Review by I__egg_man__I

"I'm leaving here with ramen!"

Grand Theft Auto IV is the umpteenth entry into the world renowned GTA series, clocking in as the first on the current generation of consoles. While it would be hard for another GTA game to be as revolutionary as the first or third games in the series, GTA IV is still a benchmark in free roaming gameplay and a huge effort for Rockstar to be really proud of.

You start off as Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat to fictional Liberty City from his homeland of Russia, his life ruined by his memories of war, and a betrayal he hopes to rectify in this new country. It is easy to empathise with Niko through the first few missions of the game; in fact I didn't want to commit any crimes for the first hour or so, as I had no real reason to. He was just an ordinary citizen trying to make his way. Alas, this can't continue for long in the Grand Theft Auto universe, and throughout the game Niko is inevitably used, misled, and forced to carry out tasks for some of Liberty City's more shady citizens.

One major design flaw can become apparent within the first few hours of play; GTA IV is a dark, dark game. So dark it can become difficult to see anything if you've got light shining on your screen. You can rectify this by turning up the brightness in-game and on your TV, but why the game ships with the settings turned down so much baffles me. However, once you resolve this problem the world opens up, and it is an incredible place. Despite all the explosions and cold blooded murders, I would love to live in Liberty City. I have spent plenty of time in the game driving next to the water, admiring the beautiful sunsets as they reflect on the water below, shining off the car windows and casting long shadows from the trees onto the road nearby. From above, the city still looks breathtakingly huge, and the second island in particular is perplexingly vertical. But even then, a small portion of buildings have an inside to explore; this city is really damn big, and I feel like I'll never see all this game has to offer; a big shame and a huge compliment. There's nothing more wonderful than having played a game twice through, clocking in over 100 hours overall, yet still finding some new place while hunting down pigeons.

Yes, pigeons. GTA IV, as with it's predecessors, comes with side missions to distract you from the main story missions; stunt jumps, hidden packages, and random encounters with strangers on the street, amongst others. Hunting all these down, inevitably with an FAQ, unless you are made of time, takes you to places you would have never found otherwise, and meeting some of the optional people of Liberty City can bring home some real issues. For example, one of these random encounters, who only appears at night, asks you to help him dispose of some body parts... to drop the kids off, as it were. This is not a character you like, and it makes you stop, and think about the things happening in this world, the real world, and their implications. Very interesting for such a satirical and humourous game; not just the side missions, but the main story can also really make you feel for Niko as a character; especially near the end of the game, where you are given a few morally difficult choices. Putting yourself in Niko's shoes amplifies this game's story tenfold; decisions become truly hard to make. You can choose to act out of spite, to get revenge for what has happened in the past, but does it help? If you're greedy for blood, or money, does life get better? Will Niko ever find the true meaning of the American dream? You'll only find out by playing, and choosing his actions for yourself.

The main story plays out as a series of missions. You go to the markers on the map, helped mercifully by the in-game GPS system, which shows the "best" route on the radar in the bottom left, and upon entering them a cutscene is triggered. This is how you meet characters and advance the story, and the only way to finish the main game is to do every mission. Throughout the game you will meet several memorable characters, some you will like, some you will not. One of GTA IV's weakpoints, unfortunately, is the similarity between all the missions. Let's face it; 99% of what you do in this game is go to a place, shoot people, and maybe take something somewhere. This is an enormous shame, as some of the more outlandish missions introduce really good gameplay elements; picking environmental objects, using Niko's, ahem, athletic ability, to get on top of a warehouse, transporting a volatile bomb in a slow, heavy vehicle... these were all great, but they only happened once! It just feels like there was a lot of potential lost, and the reasoning behind only using each mechanic once is, again, a mystery to me. Hopefully this will be rectified with some more missions via downloadable content, but still, it seems like a wasted oppurtunity. It is lucky, then, that the controls and gameplay tie so neatly together and work so well, or the shoot-now-ask-questions-later missions would become a real bore. GTA IV's controls work a charm, whether you've got the auto-aim feature on or not. And don't forget the driving.

Oh, the driving. It is different from past games in the series, no doubt about that. But after twenty or so minutes, the much heavier, more realistic cars are no longer a hurdle. Yes, I'm afraid, you will have to brake to go around corners. You'll get used to it. Driving perfectly may be difficult, but these games have never really been about stopping at traffic lights, have they. If you want to drive up the pavement, be my guest. If you want to run over a very stereotypical Jew, uh, please don't, but do it in this game instead. You can. And what will happen? Well thanks to the greatly used Euphoria engine, he will react realisticly. Bump him a little, and he'll stumble, then maybe turn around and shout at you. Hit him a little harder... he might fall over. A little harder he'll take a while to get up, and walk away bent double in pain. Plough into him hard enough, though, and his blood will paint your bonnet red, his body will, maybe, stick to your car, sliding back sickeningly as you accelerate further, or perhaps you hit him with enough force to send him cartwheeling upwards. Perhaps you'll never know quite where he went at all. To start with, the realism is unnerving, but given time I'm sure you'll desensitise enough to go out and one day become a real life criminal.

That is, of course, unless the police get you. The whole system has been revamped for GTA IV, and for the better. Remember those heady days back when GTA III came out, and you'd walk around, maybe shoot a couple of guys, get one star, shoot a few more, two stars. Ah. See, from that moment, you knew you were done for. It was nigh on impossible to get rid of a two star rating without using a Pay 'n' Spray. This is no longer the case. You can escape a two star rating! It's just a little harder. You can even escape a three star, and with practice a four star! As it should have been from the beginning, you only run into real trouble with the higher ratings. And don't worry, different driving hasn't tampered with the intense police chases; some will still have your heart beating as you crash through a roadblock, guns flaring, hoping to God that none of them have a shotgun. The main difference this time around is that the police have a little ring of city in which they look for you when you commit a crime. This shows up on your radar, but do enough naughty things and the circle can grow to the size of half of one of the islands. Good luck with getting out of that; because that's what you have to do. Get out of the circle, without being seen, for a set amount of time, and you're a free man. Just like real life! Well, nearly. Yes, I did say without being seen. Your stars fade from white to grey if no damn pigs can see you; try to avoid them, you can see them closing in on your radar. If even one sees you, however, the circle recentres on your current position and all the Babylon around are informed of your new position. This adds an extra layer that the cop chases in GTA really needed, to be honest. One bad point to mention, however, is that getting busted can really dampen the experience. A lot. You lose a little money and all the weapons you worked so hard to buy. This can be so big an inconvenience it's not worth going through with, and I tried to kill myself every time it looked like I'd get arrested instead. Yes, it's that bad. But still, the improved police system has totally changed, and improved, the game; the danger level with each new star is now a spectrum of different challenges, not merely an if-I-get-more-than-one-star-I'm-doomed black and white picture.

But enough about pictures. This game has a substantial soundtrack; the radio stations are back and as great as ever. You can choose from jazz, to rap, to reggae, to Russian, to rock, to electric, to chat stations, and they're all great, with songs from celebrities such as Bob Marley and Busta Rhymes. But the radio stations aren't all this game has to offer; each character is excellently voiced, and don't get me started on the sounds of the city. Okay, empty your house, turn up the volume, close your eyes and listen to this game... you can hear the people around you, the cars driving past. Even the dampened sounds of the radio of the car you just got out of. Now run through a crowd, hear the people complain and yell at you as you push them out of the way and they drop their drinks... and then shoot someone for running you over, and hear people scream, run til it's empty and just... silence. This game's got sound.

It is worth mentioning at this point that it is not a game all about sniping pedestrians from your vantage point atop the Empire State Building. Throughout the main story you will acquire friends, and you have to do activities with these friends to keep them on your good side. If you don't, it doesn't really affect the game that much, but if you get them to like you enough, they'll do favours for you, such as selling you discount guns or giving you free lifts around the city. The activities you have to do, though, are a bit of a drag. Bowling is too hard, but pool and darts are too easy. Getting drunk is fun every once in a while, but you get the police on you almost instantly if you try to drive; they won't notice you missing red lights or speeding while sober, but once you're drunk I guess you're just too much of a hazard to let roam free. These minigames of sorts break up the intense action gameplay, as was probably their purpose, but I often went into them as if they were a chore, and this is never a good sign. Ah well.

Up until now, the GTA series has been all about the single player super-experience. Well it still is... but now with added multiplayer modes! The online in this game is great; unfortunately, there is no local play. But still, playing with friends through a series of tubes is awesome. There are a variety of different modes, from regular deathmatches and races, to the more unique Cops 'n' Crooks game, where one team, as a bunch of filthy criminal scum, has to get the boss to the extraction point, finding their own means of transport and having no idea of the whereabouts of their arch nemeses, the cops, who know exactly where the crooks are at all times, and start off in a cop car. There's also Mafiya Work, where either on your own or in teams you carry out a bunch of mini-missions, such as killing a few guys, or killing a few guys in a car, that kind of stuff. There are also three co-op missions, one where you get an NPC boss away from the airport as fast as possible, one where you blow up a boat, and kill a bunch of guys, and one where you kill a bunch of guys and then some more, making off with drugs and money. This is all grand, and works great, especially with some friends. It is just a shame that there is no real co op mode; playing the whole game with another few people would have been an incredible experience. Maybe something to think about for GTA V, or GTA Vice City II, wherever they go from here. But not to worry, there is the mode we have all dreamed of; online 16 player free mode. Do absolutely whatever you want, with whoever you like, for as long as you desire. Want to try building a pyramid of helicopters with your friend? Your lucky day. Want to see who can land closest to the bullseye from the highest drop point? Sure. You make the rules, you have the fun. Lots of it.

Customisation plays a big role in a lot of today's games, especially online; sadly, GTA IV disappoints. You start off with a measly amount of clothing for your online avatar, and this only increases by playing in ranked matches, and even then, getting a decent amount of clothes to choose from can take a while. Things are a little better in single player, where you can kit out Niko with a variety of different styles, but after finding that one perfect suit I never felt the need to change out of it. He looked suave, debonair, and dashing. Apart from his grimy face and all the blood, that is. My girlfriend hates the premise of the game (I have tried to explain that it's not all mindless violence) but she gladly played with Niko's wardrobe when I left the room once. I changed him back when she left. I liked my Niko better.

So, to summarise; Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, a game I have sunk my teeth into for many many hours and continue to do so today. But it does have it's faults, this is undeniably true, mainly the lack of variety in the missions. But the great thing is, this series is not going to stop, and I have no doubts that with the next instalment they'll improve on this formula, just as they did after GTA III came out. And I cannot wait for when that day comes.

If I had to give this game a numerical score, it would be an extremely solid 9.0.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 09/17/08

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

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