Grand Theft Auto IV User Review
GTA IV follows the archetype of its predecessors in giving you a protagonist, arriving anew in a city, with plans to be more. In this case, it is Niko Bellic, an East European immigrant running from his past. He has come to Liberty City by the persuasion of his cousin Roman, who claims to be Mr Big, inhabiting a luxury condo, driving sports cars and getting dirty with untold numbers of women when the sun goes down. The truth of the matter is that Roman isn’t even a blip on the radar. His greatest claim to fame is an immense debt to mobsters that he is incapable of paying. His sole source of income is his apparently unprofitable taxi business. In short, life in Liberty City is not going to be easy, as Niko had been anticipating. Instead of living it up in the lap of luxury and forgetting the horrors of his past, he is forced to resort to that old self in order to free Roman from debt, adding ever more sins to his conscience in the process.
The story is far more involved and personal than any other entry in the series. From the comical opening, to the bittersweet ending, it makes you legitimately care about the characters, and the trials and tribulations they are going through. It is well worth playing through to the conclusive end in order to see what becomes of Niko and Roman.
The graphics of the game are, like most sandbox games, a double-edged sword in that it exchanges fidelity for scope. I really felt that the character models suffered as a result of the incredible amount of detail put into the city, but this is to be expected. Liberty City itself is absolutely beautiful. Without a doubt the best-looking one that I have seen in a game, but there is a problem with this. It is obvious that a great deal of work has gone into crafting this immense landscape, yet there is never a reason to slow down and take stock of your surroundings. That is something that I would have loved. To be forced to look around Liberty City, and really get a feel for it. You can do so at anytime you choose, but it’s not the same as having a set goal hidden to find, and as such, just feels like a waste of time. Besides, it is far more gratifying to find the fastest car you can and tear through the streets. If however, you do choose to look around, you will find a daunting amount of variety in the world. It almost seems as if no two buildings are the same.
The character models themselves certainly aren’t bad, but I felt that they were lacking in detail. A major gripe I had with this was the facial animation. We are expected to emote with these characters, and yet they seemed too stiff, which made it very hard (EDIT: That was unintentional, I swear). On the other hand, the movement animations, powered by the Euphoria engine, are incredible. The way the NPCs react to the situations unfolding around them; the random acts you will encounter them doing, such as carrying umbrellas, reading newspapers, or sifting through the boots of their cars; even the way they walk and run is incredibly realistic.
The game also runs very smoothly, with only a tiny amount of pop in when travelling at high speeds (craftily concealed with motion blur, but you can still see it if you are looking for it). The frame rate drops occasionally in moments of high action, but it is rare. I also noticed some very minor instances of screen tearing. All of this may be aided by the sub-HD native resolution of the game, but there is really no denying that it is a marvellous technical achievement.
This achievement carries into the sound department, where Rockstar again proves that they can do no wrong in this element. The voice work of the game is simply amazing, and contrary to what one would expect with the number of accents in the game, none of them seem overdone. It is a remarkable fact given the ridiculous amount of dialogue in the game. Even the random comments of people on the street seem right in most cases. The sound effects pop well, with each weapon sounding decidedly different from the others. Nevertheless, it is more than this, from the screeching of tyres on tarmac to the gentle call of the birds in a moment of peace or the thunderous tumult of rain on the pavement, the ambience is stunning. This is aided by the absence of any soundtrack outside of vehicles, as it adds another layer of realism to the game.
Speaking of the soundtrack, when in a vehicle you have the option of nineteen different in-game radio stations to choose from, three of which feature humorous chat programs, while the other sixteen share a selection of over two hundred licensed songs crossing a broad range of genres. Because of this incredible variety, you are almost guaranteed to find something you can enjoy listening to. Alternatively, you have the option to turn the radio off and enjoy the sounds of screeching tyres. If I have to make a complaint about the sound factor, it is that most of the in-game music did not appeal to me at all. As such, I found myself flicking between only four of the available stations. This is understandable though, as Rockstar have obviously tried to find a balance that will appeal to everyone.
When it comes to the controls, there is no real problem with them. I will give you the general layout, while trying to keep it brief, but given that every button on the controller is utilised, it may not be so. First, the on-foot controls. The dominant aspect of this is the shooting. It feels very intuitive, although the default camera setting felt a fraction too slow for my liking. Setting it the aim sensitivity to high however, made the camera move too fast, so you can’t please everyone. This is usually offset by the targeting system, which locks onto an NPC when the L2 button is fully depressed. If you only press it in halfway, it puts you into a free aim mode. The R2 button is used to fire. When locked on, you can quickly move the right analogue stick to switch between targets, or move it more gently to alter the crosshair in order to aim for a specific body part. R1 is the cover button, snapping you behind protection and out again. Circle allows you to reload your weapon at anytime without needing to empty your clip. Pressing the R3 button while aiming zooms in, emulating the iron sights mechanic used by many first person shooters. While not aiming, it inverts the camera so that you have the ability to look behind.
Besides the shooting controls, there are the exploration aspects of the game, but first, the mobile phone. This device allows you to call up your in-game friends to take on activities, or take photos. It also gives you access to the multiplayer suite of the game. You enter it by pressing the up button on the D-Pad. It is controlled almost entirely by the D-Pad and X button, although Circle allows you to exit out of it. Outside of this nifty gadget, left and right on the D-Pad cycles between your available weapons. The right stick controls the camera movement, and the left character movement, while L1 is used for context sensitive actions, such as picking up bricks or hailing taxis. Over to the other side of the controller, and Square gives you the ability to jump or climb. In what I figure to be a foolish move, Niko is not able to run using only the analogue stick; this is instead mapped to the X button, while tapping it allows Niko to sprint, but only for as long as he has the stamina. The melee element of the game is entered by locking onto an NPC while not equipped with a weapon. Your punch buttons as Circle and Triangle, while Square is a kick. To block, you hold down X, or with a well timed tap of the same, you can dodge beneath an enemy’s blow and swiftly strike back with a killer combo. The Select button allows you to choose between one of three camera set-ups.
The final button is the Triangle, which is what allows you to hijack *cough* sorry, enter and exit vehicles, which leads me into the controls for that aspect of the game. First and foremost, the L2 and R2 half-triggers control the brake and accelerator respectively. For those tight turns, the handbrake has been allocated to both the R1 and X button. As while on-foot, the analogue sticks serve the same purpose. Left and right on the D-Pad flips you through the radio stations, and holding down either turns it off. L1 lets you fire your weapon through the window, while Square lets you choose from between the pistol, submachine gun, or grenade/Molotov cocktail. As on foot, Select gives you the option of several camera angles, three of which sit behind your vehicle, one that sits atop the bonnet, and the fifth, which is a rather useless cinematic mode (which can also be activated by holding down Circle). The windscreen cam is rather irritating, as it doesn’t give you the ability to adequately gauge the clearance of your vehicle, while the three other modes seem to sit too low behind the vehicle, which is annoying.
It all works well enough, yet the missions are, for lack of a better word, boring. Almost all of them involve you driving to a certain location and killing a bunch of NPCs. Yes, the environments for these shooting galleries are quite varied, but it is all very derivative. Occasionally, the monotony is broken by a chase sequence, whether in vehicle or on foot and these are always fun, but they are used sparingly. The pacing of the story also does the game few favours in that it is so very slow and plodding. Of course, it makes sense to have Niko needing to garner favour with each contact before he is introduced to the next, but with the repetitive nature of the missions, it’s enough to make you tune out. More variety could have been offered by having certain missions require you to seek out an object within a certain zone, rather than pointing you directly to it with the aid of the mini-map. Another potentially great addition would be that of quick-time events for certain missions. This lack of variety is my single biggest gripe with the game.
That being said, driving is a near perfect mix between realism and fun, and so always good, but with the incredible amount that you are asked to do during the course of the game, the implementation of the taxi system is a godsend. The ability to call a taxi to whisk you away to your destination is immensely liberating. You also have the ability to buy new outfits, but this has little impact on the game itself, which I feel is another missed opportunity. The final thing is that almost all of the customisation options introduced so recently with GTA: San Andreas have been stripped away. I know that they didn’t necessarily add anything real to the game, but it was nice to be able to change your look so drastically.
Now we come to the question of whether or not the game is worth playing more than once. Scattered throughout the course of the story are several moral choices, however these seemed shoehorned in, merely to keep up with the latest trends. Only the last one has any real impact on the story, and it is a part of the final mission, so this doesn’t really offer any reason to play again. The story itself, however, does. It is simply fantastic, and proves that the folks at Rockstar Games know what they are doing. Outside of this, there is no real incentive to play it over again.
But then, there is the question of how long a single play through will take, and if you choose simply to play through the missions, you will easily get thirty hours out of the game. Add to this the side missions offered by your friends, the vigilante missions, the friend system itself. Not to mention the hidden package system, returning in the form of the more difficult than ever to find pigeons, and random stranger tasks, the game can easily pack in fifty hours or more depending on how much of a completionist you are.
With all that being said, I found GTA IV to be disappointing, in spite of its obvious greatness. I think that a large part of this has to do with the incredible amount of hype that went into the game pre-release. Almost every reviewer lauded it as being the greatest thing to ever grace a console, and yet in retrospect, it is nothing new. That, I think, is what holds GTA IV back from being an elite game. The formula of the series, the go-anywhere, do-anything basis has become worn. Time has opened my eyes though. If I had have written this review back when I first played the game, it would have scored far lower, as my disappointment was far greater. Now though, I see that I was wrong to award it on the merits of its predecessors. It is almost an entirely new franchise. The last thing I will say about the game is this: The essence of Grand Theft Auto has become tired. It is no longer as fun as some of the other sandbox games available. Saying it is not a great game is a lie, but it is not a game deserving of a perfect score. Not by a long shot.
Thankyou for your time and I hope that you found my words to be both informative and helpful. Until next time PSXE, Peace and Law be with you.
This user review does not reflect the views of the PSX Extreme Staff.