Grand Theft Auto IV
Let me start modestly with this review: this is THE game everyone was waiting for this year. Not only you and I, or the rest of the gamers in the world, but also Uwe Boll – who probably has wet dreams of making a movie about it – and Jack Thompson (the lawyer of the gamedevil who probably would love to see nothing more than that it would disappear from store shelves although that is already happening in reality). Is the game really as good as the hype and sales figures predict?
Grand Theft Auto is a series with a lot of history. The first edition, which dates back to 1998, was revolutionary in its genre. The top-down carjacking, shooting, blowing up cars,… Everything many gamer longed for was present. GTA2 continued on the same line, but added gangs to the concept, an element that was kept in later editions. The true revolution came with GTA3 which let the player make the city unsafe in third person view. This style of gaming became so popular that two other game with the same – but each time improved – engine were added. These came with improvements in gameplay with new elements like investing in real-estate and forming your own gang.
Almost four years after GTA: San Andreas we now get GTA IV: a new number, a new engine, a renewed city, a bit of hot coffee and a lot more grown up. What does this edition lack? At least it’s not blindly continuing the previous games; there are a ton of substantial differences to the formula, and in my opinion this was clearly necessary.
Let’s start with the story: Nico Bellick is the main character, a Russian and ex-military who migrated to the United States, looking for the good life. Cars, pools, bitches, the whole lot. Imagine his disappointment when his cousin Roman, who’s been living in Liberty City for some years and described his life as “the max” apparently lives in a stinking cockroach-infected appartment and has a ton of debts. Being the good guy that he is, Nico decides to help his cousin by doing some sidejobs. Quickly he ends up in the criminal environment he tried to escape from by leaving Europe. The setup reminds of Vice City, where first you’re forced to criminal acts to escape personal problems, but get drowned in it by the bigger crime families in town. Remarkable is that GTA no longer is built from different territories meaning that you no longer have green or pink fellows who all drive with the same car in some part of the game world.
As if coincidence had something to do with it, Liberty City again consists out of three big islands that are unlocked after only quite a number of hours playing. Indeed, Liberty City was already visited twice before in the series and again the structure has been turned around. The city in this edition is completely built to the image of New York and is filled with visual landmarks. Think of Times Square, the statue of Liberty, Central Park and – for those that remember Men in Black – the two UFO-shaped towers and the world globe.
One of the most noticeable changes are the controls of the vehicles; this is a lot more realistic than before. Braking can no longer be done in 5 meters and also the handbrake doesn’t help much. Just like in real life you need to slow down before going into a turn unless you prefer scratching Nico’s face off a wall. Indeed, a wall, as our trigger happy Russian doesn’t like to put on his seat belt. In turns he therefore gets thrown from left to right and if the cars hits a pole of wall too hard he’ll literally be catapulted through the windshield. Very funny at times, but annoying during chases. Parking the car upside down no longer results in an explosion and also when the car breaks down it will not go down in flames but just stop.
Next to that also the police have received a serious upgrade, both in a positive and negative way. The system where the number of stars represents your level of criminality is still present, but now these can be lost by leaving the crime scene. The tougher the crime (the more stars) the larger the area you need to get away from. As long as a cop has his eye on you, the area remains centered around Nico, so the most efficient way to escape is by zigzagging in little alleys to get out of the line of sight and then avoid patrols. The only downside is that the presence of police in the streets has been enlarged compared with previous titles and you can start wondering how it’s possible Liberty City is such a criminal town.
A third big change is the difficulty degree. Storming into a warehouse and shooting at random no longer is a possibility (and I’m grateful for that). With a push on the button Nico starts looking for cover behind the nearest pillar, container or even car, to then start playing peek-a-boo. This system isn’t failproof: sometimes Nico will look for cover on the wrong side, bringing him straight into the line of fire. Getting away from such a position is not as easy as hoped so that the mission is just about over. The lock-on system still exists and allows for quickly aiming at hostiles as a controller isn’t capable of aiming as quickly as a mouse on PC. For some missions and the aiming with a sniper manual work is still required. Also new is the targeted shooting from a car: with an elbow hit the side window gets shattered after which you can also shoot at who’s in front of you (no longer only possible with bikes).
For the rest the game plays further on the already known elements. There’s still the possibility to date and afterwards go inside for some “hot coffee”. However, you’ll also have to entertain your friends so you’ll regularly take them along to go bowling, play darts, … or visit a strip club. Having good friends also results in an extra bonus like free cabs, rifles on delivery or planning races in your agenda. What I noticed is that Nico has no interest in the real-estate market. Either I haven’t played far enough yet (I’m trying to sustain the small social life I’ve built up), or buying buildings and shops is really absent from the game. A lacking, yes, but maybe a good decision as this leads to a much better storyline and less loose ends. Further I also noticed that the possibilities of the game are only gradually released. They’re always supported with a mission and there’s a nice explanation of what you can do with the functions and to control them. The first five hours of the game can be seen as some sort of tutorial, an introduction.
New and very welcome is the addition of multiplayer to the Grand Theft Auto series. I know, ever since the PC version of Vice City there have been attempts to include multiplayer but now it’s officially there. From each moment in the single player game (ok, after 15 minutes from the start) the multiplayer can be started up by selecting it from the options in the in-game GSM. The game has sixteen multiplay modes that vary reasonably from each other. Of course the usual deathmatch and racing is present, but there’s also a fun mode where one team has to bring a mob boss to an extraction point while the other (as police) have to prevent this. It’s unfortunate that setting up a multiplayer game with friends isn’t better described, not in the game nor in the manual. Even after searching for half an hour with the four of us we didn’t manage to start up a game to our preferences.
Thanks to the new graphical engine GTA IV is built on, a lot of things come more to their right: damage models of cars, explosions, beanbags of the bodies (collisions look really neat *gniffel*) and mostly the city itself that at night looks terrific in a helicopter fly-by. In the in-game cinematics there’s more focus on facial expressions and there’s some playing around with depth of sight (with accompanying blur) and the lip-sync is almost perfect. Only downpoint in my opinion is that, although the game is in HD, not everything looks hair sharp. It’s like the image, and especially the shadows, are built from grain. It’s hard to explain but it reminds me of the experience I had with Gran Turismo 2 on the original Playstation; a beautiful game but very grainy. I don’t expect a licked whole, as the city is huuuuuge, but I’m not sure whether this is a limitation of the console or because it’s made to fit on a DVD.
Also this version of GTA is accompanied by a true soundtrack. With about twenty radio stations there will certainly be one present that has your preference. The only problem I noticed with the sound is that the radio during cellphone conversations remains too loud, making the call hard to understand. Lowering the volume of the music in general isn’t really an option as then the engine will sound louder than the music while cruising. A third option to adjust speech seperate from effects would have been a nice extra.
Grand Theft Auto IV can be seen as a true upgrade for the series; more grown up so to speak. Although we see some specific elements of previous versions disappear, Rockstar managed to bring a strong storyline, filled with a ton of humour and caricatures and a handful of new and improved possibilities that makes us even forget what we’re missing. Bravo!