GTA IV: Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll

April 28, 2008


It’s creeping up on four years since Rockstar North last distributed some new product, and in that time soulless knock-offs have attempted to fill the void. None have. GTA is special because it taps into the spinal cord of pop culture—nailing its intricacies and each era’s life soundtrack. Information has been slow to trickle on Grand Theft Auto IV, but finally the new dawn of open world games has come.

Streets paved with gold, mansions in the hills, and girls with implants are more than enough incentive for Niko Bellic to defect from the dregs of war-ravaged Eastern Europe to the welcoming shores of Liberty City. Well, that and his cousin Roman, who promises a life of luxury in the big city. Fresh off the boat, Niko quickly realizes that the condo is a rat hole, and the Benz is a taxi cab. But Niko has come to Liberty City for more than just sunshine and margheritas. Revenge is on his itinerary, but in the meantime a man’s got to eat.

The seedy underbelly of Liberty City becomes his playground, and there are plenty of playmates around. Protagonists in prior games in the series have always been hard, and therefore, hard to love. This isn’t the case with Niko. He’s much more human, showing empathy, sympathy, and fearless loyalty. You want him to win, and the usual parade of Rockstar whack-jobs provide buoyancy and give the game the sense of the unexpected the GTA franchise has built its name on. This is one of the few game stories that can hold up to high end action flicks, and it’s thanks to some incredible voice acting, and a slick script. It’s rare that you care about the characters in video games, but the plot shifts here won’t come and go unnoticed.

Grand Theft Auto isn’t so much a design as it is a set of tools. Just like in the past, the suite includes driving and shooting, with one big addition in the form of a social life. Being a social person in GTA IV pays dividends, and there’s no shortage of locations to mingle with leisure. Bowling, pool, darts, and restaurants all provide ample opportunity to impress someone. Or you can always take them to the strip club for that homerun pitch. Some of the activities could be full-fledged games, but in the world of GTA they’re just an extra.

The formula is one that works, and it’s been replicated once more. The flow of the game basically goes like this: you watch a cutscene, someone in the cutscene says that someone has done them wrong, you’re told they need to be taught a lesson, and then you get in a car and go teach them the lesson. At that point another cinema is triggered and the process repeats. Sprouting out from this framework is a series of side missions, but telling the difference between these and the objectives on the main track is impossible. The same care has been paid to each. You can choose to go down these craggy alleys to see where they end, or plow straight through the main quest and still get a healthy 30 hours out of it.

Mission objectives make the most of the toys available, but that ultimately amounts to a lot of driving to a location, and then killing everyone on-site. You get the occasional vehicle theft and races are eventually available from one of Niko’s friends, but it can definitely become a little repetitive. The beauty of this franchise is that if you begin to bend to the grind you can go postal and just freestyle it.

The farther you get in the game the more acquaintances Niko makes. Keeping them all happy can be tough. Couple this with missions scattered all over the map and it could become overwhelming, but it’s all held together by the cell phone. The cell allows Niko to get mission objectives, coordinate dates, or receive special services and jobs from friends. It’s also your gateway to the incredible multiplayer options.

Straight from the single-player game you can jump online and slug it out with 15 other players. They’re the first-ever online options for a console-based GTA game, and Rockstar hasn’t just dipped its toe in the water. You begin by creating a fairly simple character and then you can jump into the action across more than a dozen different gameplay types. Even the typical deathmatch isn’t so typical when you have free reign over what amounts to the majority of New York City. There are no boundaries. You can go anywhere and do anything, but the anchor comes in the form of spawn points, weapon location, and game type. This playground provides for some interesting propositions for cooperative play as well as myriad competitive modes unlike anything you’ve played before. One mode has players racing to complete a set of missions, another has one team as the cops and the other as the robbers. Even the racing is given a new twist when weapons are involved.

You’re not going to get much more mileage out of a $60 game than you will with Grand Theft Auto IV. The single-player mode will take a full work week to complete and has almost limitless replay value for creative types, and the customizable multiplayer is going to shock people.

Grand Theft Auto has always had amazing story-telling, and the ability to dream it and then do it working in its favor. The one criticism that has been consistently leveled against it is that the gameplay sometimes felt like an afterthought. That’s all been rectified this time. Shooting, a long-time sore spot, has been completely revamped with an intricate cover system. Some of the control mapping is a little bit odd as Rockstar chose to do things its own way in some respects, but once you wrap yourself around it the functionality is right up there with the best. Shooting out of vehicles has also been revamped allowing you to target your shots with the right analog stick while you steer with the left. Lock-on can be a little finicky, but you won’t be able to blame the game this time if you’re downed in a gun fight.

Enough can’t be said about how much the new Euphoria physics engine adds to the game. Aside from the obvious joy of watching people interact with fast-moving, cold steel, the physics have really been applied to the vehicles. Drive up on something and the shocks will decompress, allowing the wheels to drop. Knock something over and it pushes and bashes as if it has real weight. The physics also allow the hundreds of cars to all handle differently. If you play a lot of racing games it can take a while to feel comfortable taking turns at high speed. The vehicles simply don’t like to turn while braking. It’s a different style of driving that eventually becomes second nature. If you do grow tired of cruising Liberty City you can always jump in a cab and essentially warp to your destination.

The foundation is poured with the shooting and driving, but the house is built on the details. You can stop by the Twat Internet café and search the web for dates, check your email, or browse over 100 different web sites. You can download ringtones and wallpapers for your cell phone, weave through traffic that changes based upon the time of day, press the B button at any time to get a cinematic view of the proceedings, or go to a cabaret for full-on performances that will boggle the mind. You’ll see something new every time you play.

This is definitely the most accessible GTA of the lot. A concerted effort has been made to stem the tide of controversy and frustration. Sure, you can pick up hookers and take them to a back alley, but the women are still clothed and Niko often apologizes to his victims. The difficulty has definitely been quelled. You’ll go through long stretches of the game where you never die or fail a mission. The wanted system has also been tamed as it’s much easier to lose your wanted level with the new circular zone to escape. We completed the game with only being busted a couple times. Toss in the elimination of the in-depth character evolution from San Andreas and you have a much more streamlined game that more people will be able to enjoy.

It’s not really fair to hold a free-roaming game like GTA to the same visual standards you’d expect from a shooter that runs on a predetermined path. With such a vast environment coupled with the ability to do anything at any time, some concessions have to be made. Or at least you’d think. Not many have been made here. GTA IV is one fine-looking game. Some interior scenes can look nearly photo-realistic with the proper lighting. The constant day and night cycles dramatically effect the look of the city and it can be breathtaking to drive across one of the large bridges with sky scrapers looming in the distance. Character models look great, with impressive lip syncing and emoting. We’ve only played the Xbox 360 version thus far and it has moments where the frame rate fluctuates, and there are some visual glitches here and there, but there’s no other game world as immersive as this one.

Rockstar always has a knack for choosing just the right songs to set the tone of its games, and once again it’s hit a homerun with Grand Theft Auto IV. There are undoubtedly some serious music lovers working at Rockstar North. They’ve managed to pluck the true gems from each genre from the muck and mire to deliver track list that will make new fans of a lot of the artists involved.

Grand Theft Auto IV is the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of video games. It’s a little less brave and intimidating this time around, but it’s also the most refined and polished game in the franchise’s history. This kind of sheen is generally reserved for titles with a much smaller scope. It’s been one of the marquis games in the industry for years and the addition of a killer multiplayer component puts it over the top. Few games manage to deliver on the hype, but this is one that does.


Review courtesy of GameTrailers.