Review by kennykaos317

"Hours of gameplay, but the serious story replaces some of the fun."

Grand Theft Auto IV introduces the series to next-generation gaming systems, and while it does not revolutionize the industry in the way that GTAIII did, it manages to improve and streamline the GTA experience. The wealth of single-player activities, combined with the newly added multiplayer games, provide dozens of hours of enjoyment. Unfortunately, the addition of a more serious storyline resulted in losing some of the fun.

The game begins with the main character, Niko Bellic, arriving in Liberty City. He has come to live with his cousin Roman, a successful businessman living the American Dream. However, reality does not correspond to the stories Roman told; he actually owns a rundown cabstand and lives in a dingy apartment, a far cry from the life of luxury he had claimed. Soon enough, Niko finds himself involved in organized crime, running errands and committing crimes in an attempt to create his own American Dream. Niko's past remains cloudy, but throughout the game you will uncover events from his past and discover his real motives for coming to Liberty City.

In the course of the game, you will explore every nook and cranny of Liberty City. This Liberty City is a faithful recreation of New York City, specifically Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and New Jersey. You will encounter popular landmarks like the Statue of Happiness (instead of Liberty) and Rotterdam Tower in place of the Empire State Building. Rockstar has done an excellent job of creating a true living city. Niko is really one man among millions, and you get the sense that the city has a life of its own, instead of revolving around the main character like most videogames. Police officers chase criminals down the street. A fender bender prompts the drivers to exit their cars to “discuss” the accident. People hold newspapers or umbrellas over their heads when it rains. The citizens of Liberty City really live their own lives, and Niko passes in and out of their lives like any other citizen.

Of course, few citizens of Liberty City are truly like Niko. He has an agenda of his own, and he will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. To help Niko in his pursuit, you will take part in the typical Grand Theft Auto activities: running, driving, and shooting. The game engine has been greatly improved, making these activities more fun and easy than ever before.

The top improvement has to be the upgraded aiming and cover system. Taking a cue from Gears of War, aiming now takes an over-the-shoulder view. Pulling the left trigger all the way in locks onto nearby people (including both enemies and innocent civilians, if you're in a populated area), while pulling the left trigger halfway in allows for free aim. Once you've locked onto an enemy, you can adjust your aim using the right stick, allowing you to pull off headshots with ease. This is a huge improvement over earlier games in the series. It is easy to lock onto the wrong target, but a flick of the right stick cycles between nearby enemies. In addition, the right bumper sticks Niko to a nearby object, whether it's a building, crate, or burned out car. You can then target and lock onto enemies with the left trigger, and pulling the right trigger causes Niko to pop out of his cover and take a shot at his target. These improvements almost make missions too easy. If you take your time and use the cover system well, you'll be able to tip-toe your way through most firefights, taking minimal damage.

The game has also added a small fighting system. Instead of wailing on your enemy with your fists and feet, you now can dodge incoming blows. Time your dodge correctly, and you will follow up with a combination that will drastically reduce your enemy's health. Though you'll rarely use this system in the course of the game, it can be fun to pick fist fights just to use the new system. Skillful use with this system will be rewarded, while button-mashing will result in the receipt of a beating.

Car handling is also improved. Now you can feel the weight of the car as you scream through the city streets. You'll no longer be able to take a corner at top speed; like a real world car, you'll have to slow down and apply the brakes if you hope to make a turn without smashing into oncoming traffic. You will need to become a skillful driver to escape the cops with the new wanted level. Pay ‘n' Sprays are no longer the easy option. You can enter these to instantly lose your wanted level, but only if you enter them unseen. The most successful method for losing your wanted level is to outrun the cops. When you are seen committing a crime, you will instantly acquire one star. A small radius will appear on your map; drive outside this area without being seen by other cops, and you'll lose your level. The higher your level, the wider the radius. If a cop (conveniently displayed on your map) sees you, the center of your wanted radius recenters around you and you must once again attempt to escape the circle. One or two stars are insignificantly easy, while three and higher will require greater skill. The identification of other cops on your map makes this easier than it should be, but wanted levels of four stars or higher would probably be impossible to escape without this aid.

These new systems will be put to great use throughout the game's 96 story missions and countless additional side missions. The game contains an enormous amount of content. Much of this content is locked away for the first eight hours or so. You will spend much of your time completing missions serving as thinly veiled tutorials. The game hits its sweet spots at about the ten hour mark. You will be presented with several story mission options, plus side missions like racing and delivering drugs and stealing cars, or simply hanging out with your in-game friends or rampaging through the city, leaving nothing but death and destruction in your wake.

A cell phone has been given to the main character, and this simple tool becomes the primary way the player will access much of the game's content. You will receive text messages for missions. You will have dates added to your calendar. You will use the camera on some missions. You will even access multiplayer through the cell phone (more on that later). Much of your time in the game will revolve around this feature. Throughout Niko's journey, he will meet and befriend many people. Some of these people will give Niko missions, which he can access in the traditional way of driving to their locations. But he can also contact these people with his cell phone. He will be able to enjoy activities with his new friends, from bowling to darts to simply attending a show. These new friends will also call Niko and ask to get together. Socializing with some of these friends has benefits; for example, improve your relationship with one friend and he will meet you in a back alley and sell you weapons at a discount. You can skip this aspect of the game altogether, but you will miss out on some nice benefits. Then again, it can get really annoying when you're trying to drive to a mission and you receive a call from a friend. Do you reject the friend, lowering your standing with them, or skip the mission and drive across town to play a silly mini-game? What starts out as a fun diversion becomes more than a little annoying.

Though there is a wealth of missions to pursue, these missions will become repetitive over time. There is simply not a lot of variety to your missions. Some missions stand out, such as knocking over a bank and escaping on foot through the city, shooting it out with cops along the way. Many missions involve simply killing a large quantity of bad guys, or driving to a location to watch a cut-scene. With the more serious character and storyline, some of the more outrageous missions from earlier GTAs would seem out of place. But the over-the-top nature of the earlier games is part of what made them so fun. And is it too much to ask for checkpoints within missions? GTAIV has added the option to instantly replay a mission if you fail it, which is nice, but it is endlessly frustrating to run through 90% of a mission, only to fail it at the last second because you made an unforeseeable error. It would especially be nice to not have to start a mission at the very beginning, when the mission begins with you simply driving for a couple of minutes to a location.

In addition to missions, there is a lot of content to experience. As usual, you have a wealth of radio stations to choose from: everything from talk radio to latin music to pop is represented. You will enjoy the music, and you will laugh at the hilarious commercial parodies. In addition, Niko will gain access to the Internet. You will access email for missions or to set up dates, but you will find yourself surfing and laughing at all the Internet parodies. There are dozens of fictional websites to surf. Finally, you also have a TV in your apartment and can watch several faux shows. The TV is the weakest entertainment link, with only a couple of decent shows, and the only way to watch it is to simply sit in front of the TV and watch. Still, this adds a lot of peripheral content to an already immense game.

When you get tired of the story and side missions, you can hop into multiplayer, new to the GTA series. Multiplayer is accessed directly from Niko's cellphone; there is no need to exit the game and move to another menu. From there you can easily jump into one of 15 multiplayer games. You'll encounter everything from a standard deathmatch to races to the team-based Cops and Crooks, where you join a team of either Cops or Crooks (hence the name) and either kill (as a Cop) or escape (as a Crook). You'll also be able to complete co-op missions, or join some friends to run amok in Free Mode. Everything you would expect to be able to do in a GTAIV multiplayer game, you can. To join up with friends, you can enter Party Mode. Instead of a dull lobby, Party Mode gives you a wide open city with plenty of weapons, vehicles, and pedestrians. You can blast each other to bits while you're waiting for friends. Then simply choose a game and jump right into it. When that game is over, you can either stay to continue playing, or jump back to Party Mode and choose a different game.

If you are chosen as the host, then you can dictate the rules of the match. You can turn auto-lock on or off, choose to use the entire city or limit the game to a specific area, limit the weapons, dictate the density of traffic, and much more. As you kill opponents, you earn money that serves as experience points. These points help you earn levels, which provide new appearance options for your custom character. The drawback to this system is simply the limited number of levels you can earn. Your maximum level is 10, and the amount of money you need to earn a level becomes astronomical. While it gives an added incentive to keep playing, it would be nice to earn levels more frequently. I also had trouble moving from one game to another: lobbies seemed to fill especially slowly after my first game. But these games are fun and add a lot of life to the game.

GTAIV is an amazing step forward in the series. It retains the aspects that worked best, improved the aspects that did not, and added features that will increase the life of the game. Though it has its share of flaws, it is a game that must be experienced.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/03/08

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

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