Review by CrimsonGear80

"Super damn fun happy time for the whole family! Damn hell ass damn!"

The next-generation of car-jacking, gangster killing, open world exploring, hooker…stuff is finally here courtesy of Rockstar North. Grand Theft Auto 4 has had more hype for it that a hyped up hype machine on hype day, and for good reason as it has lofty expectations to live up to. I can say for certain that GTA4 has indeed lived up to the hype, however some nagging details keep it from being perfect. Still, I must say it very narrowly misses the perfect mark…

HELLA SWEET STORY

Meet Niko Bellic, an eastern European immigrant who has seen his fair share of violence. He has experienced war, killed people, smuggled people, and has worked for some very shady characters. With hopes of bringing closure to his past, Niko travels to America to find the certain someone who can bring said closure. Niko also hopes to start his life over in America with the help of his cousin Roman, who claims to be quite the success story since touching down. There's just one problem with Niko's plans: both Roman and that certain someone both live in Liberty City, quite possibly the most violent, crime-ridden city on the face of the Earth. As Niko is pulled deeper into the underbelly of Liberty City, he going to find out that getting away from his past and the person he used to be is going to be harder than he thought, as being that person seems to be the only way he's going to survive in the city.

Hands down, one of the best stories I've ever experienced in a video game. This works in part because Niko is a very likable character, with his own morals and beliefs despite being such a “bad” man. The other characters that Niko meets on his journey are just as believable, from his very likable cousin Roman to the roided-up Brucie to the head-strong McReary family, every character has their own personalities and back stories that really make you care about them. The trademark GTA humor and shocking moments are all here as well, which just make a great story even better. Perhaps another PS3 game starring an old man may take the story crown, but until then GTA4 stands at the top of the kingdom in this department.

HELLA SWEET GAMEPLAY

First, let's talk about GTA4's greatest accomplishment: Liberty City itself. Modeled after New York City but has a personality all it's own, Liberty City is by far the greatest open-ended world ever created for a video game. This isn't the same Liberty City you went through in GTAIII, this is a wholly re-imagined LC made up of four central areas that while smaller in area to San Andreas, is easily bigger and so much more detailed and much more realistic. Every building, every street, every block has it's own unique look, and in a city as big as LC that is pretty damn impressive. More vehicles and pedestrians populate LC's streets, parks, docks, and back alleys than ever before. Speaking of pedestrians, the citizens of liberty City now do a whole lot more than walking around like mindless zombies. You'll now see them talking on their own cellphones (their own UNIQUE cellphones if you look close enough), listening to MP3 players, drinking coffee, doing construction work, sleeping on street corners, reading newspapers, and other “daily life” activities that are just way to numerous to mention. The peds will even react to everything Niko does, from diving out of the way from his wreckless driving to putting their hands up and getting out of their vehicle when Niko points a gun at them. Just take Niko and walk into Middle Park on Algonquin and observe pedestrian actions just to see the care that Rockstar North has put into making Liberty City so awesome to explore. Even the hookers give you different options when “dealing” with them. If Rockstar deserves any type of kudos for this game, then making Liberty City the exact definition of a real world environment would be at the top of the list.

Just like the other GTA games, Niko's simplest form of transportation around Liberty City is his own two legs. You move him around with the left analogue stick and control the camera with the right stick. Holding X will cause him to run while tapping X rapidly will cause him to sprint. Niko can walk into a variety of buildings and restaurants in LC, with zero transition loading, it's absolutely seamless. Walking around LC is useful when you want to take it slow and soak in all the sights and sounds, but when you need to get your ass in gear, then it's time for a car-jacking. Besides the already mentioned pointing a gun at a vehicle's driver, you can still relieve citizens of their rides by hitting the triangle button next to the driver or passenger doors. Locked and parked cars also pose no challenge to Niko, as he can bust open a window with his elbow and hotwire the mother! Once behind the wheel, your presented with all new driving controls that are much more realistic than what some of you may be used to in past GTA's. Gas is moved to the R2 button while braking and reversing are moved to the L2 button, and your handbrake is moved to the R1 button. Being more realistic, driving at full speed while taking turns around corners will most likely cause you to spin out of control. It may take some getting used to, but once you master de-accelerating and smart braking while turning, you'll find these new controls much superior to past GTA driving controls, at least in my opinion. Doing drive-bys have also been revamped, as you have to hold the L1 button to cause Niko to break his driver's side window, which then causes a crosshair to appear that is freely controlled with the left stick, allowing a full 360 degrees to aim your weapon and fire by continuing to hold the L1 button. Once again, it takes some getting use to but it's easy to master once you get the hang of it. Besides cars, Niko can also take control of motorcycles and boats (which control in pretty much the same way as the cars) and helicopters. Yes helicopters, to me one of the downpoints of GTA4...heck, it's the downpoint to any GTA game that has them. Truth be told, I find helicopter controls to be horrible, with R2 and L2 controlling ascension and dissension, L1 and R1 turning left and right, left and right on the left stick to pitch left and rig-know what, they're just awful. It is my understanding that pressing forward on the left stick and holding X is supposed to make the copter go forward, not do a head-first dive into the friggin' ground or ocean! Also, why is it that when I hold R2 to ascend, I descend instead? I also firmly believe that there is NO way to fully stop your copter and hover. The game says to hold L1 and R1, but that never works for me. These controls haven't changed much since copters were introduced in Vice City, and I still just hate them. Thankfully, only one god-awful story mission requires precise copter skills, with the only other reason to go up in a copter is to see the beautiful view of Liberty City from above. There are no planes in GTA4, but that's just one less awful controlling flying machine to deal with. If your too lazy to drive, Niko can always take the subway and, new to the GTA series, can actually hail down cabs to take him to destinations. It should be noted that you can change your controls for vehicles to classic GTA controls (X to accelerate and all that jazz) and even enable SIXAXIS motion controls for them, complete with a tutorial on how to use them. Yeah…just stick to the sticks, you'll be much happier.

Not only did driving get a overhaul, but so did combat. Niko's basic hand-to-hand combat goes as follows: hold L2 to lock-on to your opponent, and use square, triangle, and circle to throw punches and kicks. Holding X will cause Niko to go into a defensive stance, while pressing x and timing it with an opponents strikes will cause Niko to dodge the attack, and following up with an attack button will cause Niko to unleash some red army **** on his foe. Hand-to-hand works well enough, even though timing enemy attacks for dodges and counterattacks can be tricky. However, the main event occurs when Niko gets a hold of some guns. They're less guns available to Niko than his Vice City and San Andreas cousins, but with the new controls he really won't need anymore. Some of you may miss taking a mini-gun to a crowd of people or chopping people up with a katana, but I'm sure you'll get over it. Anyway, Niko can hold one of two different types of guns of each class (handgun, shotgun, machine gun, assault rifle, etc.) and equip them with left or right on the d-pad. You can also quick-equip a certain class of weapon by holding the L1 button and pressing the corresponding d-pad direction. Once equipped, your main aiming button is L2 and pressing it lightly will cause you to enter free aiming mode where you use the right stick to aim at what you want dead or destroyed. If you want to keep it simple you can press L2 down all the way to activate lock-on, which will allow you to see your foes health and cycle through threats with the right stick. You can then fire at your weapon with the R2 button and zoom in with certain weapons by clicking R3. Like driving, this may take all of three seconds to get used to, but once you do you'll be taking down battalions of gangsters in no time. The biggest change to combat however is the inclusion of the new cover system similar to the one seen in Uncharted.. Niko can take cover behind pretty much any flat surface (including vehicles) that he can find by pressing R1 in close vicinity of them. He can also slide from cover to cover by pointing the stick in the cover's direction and pressing R1 again. From behind cover, Niko can do pop-out shots and blind fire to easily pick off foes. The cover system may not be as fluid as Uncharted and can sometimes stick Niko to some awkward surfaces, but it does it's job well enough. If I had one complaint, it's that the weapon leveling system from San Andreas is gone. As a matter of fact, the only thing you can customize about Niko is his clothes. Gyms, car customization, and tattoos and such I can live without, but I would of liked to level up weapons so Niko could have better accuracy with them or go duel-fisted with handguns.

GTA4 flows pretty much just like it's predecessors: go to someone who has a mission for you, watch a cut-scene to see what you have to do, go to the place where the deed must be done, do the deed, possibly watch another cut-scene, and collect big bucks. The typical GTA HUD by default now only shows the mini GPS in the lower left corner with points of interests and such marked. Rockstar obviously wanted you to see more of the game world, but you can always bring up additional info like money and car name and such by hitting down on the d-pad. You can bring up an entire map of Liberty City by pressing start, and you can put waypoints on this map. A cool new feature in GTA4 is that when you put a waypoint on the map, you'll get a GPS route to follow to the waypoint on your mini GPS. You'll also get the routes when going to places during missions. It's a very helpful feature, even though it doesn't always present the fastest way to your target. There are about 80-90 regular story missions in GTA4, and all of them are a blast to do (except for the crappy helicopter one). Whether it's chasing someone at full speed or getting into full-on shootouts, GTA4 never has a dull moment. Truth be told, a majority of the missions in the game have you taking out people will lots of firepower, and I can see how some people may see this as repetitive. However, thanks to a great combat system and some pretty decent AI, I can't see how anyone can find the firefights boring. There is still a good variety to the missions though, and those that don't end in gunfire are still pretty cool. I should point out that cops are also handled a little differently in GTA4. When you get a wanted level (still represented by 1-6 stars) a circled area will appear on your mini GPS, along with the positions of the nearest cop cars. If you can escape the circled area and stay out of the cops sight for a little bit, your wanted level will disappear. The higher the wanted level, the larger the circled area and the more aggressive the cops will pursue you. Thankfully, Pay n' Sprays still exist to help you out, and you can even escape from the cops if they're about to bust you by running away from them at the last second, however this raises your wanted level. It should also be noted that the military is no longer called out when you have a six star wanted level, instead NOOSE (a heavily armed SWAT team) is called out instead to neutralize your ass. Basically that means no tanks, sorry folks :(

Of course, it wouldn't be GTA without extra-curricular activities. Niko can take a break from his difficult journey by going bowling, playing darts or pool, watching some (hilariously well done) TV shows at his safehouses, surfing the fake in-game internet at net cafes (also very well done), seeing a show, getting drunk, going to a strip club, and various other time wasters that put Wii mini-game collections to shame. However, Niko doesn't have to do this alone, as he can take friends and even dates out to have fun with him. Early in the game, Niko gets his very own cellphone he can use at anytime by pressing up on the d-pad. Niko will constantly get calls on his phone from his contacts to do inform him of his missions, but some of his contacts will eventually become friends, allowing you to take them out for a good time. Whether they call you or you call them, taking out friends will raise their respect level for Niko, which in turn can allow Niko to use their special abilities, For example, getting Little Jacob's respect level up allows you to call him to send a car out to Niko filled with weapons he can buy, while Dwayne can send a couple of his boys to back you up on missions. Same thing goes for dates, such as Carman's ability to give you a health boost just by calling her (you also have the added bonus of possibly getting into your date's pants after a few dates). It's also a good idea to go out with friends because Niko sometimes talks about his personal life to them, which helps flesh out his character. Niko's phone can also be customized with themes and ringtones later on in the game, and can also be used to instantly retry missions if you fail them. This coupled with the new autosave after every mission makes for a couple of nice new features indeed. I also want to point out that if you get wasted the hospital no longer takes your weapons, but they do take about ten grand from you. Well, it's a good thing you'll be earning quite a bit of money, as some of the latter missions can get quite difficult.

There is one more big addition that GTA4 has made to the franchise: online multiplayer. To access the multiplayer, you load up a single player game, bring up Niko's phone, and choose the multiplayer option. From here you can create your online character, start a quick match or custom match, choose a game type, and your off. Up to sixteen players can do battle or join forces in some really fun game types, however the biggest draw to the multiplayer is that all modes take place on one map: Liberty City. That's right, the entire city is your playground, many weapon pick-ups litter the streets, and all of GTA's rules apply. I haven't played every mode, but the matches and modes I did play (pretty much lag-free BTW) were pretty damn fun. Deathmatch and team deathmatch seem like whole different beasts in the GTA universe; Cops N' Robbers has one team having to take the boss (a randomly selected player) to the airport before the cops (the other team) take out the boss; GTA race is like playing Mario Kart…with actual weapons and the ability to jack any vehicle (including your opponents); Mafiya work has players completing to complete missions before other do, by any means necessary; Turf war is the “Zones” mode of GTA online, where two teams duke it out to take control of areas of LC; Hangman's NOOSE, where four players work together to keep NOOSE from taking out a mob boss. However, the best mode in my opinion is free mode: sixteen players, all of Liberty City, no rules, no time limits, do whatever the hell you want! You can use this mode to create your own fun-filled GTA games with your friends (who you can invite to matches using the cell phone). May I suggest holding a destruction derby at the Triangle in Algonquin, or see how long you and your buds can hold off a six star wanted level, or play chicken on a random city street to see who fly the farthest out of their windshield, or maybe even see who can jump off of the tallest building in LC and land on top of a car on the street that other players have placed down there. Even more awesome, pretty much every game mode can be fully customized by the host. Everything from limiting the action to certain sections of the city, taking the cops out, the density of traffic and pedestrians, weather conditions, time limits, auto-aim, voice chat, etc can be changed to fit your match. Doing good in the multiplayer modes will earn your character money, and collecting enough money will unlock new items for your character. The game also supports overall and separate game mode leaderboards. It may not be the best multiplayer around (it's going to be VERY hard to de-throne COD4), but those looking for something completely different and fun need look no further than GTA4.

HELLA SWEET GRAPHICS

Not only is Liberty City the most detailed open-ended world every, but thanks the Euphoria game engine, it's also the best looking and most interactive. Building and environments all look completely different from each other and have excellent texture work. Cars are pretty highly detailed (you can actually see the threads on the tires!), and the car damage system is the best I have ever seen (even the tiniest scratch can be seen!). The high detail goes for all the different modes of transportation available in LC. Some people seem to complain about scenery and such in the distance being blurry, but it's an artistic choice that Rockstar also used in San Andreas, same with the nice motion blur when your going top speed down a highway or street. Ragdoll physics now apply to all human characters, which not only makes things more hilarious, but makes taking guys out look a whole lot better than just seeing them fall flat on their faces. Animations have also been upgraded and make past GTA's look foolish. Weapons and their effects look great, as does blood as it splatter realistically everywhere and even appears on Niko's clothes when he takes too much damage. Explosions in particular look extremely nice, and I must say that the water in the game is the most impressive I have seen since Half-Life 2. Cut-scenes, as always, are phenomenal, and character models are very detailed and impressive. Even the less-detailed pedestrian models look good, and it will be very hard to spot the same model recycled in the city, as almost everyone has their own unique look to them. However, it's the little things that are the most impressive in GTA4. Run over a fire hydrant and water sprouts out, hit a newspaper stand and paper goes flying everywhere, walk past a dumpster or trashcan and see the little flies buzzing around them, walk on a cardboard box and see it react just like a walking-on cardboard box should, notice the cracks in the building you just made when you hit it with a car, I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. All this runs in 720p, or even 1080p if you deselect 720p from you PS3 display menu.

However, there are still some small problems. While the framerate runs at a tolerable level most of the time, it can chug and freeze for split seconds, particularly when being chased by many cops. The game also could use some better anti-aliasing in certain parts, especially during some cut-scenes. Also, while pop-in has definitely been reduced from previous GTA games, you'll still notice it from a time to time.

Overall though, Rockstar has outdone themselves. Not the best looking game I've seen (Uncharted still holds that title for now) but still highly impressive.

HELLA SWEET SOUND

All GTA games have a mighty impressive soundtrack for their in-game radio stations, and GTA4 is no exception, boasting over 200 songs. Sixteen different music stations and three very funny talk radio stations, each with their own DJs and imaging, are here for you listing pleasure. For me, however, GTA4's soundtrack isn't the best in the series by far. Being a pretty big fan of rock and pop, only the classic rock station offered some choice cuts for me to enjoy (“Edge Of Seventeen”, “Mama”, and “1979” to name a few). There are other good tracks on some of the other stations, but overall I didn't find much to like. I do understand though that peoples tastes in music are pretty hard to judge, so I'll just say that GTA4's collection of songs is mighty impressive and should cater to just about everyone (being a big fan of 80's music, Vice City and VC Stories still remain my favorite GTA soundtracks).

Voice acting and dialogue, whether it be from the main characters or stuff on the radio or pedestrians on the street, is easily the best out of all the GTA games and may just be one of the best out of any video game. There are literally thousand of lines of dialogue in GTA4. Looking over the main cast list, you'll see that Rockstar opted to go with professionals rather than have a star-studded cast to better convey the emotions and actions of the characters, which is definitely a great decision on their part (however, looking over the cast of TV shows, DJs and radio shows and you'll probably spot some familiar names). Sound effects and such also get the job done rather well, especially in DD 5.1 sound. Not much more I can say, other than it's (broken record time) mighty impressive.

HELLA SWEET GAME IN DA HOUSE…G-DOGS!! (I'M AN ASS)

Easily the longest GTA game yet, completing the story mode and doing a good amount of side missions took me about 36 hours and about 64% completion of the entire game. Of course, getting 100% in a GTA game requires a huge commitment, and any player can easily accumulate over 100 hours on this game. Not only do you have everything I already described to do, but add in shooting 200 “flying rats”, vigilante missions, assassination missions, unique stunts jumps, and missions from random people you literally meet on the street and you've got a long ways to go. I should also mention that certain parts in the story mode requires you to make certain decisions that can change what happens in the game, so for the first time ever a GTA game has TWO endings. Oh yeah, the whole multiplayer thing should eat up a lot of time as well. Your $60 will be well spent.

Despite some nagging issues that keep it from perfection, Grand Theft Auto 4 is easily Rockstar games finest hour and mostly lives up to all the hype. If your mature enough to handle it, Rockstar's skewered vision of achieving the American dream should be experienced by anyone who calls themselves a gamer.

KEWL
+Phenomenal gameplay
+The greatest open-world ever created for a video game
+Phenomenal story with well-written dialogue
+Graphics, animations, interactivity, and detailed environments are superb
+Very fun and unique online multiplayer
+Large and impressive soundtrack
+Phenomenal voice acting and sound
+Huge amount of replay value

LAME
-Helicopter controls still suck
-Some people may find some missions repetitive
-Some slight tech issues, including framerate, aliasing, and pop-in
-Blowing through the story mode as fast as you can in this game is just…wrong!


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/14/08

Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (US, 04/29/08)


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