"This is what the Dream feels like. This is the victory we longed for."
-- Niko Bellic
It's been four weeks since I've purchased Grand Theft Auto IV, and it's been a hell of a ride.
Grand Theft Auto IV is not a game that can be easily categorized and tossed away in a pigeon-holed bin. It's just not that cut and dry. I feel, personally, that it's a game that's hard to review not because of the breadth of content found therein, but because there are so many things that make it great, and also things that make it faulter. To describe GTA IV from my point of view, it's a lot like watching The Fonz strut his sexy self, looking cool, hip, and happening. You get that awe in your eye, and you think, "god I wish that was me". And then, just when you're about to convince yourself to commit suicide in hopes of being reincarnated as such a cool guy, The Fonz trips, loses his footing, and stumbles. He never falls, but he stumbles, and it's just enough to break the spell he had over you.
But that's just it, The Fonz quickly catches his footing, and shrugs it all off, and you're back to being in awe. Playing GTA IV is a lot like that, both positively and negatively. Allow me to elaborate.
Grand Theft Auto IV for me, is a defining moment for video games. It truly is. The physics are the most realistic I've ever seen (thanks to the Euophoria engine), the graphics are more than adequate and serve the breath-taking task of giving me gorgeous views of Liberty City... my city. The audio is fantastic, ranging from simple sound effects like a pop can being dropped on pavement to the high-octane explosions when you blow up a chopper as it tries to gun you down. The voice acting, the music, the witty dialogue found in the radio, it screams professionalism. However, underneath the surface, in the gears of this Engine of God, there lies something that doesn't sit quite right. It's not the beating heart of Liberty City, which is inherently inhabited by real people that have been rendered for use in a video game, and it has nothing to do with the way both cops and pedestrians behave, or even the protagonist Niko Bellic, and his ensemble cast of misfits, gangsters, and psychopaths. Everyone in Liberty City has a story to tell, and it's a true pleasure to ride along with them to play my part in their lives.
But there's something... a niggling feeling that sits in the back of my mind and tells me that what I'm seeing, what I'm playing, what I'm experiencing with GTA IV is... off, somehow.
Blah, I'll get to that later. Let's get to the review!
Grand Theft Auto IV, if you don't know the story, then allow me to give you a quick and dirty breakdown. You play Niko Bellic, an ex-military illegal immigrant from Serbia who has arrived in Liberty City, fresh off the boat to stay with his cousin Roman Bellic. Niko believes that the lavish lies Roman has told him through e-mail are in fact, true. That he does own sports car, big mansion, women with big American titties, and a slew of businesses. The truth, as it always is, is rather ugly. Roman Bellic owns a cab depot, does well for himself, but has gotten into bad trouble with bad people. It is from here the player takes over, and enjoys one hell of a roller coaster ride from start to finish.
Now that that's out of the way, I bet you're wondering, "what about the gameplay?!" and I have to say, it's nothing short of fantastic. That may be an adjective you hear a lot throughout this review, so bear with me.
The gameplay is the standard GTA experience. You will drive, shoot, cajole, and muscle your way through the story mode just like past GTA titles. You will still outrun the cops, pull off bank heists, and befriend (or betray) characters within the game world that you will feel for, even if only for a moment. Within the framework of GTA titles of the past, there really isn't that much that's new here. The cars now handle like their real-life counterparts, and while this is frustrating at first, you will grow to appreciate it as you continue Niko Bellic's struggle to find his place in an unfamiliar world that doesn't know he exists, and probably doesn't want him.
So what's different, then? Well, a hundred million things, really. The driving mechanics have been refined to a razor's edge, and it shows. They feel as smooth as ever, and while you can't take a Blista Compact and do a 180 turn on a dime, you will realize that as you ascend up the ranks of cars, this will prove useful. If you've got an Infernus, say goodbye to the law, no matter how many stars you have. As we all know, an Infernus can outrun the standard police cruiser, the hummer, and even the SWAT team roadblocks. The refinements also include the way cops chase you, which is now handled by a Search Area on the map. Escape the search area without being seen, stay hidden, and the wanted level goes away. This is definitely a much better system, as the Pay and Sprays of the past have been more annoying than anything. It's true escape and evade action at work here, and the higher the star rating, the larger the area, the harder it is to escape. The cops, to be honest, are the most true-to-life I've seen in any game. They will chase, they will shoot, but they don't do that immediately. You are given the chance to surrender, but piss them off or go on a massive killing spree, and you can expect to get Rodney King'd for your behaviour. While in some instances the cops for GTA IV can be a pain in the ass (as they should be), I feel that there is no real inherent flaw to be found within this new Wanted system. It's realistic as hell, even if the lack of consequence is not.
And really, Realism is the key word here. The pedestrians and characters behave and react to the world in a realistic manner. Pick a fight and they'll fight back or run away, depending on the kind of person they are. Pedestrians will not act crazy, because people generally don't act crazy in public. Jack a car, get in an accident, and drivers with stop, get out to see if you need aid, rubberneck, or pedestrians will gather to see what happened. They react to gunshots realistically as well, as they spread like Kevin Federline's seed when shots ring out, most running for safety.
And that brings me to the shooting in GTA IV. I cannot say enough about these new mechanics. I for one loathed the shooting and combat in the GTA III trilogy. I found it to be so tedious that I entered cheat codes for health and armour on a consistent basis. Consistent enough to know the code off by heart. I can safely say that Grand Theft Auto IV is nothing like previous GTA games in that respect.
Once more, the mechanic has been refined to the point of skilled artistry. The lock-on system is still in place, but it is much smarter than in previous iterations. You have a round reticle with a dot in the center to help your aim, and if lock-on is not your thing, you can switch it to free aim in the options or only half-hold the Left Trigger to institute it that way. Really, aiming is much more refined, and shooting, as a result, is much more fun.
The cover system has been lifted directly from Gears of War, and this is not a bad thing. Run to a surface, hit the Right Bumper, and stick with glee to the surface. Pull away from the surface or hit the Right Bumper again to unstick yourself. It's a good system, and it works. I personally have not had a problem with sticking to the wrong surfaces except on one occasion, where I had switched direction at the last moment and found myself hiding behind a glass railing instead of the concrete pillar. My own fault, to be sure.
The AI in general is very smart. The simulation of real people doesn't just stop with pedestrians or cops, but it carries over into the enemies found in the game. As you battle through fourty horus of campaign, you will come across at least a thousand enemy gangbangers, cops, and schmucks who were in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Of those thousand or so you'll see that not all of them are smart. It's a realistic touch in my mind, as not everyone in real life is smart, and therefore they shouldn't ALL know how to defend themselves with the experience of an ex-military paratrooper. It doesn't make sense, and I'm glad to see that real life behaviour for the enemies have been carried into GTA IV as well.
But everything is not cookies and cream in Liberty City.
I mentioned The Fonz stumblings earlier, and it's true. The Fonz stumbles, and so does GTA IV. Thankfully, the stumbles are generally technical in nature, and while some of these stumbles are annoying, they can definitely be forgiven once you take a look on the macro scale of GTA IV.
Liberty City is a living, breathing thing. Technical achievements aside, the environments are incredibly dense and more focused than before. Meticulous details like advertisements in The Triangle (Times Square), the Rotterdam Tower (Chrysler Building), or even the Statue of Happiness (Liberty) can be seen with awe-inspiring views. Really, with this kind of focus and attention to detail, it's really hard for this writer to outright lambast GTA IV as it does so many things right--and even to perfection--that I'd feel like I was being untruthful to say these niggling little problems don't matter to me.
For instance, after extended use upward of four hours of play, I have noticed on occasion that the game has frozen for a hair of a second. Barely noticeable, but it's there. It is in that hair of a second that the suspension of disbelief is broken, and I am no longer Niko Bellic, but myself. It takes only that hair of a second, and then the high speed pursuit is back in play, the world is loaded, and I'm back to killing my way to the top.
Another slight hitch I've noticed is the draw distance. While it is far superior to previous GTA's, and it truly shows off the horse power found under the 360 hood with its vibrant colour scheme, it still isn't perfect. You will notice, on occasion, how the city is rendered and how it is put together as you approach your goal. I personally didn't notice it except for once or twice, but both times it did enough to break the spell GTA IV had (and still has) over me, but immediately I was snapped back into the game reality and having fun.
Really, GTA IV is not technical perfection. I don't think any game could ever truly be. However, RockStar has aspired to create the perfect video game in the only way they know how, and while it does stumble slightly from technical hitches, the behemoth of GTA Iv can still go toe-to-toe with any graphically inspired game... and probably win.
Is this a glowing review? Maybe, but in my mind RockStar deserves every last word of praise. From the storytelling (which is phenomenal), to the gameplay, to the sound design, to the characters, to the driving and shooting... everything about previous GTA games has either been corrected, refined, or outright perfected. To me, this is as good as it gets for Grand Theft Auto. And to me, GTA Iv is the first MUSt-BUY game of 2008.GRAPHICS: GTA IV is not the prettiest game on the market, but I highly doubt any game out there can give such a pixel-for-pixel punch as GTA IV does. The graphics are not the best, but they do more than their share to help drown the player in immersion and make them feel like they're Niko Bellic, which is really what graphics should do.AUDIO: The sound design in GTA IV is truly spectacular. Everything from the Radio to the dialogue, to the voice acting and the sound effects, everything has been scored to perfection. There is high-impact beats for the more intense action as well as slower, softer, almost melancholic musice for the softer moments found in Liberty City this time around. All around, Rockstar really carried the ball for the audio to be found in GTA IV. GAMEPLAY: GTA IV plays much like GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas did. The core of the game remains the same, but the refinements, perfections and total overhauls to some of even the most basic mechanics truly freshens up the experience for veterans, and if you've never touched a GTA game before this, then definitely pick it up. It's meant for beginners and vets alike, and all will enjoy it equally.FINAL THOUGHTS: GTA IV is truly an achievement for RockStar. The Houser brothers should especially be proud of themselves for this landmark game. Offering not only the most real characters I've seen in video games, but also delivering the comedy along with the tragedy in equal doses. They should especially be proud of the fact that no one element completely contradicts or overpowers the other, as both comedy and tragedy play a key part, but on the whole create a synergy within GTA IV that I haven't seen in videogames before. Not withstanding the technical achievement as well as just how much fun GTA IV is, I really can't say enough about GTA IV. I'll stop with this, however.Just go and buy it already.