- Review Price: £39.95
As with the GTAIII trilogy, Grand Theft Auto IV is all about the moments. Don’t get me wrong: minute by minute, hour by hour, this is one of the most stupendous experiences gaming has to offer, but it’s the moments that matter. These are the moments where you laugh out loud at a lewd joke in a cut scene or another biting bit of satire on the radio, then accidentally plough into a police car, setting off a disastrous car chase when you were seconds away from a mission objective. These are the moments where the onscreen action and some random tune on the soundtrack come together to create something cool and incongruous or just plain cool. And what makes GTAIV so incredible is that my moments won’t be your moments and your moments won’t be the same as anybody else’s. Despite all the clones – the True Crimes, the Saint’s Rows, the Scarfaces and the Mercenaries – it’s a simple fact that nobody does this stuff better than Rockstar, and even Rockstar has never done this stuff so brilliantly before.
I think the key words here are density and detail. At its core, GTAIV still isn’t a huge departure from Vice City, San Andreas or GTAIII. It’s another tale of rags to riches on the wrong side of the law. The basic structure is familiar: find your feet, take missions from various mobsters and dodgy dealers, take cars when you need to, work your way up through the criminal fraternity and lie, cheat, steal and kill your way to a better life. What has made each GTA better than the last is the ludicrous amount of stuff that Rockstar piles on top. Get a girlfriend, play pool, go bowling, browse the Web, take in the sights, have a meal, see a show, get off your face on booze, change your threads, and much, much more. Liberty City is just packed with things to do, and at no point does any one of them seem like a side issue or a mini-game. They’re all just parts of your hero’s ongoing life story.
The world Rockstar has created here is an awesome achievement. A lesser developer might have pastiched New York, copying the look and feel of the different neighbourhoods and nicking enough iconic stuff to make it work, but Rockstar has bottled its own twisted version of the city and made it feel like a living, breathing place. The different areas and boroughs aren’t just placed next to each other; they seem to merge and flow together, the character changing with the shop signs, the buildings, the streets and the pavement furniture. Each place has a tangible atmosphere, with none of the sterility that hampered True Crime or Saint’s Row. You can almost feel the dirt and smell the smells. As the game bathes the streets in warm evening sun or your car makes its way through a swirling mist straight out of Taxi Driver, the effect is incredibly potent. With the exception of Bioshock’s Rapture, I can’t think of another gaming world that has felt so real.
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.
All this stuff is great – truly great – but what proves just as exciting are the various ways in which Rockstar has made GTA IV a better game than its last-generation predecessors. Of course, it’s a better looking game. There’s still a certain cartoon quality to the characters and environments, but Rockstar has used the power of the 360 and PS3 to throw in a whole mass of new detail in everything from the cars to the architecture to the clothing, and bind it all together with some superb weather effects and a gorgeous natural lighting system. However, it’s a more enjoyable and immersive game on other levels. Take combat, for example. In previous GTA games, melee combat and – particularly – ranged weapon combat was a hit and miss affair. Now things are different, with a clear and effective auto-targeting system backed up by a manual fine-tuning option, a proper system for finding and firing from cover, and a full range of punches, blocks and kicks in close-up fighting.
Meanwhile, the new star of the show is Niko’s mobile phone. Always accessible at the press of a D-pad button, you can use it to receive and reply to messages, make phone calls to business contacts, arrange dates with girlfriends or an evening out with Roman, and call in special features like a quick side mission or a free taxi ride. It’s brilliant. While you’re driving back from one objective you can be setting up your next big task, or pulling out of an existing commitment because you won’t have time (after all, while you might have a hit to carry out, you don’t want to leave your current lady standing in the cold). And when you’re lost and looking for something to do, it’s the mobile phone that will often have you scurrying on to take the story one stage further.
The result of these additions – plus new ones like a post-mission auto-save – is a game that flows better and feels even more immersive than San Andreas or Vice City. In the meantime, all the stuff that was good in previous GTAs is still good here. You can still pinch vehicles from a staggering range of sedans, sports cars, 4x4s, vans, trucks, motorcycles and ambulances, and each one still has a feel and a sense of weight and momentum all its own. You can still ride around looking for stunt opportunities or go on a rampage of destruction, and the police chases are as much fun as ever – and slightly less exhausting thanks to a new and slightly more forgiving alert system. You can still listen to music and chat from a variety of different radio stations, giving you everything from reggae to rock to Russian rap or cool jazz, and the soundtrack is full of iconic classics and more recent crackers. Most of all, it’s a game that never fails to make you laugh – even at things that you know you really shouldn’t laugh at. Does it worry me that Rockstar has created an amoral fantasy world in which you’re positively encourages to break each and every rule? Slightly, but I’m having so much fun that I can’t really be bothered to feel outraged.
Any negative comments? Well, I have a few. I won’t go on about the odd bit of slowdown, and I understand that there’s less pop-up and texture pop-in on the PS3 version (which I’ve been playing) than the 360 version (which I haven’t), albeit at the cost of a slight reduction in screen resolution and a five minute wait while the game installs. I would however like to moan about a couple of things. First, Rockstar still hasn’t introduced mid-mission checkpoints. 75 per cent of the time it’s not an issue, but in some of the larger, multi-part missions it can be really, really annoying to have to go back to square one because you did something dumb during the final section. A quick ‘replay mission’ option from the mobile phone helps, but you’ll still find yourself repeating some lengthy drives and sections of the game several times (though using taxis and public transport can cut this down).
Secondly, the context-sensitive controls can sometimes be a bit fiddly. I’ve had trouble getting up ladders in a hurry, while using the L1 button to interact with objects can demand a little too much care over your position. Finally, I’m a little disappointed that the game is still very selective about which objects you can interact with. If I want to throw something through a shop window, I’d like to be able to pick up the bin, the abandoned trolley or the dislodged fire hydrant – not just the can that the developers have already chosen for me.
Does this affect the final verdict? Well, the truth is that I haven’t yet come to a final, final verdict. At the time of writing I still have to test the multiplayer – and I think that’s going to take a little getting used to – and I still have a way to go before I can say I’ve seen and done everything that I’d like to. Luckily, thanks to the wonders of Internet publishing I can come back and update this review when I’ve done so. For now, my few niggles stop me giving GTAIV the full 10/10 perfect score, but that could easily be subject to change. Right now, I can safely say that this is one of the greatest games to come along this generation, and that GTAIV is everything we hoped it would be, and more.
GTAIV shows the pretenders how it should be done, with an incredibly rich world, strong characters, great technology and a truly compelling story. Provided you can handle its skewed morality, it’s the year’s most essential video game.
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