Review by Rottenwood

"Sucker Punch"

Arguably the most anticipated game in recent history, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' has a lot to live up to. Between the adult content and sandbox-style wide-open gameplay, the series changed the software landscape irrevocably, and pushed the PlayStation 2 out to a lead it would never relinquish. Now, the next generation of hardware is here: has Rockstar similarly raised the bar? As you might dread, the answer is predictable: yes and no. While 'Grand Theft Auto IV' provides a deliriously rich environment to explore that is laden with mighty production values, the gameplay has not made any significant strides, and deja vu begins to set in after the twenty-hour mark. You'll play the game to the bitter end, mind you: you'll just notice you were having more fun in the first half.

This latest crime saga revolves around Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has literally just gotten off the boat in Liberty City, Rockstar's not-even-remotely-veiled parody of New York City. With a dark past of brutal military service and crime, Niko is eager to start a new life in America with his cousin Roman, who has claimed to hit it rich. But to no one's surprise, Roman was stretching the truth a bit, and you'll soon find yourself back in the Grand Theft groove again. doing dozens of illegal jobs for various crime lords, gangsters, corrupt lawmen, and so on.

And that's a shame, because Niko Bellic had a lot of potential. 'Casting' an Eastern European as the lead was a unique choice, and rather than being the usual cocky outlaw who loves the gangster life, Niko pursues his life of crime with a weary cynicism. His icy shell and military background make him an ideal arch-criminal, but the game occasionally shows moments where he resents his lifestyle. The small handful of special missions that deal with his character development are terrific stuff.

Unfortunately, the other 97% of the missions are the usual Grand Theft Auto junk: doing hits, chasing down cars, and transporting illegal cargo and all that jazz, for another generic collection of gangster knuckleheads. I actually found myself hoping Niko would stay relatively poor-ish and remain a blue-collar criminal, just for something new, but as per usual, you spend the last half of the game sitting on six figures, driving expensive sports cars in designer suits. The game adds something resembling a true love interest as the game goes along (to go with the handful of mistresses you can choose to acquire), but it never feels particularly genuine, and unless you choose to take her out yourself in your free time, you'll barely interact with her at all. 'Grand Theft Auto IV' feels like the creative team had a real spark in the beginning, but put the game on auto-pilot after a few hours.

But all is certainly not lost. The Grand Theft Formula hasn't sold millions of games for no reason, and for a while, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is able to floor you even as it dishes out more of the same. As someone who lived in New York City for years, Liberty City is a remarkable simulation of the Big Apple. The rich graphics engine and busy streets feel just right, and while the place names have been changed to protect the innocent, you'll still know it when you're driving through Manhattan and passing by famous landmarks. (Or, at least, their digital and rudely-named equivalents.) Of course, you can still drive at a hundred miles an hour against traffic and not get into trouble, but some Grand Theft conventions are worth keeping.

The combat engine is pretty solid, although it definitely feels like the game is on the 'easy' setting. Niko is a crack shot at almost any range, and by using the auto-target system, it only takes a moment to have a foe locked-on to be dispatched in a hail of bullets. While the game eventually heaps decent-sized hordes of enemies at you, they go down quickly, and using solid cover more or less keeps you completely safe from enemy fire. You can still get smoked by an opponent that gets the drop on you, though, so you'd better bring body armor with you if you're not the cautious type. The weapon selection is a bit slim (you can use one of two choices for each weapon type, ranging from pistols to assault rifles), but it covers all the bases.

With that being said, the only way you're likely to fail a mission is for there to be some sort of chase sequence, and your car ends up getting stuck or flipping over or what have you while your prey escapes. Annoying as this is, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' has mercifully added a new function where you can restart a mission through your cellular phone, rather than having to drive all the way back to the mission-giver and start from square one. Grand Theft veterans will be grateful indeed for this contrivance.

When you're not killing people for money, you can give Niko a passable social life as well. Various people you meet through missions (or on-line) can become your friends or girlfriends, although like all friends, you'll need to take them out now and then to maintain your relationship. Liberty City offers a number of activities for just this purpose, including bowling alleys, pool halls, and even comedy and cabaret shows. The mechanics for the mini-games are quite good, making them fun in their own right, and seeing Ricky Gervais do stand-up in digital form was pretty unexpected, to say the least. The dating aspect of the game is a bit hollow, but some of the dialogue between Niko and his ladies is pretty entertaining. The three 'mistress' girls are delightful parodies of less-than-spectacular girlfriends, including a nurse who wastes all her money on shallow garbage instead of improving her life, a spoiled rich girl who does nothing but funnel her arrogance through her blog, and a lawyer who is constantly taken advantage of by criminal men because her ultra-liberal sponginess causes her to believe the fault is always with 'the system.'

But don't worry, neo-conservatives, for Rockstar has two barrels of ammunition for you guys as well. Weazel News has a firm strangehold on information in Liberty City, and like the Fox News it parodies, it is little more than mindless jingoism and endless liberal-bashing. And much like Hannity or O'Reilly, it uses pointless social 'scandals' (the gay firefighter menace!) to keep people distracted as Weazel's corporate and government puppermasters loot the country at will. There's also a Limbaugh parody on the radio, and if this seems like a bit of overkill, it probably is. But art is just a sign of the times, and with the right's strong manipulation of the media, it's no surprise that Rockstar (a popular villain of the 'family values' crowd) would blast back. Jokes about America's imperial aggression and willingness to trade lives for oil profits will probably not sit well with some, but the 'values' critics will probably miss it while complaining about the hookers anyhow.

As always, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' features hours of scripted entertainment that has nothing to do with the 'main' game. Almost 20 radio stations provide a wide variety of music styles, hilarious talk shows, and parody commercials. While some have criticized the music in the game (mostly because of the lack of current or major hit songs), it's really quite good. Rockstar really dipped into a pretty deep catalog of tunes (listen to Journey or Radio Broker, for example) to provide some interesting choices.

As the game nears it's conclusion, you can make some major storyline decisions, causing the plot to branch in different directions. While this certainly sounds intriguing, it leads to a fairly soggy finish. (This applies to the final missions I saw; perhaps the other route is more satisfying.) I choice a path of vengeance and took out a 'bad guy' who had wronged me earlier in the game, but it lacked heft because he had more or less disappeared for the last 15 hours of game play, severely weakening his impact. And the final mission had me hunt down a former employer (and a fairly cruddy and minor character at that) who killed someone close to Niko while aiming for him. If hunting down some mid-level gangster goon who accidentally killed someone in your circle sounds like a pretty weak finish, well, it is. And the mission itself, featuring a random motorcycle chase and an assault helicopter, just feels silly, like Rockstar was trying too hard. Worst of all, the game just sort of continues after the credits roll, since most players will want to keep going to do all the side content. After a series of events that would seemingly define his life.... Niko goes to steal some cars or hunt pigeons for side points. Just doesn't gel.

Which isn't to say the side work isn't fun, because it can be. It's just VERY familiar stuff. Collecting packages, shooting 200 pigeons, stealing cars for an employer... same ol' same ol'. Grabbing a police car can let you hunt down criminals for a while as a vigilante, but after a little while, it grows stale. Driving cabs again? Um, yay?

The slow feeling of familiarity takes over most aspects of the game. Shooting it out with the police can be chaotic fun as always, but after three previous Grand Theft games, you've undoubtedly done it too much already. Some added grit helps (wounded victims cry for help on the ground, and your death sequence is in a very stylish black-and-white slow shot), but with no special dangers/rewards at the fabled 'six stars' of police aggression, it's just not the same. That's right: no tanks, for better or worse.

But just as you complain, the game shows flashes of brilliance. You can access E-mail and the Internet in the game, and they are absolute spot-on satires of the worst elements of the Web. You could spend hours just reading the riffs on MySpace, blogging, and spam mail and be perfectly entertained. And getting drunk is good stuff, too. Not only are the effects on the game hilarious, but if you're with someone, the liquor will cause them to say things they can't say while sober, revealing new (and often dark) sides of the game's cast. As the game wore on, I began to wonder if the creative team has become more interested in writing the side material than they are the actual game.

So the game is a mixed bag, but it's a HUGE bag, so you're bound to find a ton of stuff you'll enjoy. If you've somehow never played a Grand Theft game to this point, run out and pick this up immediately. If you're an old fan.... well, you already bought this game anyhow, according to the sales reports, so you've made your mind up already on your own. While this review may seem overly negative, I enjoyed 'Grand Theft Auto IV' quite a lot. I can see why the immediate reviews were so glowing, as the game is an undeniable spectacle during your first few sessions. If only Rockstar had the guts to expand on their mission formula, they'd really have a masterpiece on their hands. Oh well, there's always 'Grand Theft Auto: Boston' next year...

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 05/27/08

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

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