previous generation of games, the dialogue is sharp and a guest appearance by Ricky Gervais will have you in stitches, although his material is offensive – but what else were you expecting from GTA.
New for this game is a branching storyline that requires you to make choices at certain points, which decide what end sequence you see. Obviously saving on a new memory slot after such missions allow you to go back and take the alternate route, thus increasing the game’s longevity.
Although I am loathe to mention graphics so early in a review when there is so much to discuss, it would be an injustice to not note how staggeringly detailed and just plain beautiful Rockstar’s new Liberty City is. From the tiniest of details to the broadest touches, there is a vibrancy and almost tangible reality to the play area that takes the breath away. For the first twenty minutes of play all I found myself doing was wondering the streets gawping like a tourist. From umbrellas going up as the rain comes down to mini geysers exploding from side-swiped fire hydrants, the little details in GTA IV make all the difference. It is this depth and vitality of the world that immediately sucks you into what should be a familiar set-up.
For many Liberty City veterans there will be some disorientation. For every turn or building that reminds you of the old Liberty City, there are dozens of new ones seemingly out of place that will, to begin with, confuse. This is not the Liberty City of previous games, in its place is a vast, teeming cityscape of potential and beauty. From the large dockland area to the decrepit carnival, much of Liberty City is recognisable as areas of New York transferred with incredible accuracy, and more than a little humour. What is familiar though is the general set-up and play mechanics. Weapons, vehicles, collectibles all are retained from previous games and function exactly the same. Aside from Niko’s health and body armour bars, which now circle the map in the bottom left corner of the screen, the basics are as simple as ever … with a few new welcome additions.
Such is the size of the gameplay area that one of the newest innovations is a G.P.S system, available when you’re in a car, so you can plan a route and not have to pause the game every five seconds to check you’re on the right path. (The route is displayed via certain colours on your small on-screen map - as below) It will quickly become the most useful tool in the whole game because it’s very much required. The downside though is that during missions it can make certain tasks easier than you’d like them to be, a negative that applies to the game as a whole.
Aside from the G.P.S the other major new addition is the mobile phone. So simple and effective is the execution of using one and of its many uses, the phone feels like a tool you’ve been using throughout the GTA games. It becomes the central device for making your way through the game by contacting employers, arranging to meet friends, keeping track of the time, taking photos for missions, making contacts – the list is long and like the G.P.S quickly becomes second nature.
Wanted for proper use of a weapon
Other modifications for this newest game include an overhauled police wanted system. The number of stars still indicates how illegal your actions were and how ticked off local law enforcement is, but now there is a specific trouble zone to go with each wanted level, which is circular and increases in size in relation to the number of stars (below). Inside this trouble zone the cops will be all over you like a doughnut and you have to get outside the zone, steering clear of any vehicles or foot patrols for several seconds, before you’re free. Should you be spotted the zone refocuses on your position and you have to escape the net once more. It’s a challenging system that can be frustrating when you’re in the heat of a tough mission but that obviously is the point.
Also on the list of adjustments is the combat system. Out goes the awkward, lock-on-anybody-but-the-person-you-want-to-shoot targeting and in comes a Gears of War influenced cover and shoot system. Although it still struggles on very close enemies, the new system is far more user friendly, allowing you to lock-on to targets which displays their health in the process, and is nowhere near as frustrating as the spray and pray mechanic of previous GTA’s. Indeed when you become fluent in the new gun-fu you may find it easier to use the fixed target constantly, allowing you to pick your shots with even more accuracy when enemies smartly cover and cower from you. This makes difficult missions more skill related and also means Rockstar are confident enough to throw in some serious shoot-outs for the final missions.
A kingdom too soon
There are a few negative points that will apply differently to gamers. As a big fan of the series I found many of the missions familiar and predictable, there should have been a greater variety to the gameplay and a bit more thought put toward non-violent missions. Sadly missing from this game is the ability to buy property and own businesses as in GTA: San Andreas, something the last third of this game really could have done with, particularly when you consider a safe house on one of the islands isn’t available after a certain point.
Another issue was the difficulty level, although there is nothing wrong with the game’s longevity – it took me 30+ hours to complete the game with a 75% completion percentage – it often feels like you can cruise through the game without facing a stern challenge. Even the most difficult missions at the end take only a turn or two to see how it works out and the final missions (depending on your choices) are a bit of a let down. Though this may not be a stumbling block to many, personally a few ridiculously tough missions wouldn’t have gone amiss.
That said and whilst attempting to avoid hyperbole, it is still very difficult to put into words the whole experience of GTA IV. Many games to date have claimed to be ‘next-gen’ but GTA IV is so far beyond even titles like Gears of War or Halo 3 that it is hard to imagine any game being a more definitive example of what Microsoft and Sony were hoping for. If you’re a fan, why aren’t you playing it already? For those new to Grand Theft Auto there is violence and adult content aplenty but there are also several very good reasons to pick it up and have a go.
Owen Jones © 2008