I originally wrote this review when I was working as an editor for my college newspaper. It is an interesting look at a game that, now five years later, still has a lot of stories to tell. While Grand Theft Auto IV has not remained the pinnacle of gaming that it was heralded as in 2008, the game still offers a unique turning point for how Rockstar Games would handle their games. GTA4 marks a shift to narrative and realism, not in the sense that the game is a crime simulator, but in that the worlds they create teem with life. GTA4 not only provides a glimpse of the direction of next week’s GTA5 but also provides evidence of the maturation of Rockstar. Simply looking at the games that followed GTA4 show that while gameplay still favors over-the-top theatrics, the worlds of Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire and Max Payne all have influence from GTA4.
Over the years, Grand Theft Auto has been both loved and criticized for its edgy open-world gameplay that lets players take on the role of a gun for hire as they climb the ranks of the criminal underworld. The new Grand Theft Auto IV, the first true numbered sequel since 2001’s GTA3, sheds much of the baggage that defined the previous generations of GTA titles. There is still plot-driven missions and the ability for the player to run amok on a crime wave across the city, but what is different about the game is how truly alive it feels.
The player takes on the role of Niko Bellic, an immigrant coming to Liberty City (Rockstar Games’ fictional rendition of New York City), to live the American dream and to find closure to the dark events of his past. Niko is east European and speaks with a heavy accent. While it seems that Niko may be hard to relate to, his personality and natural drive make him the most likable GTA protagonist to date. He is a mercenary who will work for anyone who will pay him, but he carries out his tasks with conviction and has an undeniable charm that makes you gravitate toward him and want to find out more.
Fresh off the boat, Niko is reunited with his cousin Roman, who had been describing his life in America as that of a playboy. What Niko discovers is that Roman is merely a cab company owner who has financial troubles from loan sharks and the Russian mob. Convinced to take work from the Russians to keep his cousin safe, Niko gets sucked into the criminal world of Liberty City as things go from bad to awful in a flash.
The missions that you take on as Niko can range from simple tasks like stealing a car and taking it to a warehouse to be stripped to providing protection for a drug deal. More missions become available as Niko meets new contacts in Liberty City. The mission structure also introduces one of GTA4’s best new features, Niko’s cell phone. Niko will get calls or text messages when new missions become available. Plans can also be arranged with friends to hang out and enjoy some of the social activities the city has to offer.
Hanging out with friends and girlfriends in the game is something that brings a whole new element to playing the game. By socializing, the player can reach a strong relationship status and receive the friend’s special services. For instance, one girlfriend is a nurse who will give Niko first-aid advice when he is hurt and another will drive to a nearby ally to sell Niko weapons at a discounted price.
When going out with a friend, you have options that include bowling or playing darts, going to a comedy show that features digital representations of Katt Williams and Ricky Gervais, or even just going to a bar.
It’s worth noting that after drinking, Niko and his companion will be thoroughly drunk and will not be able to stand upright.The screen will wobble and blur, Niko will tumble and stagger, and driving becomes an exercise of patience with a swerving vehicle and blurred vision. Not only is driving difficult and discouraged by Niko, who will audibly disapprove of driving drunk, but the police will notice immediately if you are driving drunk and try to arrest you.
The police in the game are in a much larger concentration than they were in previous titles, which makes committing crimes, like breaking into cars, inconvenient. Getting away from the police can be done by either escaping the police search radius, which is shown on the map, or going to a Pay n’ Spray to recolor the car. Pay n’ Sprays advance the game three hours when used and can only be used if the police don’t see you enter the garage.
Combat has been vastly improved from previous games, which had you aiming in the general vicinity of targets. GTA4 features a partial lock system that lets you aim freely by depressing the left trigger halfway to aim freely and will lock on to targets with trigger fully pressed. When locked onto a target, aim can be slightly tweaked to aim at different areas of a target.
Gunplay has also added in a cover system that will let Niko hide behind corners and peer out to see where targets are coming from. Niko can either blind fire from cover or lock on to a target and pop out to get a better shot at them. Hand-to-hand combat includes new combos, kicks and the ability to defend and disarm other opponents.
Graphically, GTA4 looks great with some good lighting effects and spectacular explosions. Weather is handled well, with rainstorms catching light from street lamps and lightning flashing across the screen. Citizens will pull out umbrellas or run with a newspaper over their heads.
Niko himself is animated extremely well as he will respond to the environment by shifting his weight, placing one foot on the curb and brushing by people as he walks through crowds.
There are, however, some graphical issues with GTA4. Some textures and objects will take a little longer to load than others, which can result in an occasional street lamp unexpectedly popping in front of you.
The city itself is massive and is unrecognizable compared to its very different predecessor from GTA3. The city sprawls across several boroughs, which take on the characteristics of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and New Jersey.
Adding to the aesthitic of Liberty City, some 2000 lines of dialogue were recorded for banter between Niko and his contacts. The dialogue is witty and sharp and shows great devotion to the story aspect of the game. The radio is back and features over 10 stations with genres like classic rock, hip-hop, Spanish and talk radio. Each station features a unique DJ with celebrities like Iggy Pop and Juliette Lewis playing wise-cracking versions of themselves.
Rockstar Games also added in a series of online multiplayer modes. The first and most enjoyable is the ability to run freely around Liberty City with up to 16 people. Parameters can be defined, including the density of police in the city, wanted level start up, as well as weather and time of day. Other modes include deathmatch, Car Jack City (a race to steal a target car), GTA Race, Turf War, Mafia Work (a race to finish mob tasks), and Cops n’ Crooks. Cops n’ Crooks puts players in teams of criminals and police. The object is simple: the crooks try to escape and the police try to stop them.
No matter where you turn in Liberty City, the game offers something that is unique. There are restaurants to eat at, landmarks to visit, and an internet cafe to surf the web at. Say what you will about the content and dangers about GTA, but GTA4 is more than just stealing cars and going on crime sprees. Although the main story is what makes the game great, it is the little things that it offers that make it incredible. GTA4 is a game that transcends being something just to play. It becomes something you live.