The narrative elements are just as strong. Our protagonist, Niko, could so easily have been a disaster: an unlovable, hard-faced Serbian with a dark history and a propensity for violence, he’s not anyone’s idea of a role model. Instead, he’s anything but. He’s loyal, hard-working, unassuming, funny and surprisingly warm; the sort of guy who wants to put the past behind him, but has a burning need to put things right before he can. His cousin, Roman, is a fabulous foil. Foolish, boastful and caught between hopeless optimism and crippling fear, he immediately anchors Niko into a growing network of business and personal relationships. The other major characters you meet are nearly always interesting and distinctive – from lecherous local heavies to paranoid gang bosses, dope-addled dealers and preening, self-promoting car collectors, they’re a fascinating bunch.
The dialogue is brilliantly written and delivered, and the visual design top-notch. Even though we’re not as familiar with the archetypes as we might have been with the Scarface/Miami Vice/Carlito’s Way bunch from Vice City or the Westside gang bangers of San Andreas, Rockstar never fails to make its cast come alive. Nor should the importance of the extras be downplayed. While the streets of Liberty City are rarely as packed as the streets of Jerusalem or Acre in Assassin’s Creed, Niko’s interaction with the population – powered by NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine – are much more believable. Meanwhile, spoken responses and background conversations rarely get repetitive or annoying. It all helps to make the game feel more alive.
Even in a game with this much freedom, story is important. Rival crime caper games have fallen down because they just can’t seem to integrate the story missions, side-quests and freeform elements into one coherent whole. GTAIV makes it look easy. It would have been enough had Rockstar merely reflected the player’s growing confidence with Niko’s constant movement up through the Liberty City underworld, but on top of this the game manages to cram in the same themes that you’ll find in any great work of gangster fiction, whether it’s The Godfather, The Sopranos, Goodfellas, Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine or John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. We’re talking family, loyalty, pride, honour, the cyclical nature of violence and what it takes to be a man in a messed-up world where you can’t even trust yourself. While the mainstream media obsesses about the crime and the immorality in these games, they miss this stuff out almost entirely. For all the cheap gags, the vulgar language, the casual sexism and ironic humour, GTAIV is an adult work of entertainment that is worthy of respect.