Review by Osafune2
"GTA starts to feel a wee bit old"
Perhaps the most controversial and successful video game franchises of all time has finally been dragged on to the current generation of gaming consoles in the form of Grand Theft Auto IV. The "IV" in the title may seem strange to anyone who is aware of the four GTA games released on PS2 and PSP in the gap between GTA 3 and this game, but illogical sequel numbering should not surprise any Resident Evil fans playing GTA IV.
You play as Niko Bellic, from an unspecified country in Eastern Europe that has been ravaged and impoverished by war. He has left to join his apparently affluent cousin Roman who has been pursuing the American dream in Liberty City for some time now. After hopping off a boat and being greeted by his cousin, Niko quickly discovers that Roman is a deadbeat loser who has lost all of his money gambling and lives in a dingy apartment rather than the mansion he boasted about and he runs a Taxi service to get by, hardly the life of luxury Niko was promised. After attempting to help clear Roman of his gambling debt, Niko gets further entwined into the grim underworld of Liberty City, going from one crime boss to another as he ascends the ladder and tries to make a better life for him and his family.
This all sounds rather typical of a GTA game but it should be known that the storyline in GTA IV is exceedingly good and very compelling. As is usually the case with Rockstar, the voice acting and the script are both fantastic; the characters have well fleshed out personalities and the dialogue is fast, witty and realistic, its like watching a Tarantino film at times. Niko is easily the best protagonist the series has seen, he is far more "real" and human than the others. Tommy Vercetti and CJ were hardened criminals, but Niko harbours a contempt and loathing of the criminal world he is embroiled in and the people he is working for, and a deep cynicism of the so called "American Dream." He feels more disconnected from the criminal lifestyle than previous protagonists, carrying out his tasks purely to aid his family or to help friends to whom he is fiercely loyal. The result of this is that you want Niko to succeed and he anchors the player among a sea of bizarre and eccentric characters that populate Liberty City. If there was a criticism to be made of the main story, and there is, it would be that many of the missions are rather repetitive, usually something along this lines of "This guy double-crossed me, go and kill him." The variation comes from who you need to kill, where you kill him and how.
Nevertheless the story is by far the most involving of the series, even adding in a little romance to try and hook you emotionally and it will keep you anxiously playing through to the end. You can expect a good twenty five hours of gameplay from GTA IV, and that is from the main story alone, there are numerous side missions for you to pursue and other tasks such as racing and taxi driving in order to earn cash and other rewards. The vigilante missions have improved, with you accessing the police computer to search for details on wanted criminals to track down rather than the irksome and repetitive, not to mention difficult, car chases in previous games.
The core gameplay is the same as it always has been in the series; you're given a large city full of cars to hijack and drive, weapon shops to purchase ordinance from pedestrians to murder in the most creative ways you can dream up. The violence is more visceral and realistic than in previous games where it was often exaggerated and cartoon. You can't kick someone and have them fly several feet through the air this time, there is merely a satisfying thud and you can't easily kill someone with your fists as you could in previous games. The new physics engine is a delight with gut churning ragdoll acrobatics when you slam into a group of parkstrollers with your Jeep and your victims will react realistically depending on where you place your shots; shooting someone in both knees often results in them crawling away feebly for example.
As fun as it is there is always a sense of deja vu whenever you're playing GTA IV as, snazzy new physics engine aside, there isn't actually a whole lot more that is drastically new. In many respects there is less in this game than there was in San Andreas, which had huge sprawling areas of countryside to drive through and there are also no areoplanes in the game, which is a shame, as I spent hours divebombing CJ into buildings from as high as I could possibly fly. The expansive character customisation has been removed from the series as well, and there are only a few outfits available in the game and the RPG elements have been done away with to attract more mainstream gamers.
You can't control a gang and claim territories either, and my biggest complaint is the removal of the "Tycoon" aspect of gameplay. In Vice City you could take over the city and run all the businesses and take a cut of the profits from each venture. It gave the game a great longevity beyond the completion of all the missions, and frankly, that longevity is missing from GTA IV. I quickly became bored of the game after I had finished the main story. The only other thing there is to do is scour the city for about ten million pointless collectibles, and you're only going to bother doing that if you absolutely MUST have every achievement in the game.
Another detrimental aspect of the gameplay is how easy the game is. There are one or two missions that can prove tricky, but the vast majority of the missions are extremely easy and somewhat repetitive. The targeting system has improved massively from previous games, allowing you to lock on and the carefully aim at different body parts but this makes getting headshots on every enemy in the room extremely simple; you will often clear a room in seconds and triumph over hordes of machine gun wielding thugs when you're armed with a mere pistol. In addition to this, outrunning the police is much easier. I always wanted them to make evading the police easier in GTA as a two star wanted level could take ages to evade in previous games, but they have gone too far in GTA IV. There is a "wanted zone" which amounts to a small circle that you just have to drive out of and wait for a bit before the police give up the chase. Imagine someone killing thirty people just down the street, then stealing a car and driving maybe a mile down town and waiting ten minutes for the police to get tired and go home. Evading three and even four stars is no longer the challenge that it was. You will go for a VERY long time without ever being busted in this game.
The big new addition to the game is arguably the worst. For the first time in GTA, you are required to maintain a social life. Periodically, your fat cousin Roman or another contact will call you and want to go bowling, go to a strip club, play darts, pool or go and see a show. This is not even remotely fun, it is simply annoying but something you have to do in order to obtain rewards and bonus services from each person such as new weapons and ammo from Little Jacob or the ability to call a cab from anywhere in the city from your cousin if they like you enough. After a while, I got sick of this and basically didn't answer my phone because I couldn't be bothered to go and play darts for the ten millionth time or go and visit a strip club on the other side of the city.
I can see that there has been a lot of effort put into this aspect of gameplay, its one redeeming feature is that you can go and see a short skit from Ricky Gervais at a comedy club or some weird magician shows. They are an amusing distraction, but unless you are weird and enjoy doing things that are repetitive and not fun, you are going to hate the new forced social life.
Having an Xbox Live membership is a must have to prevent a great deal of boredom after completion. Considering that this game is Rockstar's first real foray into online gaming, they really have set the bar high for future efforts. Upon connection, you are greeted with a plethora of game modes; you can play a standard death match where you try and kill each other throughout the city, a cops and robbers game where two teams try to kill each other, races where you can use weapons to disrupt your opponents and kill each other and a mode where you race to perform certain objectives whilst killing each other. It is a very fresh and new approach to online gaming, especially considering the vast amount of FPS games with standard death match modes that festoon the Xbox 360 game library. Rockstar have really proved what we always knew: multiplayer GTA would be awesome.
I've already praised the new physics engine and I suppose it's about time I said something about the graphics. In most open ended video game worlds, say, in Elder Scrolls IV for example, you can concede the odd frame rate problem, instance of pop-up or dodgy texture when you consider the vast scope of the world and its content. The same can be said for GTA IV... Or not. I can honestly say that the graphics are consistently brilliant, there is barely any frame rate issues apart from during the fiercest of fire fights and loading times are virtually non-existant. It is quite a remarkable achievement. The animation and detail on the characters is outstanding, you can almost feel Niko's stubble or the sweat running down Roman's face. Even the standard NPCs are well animated and detailed.
Rockstar really put a lot of effort into the presentation of their games and you can really only praise them. The radio stations are again, simply fantastic and Rockstar have chosen songs from every genre that fit the game perfectly. In addition to this, the public radio is again very well written and recorded, not to mention amusing and while it may not be as brilliant as Maurice Chavez on VCPR, it is well worth listening to as you cruise the streets of Liberty City.
While there is no doubting that GTA IV is a fun and enjoyable game, it still feels like a bit of a disappointment. For every step forward it takes a step back, there are some great new features present in the game but also there are some great features from old games that are missing. We've seen a lot of it before, the free roaming and driving around killing people hasn't been expanded upon enough to prevent it getting tiresome after a couple of hours and after the main storyline the game just gets boring. It seems like Rockstar are too wary of attracting controversy to have included the ability to hack people to death with garden shears or handglide across the sky taking pot shots at terrified pedestrians, you know, something crazy and wacky like you'd get in the old games. The new gritty, realistic approach with great graphics and a well written, immersive storyline is very welcome but it doesn't hide the fact that for the first time, GTA is starting to get little bit old.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 02/12/09, Updated 02/17/09
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (EU, 04/29/08)
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