Stepping off a boat in the shoes of illegal immigrant Niko Bellic as he arrives in Liberty City at the start of Grand Theft Auto IV, you can tell immediately that Rockstar North's latest offering is something quite special. Yes, this is another GTA game in which you'll likely spend the bulk of your time stealing cars and gunning down cops and criminals, but it's also much more than that. GTAIV is a game with a compelling and nonlinear storyline, a game with a great protagonist who you can't help but like, and a game that boasts a plethora of online multiplayer features in addition to its lengthy story mode. It's not without some flaws, but GTAIV is undoubtedly the best Grand Theft Auto yet.
One of the many things that set GTAIV apart from its predecessors is Liberty City, which is more convincing as a living, breathing urban environment than anything that you've seen in a game before, and bears little resemblance to its namesake in 2001's GTAIII. Liberty's diverse population believably attempts to go about its daily business, seemingly unaware that several criminal factions are at war in the city. Niko has no such luck. He's compelled to start working for one of the factions shortly after arriving, when he learns that his cousin Roman has some potentially fatal gambling debts. Niko's military experience makes him a useful freelancer for employers in the business of killing each other, and though his reluctance to carry out their orders is often apparent, he does whatever is asked of him in the hope that completing missions for other people will ultimately give him the means to complete his own.
Actually, Niko doesn't have to do everything that is asked of him. On several occasions as you play through his story, you'll be presented with decisions that afford you the option of doing what you think is right rather than blindly following instructions. You don't necessarily have to kill a target if he or she promises to disappear, but you have to weigh the risk of your employer finding out against the possibility that the person whose life you spare might prove useful later in the game, or even have work for you in the form of bonus missions. To say anything more specific on this subject would be to risk spoiling one of GTAIV's most interesting new features, but suffice it to say that every decision you make has consequences, and you'll likely want to play through the game at least twice to see how the alternatives unfold.
Grand Theft Auto IV's story mode can be beaten in less than 30 hours, and there are so many optional activities and side missions to take part in along the way that you can comfortably double that number if you're in no hurry. The majority of the story missions task you with making deliveries and/or killing people, and play out in much the same way as those in previous games. With that said, most of the missions are a lot easier this time around, partly because Niko is a more agile and efficient killer than any of his predecessors, and partly because the LCPD seemingly has better things to do than hunt down an illegal immigrant who's gunning down undesirables all over the city. Some of the more imaginative missions sprinkled throughout the story include a kidnapping, a bank heist, and a job interview. The cinematic cutscenes associated with story missions are superbly presented and are the sequences in which the game's characters really shine. Without exception, the characters you encounter benefit from great animation, great voice work, and superbly expressive faces. They're not always so impressive when they join you on a mission and refuse to do what they're supposed to (for example, not following you on an escort mission, or failing to negotiate a doorway). Nevertheless, these problems are few and far between, and they're made less painful by the new "replay mission" option that you're presented with whenever you fail.
New abilities in Niko's arsenal include scaling fences and walls anywhere he can get a foothold, shimmying along ledges, and, most importantly, taking cover behind objects. The ability to stick close to walls, parked cars, and the like at the touch of a button makes GTAIV's gunplay a huge improvement over that in previous games, and, in tandem with the new targeting system, it also makes it a lot easier. Enemies are rarely smart enough to get to you while you're in cover, and given that you can lock your targeting reticle on to them even when they're hidden, all you have to do is wait for them to poke their heads out and then pick them off with a minimum of effort. Locking on to enemies targets their torso by default, but you can use the right analog stick to fine-tune your aim and kill them more quickly with a headshot or two. Playing without using the lock-on feature make things more difficult, but you’ll need to master the technique so that you can shoot blindly at enemies from positions of cover when you dare not poke your own head out to line up the shot.
Given the amount of trouble that you get into as you play through the story mode, it's inevitable that the police are going to get involved from time to time, even when their presence isn't a scripted feature of your mission. Liberty City's boys in blue are quick to respond when you get flagged with a wanted level of between one and six stars, but they're not nearly as tough to deal with as their counterparts in previous GTA games. They don't drive as quickly when pursuing you, they rarely bother to set up roadblocks, and you'll need to blow up practically an entire city block before the FIB (that's not a typo) show up. Furthermore, you're given an unfair advantage in the form of your GPS system; when you're not using it to plot a valid route to any waypoint of your choosing, it doubles as a kind of police scanner. Any time you have a brush with the law, the GPS shows you the exact locations of patrol cars and cops on foot in your area, and highlights the circular area (centered on your last known whereabouts) where they're concentrating their search. To escape, all you need to do is move outside the circle and then avoid being seen for 10 seconds or so, which is often best achieved by finding a safe spot and just sitting there. It's not a bad system in theory, but in practice it makes dodging the law a little too easy, especially when your wanted level is low and the search area is small.
When you're not running missions for criminals, taking part in street races, stealing cars to order, or randomly causing trouble, you'll find that there are plenty of opportunities to unwind in Liberty City. Some of these optional activities offer tangible rewards that can prove useful in missions later on, whereas others are just a fun way to kill time and take in more of GTAIV's superb humor. For example, you can watch television, listen to numerous different radio stations, check out some genuinely funny shows (including some big-name acts) at cabaret and comedy clubs, and use a computer to surf the in-game Internet.
GTAIV's Internet is filled with spoofs of all the kinds of Web sites that you'd only ever look at accidentally or when you know there's no danger of getting caught. Some of them can be found only by clicking on links in spam e-mails, whereas others are advertised prominently on the search page. There's plenty of amusing stuff to find if you spend some time in one of the "TW@" Internet cafes, but the most interesting site by far is an online dating agency through which you can meet women who, if they like your profile, will agree to go on dates with you. Dating and socializing with friends is something you can spend as much or as little of your time doing as you like, and though the people you meet can occasionally be demanding to the point that they become irritating, keeping them happy invariably benefits you in some way.
Keeping friends and dates happy means spending time with them and doing things that they enjoy, and all of them have different personalities. Some friends like to join you for minigames such as tenpin bowling, pool, or darts, whereas others prefer to go out for a meal, get drunk, or take in a show. Of course, dates are much fussier than regular friends, and their opinions of you are influenced not only by whether you pick them up on time, where you take them, and whether you try your luck when dropping them at home, but also by a number of much more subtle factors. Dates will comment on stuff like the car you drive, how you drive it, and the clothes you wear. They'll even notice if you wear the same outfit two dates in a row, though not all of them will be bothered by it. The rewards that you get when another character likes you enough vary depending on who it is. Without wishing to give away specifics, befriending a lawyer can prove useful if you're having trouble with the cops, for example, and having a nurse on your friends list can literally be a lifesaver.
You'll keep in touch with your dates, friends, and some of your enemies using another of GTAIV's great new features: a cell phone. It's hard to believe that something as simple as a cell phone could add so much to a game like this, but it's implemented so well that it's hard to imagine leaving any of Niko's safe houses without it. If you've ever used a cell phone in real life, you'll have no problem operating this one and, given that it's controlled using only the D pad and a single button, it's easy to call up acquaintances and take calls even while driving. There's no unwieldy conversation system to deal with; you simply choose which friend you want to call, what you want to talk about (it could be work, a fun activity, or asking for a favor) and then, assuming that he or she answers the phone, the conversation plays out. Incoming calls are even easier, though they occasionally come at inopportune (or amusing) times; hearing your cell-phone's signal interfere with your car radio is the least of your worries when you consider the possibility of a date calling you while you're with a prostitute or embroiled in a gunfight with the Mafia. Incidentally, new ringtones and visual themes for your phone can be purchased via the in-game Internet, which is typical of the incredible attention to detail that you'll come to take for granted as you play.
To give you some idea of just how much thought has clearly gone into the crafting of GTAIV, even the act of stealing a parked car, which is still achieved by pushing a single button, can now result in any number of different things happening. If the door is locked, as is often the case, Niko will smash a window with his elbow or his foot to get inside. Once inside the car, he may need to hot-wire it to get it started; you can speed up the process slightly by using the shoulder buttons on your controller. If the car has an alarm, it'll sound for several seconds and cause the headlights to flash on and off as you drive away--practically begging any nearby cops to come after you. Stealing cars with drivers and/or passengers inside opens up lots more possibilities, the most amusing of which is someone (possibly you) getting an arm caught in a door and dragged along as the vehicle speeds away.
Most of the vehicles in GTAIV, like those in previous games, have very loose handling that makes it easy for you to perform Hollywood-style U-turns, skids around corners, and the like. You can play through most of the missions without ever violating a traffic law if you really want to, but you can get away with (and will have a lot more fun) driving like a lunatic, provided that you don't collide with any police vehicles or mow down too many pedestrians. A neat touch when driving with the default camera view is that the camera, which is positioned a few feet behind the rear bumper of the car, centers on you rather than on the vehicle, effectively offering the vehicular equivalent of an over-the-shoulder view. When you take the control of something sporty, the camera also positions itself much closer to the ground, which adds to the sensation of speed.
The vehicle handling is difficult to fault, regardless of whether you're in a sports car, a garbage truck, a motorcycle, a speedboat, or a helicopter. However, while driving, you might notice one odd quirk that has been a constant ever since GTAIII: When taking the controls of certain vehicles, you'll suddenly notice a lot more of the same vehicle on the roads. It's not a big deal, and it isn't detrimental to the gameplay, but it's a little jarring if you get into one of the more unusual vehicles in the game--for example, the equivalent of either a Ferrari or a pickup truck--and suddenly find that the city is filled with them. That particular quirk is pretty common in some of the multiplayer modes as well, though you'll likely be too busy keeping an eye out for other players to take any notice when you venture online.
Getting online in Grand Theft Auto IV couldn't be easier. You simply select the multiplayer option on your cell phone, choose which type of game you want to host or join, and then enter a lobby and wait for the game to start. You won't be getting bored staring at a list of names while you're waiting, though, because when you enter a lobby you actually enter an online version of Liberty City in which you and up to 15 other players are free to do anything. There are weapons scattered all over the place to ensure that things don't stay too friendly for very long.
There are more than a dozen different multiplayer modes to choose from, and although some of them are variations on similar themes, there's certainly no shortage of variety. As the host of a multiplayer session, you also have the freedom to greatly customize all of the game types with variables such as friendly fire, police presence, weapons sets, traffic levels, radar functionality, and many more. You can choose where you'd like your game to take place as well, considering that many gameplay modes can be played either on a specific Liberty City island or across the entire map.
Even conventional 16-player modes such as Deathmatch and Race feel quite different than anything that you've played before. And in addition to those, there are objective-based games in which you're tasked with completing missions similar to those in the single-player game: a team-based Cops 'n Crooks mode, a Turf War mode in which teams compete for control of territories, a carjacking mode, three cooperative missions that support up to four players, and more. With the right group of people, there's no reason why you can't have a lot of fun with every single mode that's available. We experienced a few frame-rate issues and lag that caused other players and their vehicles to jump around the screen at times, but for the most part GTAIV's online play is a real treat. One especially neat touch is that, as a passenger in a vehicle being driven by another player, you can mark waypoints on the GPS system for your driver using a map that tracks the locations of other players and objectives.
If you're wondering about differences between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Grand Theft Auto IV, the truth is that there aren't many. The PS3 version can only be played after a mandatory install that takes around 10 minutes, and its load times are a little shorter and less frequent as a result. The visuals, which don't always hold up to close scrutiny but are impressive during typical gameplay, are comparable and feature the same quirks (shadows that flicker, for example) on both consoles. Likewise, the audio, which can take a lot of the credit for why Liberty City feels so alive, is exceptional regardless of which console you have and how many speakers it's hooked up to. True to form, GTAIV's soundtrack has plenty of great licensed songs and, unlike other games we could mention, it doesn't force the artist and track information down your throat with pop-up windows that detract from gameplay. However, if you want that information, you can simply dial up a song-recognition service on your cell phone and, after a few seconds, receive it in a text message. Genius.
In case you haven't guessed already, Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that you simply have to play. The single-player game, which you can still play long after you complete the story, is the series' best by far, and the multiplayer features are good enough that you'll likely have no problem finding people to play with for many months to come. The minor flaws that you'll experience are no more difficult to overlook than those in previous GTA games, and they're greatly outnumbered by the features that will impress and surprise you anytime you think you've already seen everything that the game has to offer. There's lots to see in Liberty City, so you'd best get started!
- by me!