Review by Donald Love 87
"An epic tale of crime and corruption in the land of the free"
The Grand Theft Auto series has always been interesting. It started out as a 2D topdown game that was just kind of sneaked out onto the market, where the only way you got to know about it was to hear about it from a friend who told you it was very cool to run over people and flee from the police. A sequel came that was pretty much more of that stuff though a bit more in-depth, and then the PS2-era games came. Three main games, and all sorts of portable versions. This is where it grew huge. With a lot of humor and great criticism and parodies of our society, the PS2 GTA's were more or less a genre of their own. So expectations were sky high when GTA4 was nearing completion. While there's no doubt that the series really took a different turn with this installment, are the changes for better or worse? Or are they just... different?
If I would compare the graphics of this game with any earlier GTA title, it would be GTA2. Sure, there are a lot of differences like this one being full blown 3D and that one being topdown, this being HD while the other running with a pretty low resolution, GTA2 being the future this being 2008. But the overall theme of the graphics are the same - it's dark and gritty. While the earlier games use graphics a bit on the overblown and cartoony side, almost as close to cell shading you'll get without using cell shading, GTA4 is going for another approach. One where most of the city consist of the colors grey, brown and black.
While that might sound a bit boring, it fits well in with the overall theme of the game (more about that in the story section) and helps the game feel fresh considering you already saw much of the same thing during three PS2 games and two PSP versions which also were released for PS2. The characters are looking good and are nicely animated for a large freeroam PS3 game, and I like that even the main characters look like everyday people, like someone you could see walking on the sidewalk if you got a car and drove down the streets of Liberty City. Speaking about cars and other vehicles, they are also really beautiful, especially when driving down a highway during sunset seeing the light reflecting of the chrome. While they're not as detailed as cars in pure racing games, it's outweighed by a nice damage model. Every car falls apart, can get the tires shot out, gas tank and engine takes more damage than the rest of the car. They're just so detailed and look so good, I'm very impressed.
The environments in this game consist only of the different parts of the city, which I'm a bit sad to see since I found the countryside in GTA San Andreas very nice. Here, the closest thing we've got to nature are some parks, and while they look nice, it would've been nice to be able to get away from everything if you wanted. Still, every building is (or at least feels) unique, so at least the city environments won't feel like they're repeating themselves endlessly. The city being so big and detailed comes at a little price too - you'll need to use the map/GPS more than in the earlier games. While I know the whole Liberty City from GTA3 by heart; here I would have trouble just knowing which bridge to get on to get where I should be going. While it's nice to have detail, it loses some of the fun when the game got too big for you to learn every nook and cranny.
Sound effects and music
Since the first GTA, the radio stations have always been one of the really nice things with the series. While the first game only had one or two songs looping per station, and you couldn't pick which one to listen to but instead it was decided by which type of car you used, it's come a long way since then. Progressing through the years, the games got more and more licensed music and longer loops. In GTA4, there are no less than 19 stations, with over 200 hours of music and talking. Though here we have proof that quantity can't really compare with quality. Some of the stations are a pure novelty (Russian pop?), and while there are some small-genre stations where people who are fans of that genre will like, it isn't really something the usual player would listen to. In all the earlier games I've found at least two stations I liked, here I only found Liberty Rock Radio listenable. Another thing, which probably is an attempt to create realism which backfired, is that the stations aren't looping anymore. Now, the song order is random instead of looping, which at least makes it feel like you've heard some songs to death while other songs are underplayed. Even if it would be hard to keep track of all the songs on a station now when there are so many, I still would prefer if it was looping, since then you'd know when you should stay in the car cause something good was coming up.
The GTA games also embraced voice acting very early, and this installment is no exception. While the PS2 versions had some great talents giving voices to the characters (Michael Rapaport, Debbie Harry, Burt Reynolds, Samuel L Jackson to name a few), in this game I don't recognize as many names. I don't know if it's because they actually are less famous, or if it's just me not knowing about them, but I do believe it's the first and that it's done because they wanted the game to be more focused on the story being told instead of you drifting off to think about Smokey and the Bandit just because you hear a voice. There are still some famous people present, but they have small roles or are actually performing as themselves. I think this has been a good trade-off; while the famous actors surely did a good job, these lesser known people make it if not better definitely just as good. What's interesting is that some dialogue is in Serbian, which is only natural to the story, but if you want to understand it you're forced to turn on the subtitles if you are one of those gamers who usually don't. In addition to the major characters, there are also LOTS of voice clips and sounds recorded for the pedestrians, which also sound good even if they sometimes overreact to things. If I saw a car very gently drive up on the sidewalk and accidentally hit a lamp post I wouldn't run screaming in the opposite direction.
Sound effects are pretty hard to say anything about. They're there, and that's it. I think the weapons sound a bit weak, but then again I don't know much about guns so they probably sound like some kind of real gun would. At least it isn't that annoying to listen to. Cars sound good too, and even if the engine sounds actually feels a bit toned-down from the PS2-era games, sport cars still have a nice roar. The best part of the sound effects is the attention to detail - if your ingame cellphone receives a call while listening to radio in the car you get the familiar speaker sound. When driving through the tunnel you get some audio glitches on the radio. Those kind of details are what makes this feel like a real city, a real experience instead of just a game.
First of all we need to get one thing straight before going to the story - this is a reboot of the series. While the PS2-era games all took place in the same world, they were full of cross references to each other, recurring characters and storyline tie-ins. Here, it's a complete restart; Liberty City has been redrawn, cars have been redesigned and all characters are new. The only references to earlier games you'll see are some vehicle names and mission names, but it's more of easter eggs to fans of the series than something to tie them to each other. Now let's get on with starting up the game.
During the introduction cutscene, the first thing you'll see is a boat, where a lot of things seems to be going on. Somebody has a diamond. Some people talk about how their new life is going to be. That boat is just about to make a stop in Liberty City, and there's where Niko Bellic, a war veteran from a poor country in eastern Europe, gets off. On the quay his cousin Roman is waiting for him. Full of optimism and the promise of wealth, Niko is hoping to build a new life with his cousin in the United States. Sadly, this dream is crushed pretty early, since Roman turns out to be a big liar (which Niko kind of suspected, so in reality it was more scepticism than optimism) and the great taxi company he owns is just a small depot that's run very poorly. He's in great debt and has gambling problems. While Roman usually had to take care of himself, and that includes getting beat up sometimes, when Niko arrives he can do nothing else than protect Roman. This turns out to be a bad move since it just leads to more trouble, and deeper criminal involvement for the two cousins, Niko especially. Also, everything is not just about visiting Roman either - Niko also has a personal goal to achieve in Liberty City.
The story in itself is pretty much classic Rockstar/GTA. A lot about revenge and running errands for people, and much of it is just an excuse for doing the missions. But as it should be, the story here isn't really a straight line from A-B, but involves some twists and turns and you'll never really know what will happen in the next cutscene. One thing which I liked in the earlier games return; chain missions (or story arcs, if you'd prefer that) - A couple of missions stringed together building up to the same crime case. It really helps you feel like you're part of a really big plan.
What also really helps up the telling of the story are the different characters. Sure they are as cliched as the story itself, stereotypical, but they're amusing stereotypes and the game actually makes fun of it. One of the people you meet in the beginning is a workout-obsessed steroid junkie, and he behaves just like you think he would (just too much, of everything), and since Niko comments on it you know it's a deliberate thing to have him like that it just makes it fun, especially since the things Niko says are the things we as players think. What's interesting is that Niko is probably the least stereotypical of all characters. While war veterans in videogames usually are these tough-as-stone characters, Niko is actually very down to earth and feels pretty human. He shows love for his family and friends, don't really like violence and he even respects the police - even if he has to shoot at them from time to time. It makes for an interesting change from older GTA characters, and videogame characters in general. Niko doesn't feel cool while killing people, he doesn't enjoy it. They just, sadly, HAD to get in the way while he was doing what he needed to go to get by and provide for himself and his family. He's a well formed character, but it also creates the side effect that going on rampages with an AK in the middle of the city won't be as common in GTA4 as in the earlier games - it would just feel wrong to do something like that as Niko.
One thing that has to be said about this game, while not exactly about story I think it fits best in here, is that the humor from earlier GTA games has been toned down a lot. Instead of being thrown in your face with over-the-top cutscenes and extremely weird characters, here you need to seek it out instead. While there are some fun conversations between Niko and his friends it's still at that level - friendly "joking" conversations among friends, there are no extremes like The Truth or Phil Cassidy. Instead most of the humor in this game has been moved to the in-game internet, and while there is a LOT of satire and parodies there, it does have a different impact when you need to find it yourself. The radio still has it's moments, and some things on the talk radio stations are good, but it's still not as good as Chatterbox in GTA3, for some reason that can't be topped. This is a very personal preference thing if you like it or not, but I think it's a nice change from those earlier games, and it's nice to see it grow up to give us some intelligent parodies and even some deep political satire about modern day America.
I won't go much into the control mapping here, since I haven't used the default control scheme most players will use. Instead, the first thing I did when getting the game was to change to the "Classic" control scheme instead, and it's stayed that way for all my three playthroughs. The classic control scheme is trying to mimic the one of the PS2 GTAs as closely as possible, with some tweaks and changes done to fit with new features, and I think it's a nice choice to have for us veterans.
The response of the controls are good most of the time, but sometimes odd things and glitches can happen, like you falling down if you just walk down the stairs too fast. Sure, it can happen in real life, but not that often, though that's not so bad and it's an understandable glitch in such a large environment. One annoying thing which is a combination between a control and graphics issue is that when driving, the camera is situated too low, meaning you'll have some problems seeing what's in front of you. If you use the in-car view it's no problem, but if you like me prefer 3rd person, even with the camera furthest away you'll still need to hold your thumb on the right stick (used to control the camera) keeping it tilted down a bit. It's a bit irritating that the camera ain't defaulted higher, and even more irritating that you need to keep holding the stick or else it'll revert to it's original position.
One thing which is a bit annoying is how the in-game cellphone is handled too. You mainly use it for two things - calls during story and cheats when just having fun. The problem with the calls is that you get knocked off as soon as you get some damage, mostly that is when walking out on the street and being bumped into by a car. Then there's another case, when you want to go somewhere, hails a cab, phone rings and you answer it; and when you press the button to enter the cab you hang up the phone. In normal cases, that button isn't even used in phone conversations! These both cases can make you miss some important thing during a mission, or more often miss some story details after one. I do get the knocked-off-your-feet thing, it's a reminder to be awake in traffic and can easily be avoided by the player, but not being able to keep the phone up when entering a cab is just strange. Cheats have a similar problem; since they're activated by phone you need to use the phone menus to get to them. Say you want to use the health cheat? Most commonly, that would happen during a shootout. If you get hit while in the phone menu (it doesn't pause the game) you put down the phone and will probably die in the process. Sure, you won't use cheats in normal gameplay, but for rampages they're fun, and that along with Niko's personality is probably what has me just keeping to the story and other intended things in this game.
Another small problem with the controls is that entering a hailed cab is done with the same button as stealing a car, the difference being if you just tap it (steal) or if you hold it (cab). Sometimes, for different reasons, the game can misinterpret your input, and make you steal the cab or a nearby car instead of just entering as a passenger. This is only a problem if there's a police nearby, since if you get seen it's an automatic one-star wanted level. What's interesting is that sometimes you get that even if entering as a passenger, because the games first reaction to the input is steal, and Niko might touch a front seat door before it registers as a passenger entry. The cab driver won't mind, but if a cop is nearby and you're unlucky (it won't happen every time) you'll get a wanted level, and then the cab driver will refuse to drive you anywhere.
I've included some about the gameplay in the story and controls sections, so I hope you haven't just skipped here. Anyways, the basics of gameplay is a third-person freeroam adventure with a lot of shooting and driving included, letting you play on three large islands filled with urban life. There is a storyline to follow, but you've got much freedom to do what you wish in between missions. But if you decide that you want to take on a mission, you'll check your GPS for a letter (which is the first letter of the mission "employers" name) and then get there however you want; walk, take a cab or steal a car, it's up to you. When you get there, a cutscene will activate explaining what you need to do in the mission and why. Upon completing a mission, you'll have advanced the story and usually gained something from it, in most cases money.
Your best friend in this game will be the GPS/map. The GPS circle is always on the screen and shows close points of interest and important things like where mission objectives or employers are, and you can also set a GPS point of your own via the map. When having a mission objective or a waypoint set it'll also highlight the fastest (legal) route to it in your GPS circle. Everything about the map and GPS work fine, though I would have liked if you could set multiple points of interest and keep them for a later date. The GPS and map also plays a pretty central role in police chases; in a game based around criminal activity you're bound to get some heat after you every once in a while. In the earlier games, you could only drive away on lower wanted levels and had to resort to a car respray with anything above two. In this game it's different; when you get a wanted level (ranked from 1-6 depending on your crimes) a "search circle" lights up on the GPS. What you need to do then is to first lose the cops within the circle, and then get out of the area. As long as you're seen, the circle will follow you, and the higher wanted level the bigger circle and more police activity.
There are just under 100 storyline missions in the game, and most of them are revolved around car chases or shooting someone, so if you do many mission in a sitting, you'll start to notice a pattern and grow tired of them. Every once in a while though, you get to a mission where some new one-off game mechanic is introduced, and those really help to lighten everything up a bit. While it's not as varied as the earlier games, it couldn't really be since this game seems to try for a more realistic approach to everything.
When it comes to bonus stuff to do, the choices are a bit fewer than in the late PS2 games. There are two types of car boosting missions, but unlike the earlier games you actually get a specific car to pick up here, which is nice because you won't have to spend over an hour looking for a bus or a flatbed, but it also makes it feel a bit dummied down and not as satisfying when you complete it. "Hidden package" collecting has become a bit annoying too. There are 200 of them, instead of picking them up you have to shoot them, and all you get is one reward. The shooting leads to police chases very often when trying to "collect" them, and the reward you get for all 200 is a special helicopter that's available at another place anyways. Pretty disappointing. Also, since there's no real way of telling exactly which ones you've got (unlike GTA Chinatown Wars wonderful map where you could see everything already obtained) it can lead to the 199/200 syndrome if you're not careful. Not having a map for things already gotten is also a way to lessen the players willingness to explore himself for these things, since you know that you'll need a guide for a few anyways, and since you don't have any markers for already obtained ones you'd probably have to visit the places you already found again just to make sure.
Girlfriends return from San Andreas, along with friend activities. Both work pretty much the same way; you can take your friends or girlfriends out on activities like bowling, dart, pool, drinking, eating or go see a show. Since this game lacks the RPG aspect of SA, you'll have an easier time managing multiple girlfriends at once, since they only think about what clothes you're wearing and where you take them. The activities are nicely done, and has pretty much eliminated the need for dedicated bowling/pool/dart games on the market. Ok, those probably are a bit better, but not so much it's worth the money. Managing your friends and keeping them happy can be a bit of a chore, and they WILL call you sometimes to keep in touch and ask you to do something. Still, it's nothing you have to accept, you always have the choice to decline and lose some friendship points, or accept and then cancel the plans which they, for some reason, always will be fine with.
Overall, the gameplay is a bit more repetitive than in earlier GTA's, but at least I found the cover system very good and the shooting and driving parts actually fun, so as long as I didn't sit for over 3 hours straight, I had really fun while doing it. You might feel very tired of it when shutting of your console, but returning next day you'll enjoy it again.
Online multiplayer is becoming more and more popular (while local multiplayer is dead and buried by now), and Rockstar wasn't late to jump on that trend. There are a lot of game modes available for multiplayer, from standard deathmatches to one where you compete with other players to do mini-missions for the mafia. From car races to cooperative missions. While you sometimes get a feeling that multiplayer was just included because it "has to be that way nowadays", the modes are still pretty well thought out and you should have no problem finding something you enjoy playing if you like the main game.
Overall, I must say that I'm impressed by the community too. Sure, there are some glitccheaters around, but most players are nice. No other game I've played has led to as many friend invites from good people as this one. Sure, you usually don't invite an enemy, but I've played both this, Resident Evil 5 and Red Dead Redemption co-op, and the difference is huge. Also, the kicking system works pretty good, so at least in co-op matches you won't have any clowns running around doing as they please - if you're not serious, you're out.
Just want to send a word of warning out to all you trophy hunters out there (I know there's another term for that, but in this review we're nice to each other) - the multiplayer trophies will be hard. The one for winning every game mode can be easily boosted, but the one for reaching top level in the online ranks will take some long hours of grinding. Everything in the game is measured in money, and the top rank, 10, is awarded to you when you get $5 000 000. Kills in player vs player matches give you $100. Winning a race gives you anything from $250-1000, depending on amount of competitors. Completing a co-op mission successfully is what gives you most; $4500 (with all missions giving you chances to more money when playing). So as you can see, you're going to need to play a lot. It wouldn't be too bad if you had more levels and could unlock more stuff, but here you only get some new clothes for your online character, and at the end it's really long between levels (8 is at $1 000 000, 9 at $2 500 000) making it a real chore. It's probably the only bad thing with multiplayer, and Rockstar probably learned this for Red Dead Redemption, since there you've got 50 levels and you can do stuff alone - here you MUST have either competitors or friends to be able to get anything. This is probably the reason for the friend requests I get, but hey - at least they got us working towards a common goal!
GTA4 is a solid game. It's got a tight story, a nice physics engine and a really big and detailed city to drive around in. Still, it lacks at some points. While the city is big, it's still just city. I would've loved some countryside or just something else - the parks are not enough. The multiplayer is a bit unbalanced between the game modes. The radio stations doesn't feel as tight as earlier games, and compared to earlier games there are less music that I like (though that's very much up to personal taste) in this one. The weapons and vehicles, and characters too for that matter, is much less over-the-top than in the earlier games and are more down to earth and feel realistic, which is also a direction the car handling has gone - skidding all over the place ain't just for Stallions anymore! So my conclusion is that this game isn't better or worse than the PS2 GTA's; it's just focused on other things, and more focused on those things than anything were in any GTA for the PS2. So it ain't better or worse - it IS different!
Overall, this is a solid story of crime and corruption in the land of the free, which is focusing much more on just that story than on extra details, which are in some instances plain strange and stupid. Still, it's no doubt that GTA4 deserves an 8 out of 10.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/21/11
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (EU, 04/29/08)
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