Seldom do the most anticipated of releases ever live up to their own hype. Be they movies, music, books or games, a massive build-up of unrealistic expectations and media generated frenzy rarely help even the most rabid fan’s insomnia-inducing fervor touch back into reality…but every once in awhile they do. Typically these circuses have little effect on me, but in all honesty the hardcore gamer inside was all a twitter at the thought of entering the seedy world of crime and chaos once more. In ways only the very best videogame franchises can, Grand Theft Auto 4 nearly lives up to its own bloated hype and proves that there’s plenty of life left in the old sandbox genre, one the franchise itself helped create many years ago. Rockstar Games/Rockstar North have indeed outdone themselves with one of the most ambitious and defining releases in recent memory and, social implications be damned, still knows how to throw one hell of a party. Welcome back to Liberty City.
On the surface, the GTA4 experience is still about stealing cares, outrunning cops, and defiling the occasional prostitute (or two). But dig deeper and the game’s complex use of story, character development, and depth begin to help explain what makes the experience so compelling. Here we meet Niko Bellic, an illegal Serbian immigrant who arrives in Liberty City in order attain the fabled American Dream, and reunite with the man who changed his life (for the worse) as a young soldier during the Bosnian War. But it doesn’t take long for Niko to ingratiate himself within the mafia undertakings that makes Liberty City what it is, much to his reluctance. If you think it’s just all assassinations and hit jobs, you’re in for a surprise as this chapter adds a considerable amount of depth that outpace previous incarnations and surprise many. Here Niko’s conscience is put into play; instead of blindly following orders you can now decide the merits of your decisions (such as whether or not to kill a target), and these decisions will impact the story and outcome later on. This not only gives GTA4 unprecedented replay value, but helps foster a psychological adventure unlike any we’ve seen before in the world of videogames.
Most estimates place a first-run of this newest crime-laden epic upwards of 30+ hours, but that’s an optimistic estimate that doesn’t include partaking in much of what makes a truly effective Grand Theft Experience. Like others in the franchise, GTA4 is filled to the brim and overflowing with more secrets, side-quests, hidden avenues, easter egg surprises, and overall depth than just about any ten games combined. Now factor in the game’s native missions and objectives and something tells me that you’ll be visiting for quite some time. Old standards such as bank heists, escorts, and kidnapping are all back for your lascivious enjoyment as are many of the mainstays that have made fanatics out of fans and caused the rest to grab their pitchforks and axes.
Rockstar’s keen sense of storytelling has never been better, or better told with some truly amazing and incredibly entertaining cut-scenes and voice-acting, easily the best I’ve ever seen in a videogame and thankfully never drag the experience into derivative territory. Things certainly aren’t perfect, but considering how lofty the game’s ambitions are and, incredibly, how often it achieves them its nothing short of remarkable.
For the most part the gameplay is comfortably familiar, albeit with a few pleasant enhancements that’ll make any longtime GTA fan smile. Its all about ease and accessibility in your new urban playground, and Rockstar certainly didn’t skip out on the toys. New abilities such as scaling available surfaces (such as fences or walls) and shimmying between ledges make exploration even more fluid. Blazing gun battles has also been improved drastically, thanks to the added feature of taking cover to just about anything you can find; targeting while under cover (plus fine-tune aiming) make eliminating the competition easier than ever. Plus the old standard, aggressively heisting vehicles, feels much more thrilling since locked cars can now be broken into and hotwired for your driving pleasure, while obstinate and less gracious victims might end up dragging you down the street if they don’t feel like sharing their wheels. By far the best and most useful implementation is the game’s use of a GPS navigation system that, which thanks to Liberty City’s vastness, makes treading through these mean streets less complicated and much more intuitive. The GPS also doubles as a handy police scanner and will help tip Niko off to oncoming authorities in your moments of haste from the fuzz.
Speaking of the police, they’re still prominent and are quick to give you some justice when they see you in the act. Whether you’ve got business to take care of in a current mission or not, the LCPD will make themselves an inevitable factor to deal with from time to time. Their numbers may be strong, but their efforts usually and strangely in this game aren’t of higher priority as its never been easier to get them off your tail. It’s been said before that the only feasible way for the men in blue and FIB (real federal acronym in GTAIV) to give chase is to probably decimate an entire block, which is entirely possible with the right tools. The GPS system is the main culprit for the change in police activity, since you’ll just need to move outside of their search radius for a few seconds in order to lose them. A sensible approach to be sure, but it’s overly simplistic to dodge the cops this time around which for many will bring down the realism factor a notch or two. What cha gonna do?
Like other entries in the series, interaction is key to surviving. Whether killing time or simply killing threats, there’s always something new and exciting to explore waiting just beneath the surface. Whenever you start friendships or even date (Niko’s quite the romantic), socializing becomes a big part of the game and thankfully this idea is expanded upon nicely. Kick it with friends in a friendly game of pool, go bowling, or even grab a bit to eat when you’re hungry (hotdogs contain more meat than ever!), here is a world so realized that even overdrinking results in inebriation and all the consequences that come with it. Series mainstays like switching between the massive radio selections are back, as is some truly hilarious fake TV content (long live analog) and even fake online access via the various internet cafés. Frankly, this vastly improved Liberty City should keep you thoroughly entertained, regardless of where you’re at during the game and these elements are just too interesting to ignore.
One of the most ingenious additions is the game’s use of Niko’s cell-phone, which functions as the backbone of nearly everything you’ll be doing. Operating it with just the D-pad and a single button, it isn’t difficult to ring up someone familiar (if they answer), or take incoming calls or read a few text messages. The possibility of being called during something important like a gunfight, or just out of the blue to arrange some work is a nice touch that adds to the game immeasurably. Buying ringtones from the internet makes the experience more personal and retains a nice level of detail; even online multiplayer is assessed through your cell, for even more seamless integration between the barrage of available modes.
Speaking of multiplayer, bringing this world online unleashes the chaos of GTA4 into its purest form. Much of the gameplay modes are distinct variations or themes of one another, such as a 16-player “Deathmatch” and “Race”, with objective-based titles offer a bit more depth like “Cops ‘n Crooks” and “Carjacking mode” to even the choices out. Typically the matches have enough people to keep things exciting and hectic while remaining interesting, and being the host of the current session is a distinct advantage as it means customization was only limited to your imagination and preferences such as police presence, weapon choices, traffic level, and most important: location. You can keep the affair intimate by staying on a specific island or across the entire metropolis. It’s a feat within itself to span one match across the city, but technological issues come in the form of lag and common frame-rate quirks. Don’t be shocked when opposing players magically jump the screen from time to time, but considering how incredible the overall experience is, the result is one of the best online experiences I’ve ever played (and will keep playing for the indefinite future).
Visually, this is next-generation gaming that’ll make those fancy HDTV’s and surround sound set-ups smile. Although by no means the best looking game on either console, both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of GTA4 are are without a doubt represent the most realized, open-ended and populated sandbox worlds you’ve ever seen. Liberty City comes to vivid life in all its dirty, stained glory with some of the most detailed and nuanced renderings ever committed on-screen. Vehicles are no longer mere moving boxes, but spring to life and move just like the real thing. Debris and backgrounds alike come alive and reflect more interactivity than ever before, making this world seem even more real than your worst nightmares.
But even the thought of HD hookers aren’t as scary as some of Rockstar’s ambitions, as the game often stutters in its own ambitions, reducing the frame-rates to a stutter. No blur effects in the world can hide the fact that the prettier the model, the most noticeable the imperfections. The Xbox 360 version by far is the worst offender, with the PlayStation 3 offering a more stable, less shaky experience. None of this renders the game unplayable, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit a slight disappointment with the unstable graphics environment that no doubt pushes the envelope with these enormous 3D cities.
The game’s audio is, as expected, mind-blowing in its ambitions. Although the in-game radio doesn’t display the same pop-sense of its predecessors, the musical world of iko is much more subtle and varied than ever before. World beats and international voices have never had it so good, and its worth mentioning the varied radio stations (including the always fun Lazlo) have never been funnier. Throw in some truly surreal online and internet (faux-internet, that is) information and you’ve got the stuff of legends. Is it wrong that I preferred this fake online world to the real thing? Settle in for the long haul, because we’re talking an overload of content here to discover.
If you’re a longtime fan of the series I’ll bet you’ve already bought the game (and stood in lines to get it – nerds!), or soon will. But for everyone else out there considering taking the plunge and seeing what all the fuss is about, just know what you’re getting yourselves into. Unapologetically brutal, look for the game to occupy wish-lists of many for months (if not years) to come. But despite any controversy over its content and suggestive nature, Grand Theft Auto 4 is a shining example of what a game engineered for the next-generation of power consoles should adhere to; not just from an audio/visual standpoint, but from its spectacular narrative progressions and storytelling wizardry. Rockstar Games has left nothing to chance and helped create their biggest, most exciting adventure yet and given how high expectations were, that’s saying something. This is a game that will outlast its hype and will no doubt settle comfortably among this generation’s best. With personality to spare, Liberty City is beckoning you…act responsibly!