Grand Theft Auto IV Review
As far as most gamers are concerned, the Grand Theft Auto franchise didn't truly begin until GTAIII on the PS2 back in 2001. There were several installments before that one, of course, but Rockstar's blockbuster opened our eyes to a new world of action and unbridled vice. Speaking of which, the next entry, Vice City, ramped things up a bit more, and San Andreas took everything to yet another level a few years later. But now, we are in a new generation, and the expectations surrounding Grand Theft Auto IV have skyrocketed out of the atmosphere and now reside somewhere near Jupiter's orbit. Could GTAIV really meet such lofty expectations? Can our fancy new hardware actually deliver an experience that is both fresh and revolutionary? We had many questions before diving into this long-awaited and highly anticipated title, and after immersing ourselves in the new-look Liberty City, we come away completely satisfied. No, wait...amazed.
First, we delve into the category that always receives a lower score when it comes to this series: graphics. Due to the sheer size of the environments in these games, the developers have always found it difficult to produce the finest visuals, as clearly evidenced by the last-gen entries. However, critics and gamers alike always looked past this, simply because the gameplay was engrossing enough to override the graphical shortcomings. And besides, we're not implying the graphics have been bad or even mediocre; they were merely good, but not fantastic. And while GTAIV may not be the best-looking game of the generation so far, what Rockstar has managed to do is borderline astounding. The sheer level of detail is enough to warrant a 9 all on its own: vehicles suffer damage in hundreds of different ways, the number and fluidity of character animations is excellent, and the backdrop of the city itself - especially the weather - lends the game an incredibly realistic feel. The night is appropriately dark, the rising and setting sun throws accurate shadows across the buildings and streets, and everything just feels gritty and real.
Really, it's the little things that will continue to drop your jaw. The cut-scenes aren't finely honed CGI with glossy graphics and super-clean lines, but they are infused with a sense of humanity we rarely see in games. The unattractive yet fascinating underbelly of crime is on display at all times, and Liberty City is alive with true-to-life objects, both animate and inanimate. Now, it's not all roses. There are a few glitches here and there, especially when it comes to collision detection and clipping, which are problems the series has always had since Day 1. We also found the nighttime to be a touch too dark, forcing us to alter the brightness of our television, which got to be a bit annoying. And while it is high-definition, it seems GTAIV falls short of the 720p resolution, as most sources are reporting something closer to 640p for the PS3 version, but that's hardly a major gripe of ours. In the end, the game is brilliantly designed and detailed; it's one of the best environments in history, and there's no getting around that. These aren't the prettiest graphics you will ever see, but they're certainly some of the most impressive.
The sound has often been hit or miss in past installments, especially because there's a great deal of subjectivity in regards to the soundtrack, and the erratic nature of the effects was always prevalent. The balance between voices and impact effects has typically been a bit off in every GTA, and even though we can hear a touch of that in GTAIV, Rockstar has addressed and dealt with this issue. We're not the biggest fans of the soundtrack, but then again, that's only because we're not the biggest fans of modern music. It's probably fantastic for the majority of gamers out there, and there are more channels than ever before. Furthermore, the developers have worked to make Liberty City sound exactly like the living, breathing organisms that large cities are. Car horn honks and the yells of pedestrians are both realistic and fitting, and when it comes to the aforementioned impact effects (be it car crashes or weapon fire), it's better than ever. Some of it is so gut-wrenchingly real, it almost makes you feel sick to your stomach, and that's a huge benefit. Finally, the voice acting is top-notch across the board, so we have very little to complain about in this category. You'll see that's an ongoing trend in this review...
One word instantly springs to mind when we think about playing GTAIV: control. We're not talking about the actual control we have over our character; we're talking about the way we play. Above all else, we must adopt a far more controlled style of play, and that's the ultimate testament to Rockstar's efforts to ramp up the realism. In previous entries, we could often get away with approaching missions in a lunatic manner, knowing we could probably complete the mission and escape due to the more arcade-y setting. This time around, you need more control the whole way 'round. Attracting attention is never a good idea, and thanks to the unbelievably enhanced driving physics and heavier restrictions on your health and constitution, you often need a patient hand. Of course, you can still take time to go nuts every now and then, but it's unlikely you can fend off the authorities for half as long as you could in previous GTA games. Best of all, as a final nod to the realism, the sensation one gets when attempting to complete a mission is perfect: we feel excited, anticipatory, and yes, even a little frightened. When we see a police car turn on its lights and head our way, we're not really smiling; we're actually concerned.
Granted, the AI still isn't the best it could be, but it's far better than it ever was in the franchise. There are a few small errors; i.e., cops advancing when they really shouldn't be, seemingly lost in how to approach the situation, and a girlfriend continually running into the side of a car trying to get 'round to the other side. But that's about it, and we always feel as if we're interacting with a city and a character that are as real as video games can make them. One of the most obviously upgraded aspects of the game is the driving physics, which are now bordering on a driving/racing simulator. Cars differ greatly from one to the other (as they should), the braking and turning process requires the deft touch of a skilled driver, and the e-brake quickly becomes your best friend. But if you use it too much and make the mistake of pressing that R1 button too hard when in the seat of a high-powered rear-wheel vehicle, you'll spin right around. Remember that bit about controlled play? It applies more to the driving than perhaps any other part of the gameplay, and it's a welcome addition.
Much like the graphics, but on an even more impressive scale, it's the little things that launch this game into the realm of near-perfection: we jacked a car, then watched in absolute glee as the previous owner grabbed the door handle and hung on for a brief period of time. He got dragged about for a bit, then got tossed free. The rag-doll physics are mostly gone; when ramming a person, the individual will buckle and fall in pain, and if hit hard enough, they will fly, but it's not comical or physically inaccurate. When we hit the bar with our lady friend, we had a bit too much to drink and the world pitched and rolled before our very eyes. Yep, we were virtually loopy. We attended Cabaret shows with full entertainment, went bowling, shot pool, got our car washed, threw darts, got lucky with girls, assassinated those who insulted the family, stun-punched unsuspecting opponents, fought the controls of a terrible car in an intense police chase, held up insolent rascals at gunpoint, enjoyed the fruits of our labor and yes, even watched a sunset on the water.
It's a full experience, from top to bottom. Car alarms will go off when you accidentally touch them, and some vehicles will be locked, forcing you to break the window and hotwire your way to freedom. We could just go on and on and on. But for the sake of brevity, let's focus on the control for a moment (and this time, we're talking about the actual control). The main character, Niko, controls better than ever, and for the first time, momentum becomes a factor. Like the driving, the aiming system - from melee to long-range weapons - has undergone a huge upgrade, which is great news for avid GTA followers. Rather than the ungainly manual aiming, we now have a more solidified third-person, over-the-shoulder mechanic that works extremely well. You can switch between targets while aiming and even override the auto-aim with a manual aim that allows you to target specific parts of the body. On top of that, the hand-to-hand combat gets the benefit of this aiming exercise as well, and enemies will react realistically to your blows. Lastly, the aiming reticle will turn red if you can perform a one-shot assassination with a weapon, and it will shrink to a red dot when you approach someone unarmed and a stun punch maneuver becomes available.
The camera isn't perfect, especially in cramped areas, but given the freedom and number of different viewpoints afforded the player, it's still one of the best we've ever seen in third-person action games. There's an in-car view when driving, several different views when running around with Niko, and switching between the camera viewpoints is as easy as hitting the Select button. The only real problem we have is when the camera doesn't automatically reposition itself behind your car when you spin or turn quickly. This means you have to rotate the camera with the right analog while still trying to steer with the left, putting a slight crimp in your progress. However, you will quickly get used to it, and we really can't tell if this is a "flaw" or not...if it did auto-position, there's a good chance it wouldn't function properly in certain scenarios, so perhaps it's best to have the manual option at all times. Controlling when running is as simple as ever; Niko can walk, run, sprint, swim and even cling onto ledges, which means he is a very capable and diverse character.
As we said before, the design and size of the city is tremendous, but the way the gameplay is laid out is just as good. You will be introduced to the crucial facets of the gameplay during many of the early missions, and clear tips and instructions will pop up to help you along the way. So during the first few hours, you'll learn how to pick up objects with the L2 button (they must be small enough to handle), hotwire a car, jump over obstacles, become familiar with melee and firearm combat and driving from point A to point B, etc, etc, etc. The further you go, the more you learn, and it won't be long before you're on your own in the big, scary city. Even the NPCs and other characters are better accustomed to their environment, and we'll give you one example: when out on a date, we realized a low fence was in our way, and we knew Niko could jump over it...but we were waiting for the girl to just keep running into the fence. However, we were very happy to see her leap over that fence like a real trooper. Provided you understand the new momentum physics, you'll have no problem with the control whatsoever.
The story has always been pretty good in GTA games, but the plot is certainly far more advanced than usual in GTAIV. Right from the start, we're given a glimpse into Niko's past, which is a little hazy, and it's not long before we learn about his quest for revenge. In true crime lord fashion, you work your way up the underground ladder, dealing with all sorts of unsavory types. Strangely enough, despite the fact that Niko can be ruthless, he also has a veiled sense of morality that shines through every now and then. He doesn't do drugs, he doesn't go around shooting everyone like a maniac, and while he's certainly not adverse to killing someone, he needs to have a damn good reason to do it. Well, at least as far as the story is concerned; you can do whatever you want in between missions, of course. Thing is, this guy is more of a sympathetic protagonist (if you can get past the willing killer part), and that's a definite change of pace. Lastly, and speaking of pace, the story progresses wonderfully; it never feels as if it's dragging or moving along too quickly. It even has all the good stuff, like betrayal and other eye-opening plot points, so thumbs up for this, too.
At first, we thought we'd miss the character upgrade system we had in San Andreas, but in retrospect, that mechanic really wasn't fleshed out enough. It was far too easy to stay a buff robot, and it didn't make much sense that a fully grown adult would start off so poorly when driving a car or shooting a gun. We understood the concept - you get better at doing certain things the more you do them - but it didn't turn out to be the major catalyst we had anticipated it to be, and in all honesty, it's entirely unnecessary in GTAIV. It would've taken focus away from the gameplay foundation and hindered the flow of the action, in our opinion. Besides, GTAIV makes up for the lack of a skill system with one of the best multiplayer experiences around. Even though the PS3 servers crashed on us a few times, we got a chance to play through several different modes - our favorites being Car Jack City and Bomb da Base - and all of them played out wonderfully. The city really does become your playground, and some seriously hilarious things can happen, depending on who your playmates are. There are 15 multiplayer modes in total (wow!) and some of them even offer co-op play, which is yet another big bonus.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto IV is a masterpiece. It's a triumph of game development ability and a clear determination to achieve a ridiculously ambitious vision. It is not perfect, but you know what? It's damn close. Some may see the graphical glitches and kooky gameplay slowdown that can happen (Niko once went to jack a car and suddenly seemed to be moving through a giant bowl of molasses) as glaring errors, but they're hardly crippling issues. Furthermore, at this point, some might actually consider these as endearing eccentricities in the GTA franchise, and while we don't quite agree with that, we know one thing: GTAIV feels exactly as it should. It's as immersive an atmosphere as you can get without leaping into full-on virtual reality, and in the world of the open-ended yet still story-driven game, that's a glorious accomplishment. The characters and story are intriguing and surprisingly well-written, the action is always waiting around every corner, and every time you turn around, something else catches your eye.
The frame rate isn't great - it's no 60fps - but at a little less than 30, it still works nicely. There are a few issues when moving very slowly or spinning the camera quickly, but nothing that significantly impacts the gameplay. Lastly, tremendous detail and more than a few massive upgrades to both the technical and artistic aspects of the game combine to make this one a downright amazing experience. You may think you're simply not a GTA fan. You didn't like the other games; they're just not your style. Well, we don't want to tell you what your personal preferences should be, but GTAIV is one of the best games ever made. Ever. Nothing is perfect, but this is about as close as you can get to virtual perfection when you look at the entire package. Do yourself a favor and play the game A...S...A...P.
4/30/2008 Ben Dutka