Review by AK_the_Twilight

"King of the Sandbox"

Gamers have long since come to know a great game title from expansive series and characters. Mario, Sonic, Link, Master Chief, and many more run the gauntlet, but the Grand Theft Auto series has become the poster-child of mature-rated shenanigans of interactive entertainment. It's come a long way since the top-down, free-roaming Playstation series to its widely-recognized rebirth on the Playstation 2. Grand Theft Auto III was a beast of a game. The widely-regarded “sandbox” title became commonplace in many other games. After two new adventures under Vice City and San Andreas, gamers everywhere wished for a GTA game for next-generation consoles. GTA IV became a hot topic in game stores everywhere, becoming incredibly anticipated. A bigger city and an interesting protagonist teased fans and in April of 2008, the game to “redefine the sandbox series” hit stores. Does GTA IV's car-stealing, pedestrian-beating, online-surfing brand of game design march its way to true perfection?

Grand Theft Auto IV takes place in a revamped, fully-realized Liberty City, the same burg from Grand Theft Auto III for the Playstation 2. Off the boat from his homeland in Eastern Europe is immigrant Niko Bellic, a war veteran who travels to America to obtain the long-sought-after “American Dream.” The struggling newcomer only has his cousin Roman on his side upon his arrival. To make matters worse, Niko finds out that the so-called “American Dream” promised to him by his cousin is currently unattainable. After settling into a home and learning the ropes of Liberty City, Niko is set off in the city to get jobs, talk to women, and work his way up to fame and fortune. The story is actually wonderfully presented, but the most interesting aspect of the story itself is Niko himself. Compared to the devil-may-care attitudes of previous GTA protagonists, Niko is easily the most conflicted. He actually feels bad about some of the crimes he commits and manages to blur the gap between the good and bad in humanity today. Unlike other GTA protagonists, Niko is actually a pretty interesting guy. His story is expansive and it mixes him into other situations beyond those that his cousin originally intended. Despite my original questions of whether a GTA story could really get off the ground as strong urban culture, GTA IV delivers thanks to a strong presentation and an unforgettable main character.

After settling into Liberty City, you take control of Niko. The controls are pretty simple, though if you're like me, it may take you a little while to get used to the camera, which can be a small bit sensitive. Hold A to run, B to attack, X to jump, Y to interact with objects. R-Trigger to shoot weapons (which can be cycled through with right and left on the D-Pad). Fortunately, the game isn't too difficult and there's plenty of breathing room between the battles, so you aren't rushed to learn the controls too much. New to the controls is a cover system, where Niko can sidle up against a wall with the right bumper. This does make the combat smoother, and although it doesn't reach the cover-happy insanity of Gears of War, is pretty fun to implement.

But you don't play Grand Theft Auto games for the controls. Well, you do, but…never mind. The point is that Grand Theft Auto IV is the latest installment in the long-running sandbox series, the select video game title that let you go where you want, do what you want at your own pace, and quite frankly, there's a lot of stuff to do in Liberty City this time around. Many of the similar missions are here: killing a thug who robbed a crime boss, tracking drug dealers, racing missions, and many, MANY more are all here. There's a slew of minor tweaks to gameplay like surfing the internet, talking with many different clients and their occupations, and simply exploring the city, gun or baseball bat in-hand. The missions are plentiful and tend to crossover frequently. Different missions trigger different cutscenes and the player will frequently be forced to choose which client to talk to first. This ambiguity of the main story makes playing through Niko's narrative a blast and even allows for multiple endings. Rockstar still has mastered the sandbox title, and though offering different missions and objectives at once can be a bit overwhelming, there's still a remarkable amount of things to do in Liberty City. But it doesn't stop there.

Niko keeps in contact with his friends and acquaintances with his cell phone, which can be accessed by pressing up on the D-pad. The cell phone can be used in a variety of ways: to set up a date, call the cops on some random thug on the street, or to immediately replay a mission you failed. Another new addition is avoiding the cops. Now in GTA IV, when Niko breaks the law (which can be something as simple as nudging a cop car to the more complex gunning down of pedestrians) a radius appears. Niko must travel outside the radius while not meeting up or being seen by the cops, otherwise the chase continues. When you reach a safe distance (or in selective areas of the city) Grand Theft Auto IV has plenty of things to do and generally is greater than the sum of its parts, but while these different activities in-game are fun, they never seem to push the envelope that way that the original did. The city is huge and exploration-based, but like many other big-name games, doesn't quite deliver the innovation and mostly relies on content and minor compliments to gameplay.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had a slim multiplayer, but IV trumps it in absolutely every way. You can access multiplayer using the cell phone anytime and you can select different game types from an easy-to-navigate menu. Once you enter the battle, nearly all of the fun gameplay elements of the series are in full-effect. Hopping fences, gunning down pedestrians, and the ever popular hijacking element let you take on your friends and rivals with just enough pizzazz and skill as in the single-player. The different weapons are balanced and the ability to navigate the city with such seamlessness makes the multiplayer easy to jump into and darn near impossible to put down. Although I had many doubts as to the series' power in the online multiplayer ring, GTA IV is living proof of a successful and balanced sandbox multiplayer setup. Rockstar would be foolish to forget the multiplayer in future installments, because in GTA IV, it's one of the most enjoyable moments in the entire franchise.

Graphically, Grand Theft Auto IV hits a few snags along the way. Though the series has made progressions since its departure from the Playstation 2 to the Xbox 360, the game still doesn't manage to look as great as other Xbox 360 games. Landmarks fade in regularly, but every now and then, you'll see a landmark pop into view. This isn't a serious problem, but it goes to show that there's still some improvement left. However, the lip-synching is well done, and considering that all of Liberty City is fully realized on a single disc, it's easy to note that Rockstar was going for quantity over quality. That isn't a bad thing, considering that the game manages to trump any other sandbox title on the console technically. But if you compare Grand Theft Auto IV with a more graphically-advanced game like Gears of War, you'll see that there is still a ways to go till Liberty City reaches the presentation-pushing monstrousness of the Xbox 360's full potential.

One of the most impressive and resultantly entertaining aspects of GTA IV is the sound design. The voice acting specifically is phenomenal. Niko, Roman, Michelle, and practically every character in the game, from criminal to pedestrian will have something incredibly entertaining to say. The actors put some serious emphasis in each character's role in-game, and the writing is actually pretty funny. Niko's personality is fully fleshed out when he talks it up with his friends and enemies, and compliments the excellent story with some characters with plenty of moxie. The music is also a tremendous step above the previous games in the series, with a huge collection of radio stations with plenty of music choices. If talk radio isn't your thing, listen to reggae, rock, rap, R&B, and a bunch of other stations. I personally found myself listening to the licensed rock of R.E.M. and Smashing Pumpkins on Liberty Rock, but surely everyone will find something to love on the airwaves of Liberty City. You don't find sound design as comprehensive and cared for as the kind in GTA IV, so it's a real treat to see how much sound design can be packed into a single disc. Excellent.

Pros
+ Huge city to explore
+ Plenty of objectives, both storyline and optional
+ Game lets you literally play your way
+ Multiplayer is massive, balanced, and fun
+ Soundtrack and voice acting is stellar

Cons
- Graphics don't match up to games like Gears of War
- Liberty City can be pretty staggering at first
- Controls, though accessible, feel a bit clumsy during combat
- Just doesn't feel next-gen, gameplay wise

Grand Theft Auto has been a series that grabs attention and holds it, and the congratulated series proves that it still has plenty of tricks left to explore, even if it is getting a bit stale. The city is tremendous and is filled with objectives that can be chosen at will; there are practically hundreds of ways to go about your journey in Liberty City. Once you get bored of simple missions and objectives, there's the attacking of computer-generated civilians, hijacking of cop cars, and even the occasional…ahem…date. However, the game just doesn't reach the Pantheon pedestal, mostly because it doesn't revolutionize the gameplay enough. There's a ton of things to do, and nearly all of them have some degree of fun and finesse, but just making the city bigger doesn't deliver what I had originally expected in Grand Theft Auto IV. Regardless of these issues, it's a must-play for any serious gamer of age. The lengthy storyline is filled to the brim with strong presentation values and fun missions, and even once you finish Niko's journey towards the “American Dream,” extra missions with a strong completion percentage score and a balanced and competitive multiplayer component will round out a game with more than enough options. Though GTA IV has long since become the hotly-anticipated title of 2008, it isn't the best. Its minor problems and rather conservative design doesn't break down many doors, but it's extremely difficult to ignore the content and functional new additions. If you're of appropriate age, GTA IV is an absolute must-play. Opportunity and amazement abound in Liberty City, and it waits for no one.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 05/15/08

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


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