Review by Allyourbase

Reviewed: 05/05/08

An experience for the ages

One for the ages

Amazing what a next-generation system can pull off.

Liberty City, the locale of Rockstar Games’ “Grand Theft Auto IV,” isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, having helped the series make the jump into three-dimensional sandbox play with “GTA III” back in 2001.

But this isn’t your big brother’s Liberty City. Thanks to the power of next-generation game consoles such as the Xbox 360, Liberty City is truly a living, breathing metropolis. And that should be a hint this installment isn’t like any “GTA” that has ever been produced.
While “GTA: Vice City” and “GTA: San Andreas” were snarky love letters to the 1980s and 1990s respectively, “GTA IV” sets out to establish a world divorced from fleeting pop cultural references. Instead, it is a grittier, darker environs you will be running amok through and it is a grittier, and darker story unfolding this go-round.

Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant with a checkered past, arrives in Liberty City to live with his cousin, Roman Bellic. Niko has heard fantastic stories of Roman’s glamorous life in America, but he soon finds the contrary is true. Roman slogs through life as the owner of a cab depot, lives in a run-down part of town and is ears-deep in debt to various shady figures. As the two men struggle to keep the gangsters off their backs, they come to realize the American Dream exacts a heavy price on those who pursue it.

“IV” is flat-out gorgeous. The lighting effects are some of the most realistic to date and the character models look awesomely lifelike. If you haven’t gotten a top-notch home-entertainment system, consider getting one — “IV” doesn’t play the same on anything less. If I had to make a gripe it would have to be the tininess of text on the screen. For someone without 20/20 vision such as myself, having to scoot in to read the microscopic text can be jarring, especially in the middle of a mission. For the most part, the game is rather dark, making play during day-time hours without a shade or two drawn almost impossible. It’s nothing tweaking with the in-game settings couldn’t alleviate.

The “GTA” series has always given us memorable characters and “IV” does not disappoint. Unlike previous installments, there are few big names among the voice-acting cast of “IV.” Regardless, the characters actually think and feel in believable ways and ultimately, feel real to you and me. It’s not too hard to find characters to love and loathe.

Gameplay has gotten a dramatic overhaul on many fronts. The aiming system has been tweaked. Depressing the left trigger halfway lets you enter free-aim mode, while pushing it down all the way locks you onto an enemy. In lock-on mode, you can still move the targeting reticle around to maneuver for a headshot. Locking on isn’t an exact science and sometimes I find myself aiming my piece at someone I have no intention of shooting. Gunplay also takes advantage of the new the cover system. At the press of a button, Niko will scramble for the nearest cover, from which you can pop up and cap enemies or play it safe by firing blindly. It all dovetails to add some spice to firefights.

Even messing with the law has been retooled. The star system is still in place, but instead of running around and gathering power-ups to lower your wanted level, a crime triggers a search circle. It starts small, but subsequent offenses increase its size. In order to get away, you’ll have to either find a car and take it to the good ol’ Pay ’n’ Spray, or leave the circle and lay low for about 10 seconds. Get spotted and the circle restarts on your current location. The mini-map also shows the location of cop cars/copters/tanks/etc., so you can plan your route to avoid getting spotted. Changing cars out of sight will also help you, provided you don’t do anything foolish in your new ride.

“IV” isn’t bound to any particular cultural zeitgeist from America’s past, so you’ll find everything from talk radio, electronica, Eastern European pop, alternative rock, funk, disco, reggaeton, jazz as well as old-school and contemporary hip-hop on your radio dial. It’s really worth it to take a cruise around the city and listening to the various radio stations. I actually found the Eastern European station a fascinating listen. The talk radio stations, as always, are full of biting political commentary lifted straight from today’s headlines. What’s more intriguing is using the in-game cell phone to ID the song you’re currently listening to. You call a number as the song is playing and a text message response tells you the song’s name and artist for your reference next time you’re browsing iTunes. Of course, there’s always the option of streaming your own music as well, which makes lazy drive-bys around the neighborhood so much more enjoyable.

What really pushes “IV” head and shoulders above its predecessors is the staggering amount of detail. Pedestrians will converse with each other or on their cell phones and will also react to Niko as he passes by. They even flail about realistically if you hit them with your car. Stop by an Internet cafe and browse the Web sites. Take a helicopter tour. Hire a taxi and go sightseeing. You can even piss away the day by watching television in Niko’s apartment. Like the talk radio stations, there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek parody to remind you this is still a “GTA” game. If minigames are your thing, there’s plenty for you to enjoy, either alone or with some of the friends Niko will eventually encounter as the game wends its course. There’s bowling, darts, pool and arcade machines.

The “dating” mechanic has been revamped as well and on the whole, it feels much more worthwhile than the system implemented in “San Andreas” — your relationships will definitely have an effect on your experience. In fact, it’s actually interesting to get to know the characters and also see how Niko’s relationships with them change as the game wends its course. Niko can have a romantic date with a love interest or a boys’ night out at the strip club (Yes you can even get lap dances! Or shoot up the place like Pacman Jones.) with his buddies.

Never one to pass up controversy, Rockstar has given us the ability to let Niko hit the bar with friends to pound back a few vodkas. While nanny-minded types have their panties in a bunch, “IV” presents a rather realistic picture of drunkeness. The camera will shake and wobble, making walking around a challenge. Trying to operate a vehicle is that much more difficult. If anything, I think it’s a nice public-service announcement — there’s really nothing cool about having cops chasing you down while I can’t even drive down a block without ramming into something.

Every so often, there comes a game that goes beyond being a game and becomes an experience. “GTA IV” is the must-experience phenomenon of this current console generation. If you’re prepared to see your free time evaporate in a flash, consider picking this game up. You’d be hard-pressed not to. There’s lots to do in Liberty City this time around, so I’d quit wasting time waiting for the price to drop and pick “GTA IV” right now.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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

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