"Two Steps Back, One Giant Leap Forward"

Grand Theft Auto IV has undoubtedly been one of the hyped games of 2007 as well as 2008. From the amazing footage from the trailers, as well as all the rumors circulating message boards about cool new features, people were excited to finally get their hands on this game. With the release of any big game comes the burning question: Was it worth the hype? Being a fairly modest but not diehard fan of the GTA series, I consider GTA a leap in a great new direction, but also takes a few steps back from its predecessor, San Andreas.

In my opinion, this is one aspect that GTA4 greater improves on the other games in the series. Whereas your character generally felt a small piece of the pie, you feel more like you have your own special place within the world, that the storyline characters are interacting with you, and not just you interacting with them.

The story begins with a Serbian Immigrant, Niko Bellic leaving his home country to pursue a better life in America after his cousin Roman writes home about his amazing success there. Immediately coming off the boat, Niko notices that his cousin is not living the glamorous American dream that he so exaggerated in his letters. He soon discovers that it was a complete lie and Roman is in fact living on the edge with gambling, and in heavy debts from some not-so-friendly loaners. It is this that causes Niko to enter a life in crime as he tries to help his cousin Roman escape his hardships.

As you progress deeper into the story, you learn a lot more about Niko's background, and you will come to appreciate his at times dry humor as well as his personality. In many ways you may find yourself relating to him on some levels, and really becoming involved and believing in his cause.

The graphics are a huge step up from the previous GTA games. Whereas GTA3 on the PS2 was never known for its cutting-edge graphics, GTA4 takes full advantage of the PS3 hardware, making a full living, breathing New York City (or rather Liberty City) to explore. One thing I have to mention is the water effects are beautiful and very well done. Both daytime and night time in the city are breathtaking. , especially seeing the city light up at night. Especially going to Liberty City's version of Times Square is simply amazing to watch.

Character details are incredible as well; even pedestrians sport these new and improved graphics. They also did away with the reusing of NPC models. You will most likely not notice running into the same looking pedestrian twice due to different outfits they now wear. Cut scenes are now much more immersive thanks to the new engine. Simple details like a character smoking and leaving smoke trails as he moves his hand around with the cigarette has a certain nostalgia about it. Facial expressions and full motion on characters really helps to immerse you and let you feel people's emotions. It's a big improvement over the blocky and static motions of the old GTA games.

I would highly recommend getting an HDTV to really enjoy the sights of the city in a clear picture.

Getting used to the controls on GTA4 may take awhile for diehard fans of the previous games. There is a completely new control scheme in fact, but fortunately it can be reverted to a classic mode in options. I personally reverted to classic myself. One thing that really annoys me is holding down the X button to run, while you need to tap X to sprint. In previous GTA games it was simply tap X to sprint, while you would run if you held down the analog stick completely. Why they made it X to run is beyond me. That is like taking a step back to a traditional PS1 RPG style.

The new car controls are also much harder to get the hang of. Handling is much more difficult and turning tight corners at high speeds wouldn't happen easily anymore. Breaking at times is often essential to making turns without swerving into a wall or another car. Fortunately you do get used to this eventually.

The camera is also a bit clunky at times and has awkward movements, but again, this is something you will adjust to. Overall the learning curve for the controls is a bit steep for prior GTA players.

Game Play
This is ultimately why people play this game, right? Not so much how pretty the graphics are, or how the storyline is, but just how you can interact with the world in this sandbox type of game. This is ultimately where the game branches off from San Andreas in a few areas, but easily paves the path for new innovative styles of play.

A few particular things they did away with from San Andreas that people may find disappointing was the 'level up' system. What I mean by this is increasing stats such as your stamina, muscle, fat and things like that. You could also level up your driving skill and bike skill over time as well. GTA4 has done away with all of these things, but not necessarily in vein. Eating is no longer required, so it doesn't take away from the game play, but you will find yourself going out to eat as it still offers a cheap way to restore your health. Niko can sprint for a long time as well, which makes any need to level up it quite irrelevant (that's to say how quickly CJ would run out of sprint power without leveling it up).

They also did away with certain things like the Bike, which in my opinion hardly matters as the bike was mainly for increasing your stamina. Motorcycles are still in the game which will fancy your two-wheeled driving crave.

Aside from these things, GTA4 has instead vastly improved over San Andreas game play wise. Everyone enjoyed exploring in door areas around San Andreas, and that has returned in GTA4. You can now venture into many more indoor areas and in some cases do some fun activities as well. There are also no loading times between going indoors and outdoors, which really makes the world feel more dynamic.

To expand upon 'activities' that you are able to do in certain places, mini-games that made San Andreas fun have been increased in GTA4. Pool has made its return, as well as some new additions such as darts and bowling. The new dating system in GTA4 also takes advantage of these, and allows you to play these mini games with your partner as a way of increasing affection.

The addition of the cell phone is really what makes the game feel 'alive' for the player. At times you will feel like people are really calling you. As you progress deeper into the storyline, you will obtain more contacts to add to your phonebook. You may notice at one point you are even constantly getting phone calls and text messages from people you know. I left the game on idly for about 5 minutes once, and received three calls during that time. You can even goof off and use the cell phone to call 911 in order to get police, paramedics or fire trucks to your position. You can even get other people arrested this time for disorderly conduct. The cell phone also acts as a gateway to the multiplayer mode, which makes it incredibly easy to jump into a game whenever you want.

The new car physics is simply incredible and very accurate to real life. Try crashing your car into a brick wall while going top speeds. You will fly through the windshield, and the front of the car will be completely smashed. Even a fairly small tap against another car will cause a large dent in both cars. Full on impacts will shatter the windows and total the other car. Enough damage to the motor will cause the car to stall out. With that being said, cars are a bit harder to blow up in this game using non-explosive weaponry. Where as in San Andreas you could shoot the gas tank, no gas tanks are to be found oddly enough.

And just to put that out there, you can FINALLY shoot out a car with a handgun! You can even lob grenades and Molotovs out your window as well. Talk about awesomeness.

The aiming system now features the popular over the shoulder firing that has become very popular in new games today. The auto-aim system makes it easy to target enemies and quickly go for a headshot. However it is a bit clunky at times and they did not add a free-aim button with the auto-aim option. To free aim all the time, you will have to turn off auto-aim completely, which some people may do anyway to make the game more challenging. For the first time ever, GTA4 also integrates a cover system, virtually allowing the player to take cover against anything possible. Be it a car, a wall, or a fence. You can also take jump out shots and even blind shots to try to kill the enemy with little or no threat to yourself.

Unfortunately I didn't find the soundtrack all that interesting in GTA4. You will most likely not hear of most of the songs played on the radio. At least if you are into mainstream music you wouldn't. However there were a few tracks I enjoyed without knowing about the song prior, so give it a shot. There are many different stations now, though the fact they still don't have a techno or a dance station is a bit disappointing. Also there are no custom soundtracks, which is another disappointment as there was easily room for it now with the PS3 hard drive. Flash FM on Vice City will always have a special place in my heart as some of the best songs yet.

Finally! A GTA that is officially online. Rockstar has outdone themselves with a ton of game modes to satisfy whatever you may want to do. With even a free roam option that allows you to have all of Liberty City at your disposal, the possibility with friends are near endless. With traditional games such as TDMs, DMs and interesting new things such as a new-age cops and robbers game and even a co-op mission. It's a shame they did not add more co-op to the game, it seems like the game has more of a place there than being against other players. Just my opinion though. Regardless, the single player and the well-constructed multiplayer will easily keep you busy for a long time.

Final Thoughts
Even though GTA4 had to sacrifice some features from San Andreas, the game easily holds its own and makes up greatly for some of its shortcomings. GTA4 ultimately has something for everyone. Be it if you want to mindlessly kill people all day and run for the cops, or immerse yourself in the storyline to even just running people over in multiplayer, the game is easily for hardcore fans and new people to the series. To not get this game even at full retail price is like losing out yourself. This game has so much material packed into it; you wouldn't get a much better detail for the price tag. I highly recommend buying this game, even so much to the point as to avoid rentals, unless you have played and disliked GTA games in the past. Even if you didn't like them before, definitely open yourself up to this series again.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/05/08

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

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