In all honesty, I wasn't that excited about Grand Theft Auto IV. I played all the previous Grand Theft Auto games, and I have honestly never finished one, the last one I played being Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For me, the Grand Theft Auto games were a lot of fun, but became repetitive and in the end, just kind of boring for me.
What changed my mind however, is when I watched a video review over at GameTrailers.com. The game looked really good, and seemed to have a lot of potential, and while it wasn't certainly revolutionary or entirely innovative, it was improved, being better than the previous incarnations on a whole new level.
So I bought the game from my workplace. I played it, and hell, I even finished it.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game. I'm going to get this out of the way now. It is by no means a perfect game, but it is a damn fine game. It has its flaws, but what good game does not?
Grand Theft Auto IV returns to Liberty City, which you might remember from Grand Theft Auto III or even the very first Grand Theft Auto game. Players take on the role of Niko Bellic, an illegal immigrant from Europe who served in the Bosnian war. His cousin, Roman Bellic, convinces Niko to come to America (to Liberty City more precisely) claiming that he (Roman) is living a glamorous life, the "American Dream". When Niko finally arrives to Liberty City, he soon discovers that instead of entering a new life of money and women, he is forced to help his barely struggling cousin, who is in constant debt with criminals and so forth.
The game play is somewhat difficult at first, the control scheme is a learning curve and is much different to that of the previous titles. A lot has changed. Niko can run, sprint, and swim like the previous game, and can do other cool stuff like climbing and jumping over stuff. The unarmed combat system has been revamped to be very similar to that of boxing, with the ability to block, dodge and even counter attacks.
The gun combat system has changed too. Now, the player aims with an over the shoulder style view, and can free aim or lock onto nearby enemies. When locking on, it's possible to aim at certain locations, like arms, the head etc. Enemies even take location damage, falling over if shot in the leg and whatnot. A cover system, like many games of today has also been introduced, although somewhat difficult to use at first, the cover system becomes essential in the later fights of the game.
Sometimes though, the combat can, like the games before it, be cumbersome. At times you may end up targeting the wrong target with the auto lock on system, and when taking cover you may accidentally jump on the wrong side of cover, or may move in a direction you don't want to go. Things can get especially awkward when enemies are up close to you, especially with say, a shot gun or something.
Let's get back to the main focus of the game. The setting. Liberty City. This city, is absolutely huge, and has been designed to a realistic level. Unlike Grand Theft Auto III which was also set in Liberty City, Grand Theft Auto IV's incarnation of Liberty City is larger, is full of life, and is exceptionally realistic, almost like the "real" Liberty City (New York City, of course) itself. It's great.
Graphically, the game is far superior to say, San Andreas. The environment is detailed, there are many tall, towering buildings, many pedestrians all going about their daily business, the traffic is broad, it really is amazing. However, the actual character models could be more detailed, and while they may be detailed regardless, sometimes they can look odd when up close, especially during cinematic sequences. One thing I noticed is how sometimes the environment tends to "pop up", especially whilst you're piloting a helicopter. Buildings will suddenly load into the area and just appear out of nowhere.
Speaking of cinematic sequences, these cinematic moments are done much better than the previous games. The voice acting is superb, and many of the characters are all strange while bearing their own unique charm. Some characters are so funny and full of themselves, it's hilarious. The dialog is very well written and there is much dialog indeed. Not just in the cut scenes either, but in actual game too (say, when you're driving from one location to another with another character).
Going back to game play, one of the most important aspects of the game is driving. Driving is also somewhat difficult to go with at first. To accelerate, the player uses the R2 trigger, while using the L2 to reverse, or the X button to put on the handbrake. One thing I've noticed when driving in this game, do not treat it like a racing game. You can't drift, and your car can lose control sometimes. It can be difficult at times but eventually, you just get the hang of it. Luckily though, the player does not always have to drive. Sometimes the player can simply hail a taxi, jump in, and tell the taxi where he would like to go, for a price of course. It's like an Oblivion style "teleportation", which can be skipped, or sat through the entire time.
What can make navigation easier though while manually driving yourself, is the ability to set your own check points on the map screen. Thus, the mini map in game will give Niko a route to travel through, able to reach certain locations at a faster rate.
While driving, it's also possible to do stuff like shoot out of the window, using the L1 button. Even more so, players can switch weapons with the square button, from their pistol, to submachine gun, to even grenades, should the player have them.
There's a wide variety of vehicles, from cars, to trucks, to motorbikes, to scooters, to buses, to helicopters. Unfortunately, we do not see any actual bicycles, or any airplanes, or even tanks. Even more unfortunate is unlike San Andreas, the player cannot customize, or "pimp" their rides.
Another interesting element to the game is Niko's mobile phone, as simple as it may be. The mobile phone can be used to set up appointments and other important notes, call any of your friends and ask to hang out or even receive special options from such friends. The mobile phone is your source of contact to whoever you're doing your missions for. It can also be used to set up arrangements, or dates with friends.
Friends of Niko will call from time to time and ask to hang out. Should Niko do so, and actually hang out with the friend and do the activity of their choice, Niko will build up a friendship with the said friend. Once the friendship level rises, Niko will receive special abilities to use from the friends. For example, should Niko build up a high enough friendship level with his cousin, his cousin will be able to send a taxi to him from his business, thus offering Niko from time to time, a free taxi ride. These friends though, can be annoying. Sometimes, you will not stop receiving calls from friends, and they can honestly just be very "nagging".
Missions are still pretty much the same as the previous games. Niko drives to one person's place, or a meeting location, receives the mission, may receive back up, heads to the mission, and does it. Most of the time however, missions tend to be the same. Go to one place, receive mission, go to mission location, gun down lots of guys, and either recover a certain item, or chase a certain guy. After a while, it honestly does get repetitive, and at times it gets annoying when the NPCs your with try and make your mission sound easy, when it never is.
Chase scenes can be annoying in this game at times. Sometimes, they're easy and quick, requiring a little chase and you gunning down the enemy's vehicle. Sometimes though, the enemy is invulnerable during the chase, while you are not, and the set path they take leads to an inevitable gun fight involving more enemies. After a while, it can feel old.
Finally, what we've all wanted to see. Multiplayer. Grand Theft Auto IV has multiplayer. Which is pretty cool, when it's not having any server issues or anything. There are numerous game modes in multiplayer, from cops and robbers, to death match, team territory matches, and even a free play mode. Liberty City, or parts of it at least, is your play ground. It can be frustrating at times and even laggy, but when you're in a good game, it's going to be fun.
Grand Theft Auto IV is by far, the best Grand Theft Auto game to date. I could call it a "next-gen" title, for sure, but I'm not sure if I will call it revolutionary. The game has its flaws, from its at times cumbersome combat, to the graphical glitches of the city, the nagging friends, and at times the repetitive mission structure. Regardless, it is indeed the best game of the serious and while not perfect, it's still a damn fine game. Even if you're not a fan of the series, the fourth installment of Grand Theft Auto is indeed, well worth a look.