Grand Theft Auto IV
After the dizzy heights of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it was a tough call wondering where the Grand Theft Auto series could go next. It had already been to the rose-tinted criminal underworld of ’80s Miami with Grand Theft Auto:Vice City, and explored early ’90s ghetto culture in a three-city state a la San Andreas. How could’ve it delivered such size with the expectations of gamers in 2008? By going back to basics and focusing more on depth, as GTArevisits its home turf of Liberty City with a bloody big twist. Whereas previous reiterations were inspired by New York City, this is a near-recreation of modern Manhattan with uncompromised urban grimness, starring Serbian immigrant Niko Bellic.
After being persuaded by his cousin, Roman, to come and delve into his supposedly lavish lifestyle in America, things turned out to not be quite that way on arrival for Niko. Roman’s gambling addiction had cost him dearly, quite literally, being wanted by drug dealers’s, loan-sharks and many other Eastern European gangsters. Given Roman’s naivety, he’s largely dependent Bellic’s astuteness to clean up his mess and neutralize the wanting gangsters. While Bellic’s merciless approach may horrify some players, he’s doing it for a valid personal reason. After all, not many people really ‘want’ to kill others, and there is certainly an element of sympathy with the crude actions Niko has to undertake.
It’s a solemn welcome back to the worst place in America. The masses of deserts and farmland are out, you can’t start a casino empire in Vegas and you certainly cannot sneak into Area 51 via a jetpack. There are only helicopters to fly, no planes. Liberty City returns with a vengeance, with an unprecedented amount of street as highways and bridges lurking over you like never before, and the amount of street furniture, building façade detail and pedestrians talking to you is frightening. City commodities have been increased. There are internet cafés, the ability to actually ride in taxis’ and you can now use a mobile phone to liaise with friends, romances and take on missions. Throughout the game Niko acquires a very varied pallet of contacts, such as steroid addict car mechanic Bruce, Jamaican drug-dealer Jacob and high-profile gangster Dwayne. The amount of conversation is absolutely staggering with new dialogues on each meeting. I never encountered any recycled lines, and all are brilliantly acted. On the streets random strangers have something new to say, even preachers trying to ‘spread the word’ or wannabe rappers complaining about how hip-hop has ‘sold out’.
Control pad users will find the auto-aim has improved, although combat is just as acceptable with a keyboard and mouse. The much-improved physics has made combat less robotic and laborious with superior enemy AI as opposed to enemies making up for their lack of skill in numbers. Buildings can now be entered in ‘real-time’ without any loading, allowing chases to continue through buildings and enemies making better use of available space. Fending off the cops is now a lot harder, partly because you can’t just drive into a pay and spray while the cops are watching. That has to be done discretely, which isn’t always possible with a six-star wanted level. New to this is a ‘wanted’ circle placed on the radar, indicating the extent the cops are patrolling. It is possible to sneak out of the patrol-zone, but if caught, you are back in the centre of the circle. The driving mechanics have changed but this is for the worse. It’s intimidating at first and feels too ‘passive’ to control, and also more reactive to crashes with exaggerated turning, flying out of a windscreen or the engine breaking down.
The cell phone is a welcome addition though. Calls can be made for potential missions, for a cab ride or to meet potential friends or loved ones. When a mission is failed, you receive a text message offering to restart the mission without having to go back to your employer to be briefed again. Friendships can be sustained by ringing to go eat, play a game of darts or pool or simply go for a few jars of beer. Invitations by them are very irritating though, especially just before saving and further more when you only have sixty seconds to get there. Frequently turning down requests, however, dampens your friendship making them less inclined to ring you or accept your invites. Surely it could’ve been possible to schedule appointments? Maintaining friendships does pay-off, as they can offer useful services. Roman can send a cab over upon request and a certain relationship can even clear a wanted level.
So how does GTA IV succeed arguably the best title the sixth-generation of consoles saw? It’s certainly an evolution, but it was never going to be the step GTA III provided when introducing 3D, nor a super-packed game the size of San Andreas. But this is an entertaining game narrated incredibly well. Decisions have to be made to determine the fate of the story, who to kill and who to let walk. A large credit can be given to motion captured animation making characters very lifelike, alongside cinematic effects like blurring and slow motion on death. But the colour-scheme gives a slightly less serious, if somewhat cartoony feel with brighter colours and more solid shades. Its smaller boundaries have helped create great similarities with real life New York with a more concentrated focus.
But that doesn’t necessarily make up for the shortfall that is significantly less real estate to explore. It’s not always the culprit either as GTA IV certainly does take time to get going anyway with a lot of A to B travelling. It’s not atypical of GTA to do so but San Andreas certainly allowed more variety at the start. Progression does lead to much longer missions though, with bank robberies and office block rampages, often involving battling and fending off the authorities at a near maximum wanted level. There are an unquestionable amount of non-mission related activities however, with mini-games, like darts, bowling, and pool, races, and finding items and cars whilst the cell phone adds a further branch of opportunities. Even so, it still feels lacking in comparison. Considering the property entrepreneurship, the casinos, the poker, the turf wars, the tractors, the aviation licenses, amongst others have been cut out, it’s hard not to notice there is less on the agenda.
GTA IV on the PC is not the best executed of ports either, with many frustrating hoops to jump through to get running. Games for Windows Live is annoying to activate and sign into, get working offline and more annoyingly transfer saves with. Furthermore the system requirements are excessive, and the graphics settings will not allow you to change exceed the available memory the graphics card has. A few hacks shows it’s generally fine to exceed it, albeit with the occasional missing texture. The game otherwise works fine, but these annoying anti-piracy barriers make this only recommendable if this version is the only option, or have a computer that can run this on maximum settings.
Rockstar quite rightly decided less was more for GTA IV’s game world and we have a solid step into the next-generation as a result. There was never going to be another San Andreas on the first outing on the current game engine, or at least one that severely limited the interactivity as seen in Liberty City. The overall presentation is mind-blowing, buckets of dialogue, amazing cinematics and cut-scenes and intricate street details. Some missions can be mere box tickers, but some are real thrillers, taking a few attempts with the courtyard shoot-outs and vis-à-vis melees displaying the new-found physics superbly. Despite a few flaws, GTA IV is ultimately a great game to play, quite tense, quite emotional, but very satisfying when completing a mission. It excites me to see how what GTA will do next with this game-engine. Could it be a re-imagining of past games such as 1960’s London, or the futuristic metropolis as seen in GTA 2? Will it be another multi-city world? Ask all you want, but only after you play this.