Review by nintendosega

"Step into another world, into another life..."

It seems like only yesterday that everyone was obsessed with Grand Theft Auto III. It was a game that was part of a series that few cared about, yet seemingly out of the blue, completely showed up and changed video gaming forever. I was a bit late to that party: I hated what little I played of GTAII and so I didn't bother playing GTAIII, despite its praise. It wasn't until GTA: Vice City that I finally gave this series another try and finally discovered its brilliance. There's something so refreshing about being able to drive wherever you want, listen to whatever radio station you want, do missions to progress the story in any order you want, and even causing mayhem in the city streets in any way you can imagine....all in a video game. But what so many people missed (those who don't go anywhere near the missions) was Vice City's incredible story, loaded with twists, turns, betrayals, extremely funny characters, and watching the main character, a psychotic killer, try to force himself up in a situation that, we were told at the beginning of the game, was essentially a setup. I've since played GTAIII and San Andreas, as well as some bits of Liberty City Stories, but Vice City remains my favorite to this day, and that's because no other GTA game has quite managed to capture the same energy that came with that game, its story, its music, and the tropical 1980's setting.

But where does GTAIV stand? Essentially taking the form of a series reboot, GTAIV moves the location back to III's Liberty City, although this is not the same Liberty City from that game: GTAIV's New York. It's incredible both how Rockstar North managed to capture the atmosphere and look of New York City down perfectly, but also how they've easily created the best-looking open world game ever made. Many of the features added into San Andreas, including the ability to fly planes, the requirements to weight lift and eat, the ability to parachute, the game's 3 massive cities and endless country between them...these are all gone. It was somewhat of a risky move, because essentially GTAIV's a step backwards for the series in many categories. But there are others where it's such a leap forward it's nearly incomparable. Although Rockstar North has some difficulty pulling it all together, GTAIV's a great game loaded with style, atmosphere, some incredible performances, and easily the best-developed cast of characters in the franchise's history.

Graphics: Simply incredible. For the first few hours of the game I'd periodically gasp in amazement as I drove through some neighborhoods. The detail everywhere's unparalleled in such an explorable world, and neighborhood after neighborhood looks completely different from the last. Very realistic-looking pedestrians walk around, the lighting's incredible, the amount of cars driving around (most of the time) is vastly improved over past GTA games, and the lighting's probably the best I've ever seen. There's occasional popup, some graphical glitches (mostly involving jumping, which is still a bit clunky,) and the very occasionally irritating load time, but this game's visual presentation is top-notch. The same amount of care went into creating Liberty City this time around that went into creating Vice City (but on a much larger scale) and the result is incredible. If San Andreas, which went for 3 big cities, suffered a bit in that neither of them felt quite as well-developed as Vice City, GTAIV completely makes up for that. The amount of care that went into almost every brick of this city is evident from the very beginning (although adjusting the brightness on certain TV's may be required, as some dark areas of the game seem a bit...dark,) and this is all brought together when you get to fly a helicopter over this incredible landscape and see this world brimming with life. It's a sight I'm likely not going to forget any time soon.

Gameplay: On the gameplay-side of things, not much has changed in the game's format. You still wander around this virtual city, taking cars or boats at your leisure, and you follow a radar, which indicates the next mission to go to. Doing this mission will advance the story, and trigger your movement up from lowly immigrant to a person of high status in Liberty City. One big improvement's a brand new targeting system, and no longer do guns auto-lock. Holding the firing trigger half-way will now allow you to free-aim with the right trigger. Locking on is still a very useful feature but this time around it's optional. A brand-new cover system somewhat reminiscent of Gears of War also makes shootouts much more dynamic. Even driving's been given a bit of a facelift, and cars now control much more realistically. Every car handles differently, and now you can be damaged while driving a car (whereas in past GTA's you could rely on cars as shields,) and cars no longer seem to catch fire instantly if turned upside-down. The best new addition, though, is the cel phone and GPS system. The cel phone links Niko, the main character, to all the other characters. You can receive text messages, make and receive calls to and from your friends and enemies, plot events, use a calendar, and even customize things like ring tones. This amount of detail's present in almost everything. You can surf the web (a GTA version) at the internet cafe, check and send emails, and even do things like watch TV inside the safehouse. This is all brought to us with Rockstar North's wit and humor. All the in-game dialogue; all the radio stations, all the cutscenes, the internet, the TV shows...everything's written by series vet Dan Houser and new-to-the-series Rupert Humphries and that's...incredible. Also incredible is the amount of people involved in this project. Reportedly made for $100 million, (making this the most expensive game ever made by far,) the ending credits seem to go for over 20 minutes. This was a project made with incredible amounts of care and it shows in everything.

That's not to say it's all perfect, though. Hand-to-hand combat features some very iffy controls and never feels natural. Although the new targeting and cover systems are great, the developers seemed to have relied on them as a crutch for many missions, which gives the game a bit of a repetitive feel at times. The new driving controls, realistic as they may be, add some tediousness to the chase scenes, which were always some of the better parts of the series. At least once during every chase you're likely to spin out, or to hit a tree and stop dead. (Which does not make sense, since you can plow down lamp posts with ease,) I also have mixed feelings about the complete removal of the lock-on feature for when using a gun from a car. The moving of the in-game clock to the start menu seems more like an inconvenience than anything else, and the lack of checkpoints in missions makes dying and restarting them a huge pain, even though the cel phone will warp you back to them if you tell it to. On the plus side, you no longer loose your weapons when you are hospitalized, which benefits the game in ways that I don't think Rockstar North even imagined. (As does the auto-save feature.) The new taxi system's also a great way around if you don't feel like driving. There are tons of side-activities to participate in: beating the game's only around 60% of the total. You can go to a bar with your friends/cousin and get drunk, you can take your friend to see Katt Williams or other shows, and you can of course also do things like going bowling or playing darts. Some control issues make the latter 2 more of a hassle than a good time but the fact that it's there is commendable. There's also a fully realized online mode that's going to be played for a very long time.

Still, I have to wonder how fans will react to this game. Despite its endless critical acclaim so far, this game was a big step backward, as it's not only much smaller in scope than San Andreas, but it features an almost dramatic cutback of features. (Even things like taxi missions and ambulance fares have been eliminated.) Although supposedly we have more buildings to enter, it still doesn't feel like nearly an acceptable number, and several buildings that look like they'd be open to you simply aren't. Although I appreciated the removal of the required eating/bodybuilding systems from San Andreas, (I think San Andreas cluttered itself with so many features and locations that it neglected its plot, characters, and world,) I was disappointed that you can apparently no longer get your hair cut or get tattooed. Your selection of clothes also seems much smaller. Gone are planes, parachutes, dune buggies, etc. etc. etc. The violence also seems a bit toned down; characters no longer seem to react to head shots, and weapons like meat cleavers, chainsaws, and bloody knuckles are nowhere to be found. And you can't enter the airport. I think fans of San Andreas and even Vice City are going to have mixed feelings about GTAIV. It's also around 36 hours long (including maybe a couple dates and extra time spent with friends,) which is, in my opinion, much longer than this type of game needs to be and it strains to keep up the pacing, something it doesn't always do.

None of this changes how great this final product is, though. The missions are significantly less tedious than they sometimes became in past GTA's (new driving controls aside,) and this game's very fun and addicting almost all the way through it. It's easily the most fun game in the series to date and also contains by far the best characters.

Story: The writing here's a step above others in the series and the entire genre. Never before in a video game have I heard such well-written dialogue. It's a complete triumph and it creates characters who the gamer can completely care about. These people, their lives, and their hardships all seem completely real and convincing. There are moments in the game where you must kill people and the act of doing this was actually...hate to say it, but....sad. Niko does what he must to survive but these characters become such real people that it's hard to sometimes kill them when necessary. (Even harder when the game sometimes makes you choose between two.) That said, there are other characters in the game who Niko has to work for that are really scary people and who'se dialogue and actions all combine to make them as uncomfortable for the gamer to watch as they undoubtedly are for Niko to associate himself with. As a character, Niko's the best in the series. While there was something fun about playing as the crazy Tommy Vercetti from Vice City (who didn't care at all about who he killed to get his way,) or the nameless, voiceless main character from GTAIII, San Andreas introduced the concept of a more sympathetic main character. I didn't feel that San Andreas pulled it off, but GTAIV managed to do it. Niko's a character whose been corrupted by a war he was forced to participate in, and he really has little conscience. Yet...there's a loyalty to his cousin and to all he meets that Niko keeps and his often hilarious remarks and attitude make him instantly likable. His cousin, Roman, is probably among the most likable video game characters I've ever witnessed, and the side-characters, (at least for the first 2/3 of the game,) all have their moments that make you root for them....psycho's aside, of course. The game also avoids....for the most part, the stereotypes. While you associate with drug dealers, some, like Playboy X, are in it for the short term to make cash, yet have big dreams, for example, of one day making it big as a city planner. As the game progresses, though, it's clear that he's dragging himself deeply into a world to which there's no likely escape. A funeral sequence was also among the more memorable parts of the game, and it's one of the times where the game's writing and characters dragged me so far into this game's world that I felt like I was living in it. GTAIV's full of characters like these and while it has many serious moments, it's also one of the funniest video games I think I've ever played. The characters completely carry the day for the first 2/3 of the game. I wish that they'd developed a plot to carry them itself.

The game gets off to a great start. Niko's lured to Liberty City by his cousin Roman's promises of lots of girls and rich living. Turns out he lives in a ratty safehouse and makes a living as a somewhat shady cab department owner. Niko then must work his way up. And that's the setup but nothing's really ever done with it. Something happens early in that turns their world upside-down but's back to simply doing missions for people. I kept waiting for a person to make a re-appearance but he pretty much stays out of the picture for almost the entire game. Once you get to the second safehouse the plot literally stops in its tracks for a gigantic chunk of the game. Niko's main mission to go to Liberty City, (revenge,) is obscured so far into the background that it almost becomes forgettable. In a well-intentioned effort to provide a lengthy main quest, Rockstar North loaded GTAIV with way too much filler. There are two endings (resulting from a decision you make towards the end of the game,) and while both endings are pretty devastating, neither seems to carry quite the emotional punch that they should have, especially the one I got on my playthrough. They seem almost rushed. I realize it's difficult to incorporate a story into a game designed around giving the player the ability to wander wherever and whenever he wants, but in a 36-hour game...Rockstar kinda has to. Things get very tedious and repetitive towards the end, especially as you work for mob people....while all the great characters from earlier seem to be nothing more than annoyances, staying out of sight except for when they interrupt the game by calling you and begging you to hang out with them. The game goes on tangents (like a diamond heist) that feel completely unnecessary and that go nowhere. The game also lacks a feeling of progression that made past games (Vice City in particular) such a blast to play. There's no feeling of Niko moving up, he just seems to get more money. The "nice" apartment eventually purchased seems entirely random: there was really nothing I or my cousin did to deserve it, unlike the huge takeover that got Tommy his mansion in Vice City. The ending mission also seems to come out of nowhere, with no buildup whatsoever. It could have happened hours earlier than it did and it wouldn't have made a difference.

Still, GTAIV's a complete triumph for video game writing. The characters and dialogue feel so real and they bring you into this world so perfectly. They're unfortunately surrounded by a disappointingly weak plot but anyone who buys a GTA game and avoids doing the missions is truly missing out, and GTAIV is no exception.

Sound: The voice acting's perfect. There were no bad performances, everyone does such a perfect job. The cast is in general made up of unknowns and they all leave a big impression. If there's a game that blurs the line between movie-acting quality and video game voice overs, GTAIV is it. The guy who voices Niko, (who'se done some occasional work on Law and Order) has one hell of a potential career in voice acting if he chooses to take advantage of it.

The music, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. True, I'm a bit biassed towards Vice City (due to the time period, its heavily synthesized 80's music created an atmosphere that felt both spacey and otherworldly) but even by other standards, GTAIV's soundtrack's fairly forgettable. And for a game supposedly taking place in a contemporary time period, the music feels surprisingly dated. I've got very little favorites here. Lazlo, the dumb and funny DJ, does return here, this time hosting his own talk show, and while it's amusing, I never really got into it. Given the large emphasis placed on music in this series, it's a bit disappointing that GTAIV's doesn't really make the cut.

Verdict: GTAIV's a great game that's truly amazing in some respects. The world created here is one that feels very authentic. This, as well as the dialogue, are huge steps forward for the series and I can't wait to see what else is done in this new "next gen" GTA style. (I'd still like to see this series go to the Far East.) The cel phone and GPS systems really are nice new features, and they bring the entire world and characters together, while also making exploration much easier. Things like brand new targeting and cover systems continue to sweeten the deal, as do a truly memorable cast of characters and Oscar-worthy performances. That said, it's not perfect. The story's pacing's all over the place, not helped by a seemingly endless amount of filler. The game lacks a feeling of progression, and the game's missions, which seem to be trying to be a bit more grounded in reality, quickly become a bit repetitive. Fans of San Andreas will also wonder where the game's features went. But it's definitely a game worth playing. The world and characters are worth experiencing and the typical GTA gameplay remains as fun as ever. While GTA Vice City is still by far the best in the series, GTAIV's nevertheless a game I completely recommend to anyone mature enough to handle it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 05/20/08, Updated 08/22/08

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

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