Review by comebackking1

"A modern gaming marvel, but what keeps it from perfection?"

Grand Theft Auto IV is the sixth entry in the storied free-roaming franchise. It ups the graphics, presents a well-written tale of greed and torment, revamps the control scheme, and marks the debut of online play in the GTA universe. What is ultimately an excellent game is marred by some technical issues, and a step backwards from its predecessor, San Andreas.

A Tale of Inner Torment

Grand Theft Auto IV features one of the better written stories in modern gaming. It's the story of a Slavic immigrant, Niko Bellic. Fresh off the boat, Niko finds himself in Liberty City, his cousin, Roman, is the only friend he has. What begins as a reunion of two cousins quickly turns into a tale of greed as Niko and his cousin struggle to rise from the slums of Liberty City. Along the way, Niko will experience great betrayals, death, and tortuous choices. Who should die? To kill or not to kill? These are just some of the dilemmas facing the protagonist. As the story progresses, the player will learn much about Niko's past, and discover what a tortured soul he is. The decisions Niko must make don't have a great outcome on the game itself, but you really get a sense of the pure hell he's involved in as he makes some gut wrenching choices. The story really falls just a bit short of perfection, as I felt the story fizzled out during the latter fourth of the game. However, everyone's mileage will vary.

The View of the Skyline

How fitting that a game as epic as GTA IV is set in the most famous, bustling city in the world. I'm talking the fictitious New York City, also known as Liberty City. Rockstar has really gone above and beyond in rendering this gorgeous expanse of a city. Every street, every building has been crafted with loving detail. The draw distance is fantastic, and the skyline is visible from great distances away. Graphically speaking, my first drive through Times Square may have been the most breathtaking moment I've ever experienced.

The characters and traffic animate extremely well, thanks to the new Euphoria Engine. The sheer amount of activity taking place at any one time is simply mind numbing. Pedestrians fill the sidewalks, while traffic congests the streets. People interact with each other, be it talking on cell phones, fighting, ordering food from a vendor, or checking their rear view mirror. They react realistically (and often hysterically) to anything out of the ordinary. Cars driving on sidewalks, gunshots, repeated horn honking…the list goes on and on. Liberty City really feels like a live interactive city. Kudos to Rockstar for creating such a realistic, if satirical, environment.

Unfortunately, a few bugs and glitches subdue the perfect fantasy. As the amount of activity onscreen increases, so too does the chance that the frame rate will become unstable. It doesn't always happen, but it really hampers the experience when it does. Secondly, there are instances where an unseen item will become visible…right before you smack into it. Pop-ups aren't extremely common, but it can be annoying if that object is a tree, and it causes an untimely death, during the latter part of a particularly challenging mission. Finally, the game can completely crash on occasion. It doesn't seem very prevalent, and in fact, I personally, never experienced such a crash, but it is real and must be acknowledged. However, both Sony and Microsoft are working toward a crash free game, and with downloadable patches in the future, this may become a non-issue.

The Sounds of the City

New York City is the most restless city in existence and, so too, is Liberty City. The good folks at Rockstar have crammed an unprecedented amount of dialogue into the game. People will react to your (and others) behavior. Bump into a pedestrian, and you're likely to get a profanity laced tirade, while honking at a roadside hooker may yield a softer, more seductive tone. All the while cars are honking, police sirens howling, and vendors are peddling their wares. Sometimes you must simply stop and marvel at everything that is happening simultaneously.

Most of the voice acting in this game is top notch. On one end of the spectrum you have the third-rate, forced voices of Final Fantasy X, on the other you have this game. I wouldn't call it perfection, but you'd be hard pressed to find another game that delivers such consistent quality in its dialogue. That attention to detail goes along way toward giving the story credence, and embrangling the player into Niko's world.

Of course, no GTA game would be complete without the radio stations, and GTA IV is chocked full of them. There are 19 stations in all, 16 featuring both licensed and original tracks, with the other 3 containing the satirical humor that has become the trademark of the series. While the game does feature over 200 songs, this seems to be a low point for the series. I personally found this soundtrack bland and uninspiring; it really lacked memorable tracks, especially compared to its predecessors. Naturally, everyone has an array of different tastes, and personal preference will be the determining factor here. I strongly recommend researching the game's track list if the music is of importance in your buying decision. In the end, this represents a minor gripe, in an otherwise masterful job in the game's audio department.

Running the Streets Never Felt so Good

A great looking game is only as successful as the precision of the gameplay it offers. Thankfully, GTA IV plays incredibly well with only some minor imperfections. Many of the games mechanics remain unchanged. Stealing a car and running will come naturally to GTA veterans. Both shooting and driving have now been mapped to the right trigger. It allows for extra precision in that it acts as a gas pedal; pushing it lightly will result in a cruising speed, while “flooring it” will accelerate your vehicle to a more lightning fast pace. Driving is largely a balancing act, because the higher the speed, the more difficult it is to maintain control. Try turning while going full speed and you could spin around multiple times, smack into a telephone pole, or even flip the car. The game really punishes wreckless driving (realistically) and forces the player to balance the risk and reward of taking a turn at such a high speed.

Rockstar has also revamped the gunplay. As many recent shooters have implemented effective cover systems, so too has GTA IV. It becomes essential in the heat of a firefight to get behind cover and methodically destroy your assailants. Failure to do so will often result in Niko's untimely death, and ultimately the repeating of a mission. The pressure sensitive aiming system works really well too. Pressing the trigger half way allows for a free aim system, increasing the precision of your shots, while a full depression will allow you to target a specific enemy and open fire at your leisure. It can be difficult to switch targets quickly, but it's not bad with some practice. PS3 players even have the option to reload using the Sixaxis functionality of the PS3, however, 360 users will find no trouble reloading on the fly. The only real detriment is a sometimes uncooperative camera. It doesn't always provide an optimum angle during a firefight or a run from the cops. It will likely cause some frustrating deaths from time to time; however, it can be managed with practice. Overall the combat controls really place you into the heat of the battle and allow for the most immersive GTA game yet.

Many of the games mechanics are centered around the new cell phone. Though introduced first by Saints Row, the phone does an excellent job of being a sort of hub for many of the games missions. Throughout the game, various people will call you to do their dirty work, hang out, or leave you a text message. It's also acts as a portal for the game's online multiplayer (more to come on that). While all of this is cool, unfortunately, you really cannot call anyone back, unless you are at a point in the story that warrants it. It's minor, and yet I felt that this detail didn't mesh with the effort and care that the rest of the game received.

While GTA IV made some wonderful improvements to a slightly stale series, it didn't come without sacrifice. Veterans of San Andreas will recall an almost RPG like stats system that allowed the player to increase their skill in different areas of the game. Anything from driving skill to weapon skills could be improved. As the game progressed, your driving skills improved, making handling of the car easier, while continued use of a particular weapon would yield increased accuracy, faster reloading, and for some weapons, the ability to dual-wield. Sadly, all of that has gone by the wayside, and quite inexplicably so. It rewarded players for practicing particular skills and encouraged more free-roaming and completion of side missions. Also gone is the ability to control your characters fitness level. Player's were allowed to mold their character as they saw fit. Want to be a fat criminal or a well-chiseled malefactor? That is no longer a choice afforded to the player. It really represents a large step back in a series that thrives on evolution.

The City is in an Uproar

Online multiplayer makes its debut in GTA IV, and it's a darn good first offering. It features free-roam, death matches, and an array of other offerings. It's fairly easy to find a game, and the experience is largely lag free. The game supports up to 16 players simultaneously, and needless to say, the amount of potential havoc increases exponentially as more players join the foray. All weapons are available from the outset, as well as cars, boats, and choppers. The online is really only limited by one's own imagination; it's hard to imagine not having fun in this sort of environment. An online coop mode, to progress through the story would have been a welcome addition, but its absence is by no means a deal breaker. GTA IV is one of the premier online experiences available on any console.

Extras

GTA IV is packed with extra activities that are both completely optional and fairly enjoyable. You can surf a fictitious internet, and discover hilarity on the many fake sites. There are full episodes of television shows made specifically for this game. Mini-games, such as darts, bowling, or pool are available to partake in with in game friends and love interests. There are fifty stunt jumps and 200 flying rats to kill for the completionists out there. The average player will take between 25-40 hours of play to complete the story, while achieving 100% can last for weeks. With two different endings available, many will traverse the trials and tribulations a second time, and make all the opposite decisions, just to see the change in outcome. Coupled with the online functionality, the replayability is very high.

Veteran players may find this game slanted toward the easy end of the spectrum. You will undoubtedly die a few times, and the camera will cause a few more, but the game is largely pretty easy. The missions themselves can get quite repetitive, particularly in the latter half of the game. That's not to say that there aren't some truly memorable endeavors; I just felt that more diversity in mission types was essential. It also seems as if many missions offer less freedom of choice and follow more of a scripted path than in the past. Many times you will be tasked with assassinating a particular person, and find a way to exterminate them quickly. Unfortunately, if there is a pre-scripted cutscene involving that character, then you will automatically fail the mission. It's really inexplicable that such a problem would occur in this the sixth installment. The only purpose it serves is to frustrate the player, and to artificially lengthen some missions.

The Final Verdict

Grand Theft Auto IV is a game of epic proportions. The graphics are superb, the story is largely phenomenal, the sounds are excellent and really bring the city to life, the controls are excellent, and the online multiplayer is a blast. Some glitches, an anti-climactic ending, a somewhat weak soundtrack, and the removal of some elements that made San Andreas great, keep the game from achieving perfection. The level of gore, profanity, and violence make it essential to keep the game out of a child's hands, but for those mature enough to digest the content, Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the defining games that no player should miss. It's an expression of quality and sets a precedent for modern gaming. Don't let it pass you by!


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/22/08, Updated 06/04/08

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


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