Review by Reuptake

"Grand Theft Auto 4 Review (360)"

There are games that I become remotely interested in as they're in development, forget about, and am pleasantly reminded of a month after their release, causing me to casually wander down to my closest retailer and grab a copy for a late night coffee and vodka fueled marathon of gaming bliss. Then there are games that capture my attention two years before they're released and cause me to lose sleep in continual quests for new screenshots, trailers, or interviews. Grand Theft Auto IV is of the latter category. But does it stand up to scrutiny? Largely, yes.

The Grand Theft Auto series has followed a relatively predictable formula since its original inception on the PC and PlayStation, with that formula only becoming more refined with the release of GTA III and its following sequels. We all know what to expect: A corrupt anti-hero blazing his way through large open cities, climbing to the top through violent and sometimes psychotic means, and blowing away anyone and everyone who stands in his way. Driving is a major aspect of the series, hence the title, and relatively shallow characters and clunky gunplay are all accepted parts of the package. Grand Theft Auto IV completely reinvigorates and rebuilds the series from the ground up, and nails it. Mostly.

The protagonist is a former Eastern European mercenary by the name of Niko Bellic, who has arrived in Liberty City (GTA's version of New York City) at the behest of his cousin Roman, who's tempted him to America with wild stories of wealth, success, and a bounty of large American breasts. As soon as Niko arrives, it becomes clear that all is not as it appears. Far from promises of mansions, Ferraris and women, Niko discovers Roman to be living in a tiny, roach-infested apartment, struggling to hold onto a failing cab company, and seriously in debt to the mob. Niko, being the honorable man he is, steps in to try and clean up his cousin's mess.

This brings me to my first point: GTA IV has depth to it. The characters, and more importantly the script as a whole, are as well written and powerful as a feature film, and are the best use of exposition and storytelling I've ever seen in a video game. GTA IV is Hollywood summer blockbuster material. Niko is a breakthrough for the series because he's a genuinely sympathetic character. He can be cold, he can be ruthless, and he can be a murderer, but he has an undercurrent of humanity that belies his toughened exterior. Niko is world-weary, and his vulnerability comes through in both the script and the masterful voice acting of Michael Hollick. Other characters, while being ancillary in contrast to Niko, are far from two-dimensional as well. The script is also rich with social commentary which feels spot on, and never comes across as tired or pretentious.

The game is absolutely gorgeous, especially considering its size and scope. Doom 3 was a pretty game, but it's easy to crank up all the effects when designing what amounts to a simple corridor crawl. The amount of graphical beauty that comes to life in GTA's Liberty City is stunning, as are the reactions to the environment by NPCs. People run to clear the streets when it rains, traffic follows a logical flow with rush hours and clam periods, and you can play for long stretches of time without stumbling across the same NPC twice. Pedestrians will answer their cell phones, get into arguments with each other, and occasionally an accident will occur between two motorists, resulting in a frank exchange of words and the occasional arrival of a police cruiser or ambulance. You get the distinct impression that the game world isn't just a show put on for your amusement when you're walking by, and then packed up and put away as soon as you leave. It feels like a living, breathing city, and it does all this while maintaining a steady frame rate.

As the story unfolds there are plenty of twists and turns, some obvious, some not, but there's never a point where you are unable to suspend disbelief. Some of the missions are crazy, some wild, but all enjoyable, even though there are a few controller-hurling moments of frustration. While there are some incredibly tough missions, it makes eventual perseverance all the more rewarding. The gunplay is radically improved over its predecessors, sporting a Gears of War style cover system that makes jumping into cover, snapping off a few shots, and ducking back to safety effortless, and it's a much needed improvement for the series. The music is also fantastic, with several stations that hit every musical genre known to man, including a few talk radio stations that add to the game's notorious black humor. The jewel of the radio stations is Vladivostok FM, which carries several catchy Eastern European tunes, none of which I can understand, but damn are they good.

Though I'm ready to nominate GTA IV as a candidate for Game of the Year, there are a few nits to pick. As for the driving, you'll either love it or hate it. The physics seem a little floatier than in previous games, and an attempt to pull a perfect 180 degree turn will usually result in a spectacular impact with a storefront at mach 10. I wasn't a fan of the driving at first, which was an issue for me considering how damn much of the driving you have to do in the game, but after a few hours I got the hang of it and it became second nature. You're also saddled with a list of friends who call you incessantly on your cell phone wanting to do things with you like go to a strip club, a comedy show, etc. While this is a fun mechanic at first, it can wear on you after awhile because you're constantly trying to keep everyone happy because when you get on a friend's good side it usually unlocks a tangible benefit, such as free cab rides or access to a helicopter. This means that between each mission you usually feel compelled to spend fifteen minutes going on a mindless chore jaunt with one of these pricks just to stay in their good graces. I know it's something that I could just ignore, but I somehow feel the need to at least keep them from becoming mad at me.

This brings me to the multiplayer. Grand Theft Auto has never had a multiplayer component before, apart from a few PSP games that I never played and can't be bothered with, but in GTA IV they did multiplayer right. There's over a dozen different game modes representing old favorites like deathmatch, territory control, etc., plus some new ones like Cops and Crooks, where one team is made up of criminals that have to reach a designated escape route before the other team, comprised of cops, either destroys their escape vehicle or kills the leader of the crooks. It's an ingenious design as the criminals have the location of the escape vehicle displayed on their minimap, but not the location of the cops, and the cops know where the criminals are, but not their escape route. This leads to brilliant cat and mouse gameplay that will leave you screaming commands at your friends via your headset and looking over each corner for your rivals. Not only that, but there are a few co-op modes and though they mostly feel tacked on, they're worth playing with your friends at least once. Not only are there plenty of different modes, but each mode is very customizable, resulting in near limitless game types. The only lamentation I have for the multiplayer is there isn't an easy way to mute everyone like in Halo 3, and given the Xbox Live community, this is noticeably lacking feature. By the way, I only played the 360 version, but from all accounts the PS3 version is essentially identical, so go with what system you have and don't fret about it.

What more can I say? If you've ever had any interest in the Grand Theft Auto series, you owe it to yourself to buy this game. And if you've never expressed interest, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a rental. Who knows, it may be the game that changes your mind about the series.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/21/08

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

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