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Grand Theft Auto IV Review

This is the American dream.

2008-04-25

Criminals are an ugly, cowardly lot more worthy of pity and disdain than admiration. This is what you'll learn playing through the single-player campaign in Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV. The series cheered (and criticized) for glorifying violence has taken an unexpected turn: it's gone legit. Oh sure, you'll still blow up cop cars, run down innocent civilians, bang hookers, assist drug dealers and lowlifes and do many, many other bad deeds, but at a cost to main character Niko Bellic's very soul. GTA IV gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama. Every facet of Rockstar's new masterpiece is worthy of applause. Without question, Grand Theft Auto IV is the best game since Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.



You play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European attempting to escape his past and the horrors of the Bosnian war. He arrives in Liberty City to experience the American dream, only to discover his cousin, Roman, may have fibbed a bit in his tales of success. Starting from nothing, Niko makes a living as a killer and enforcer, a bad-ass foreigner who appears to have no morals. The longer we stay with Niko, the more we see that there is a broken human being inside, one who would give anything to escape the person he once was.




Be sure to watch the debut video review here.


Don't worry, GTA's famed over-the-top action and tongue-in-cheek humor are intact, but there is a new level of sophistication in the characters and the game world that raises the story above the norm. As Niko becomes mired in the death throes of American organized crime, he begins to become more self-aware. Niko's struggles with his ruthless nature never inhibit the gameplay, but instead enhance the emotional gravity of a brilliant storyline. The more absurd the action becomes, the greater we feel the very real pathos of Niko Bellic.



Much of the credit goes to the artists at Rockstar North who created as believable a city as possible. Liberty City is inspired by New York, but not beholden to it. While there are many parallels, Liberty exists in its own universe and rightfully so. Many open-world games have cities that feel as if they existed only from the moment you first turned on your console, but Liberty City looks lived in. It's an old city and each block has its own vibe and its own history.



Drive around Liberty City and you'll be able to identify each individual block. Though Liberty is filled with brownstones and a myriad of similar brick buildings, you can tell one from the other, just as you can in New York. Go to an affluent neighborhood and the street is likely to be newly paved, the pedestrians better dressed, the cops more plentiful. But head to Dukes or Bohan and you'll find streets nearly stripped of asphalt, homeless people wandering about aimlessly and criminals preying on the weak.



Watch the people and you'll witness some amazing things. At one point, I saw a woman stopped at a light, looking in the rearview mirror right before she was rear-ended by a man ogling a girl on the street. The man got out of his car and went to the woman, checking to see if she was okay. This had nothing to do with Niko or a single action I took. These were the citizens of Liberty City going about their day. And it was just one moment in a day full of incidents.



Hang in one area of the city long enough and you'll see how traffic and pedestrian flow changes as the day progresses. When it rains, people bring out umbrellas or shield themselves with a newspaper and run for an awning. Cops chase petty thieves unaware that walking down the street is Niko Bellic, cold-blooded killer. There's a perfect balance of mumbling doomsayers to remind you that the reason this city never sleeps is because it's full of nut jobs. People go about their day, only altering course when Niko inserts himself into their lives with his crappy driving or excellent marksmanship.



Liberty City isn't as big as San Andreas, but is far denser. There's a lot to see and do and, like New York itself, very little wasted space. When you enter buildings, there are no load times -- you open the door and you're on your way up a flight of stairs to the roof. The only frustration is that there are literally thousands of buildings in the city, but most of them cannot be entered. With the exception of some clearly marked entertainment hot spots and mission-specific areas, there's nothing to indicate which buildings are open for business. So you might find yourself walking into a lot of doors trying to find which one will magically open. It's a little much to expect to have the interiors of every building rendered, but that doesn't make it any less bothersome that you can't go where you please.



The idea of a "living, breathing city" has always been somewhat of a joke in gaming. Every city in the past has felt artificial in some way. But Liberty City feels like a real place. And its history is built not only into the architecture and the people, but even in the music. There are more than 200 songs in GTA IV and many of them were recorded or remastered with specific references to Liberty City. You'll hear songs on the Classics station referencing the city, as if to suggest there's decades of history built into the culture. The soundtrack is an unbelievable blend of rock, pop, reggae, R&B and hip-hop. But more astounding is how well the songs and the DJs blend into the city itself.



It's this level of integration that makes Liberty City such a believable place. You won't just hear "America's Next Whore" advertised on the radio; you'll see posters when walking down the street and spot ads on the Internet. GTA IV takes aim at all of the modern forms of communication. Along with radio stations (a staple of the series) there are full programs and ads you can watch on TV and a fully browseable Interweb.



You could lose hours of your day surfing the 'net. That may mean sorting through junk mail, clicking on random links, using Love-Meet.com to find dates, or reading the news. There are multiple websites that cover news based on missions Niko's completed. You can read different takes on these events if you want to get an idea of how your actions are perceived in different political corners. You might never bother looking at all, but like so much of GTA IV, there are dozens of hours of content waiting to be either discovered or ignored.



To make itself more modern -- as opposed to Vice City and San Andreas which were "of an era" -- the focal point of Niko's world is his cell phone. You'll receive calls and text messages from friends and business associates on your phone. This is the mission delivery system. You may launch into a mission just by answering a call, but more often you will be directed to meet at a specific location to initiate your next objective. Or you might just have a conversation that serves no purpose other than to deepen the characterization of Niko, his friends, or even his enemies. The good news is that, just like in real life, you can talk on the phone while driving your bus through a police blockade.



The phone is also used as an organizer to remind you of critical events (dates with slutty online girls) and can be customized with new ringtones and wallpapers. And just as in modern life, the phone can become a nuisance. Date Carmen and she will constantly be ringing your digits and sending texts checking in to make sure you aren't sleeping with some other girl. Yes, there are needy people even in Liberty City. You'll also get casual calls during missions. You can always ignore the ring or you can pick up. It's most likely a friend calling and asking to hang out. GTA is a clever game brimming with hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue and Niko will almost certainly have a pun-laced response to turn down a pal if he's in the middle of a helicopter dogfight.



This doesn't mean you shouldn't give your potential friends the time of day. Throughout Niko's journey you'll have the opportunity to strengthen your bond with some of the people you meet. It's not necessary to take your Jamaican braddah Little Jacob out for a drink or game of pool when he calls, but doing so is to your benefit. If someone likes you enough, they'll give you access to their special ability. For Little Jacob, that means being able to call him day or night for discounted weapons. Packie, the angry Irish wannabe mobster gives you car bombs. Dwayne sends a pair of his homies to assist you on missions.



The benefits of taking friends out on the town go beyond these tangible attributes. Friends also provide commentary on life, the city, Niko, and the story. None of it is essential to completing the game, but all of it is fascinating. The dialogue in GTA IV is rich, funny, brilliant, insightful, and engaging. So many times your reward for beating a mission isn't a new weapon or an elaborate cinematic cut-scene -- it's just dialogue. That is often reward enough.



There are a number of places you can take your friends when you go out on the town and you should base your decision on what they might enjoy. There are mini-games for darts, pool, and bowling. But you can also check out the god-awful cabaret or watch one of several comedy sets by Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams. Perhaps the most challenging (but satisfying) activity is going drinking.



Your level of drunkenness is relative to the person you take out. Little Jacob and Dwayne aren't so bad, but take a sweet lass like Kate out and she'll have you (literally) falling over yourself. When drunk, it's difficult to walk and even more of a challenge to drive. You don't have to drive drunk (in fact, it might make you ill doing so as the camera sways as if you're out at sea), but it's fun to give it a try. Drunk friends tend to be more revealing as well. Kate will tell you what she really thinks of you with just a few drinks. If that doesn't weaken your self esteem, nothing will.



The only issue with making friends is that it's a distraction from the main story. For the first time in a GTA game, the story is actually a greater draw than city exploration. That's not to say driving around the city hunting for Easter Eggs isn't enjoyable, but the story is so compelling, you may find yourself singularly focused till its conclusion. The wild cast of characters is part of the reason things are so entertaining. The voice acting is top notch and the characters are each immediately identifiable and unique.



Some are loveable, but there are many who are despicable. There are cringe-worthy conversations, where you see Niko being sucked into the depravity of these peoples' lives to earn a few bucks or gain a long-sought revenge. That's a credit to the writing, to make what would normally just be some thug you're doing missions for earn your contempt. That's a mark that you care for Niko; that the story has gotten to you. There aren't many games that can pull that off.



As an added twist, GTA IV gives you occasional morality choices. There are people that you don't have to kill in a mission and you can decide whether or not to waste a bullet. These events don't change the plot or open new missions later on. Occasionally it affects dialogue, but more often it is simply the game asking what kind of person you are. And there are some gut-wrenching decisions you make at points that create an emotional response I never imagined I would get from a Grand Theft Auto title. There is one significant choice you make towards the end of the game that opens a new path and an alternate ending. There are two worthwhile endings to uncover and are incentive for playing through a second time just to see how much more depressing life in Liberty City can get.



There are more than 90 story missions that will take anywhere from 25-45 hours to complete depending largely on your skill level. I was certain that the missions would get repetitive at some point, that sooner or later it would get redundant. It never does. Though many missions boil down to the same basic parameter -- go to location, kill people to get to target, chase target, kill target -- it never feels repetitive. The locations of missions, the variety in the enemies, the dynamic aspects of the AI, and the dialogue keep GTA IV from ever feeling stale. In fact, this is a game that can be enjoyed with multiple playthroughs. It's just that good.



The best mission comes close to the halfway point, when you and Packie McCreary decide to rob a bank. In what becomes the recurring theme for Niko Bellic, everything about the job goes wrong. The cops have the bank surrounded and there's no easy way out. Instead, you and the gang must battle through the streets and into the subway to escape. It's a lengthy, epic fight that I could replay a dozen times and still enjoy.



A great deal of that pleasure is due to the refined combat system. Though Grand Theft Auto has always been about action, it has never provided a great targeting system. That has finally, truly changed with GTA IV. Hold down the trigger and you can lock on to an enemy (or civilian). You'll see an indicator of their health. You can adjust your aim slightly with the thumbstick so that nudging up a little can help you earn some headshots. Partially depress the trigger and you have free aim, which is great for targeting tires or specific body parts. With skill, you can take down enemies faster in free mode. But auto aim is a great help in larger battles or for those who aren't as adept with a controller.



Better is the cover system. Tap the right shoulder button and you'll take cover behind the nearest object. If you see it in the environment, you can probably take cover behind it. That includes walls, dumpsters and cars. You can aim while in cover and when you hold the trigger to fire, you'll pop and shoot. You can also blind fire rather effectively with any weapon -- including an RPG. The cover system is fairly smart, so if you want to move from one side of a door to the other, just push towards where you want to go and tap the cover button. This also works when you are fairly far from cover. Niko will roll or perform a slick slide to get to safety quickly. There is a stickiness to the cover system similar to Gears of War, but since the cover button isn't tied to your run button, you never accidentally enter cover.



While GTA doesn't have many issues, I will admit that the cover system is not perfect. There are times where you will take cover on the wrong side of a corner, leaving you exposed. These instances aren't too common, but over the course of dozens of hours, you'll certainly encounter them. You also un-stick from cover when you use your phone, which can sometimes make calling Dwayne for backup or Carmen for a health boost a little trickier than necessary.



Most games with a cover system make the mistake of turning cover into the central focus of gameplay. But cover in GTA IV is more of a natural progression needed to facilitate heightened AI. Enemies have a variety of AI protocols. Some are cowards (gotta love the fat cops running for the hills when you start killing the boys in blue), most try to avoid being shot by taking cover, and a few still stand in the open. If the AI is going to be able to hide behind cars and other parts of the environment, it's only fair that players have the same ability.



You don't have to use cover if you don't want to. I'm sure there is some way to beat missions just by running and gunning. After all, this is still GTA. There's no one right way to beat a mission. You're free to get creative. But ignoring the cover system is like never stealing a car. This is a major piece of the game. Use it often, because it works well and it's certain to keep you alive longer.



The cops aren't about to let Niko run through the city with guns blazing, even if he is capping bad guys. Sooner or later, you'll run afoul of the law. The wanted system has been revised and makes for more dynamic chase scenes. When you're wanted, your radar displays the police search parameter. The smaller the wanted level, the more local the search. Your goal is to get out of that circle and avoid being seen by the cops. Get spotted and the circle re-centers on your new location. This becomes more of a challenge when you reach three stars, because a police helicopter appears. This eye in the sky has an easier chance of spotting and following Niko -- and directing other cops to your location.



Unless you want to be O.J., you need to change directions, get out of the sight of choppers, switch cars or go on foot. Whatever you do, avoid line of sight, because once a cop sees you, you're location is reported and the search changes its focus. This makes escapes from four stars and higher incredibly intense. Pay 'n' Spray shops still exist, but must be entered when cops aren't looking. To be honest, I used this one time in 40 hours. It's an outdated idea in some ways and more a nod to GTA's of old than a great resource.



The new wanted system puts an emphasis on your driving and navigation skills. Fortunately, you can set a waypoint on the map in the pause menu and get an adaptive GPS-guided route. This same system is used to guide you through missions. There is never a point in GTA IV where you have to wonder where to go or what to do next.



I should mention that the driving has also seen an upgrade from past Grand Theft Autos. Rockstar's RAGE engine coupled with NaturalMotion's Euphoria engine creates a game world with some stunning physics. Each brand of car handles differently (you can actually see the suspension in action as you make sharp turns). What will really surprise people is that these physics work with characters while in cars. So Niko's weight shifts to one side as he makes a turn and his head snaps forward when he slams the brakes. There is also a full neurological system built into Niko so that his body knows how to react to other objects. At one point I drove an ambulance off a high stunt jump. The cinematic camera swung around to show Niko taking his hands off the wheel and covering his face before impact.



You will see the effects of NaturalMotion throughout the game, whether it's how bodies react when you slam your car into them or the way a gangbanger leaps away from a grenade. The physics system is the connective tissue that grounds the action into something resembling reality. And it's one of the main factors that makes GTA such an impressive-looking game.



Past GTA titles have had mild-to-serious framerate issues and technical glitches, because the games were trying to do far more than the PlayStation 2 could handle. While GTA IV is pushing the PS3 and 360 to the limit, it also runs amazingly well. Sure, there are framerate hitches here and there and (particularly on 360) there is some texture pop-in, but it actually runs better than I expected. That a game with great AI, an awesome physics engine and a detailed open world runs so well and with such short load times is a technical marvel. For that, I can forgive framerate issues and some noticeable aliasing.



The art team gets major kudos for creating a living world. There is great texture work in the environments, a nice field-of-vision blur of buildings in the distance, some excellently modeled cars, ball-jarring explosions, phenomenal water effects and one interesting-looking Eastern Euro for a lead character. Sure, it's not a game that runs perfectly all the time, but the technical elements almost never get in the way of the gameplay.



For those wanting to know which version looks better, the edge goes to the PS3. The textures and framerate are comparable, but the PS3 has far less pop-in. The 360 has richer colors, but the PS3 has better anti-aliasing making it look a little cleaner. Because GTA IV can preload onto the PS3 hard drive, the in-game loads are faster. Don't worry Xbox owners, the load times are rarely more than 30 seconds and don't occur very often. The slight visual edge goes to PS3, but the 360 is no slouch. Either version will do you proud.



If you're wondering which version to buy, the best suggestion is to consider what your friends will purchase. That's because online multiplayer has made its way into GTA IV and it is awesome. And, like all great things, it's best played when drunk and with as many friends as possible.



Multiplayer is accessed via your phone from the single-player game. Everything is active in Liberty City online -- the cops, pedestrians, traffic, and weather. And yes, the entire city is open to you and 15 of your closest friends.



To keep you and your pals from getting separated, GTA IV offers a party system. The party lobby is actually set in the outskirts of Liberty City. You're given plenty of guns and some vehicles to mess around with. You can stay and fight or run around the city if you like while waiting for the host to set up a match. And boy, are there a lot of options to choose from.



There are more than a dozen multiplayer modes if you count team and free-for-all variations. The bread-and-butter of multiplayer is Free Mode. This is a no-rules game that drops you into Liberty City with up to 15 other people to do as you please. You can invent your own custom games, waste time shooting one another or explore the city. As with almost all of the multiplayer modes, there are loads of options for the match. Turn on cops and each player will get their own individual wanted level. Set the time of day, weather, flow of traffic, weapons available -- there's very little you can't customize. Free Mode taps into the very core of GTA gameplay, which is to run around the city causing mayhem. Only now you can do it with 15 other like-minded individuals.



There are a number of other creative multiplayer offerings. The standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch can be interesting, since the cover system often slows the game a bit so it isn't as fast-paced as something like Quake. Unless, of course, you choose "all rockets" in which case death will become you many, many times. Mafiya Work has you and your competitors receiving phone errands from a mob boss. First to complete a mission scores some cash. Car Jack City has players vying to steal specially marked cars and return them in as pristine a condition as possible to a drop off point. Turf War is your standard capture-the-point. Or if you like vehicles you can try out GTA Race, which is like any other racing game except you can get out of your vehicle, jack your competitor's car and finish the race in any way you like -- or just blow up other people for the hell of it.



And then there is Cops n' Crooks, the best of the objective-based multiplayer games. This has two teams, one side lawmen, the other hoodlums. The crooks are trying to get to a randomly selected extraction point and the cops are trying to arrest them with bullets. This mode forces teamwork, as both teams must strategize on the fly and rely on one another to assist in navigation. It's a fun, addictive mode that will likely be the most popular of the team offerings.



On top of the various competitive modes, there are also three co-op offerings. These three "modes" are missions similar to what you might experience in the single-player game. Niko doesn't exist in multiplayer, but you still get cut-scenes and some unique dialogue wrapped around some fun missions. Co-op supports up to four players and only has some minor variables. Your objective never changes nor do the locations. You can up the difficulty and add more traffic if you want a challenge, but none of the co-op missions struck me as anything worth playing more than a couple of times. It's nice to have, but probably won't be what gamers buzz about when discussing GTA multiplayer.



As with just about every game, there are both ranked and unranked matches. Ranked matches are the only way to progress up the ranking system (from 0-10). Progressing up the ranks not only makes you feel better about yourself, but it opens up new clothing and accessories to better customize your character. There's not a lot of pull to rank up, though, because many of the modes don't use your custom character. The co-op modes and Cops n' Crooks use a different cast, so if those tend to be your primary focus, having new outfits for a character you never see isn't going to mean much.



I won't go so far as to say that GTA IV is the best multiplayer out there, but it's definitely among the best. Having Liberty City in full effect and only seeing occasional instances of slowdown is a real treat. When a few million people load hop online, it's anyone's guess how the game will hold up, but from my experience, playing with 16 people in Free Mode only caused occasional hiccups. Certainly not enough to make me stop playing.



For those curious about SIXAXIS controls, there are in full force in GTA IV. You can guide boats, bikes and cars tilting the controller. This only works well with boats, however, as bikes are far too squirrelly for the clumsy movements of SIXAXIS control. Helicopters are also very tough to control in this fashion -- it's as if Rockstar thought they were making a game about dragons. The mini-games, particularly bowling, also work with your guided movements and handle well. If you want traditional controls, you can turn SIXAXIS off for each individual input -- from the various vehicle types to reloading guns to specific mini-games. It's worth giving SIXAXIS a shot, but most likely you will shut this off.





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