Review by Phange
"An improvement, but also a step back"
Grand Theft Auto 4 does a lot of things really, really well. It's more mature with its storyline, less focused with juvenile stereotypes of the crime world, and is, in general, much more realistic. That's all great; and while GTA IV improves on basically every aspect of GTA III's formula, it is in many ways a large step back from San Andreas. The city is nowhere near as large (though it is far more populated), the dearth of extra things to do is very apparent, and in general it lacks some of the excitement of exploration that the earlier GTA games are known for. Mechanically, there's no question that GTA IV is a gigantic step forward for the franchise, just as GTA III was over its predecessors. But, like GTA III, it's evident that there's a lot that could've been added, and some of the interesting "fluff" isn't all that necessary (internet, hilarious as it is, is severely underused). In general, GTA IV lacks some of what made games like San Andreas and Vice City so great, and in the process it loses a lot of the fun sandbox aspects of the series. While mechanically it's the best GTA has ever been, it may not be the most enjoyable.
The GTA games on Playstation 2 and Xbox looked decent, but not spectacular. The same could apply to GTA IV on Playstation 3. Environments look fantastic... from a distance. Up-close inspection of textures or especially character models reveals less-than-stellar attention to detail. That said, the game has a great draw distance and animates much more fluidly than previous iterations.
That said, GTA IV still has Rockstar's trademark "stiff movements" from time to time; hand gestures never look natural and the facial features seem off. It's nothing to deride the game over, but when we're dealing with a game that some consider to be the greatest ever made, it's important to think objectively about these things. The framerate, too, is for the most part solid but can dip rather noticeably when action heats up. Also, the game can be a bit dark, even when the brightness settings are set high. It's nothing that ruins the game, but it's another one of those design choices that feels unnecessary.
Ever since Vice City, GTA has excelled at bringing robust, entertaining, and often hilarious radio stations to your ears. GTA IV is no exception, and there's a huge selection of quality music to listen to, but you'll find that a larger portion of it is unrecognizable (though excellent). Perhaps the most surprisingly awesome station, Vladivostok, is my personal favorite. All the great social commentary shows are back; and now (evidently to equal the previously heavily anti-conservative stint of previous GTA's) there's a pretty funny radio station that jabs at the more liberal side of NPR.
It's a good selection of music, and the voice work is good as always. While you may not consider GTA IV's soundtrack as good as, say, Vice City's, it's still a very impressive lineup.
There's two sides to GTA IV's gameplay, which I'll discuss separately.
The first is mechanics. GTA IV's combat system is so markedly improved over its predecessors that it almost feels like a different game. While it's nowhere near as good as, say, Gears of War or Uncharted, GTA IV now has a fairly useful cover system, blind fire mechanics, and a more Jet Force Gemini-esque targeting system. It works well. As I said, it's not perfect, but it is a huge improvement. The cellphone in GTA IV is a marked improvement over simply driving to contacts in previous iterations, and makes the game, and Liberty City as a whole, feel more alive. Car mechanics have also been improved greatly; they feel more realistic and are fun to drive (and crash). Mechanistically, GTA IV is an all-around improvement from previous iterations.
The second is mission structure and extras. Here's where things start to fall apart; the missions are too similar, and not complex at all. Much like the original GTA III, almost every mission involves killing someone, following and killing someone, killing large groups of people, killing small groups of people, etc. It isn't until way later in the game that any of this changes. I'm sure some GTA purists will be fine with this, but I find that this lack of significant mission structure gets boring after a few hours. Worse, much of the extra mission content from previous games is flat-out gone. You can't do ambulance or fire truck missions anymore, the crazy secret missions are gone, the shops are VERY limited in respect to San Andreas (there's four clothing shops in the game, two of which are identical), and there's generally a lot less incentive to explore than before. In a way, it has lost part of the essence of what made the older GTA's so great.
GTA IV is a great game, and has very few flaws. But it lacks in content based on previous iterations and, while very refined, feels same-y after a while. A quality purchase, but not a perfect GTA.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.0 - Great
Originally Posted: 05/07/08
Game Release: Grand Theft Auto IV (US, 04/29/08)
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