Before reading any of this text I’m sure you’ve already scrolled down and seen yet another high score for Rockstar North’s latest entry in one of gaming’s most famous franchises. As with any other big name series, high scores are usually to be expected. It is as if there is some secret code within the gaming press against giving the next Halo or GTA anything below a 9. That said let me be clear that GTA IV deserves every point given to it in this review, and while it may not be fair to call it the greatest videogame of all time, it remains the greatest entry in the series and open world genre to date.
We’ll start off with one of the game’s strongest points, the storyline, which thanks to great voice acting, compelling characters, and better cut scenes is easily the best that the franchise has offered thus far. The game begins with the main character, Niko Bellic, arriving by boat at the docks of Liberty City from an unspecified Eastern European country. Niko is a man with dark past but bright aspirations for a life in the United States, and has been persistently regaled by his cousin Roman of the infinite riches that can be achieved in Liberty City.
However, Niko discovers that life in the USA is not all Roman has built it up to be, and in his short time there Roman has already gotten into some trouble. What follows is a moving storyline of the American dream turned into an urban nightmare as Niko and Roman learn that not only is nothing easily handed to you in this world, but everything can be taken away just as quickly. For obvious reasons we won’t go further into describing the lengthily narrative, but you can take our word for it that the plot is one hell of a ride. Unlike previous main characters, Niko is the most persistent protagonist that the franchise has ever seen and carries a multidimensional personality that was lacking from the character in GTA III, and is not as malleable as CJ in San Andreas. He’s a man that loves his cousin and the American ideal that is constantly preached to him, but is willing to do some shady stuff to achieve it without batting an eye.
Rockstar has ensured that such a story will not get lost in the shuffle of the urban sprawl of Liberty City and its many gameplay possibilities by creating a sort of social life for Niko. In a game that has always been about making the right friends, GTA IV tasks you to cultivate these relationships by not only doing other people’s dirty work, but also spending quality time with them. This includes activities such as eating, playing pool, bowling or going out to the bar. So what’s the point of all this? Well, certain characters will bring helpful abilities once a solid relationship is constructed. One of the first friends you will make is Little Jacob, a Jamaican arms dealer, and salesman of other fine Jamaican products, who will eventually sell you weapons and ammo for much cheaper prices than your regular gun runner.
Other characters will supply you with helicopters, or even let you know about local street races. Heck you can even date various women. The way you go about connecting with these friends is by using something all present day Americans can never get their noses out of, a cell phone. Your phone is used for calling in favors like the ones mentioned, making plans for activities, or getting calls for jobs. It’s a great way to stay organized in the very intricate network of relationships you engage in, and even serves as the menu for finding multiplayer games (more on those later).
I could go on for hours describing the ins and outs of Libery City, but I may as well try to give you an all-encompassing description of its real life counterpart, New York City. Rockstar has once again proven that they are the undisputed kings of the open world genre, and no matter what developer has ever tried their hand at it, we have yet to see someone do it in such a way as GTA. There are a number of events happening in the world outside of your own storyline that can come into play, such as a looming election, that help give the feeling that you’re stuck in something much larger than your own situation. This can create a sense of being overwhelmed when playing the game, and perhaps it’s a similar feeling that real life immigrants face when moving to a metropolis in a foreign country.
The fact that Rockstar has crafted another unbelievably detailed world is not really news; it’s just what they do. What is new is the number of long awaited improvements to the gameplay. Although the people at Rockstar are geniuses at replicating a real city, previous games have usually shown that when it gets down to physically trying to make your way around the world there is a discovery of some twitchy and unpolished core gameplay elements. The first, and most notorious fault of the series is the on-foot controls and targeting system, which has frustrated gamers in the past to a point that one could wish the game was only about driving.
Luckily this has been remedied, as GTA IV repairs a targeting system that was starving for improvement. There is the traditional lock on mechanism, but now by only slightly pulling down on the left trigger the game will enter an over the shoulder free aiming mode, great for when you want to have a little more control when choosing your shots. Niko can take also cover by pressing RB when against any surface, and can then blind fire or quickly peek out to pop off a few shots. This makes for any shootouts during a mission a much less dreaded occurrence, and lets the player have some breathing room to strategize for their next move.
And strategize you must since the game still does not feature any checkpoints during the missions themselves. But since Rockstar has never included them before, and addressed almost all the other problems players have complained about in the past, it’s not likely to ever happen. Fortunately, if you do fail to meet your objective, getting back to the action is made much easier with the addition of a waypoint system and use of cabs. The waypoint, while basic, proves very useful and takes away the stress of finding the right path to your objective by doing it for you with a helpful colored line on the map. Or, if you just don’t feel like taking your regular commute, cabs are another option, and with the ability to skip through the ride they may as well be referred to as a teleportation system.
The on foot controls were not the only aspect of the game to get a few changes, and as you spend plenty of time driving through the city a few tweaks will become apparent. Vehicles do handle more realistically, especially when turning, but the main difference comes from the default camera. In GTA IV it tends to hang back even when going around a corner, shifting to the side of the vehicle so you may not always see what’s coming. It’s not so much a frustrating factor that will deter any enjoyment, but it may take some players a few fender benders to adjust to.
The graphics also do a great job of making those engaging characters we mentioned earlier all the more enthralling, as their faces are rendered and animated well enough to make their plights believable. Natural Motion’s Euphoria engine also makes its first commercial appearance in GTA IV, and gives every NPC in the game a distinctly lifelike field of movement that is created on the fly. One of the most entertaining examples of this technology that we witnessed was a poor individual that tried to open the door of the car we had just taken from them and was then dragged for several blocks.
Bear in mind that there is a hell of a lot to make pretty in a GTA game, so not everything can run flawlessly. When partaking in high speed chases the frame rate does chug at times while trying to keep up with your careening sports vehicle, and pop in textures were also making an appearance in the 360 version of the game we played. Nevertheless, GTA has never looked better, and is truly a sight to behold thanks to the incredible draw distances.
When it comes to the sound in most games we in the press are sometimes a bit stuck on what to say, given that most game soundtracks simply fade into background noise. This has never been the case with the GTA series, and that tradition is continued with Rockstar’s creation of brilliant radio stations that parody contemporary American pop culture, as well as create a unique vibe for LC itself. Stations range from a bizarre and hilarious right wing talk show, WKTT, to Vladivostok, a Russian/Ukrainian ethnic station that will surely get you hooked on Eastern European music. In addition to catchy tunes there is a great amount quality voice acting, especially in Michael Hollick’s portrayal of Niko. Quality and quantity go hand in hand for GTA IV’s dialogue, since repeated missions will not result in the same old conversations but rather some new ones you may not have heard the first time around.
Once you do make your way through all of these missions that possess said great dialogue, and believe us that will be a while, there is still an online multiplayer component to be found, something still experimental in the genre and completely new to the GTA series. With a game that is all about traversing a living world, translating the experience into multiplayer can be a bit hit or miss. There is wealth of options in order to mold multiplayer the way you want it, such as traffic density and weapon placement, but it just doesn’t feel like the same Liberty City as the single player game. This in no way makes GTA IV’s multiplayer poor, just different.
Besides the usual deathmatch offerings GTA throws some other modes into the mix such as “Cops and Crooks” where one team takes the side of the law, and the other attempts to break it. There is also the obvious inclusion of racing games such as GTA Race, which allows for weapons to be used, making it difficult for anyone to survive and get to the finish line. Any hardcore FPS players probably won’t feel too comfortable with the auto targeting system, but it can be disabled.
One mode that GTA multiplayer would be incomplete without is “free roam”, where you and 15 other friends can basically make your own fun. Given the damage that one person can do in Liberty City, unleashing 16 people makes for some hilariously chaotic enjoyment. You would think that in a game with a whole city in which to play lag would be a problem, but in most of our matches things ran smoothly. Multiplayer is definitely a welcome addition to the series, but the single-player is still where the real charm of GTA lies, and is noticeably Rockstar’s prime focus.
Unless you have a short attention span, and even if you’re patient, the single-player campaign is quite lengthy, and there is no need to jump into the multiplayer for quite some time. Rockstar has said that the main storyline alone, excluding extra jobs, will probably last players over 40 hours. Unfortunately GTA IV’s length is a result of many missions that are not essential at all to the storyline, in the same way that not nearly all 20 episodes in a prime time network series are imperative to the overall story arch of the show. GTA IV is so long because in an open world game it’s not hard to come up with various little odd job missions, and there are many that stand out as obvious filler.
Despite any nitpicking we have done throughout this review there is no question that Rockstar has once again found a way to surpass their previous work, and deliver another highly polished gaming experience, of which there are far too few. It’s clear that the series has not been completely redefined, but regardless of some familiar gameplay it has been refined and improved tremendously. Rockstar has delivered another vibrant world with a nearly insurmountable variety of things to see and do, and the time spent in the city has been made all the more personal thanks to the in-depth art of building relationships that feel like real social responsibilities.
Within GTA IV also lies a storyline and acting of such quality that gamers just aren’t usually used to receiving, making it one of the best crime stories ever told in a videogame, and perhaps even a bit competitive with the genre on film. Rockstar has not necessarily broken down any walls when it comes to the gameplay, but they have built them up to such an incredible height that will make it hard for any imitators to climb over. It is as if they are on a continuing journey to create the ultimate virtual world, and with GTA IV they have taken yet another large step forward.