Review by kiriyama2

"The best Grand Theft Auto to date."

The Grand Theft Auto series has always been something I've enjoyed. Granted I was less than thrilled with the previous three GTAs (Vice and Liberty City Stories, and San Andreas), I didn't hate them sure. But I felt that of that console cycle Vice City was the best one of the lot. Needless to say I was looking forward to GTA IV with moderately high hopes, I just didn't fancy it to be the second coming. Which is not to say that the critics (paid reviewers) aren't doing just that. Normally when a game gets rave reviews from every reviewing outlet under the sun I am, at least a little, a tad leery of the game. Alas you can rest easy, as Grand Theft Auto IV is indeed worthy of the seemingly universal praise critics everywhere are tossing at it.

In Grand Theft Auto IV you play as Niko Bellic, an immigrant from an undisclosed Eastern European nation (evidently Serbia) who came to America to live with his allegedly affluent cousin Roman. As Niko gets off the boat Roman meets him and takes him to his small hole of an apartment in Broker (a facsimile or Brooklyn). Shortly after arriving in the land of opportunity Niko gets involved with the underworld of Liberty City after beating some Albanian loan sharks who were trying to extort Roman. Throughout the course of the game you get involved with the Russian Mafia, corrupt police officials, the Italian mob, some Irish gangsters, a Rastafarian drug and arms dealer, and countless other disreputable types. What makes the story intriguing is the fact that it's more realistic in terms of motivation. Whereas in GTA III you were just a mute going about the mafia path killing criminals for no established reason. Or how in Vice City you were trying to set up a drug empire in 80s Florida. Or working for a government type in San Andreas. In GTA IV it isn't explained until several hours into the game why Niko suddenly decided to relocate to America. For want of a better phrase Niko's motivations seem more believable in this than in previous Grand Theft games. I would not go so far as to say that this game is “Oscar caliber writing” as some sites have claimed but it is noticeably better than the rest of the games in this series, and indeed the modern criminal oriented games genre. Long story short, I like the story, quite a bit in fact.

Since Grand Theft Auto made the transition to 3D back in ‘02 the controls has always been somewhat frustrating. Perhaps it's just me, but I always felt the controls were a little off. That having been said, the controls this time around are really surprisingly tight. The gunplay has been changed to emulate a number of recent third person shooting games, many cite Gears of War as an example, which is pretty accurate, truth be told. One could say it's because the left trigger is used to aim, but it's also because of a heightened influence on cover (as all shooters are doing in this day and age of gaming). Pressing the RB button near any wall or box and Niko will hunch against it for cover. Outside of walls though the cover is highly suspect, as a majority of the time nearly everyone was able to shoot through my cover and hit me. The game also has a new aiming function that is vastly improved from previous Grand Thefts. Pressing down on the left trigger allows you to aim about, whereas holding it down locks it onto a nearby enemy or passerby. The problem with the auto aiming is the strange prioritization that it has. For whatever reason you can try to lock on to a shotgun totting criminal and it'll decide to lock onto a fleeing pedestrian instead. It's not exactly the end of the world, it is just something that can get a bit irritating.

The driving controls are actually rather good in this game. However, the cars are really quite prone to flipping around and taking to the air and falling upon their roofs at the slightest provocation. Which I suppose has always been true of the Grand Theft auto series. It sort of is an annoyance when you are tasked with chasing down random gang car A and hitting a concrete barricade and skidding along your roof, thereby failing the mission. However, there is something that makes this somewhat tolerable, and that is the fact that the game autosaves after you complete missions. It‘s a nice handy addition that makes the game better.

One of the things that was introduced in San Andreas was RPG elements, such as making your character fat or skinny, and doing things to raise his stamina or make his punches stronger. I can certainly appreciate why they tried to go that route but it was irritating. I for one don't find virtual weight lifting to be all that exciting in most video games. It's sort of nice that they nixed those ideas for IV, it makes the game more enjoyable not having to go run a treadmill to raise how long Niko can go before stopping for a breath. Of course this is somewhat of a double-edged sword as this means that your stuck with his rather poor running speed for the whole game. Sure you can run faster by rapidly tapping the A button, but the novelty of it wears off quickly. Also whereas in San Andreas you had to go eat food in IV you can pop into a Burger Shot just to regain health, which is really quite handy.

Sure you can still customize the was Niko looks and switch his clothes out for something different. However it is almost entirely cosmetic, as for the most part it does not affect gameplay in the slightest. Sure on some missions your required to wear a suit, another way that different clothing affects gameplay is trying to get any of the games girlfriends. In GTA IV you do get the option of pursuing a romance with several women, only one of which is worth pursuit, as two of them don't accomplish anything other than get in-game nooky. What you do with these missions is you call the girl with your in-game cell phone drive around to her place, pick her up, and then take her to one of the games amusements. These include bowling, playing darts, getting completely wrecked at any one of the games many bars, taking them out to a restaurant, taking them to a cabaret or comedy show, or if your feeling daring taking them to a strip club. For the most part these accomplish nothing, it just serves to pad the length of the game. Sure there are some nicely written dialog pieces, but there's really no reason to do them (aside from having the lawyer girl lower your wanted level).

You can also do the same thing with most of the characters in the game. Sure there's really no need to take your Jamaican buddy out to a strip club, but if you do he does eventually let you purchase weapons for a fraction of the cost that the gun stores charge. In fact most of the people do end up giving you some little perk if you take them out drinking and clubbing, but it does serve only to distract from the main story of the game. In fact the game does possess a large amount of stuff you can do that doesn't involve the actual story. You can spend a few hours watching some of Liberty City's television programming, or you can spend hours scrolling through a multitude of internet pages that was written. The game even has its own take on myspace. Sure there's really no point to doing either one of those things, but really there's no reason to do it, granted you can evidently find a murderer on the myspace clone but that's really about the only reason to mess around on the ‘net outside of specific mission parameters. I'm sure that this sounds like I'm blaming the game for having a bunch of side missions and detracting from the experience, but I'm not I like them I spent a number of hours hunting down Liberty City's most wanted. It's great fun but the internet stuff really just sort of feels unnecessary. Sure it'd be okay if it added on other restaurants and stuff onto the map, but it doesn't.

Of course where would GTA IV be if it didn't let you indulge in rampant and wanton destruction (probably be long forgotten…)? It certainly isn't a slouch in that area, the game does let you run around maliciously mowing down. Something they did this time around though is when you do go on your murderous rampage and draw down the heat of Liberty City's finest is that on the mini-map there'll be a red and blue circle where the police are actively trying to hunt you down and distribute justice. If you get outside of the circle though after a few seconds your wanted level will drop and you can just walk off like nothing happened. While I do like that aspect (I loved in Mafia, and I enjoy it here) it does seem to detract a small amount of enjoyment from me. One of the things I loved to do in the previous games was wreak a trail of havoc from one island or borough to another all the while having the police, FBI, and army hot on my heels. Whereas in this game you can get away from them by driving away super fast and laying low. I don't want that to sound like it's a game breaker, because it's not, it's good for when your on a mission and the fuzz gets on your case you can ditch them and then continue on your merry way.

One of the things the series has been renowned for is its sense of humor, and for the witty radio shows. Fortunately they return full force in GTA IV, as a large majority of the radio station hosts are actually somewhat amusing, and the radio commercials in this are actually funny. Something worth noting is that Rockstar seems to have gone with largely unknown bands for the music this time around. With the exception of the classic rock station the music is stuff that most people have probably never heard of. Funny thing here is that it works, the music is fitting, at least in tone. Sure I didn't really listen to the rap stations, but from the ones that I did listen to it fit well. For instance, Liberty City Hardcore made for great get-away music. Also it's worth note that the voice acting in this game is absolutely phenomenal. Every voice actor in this game did an excellent job.

I feel I would be remiss if I didn't mention the immensely enjoyable online multiplayer. Sure, a lot of the game modes are GTA versions of old tried and true multiplayer games, but damn it, it works! The ones really worth mention are the grand theft races, where you and up to sixteen people can race each other and steal cars to try to best one another. Cops ‘n Crooks, which is fundamentally team deathmatch, but you can play as Liberty City's finest, and the mode is quite fun, so long as you don't get a moron who decides to just sit and twiddle his thumbs while he's the boss and needs to get away before being ventilated by the LCPD, or the driver who just sits in the damn car not moving despite the fact that the criminals are getting away. Turf War, where two teams try to take over the other gangs' territories and rule Liberty City. There's also free roam mode, where you and a bunch of other people can just run around Liberty City sowing as much chaos and destruction as you want without any clearly defined objective. Just running around murdering innocents and one another with reckless abandon, most of the time by the way you spawn with a rocket launcher. These modes are greatly amusing, and add hours of replayability to the game (not that it was lacking any in the first place). Of course, it would've been a blast if they'd included a local multiplayer component, but whatever, I'll live.

The story mode takes about forty odd hours to complete, but even then there's all the various things you can do in Liberty City that will keep you busy long after completion, and with the promise of downloadable content this game is one of the best to come out this year. In short I heartily recommend GTA IV, the game is some of the most fun you'll have on the 360 this year. Sure it might not be the greatest game ever, and it is not without its faults, but you would be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable GTA game to play.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/21/08

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

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