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

April 28, 2008

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

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

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

Grand Theft Auto isn’t so much a design as it is a set of tools. Justlike in the past, the suite includes driving and shooting, with one bigaddition in the form of a social life. Being a social person in GTA IVpays dividends, and there’s no shortage of locations to mingle withleisure. Bowling, pool, darts, and restaurants all provide ampleopportunity to impress someone. Or you can always take them to thestrip club for that homerun pitch. Some of the activities could befull-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. Theflow of the game basically goes like this: you watch a cutscene,someone in the cutscene says that someone has done them wrong, you’retold they need to be taught a lesson, and then you get in a car and goteach them the lesson. At that point another cinema is triggered andthe process repeats. Sprouting out from this framework is a series ofside missions, but telling the difference between these and theobjectives on the main track is impossible. The same care has been paidto each. You can choose to go down these craggy alleys to see wherethey end, or plow straight through the main quest and still get ahealthy 30 hours out of it.

Mission objectives make the most of the toys available, but thatultimately amounts to a lot of driving to a location, and then killingeveryone on-site. You get the occasional vehicle theft and races areeventually available from one of Niko’s friends, but it can definitelybecome a little repetitive. The beauty of this franchise is that if youbegin 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 missionsscattered all over the map and it could become overwhelming, but it’sall held together by the cell phone. The cell allows Niko to getmission objectives, coordinate dates, or receive special services andjobs from friends. It’s also your gateway to the incredible multiplayeroptions.

Straight from the single-player game you can jump online and slug itout with 15 other players. They’re the first-ever online options for aconsole-based GTA game, and Rockstar hasn’t just dipped its toe in thewater. You begin by creating a fairly simple character and then you canjump into the action across more than a dozen different gameplay types.Even the typical deathmatch isn’t so typical when you have free reignover what amounts to the majority of New York City. There are noboundaries. You can go anywhere and do anything, but the anchor comesin the form of spawn points, weapon location, and game type. Thisplayground provides for some interesting propositions for cooperativeplay as well as myriad competitive modes unlike anything you’ve playedbefore. 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 theracing is given a new twist when weapons are involved.

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

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

Enough can’t be said about how much the new Euphoria physics engineadds to the game. Aside from the obvious joy of watching peopleinteract with fast-moving, cold steel, the physics have really beenapplied to the vehicles. Drive up on something and the shocks willdecompress, allowing the wheels to drop. Knock something over and itpushes and bashes as if it has real weight. The physics also allow thehundreds of cars to all handle differently. If you play a lot of racinggames it can take a while to feel comfortable taking turns at highspeed. The vehicles simply don’t like to turn while braking. It’s adifferent style of driving that eventually becomes second nature. Ifyou do grow tired of cruising Liberty City you can always jump in a caband essentially warp to your destination.

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

This is definitely the most accessible GTA of the lot. A concertedeffort 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 thewomen are still clothed and Niko often apologizes to his victims. Thedifficulty has definitely been quelled. You’ll go through longstretches of the game where you never die or fail a mission. The wantedsystem has also been tamed as it’s much easier to lose your wantedlevel with the new circular zone to escape. We completed the game withonly being busted a couple times. Toss in the elimination of thein-depth character evolution from San Andreas and you have a much morestreamlined game that more people will be able to enjoy.

It’s not really fair to hold a free-roaming game like GTA to the samevisual standards you’d expect from a shooter that runs on apredetermined path. With such a vast environment coupled with theability 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 onefine-looking game. Some interior scenes can look nearly photo-realisticwith the proper lighting. The constant day and night cyclesdramatically effect the look of the city and it can be breathtaking todrive across one of the large bridges with sky scrapers looming in thedistance. Character models look great, with impressive lip syncing andemoting. We’ve only played the Xbox 360 version thus far and it hasmoments where the frame rate fluctuates, and there are some visualglitches here and there, but there’s no other game world as immersiveas this one.

Rockstar always has a knack for choosing just the right songs to setthe tone of its games, and once again it’s hit a homerun with GrandTheft Auto IV. There are undoubtedly some serious music lovers workingat Rockstar North. They’ve managed to pluck the true gems from eachgenre from the muck and mire to deliver track list that will make newfans of a lot of the artists involved.

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

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Review courtesy of GameTrailers.

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