Grand, theft, and auto. These three words, when separate, hold little weight. When conjoined, however, they represent pushing boundaries, confronting the man and provoking society at large. I’m talking of course about the most innovative and controversial franchise to date, Grand Theft Auto. With over 70 million units sold worldwide, the series is one of the most successful in the history of video games. It continues thriving to this day, with its latest entry, Grand Theft Auto IV, arriving with remarkably hefty expectations from millions of prospective owners. Is it even possible for a game to live up to such insane hype? To that, I respond with a resounding yes.
As you surely already know, Niko Bellic has one troubled soul. A veteran of the Bosnian civil war, this immigrant is lured to America by his cousin Roman, who spewed incessant lies about his supposedly extraordinary and glamorous life in the United States. After arriving, Niko (rather despondently) takes refuge in a modern day Liberty City and begins his own search for the American dream.
This search just happens to involve an abundance of car-jacking, gun-toting and cash-grossing. In fact, these three occurrences tend to transpire every few minutes. Niko just happens to be a determined guy who isn’t concerned if he lives or dies; if it pays, he’s the man for the job. What I love about Niko isn’t his awesome accent or unwavering daring, though; his flaws define him. His emotions manifest themselves throughout the plot in a subtle yet dramatic performance. He expresses his sorrow, he makes jokes, he becomes irritated – simply put, he’s not a cardboard cutout, he’s a human being. Not that the other characters are any less brilliant, but you develop an inexplicable attachment to Niko during the course of the game that you’ll discover yourself deeply concerned with his fate. This is an achievement in every sense of the word.
There is one more living, breathing being that must be mentioned, and it’s not human. Liberty City is an unprecedented, near-perfect recreation — in a stylistic sense — of New York City. The streets are covered in grime, the populace is plentiful and no two buildings appear alike. The city, not as massive as San Andreas or as modest as Vice City, contains more detail and care than both areas united. Familiar landmarks abound, from the Statue of Happiness (holding a coffee cup in lieu of a torch) to a rendition of Times Square as extraordinary as the actual place itself. The grand set pieces are accompanied by an ample amount of highly detailed interior areas that are easily accessible and free of loading, whether entering or departing. Integrate indoor and outdoor areas into a single seamless world by dashing the Cabaret Club to catch a show or heading back to your apartment to watch the latest episode of ‘Republican Space Rangers,’ a shining satire of both Halo and current politics.
It’s uncanny how lively the city can be. As you stroll down the sidewalks of Liberty City, you’ll encounter groups of friends having coherent conversations, citizens walking to work in the morning chatting vociferously on their cell phones, denizens hanging out in alleyways and the like. Run into a person and knock them over and they could have a myriad of different reactions. Is this person an inherently irate individual and searching for an opportunity to start a fight? Or is this a person intrinsically frightened by strangers and seeking to avoid conflict at all cost? Perhaps they’re in the middle of the road and will simply proceed to curse at you angrily in their native language (apparently Niko is “una puta” and several Chinese phrases I couldn’t even begin to comprehend). The inhabitants of Liberty City aren’t on, say, Shenmue level, but then again, that’s an entirely unjustified comparison of dozens to millions. They’re not always perfect, but the general public is as vibrant as diverse as Liberty City itself. It’s apparent that the folks over at Rockstar put an insane amount of effort into every asset of Liberty City. It shows.
Outside of the physical world comes the nearly as meaningful universe of media. Rockstar has always nailed the city radio stations and it’s no different in this iteration. The assorted stations are satiated with over 200 incredible songs from a variety of genres. I mustn’t forget the witty talk shows and hilarious commercials either. One station that stands out is Vladivostok FM, post-communist Russian music that rocks the Eastern Bloc. It’s so obscure yet entirely approachable – I foresee Grand Theft Auto IV broadening a lot of players’ musical horizons.
Radio doesn’t cover all media though, in fact, that’s just the beginning. Remember, this is present day, the digital age. Outside of the aforementioned television (which features such shows as ‘I’m Rich!’ and ‘Republican Space Rangers’), Rockstar has essentially recreated the internet, an absolutely insane feat. Upon visiting a [email protected] (pronounced ‘twat’) internet café, you’re able to check e-mail, browse hundreds of fictitious websites and even arrange dates on such sites as Love-Meet.net.
After arranging a date, how do you further contact these individuals? It’s now that I stumble upon the primary pillar of both Niko’s universe and modern day society – the almighty cell phone. This little handheld device revolutionized world communication, so why not let it revolutionize Grand Theft Auto IV? It’s the impeccable implementation of the cell phone that makes this installment of Grand Theft Auto rise above the others. Let’s run down what the cell can do.
Obviously you can make and accept calls, whereas texts can be received but not sent. Just about everyone you meet will contact you via the cell phone regarding “business,” but you’ll also start forming friendships — or more intimate relationships — where you’ll receive calls just to hang out. Each person has their personal preferences regarding favorite and hated activities. For girlfriends, add in inclinations towards particular cars and dress styles as well. So while Michelle might be content for a casual bowling date, Alexandra would prefer a classy Niko showing up in a stylish ride to attend a full-fledged show at the theatre. While this all seems like a lot of work, getting on someone’s good side has substantial advantages. Say Carmen the nurse loves you or the irate Irishman Packie is your best bud – Carmen can heal you with helpful medical advice via the phone while Packie will kindly provide you with car bombs should you call and ask nicely.
And all of it ties into your trusty cellular. Not only is it the ultimate social tool, but your phone is often integrated into missions as well. One mission — which I’ll attempt not to spoil — is a prime example. You’re first asked to travel across Algonquin (Manhattan) to a vantage point at a park. Upon arrival, you’re texted the phone number of your target, a man who holds incriminating photographs that your employer doesn’t want released to the public. You’re tasked with calling this man and keeping him on the line in order to find him in the park. Once you find the man on the other end, you close the phone, grab a gun and execute the sucker.
That assassination goes down smoother than ever, thanks in part due to the reworked shooting mechanics of GTA IV. Past Grand Theft Autos were criticized for their basic and unwieldy shooting, and that criticism has clearly been constructively implemented. The new system, although a bit complex, blows the mechanics of old out of the water. Left and right on the D-pad switch weapons, while L2 targets and R2 shoots. It’s not as simple as that however. A fully held L2 locks on to an enemy, but the process of choosing a target seems somewhat random, so we recommend the free aim that comes with a half press of L2. At least the randomness of full targeting is somewhat alleviated by the fact that once locked on to someone, it’s fairly easy to switch targets; all that’s required is a flick of the right stick. Additionally, while locked on to an enemy (or civilian) you retain a touch of maneuverability in order to target specific body areas. Such seemingly small details like that latter bit actually enhance a would-be standard system and make it original and enjoyable.
You won’t be running and gunning through the majority of GTA IV, as another major addition to the Grand Theft Auto formula comes in the form of a full-fledged cover system. The world doesn’t have a set of pre-determined objects that Niko can hide behind; literally everything within the world can be used as cover. This can cause minor issues as the game occasionally misinterprets where you intend to take cover, but for the most part, the versatile system in which you can blindfire, target and free aim adds immeasurable depth to firefights. One personal tip that you may not discover whilst playing through the game – cars are brilliant cover, as they’re transportable. If you’re in any large, open area where you could benefit from a cover point, just snag a car (preferably a large one like an SUV or a Patriot).
This brings us to yet another area where GTA IV dominates its predecessors – driving. Initially, the handling of vehicles in general felt loose and atrocious, but after playing the game for a few hours, I came to accept that it just wasn’t possible to whip an SUV around a corner at 150 miles an hour. It’s simple physics after all. A measurement of current velocity and acceleration concludes that it’s not possible to turn a specific car at such an angle and speed, thus the car crashes into a wall and Niko gets flung through the windshield and painfully tumbles across the cement until he comes to an eventual stop.
It’s moments like these that really reflect the glories of NaturalMotion’s ‘euphoria’ engine. Dubbed “euphoria: unique game moments,” this Dynamic Motion Synthesis system runs parallel to the game’s animation engine and is called by the game’s AI whenever synthesized motion is required instead of canned animation. In addition to handling the highly-complex physics throughout the world, it really comes through on delivering inimitable moments. Every time Niko bails out of a moving car or crashes into a pedestrian, you’re seeing a different outcome based on both the physics of the situation and the natural survival instinct within every human being.
One thing still remains the same when you hit a pedestrian – the cops still don’t take to kindly to it. The six star wanted system of Grand Theft Autos of yore is still in full effect, though it touts one very noticeable tweak. After committing a crime and obtaining a star, a small circle — viewable on the mini-map — is created in your general vicinity. To lose your wanted rating, you must escape the confines of the circular area without being spotted by the cops. If you are spotted, the circle will re-center around the location where you were seen. With each additional star comes a larger circle radius. So, for example, while a one or two star rating is fairly simple to expunge, a three or four star wanted level is far harder to drop. I commend anyone who can acquire a six star rating, let alone survive it for any period of time.
The LCPD isn’t the only opposing organization you’ll face in Liberty City. Missions will have you confronting against all sorts of groups from gangsters to “union workers” (a cover-up for the mafia). At its core, Grand Theft Auto IV hasn’t strayed from the basic formula that gamers know and love. Different people offer you assignments, which you can accept at your own pace. You then complete the missions and the plot progresses. As diverse as the missions are, I expected that with over 90 primary story episodes, they might become a bit of a slog at some point in time. I was wrong. The missions, despite lacking checkpoints, never become repetitive. Part of the draw is the deep narrative and the ability to affect it (you’re faced with moral dilemmas — to kill to not to kill — at several junctions throughout the game). Also, you’ll want to hear every bit of tremendous dialogue the game offers. Still though, GTA IV simply has the fun factor locked down. Particular missions never feel like an afterthought, they’re always wholly enticing, ranging from excellent to epic.
Part of the engrossing nature of the various missions lies in the game’s astounding audiovisual presentation. Open world games usually make some sacrifices visually to achieve an acceptable quality throughout the rest of the game. GTA IV sacrifices next to nothing. The game looks stunning for its genre. The sweeping color palette flows across the morning sky as the sun rises over the ocean horizon. The people, the city, the cars, everything is highly detailed yet beautifully stylized (the game implements depth of field and motion blur to full effect). The framerate is prone to dips when the action gets really heavy and pop-in isn’t overly rare, but these issues are overshadowed by the grand scheme of things. The little details shine as well. The smoke that rolls out of car windows when driving around with resident Rastafarian Little Jacob feels just as impressive to me as the Statue of Happiness. Whilst playing GTA IV, you get the overwhelming sense that Rockstar really cares about Liberty City and its fictional inhabitants, and that makes you care as well.
What better way to show your appreciation for the city than tearing it up online with up to 15 other players? Rockstar has finally seen the light and given its fans something they’ve been wanting for the longest time now – online Grand Theft Auto. As if the offline experience wasn’t enough to warrant the $60 price tag, Rockstar went the extra mile and provided its users with incredibly in-depth online capability as well. Not only will you be able to roam free in Liberty City with up to 15 of your friends, but you’ll also be able to completely customize the look and feel of your online persona. When you first hop online, your options for customization will be somewhat limited, though fortunately you’re able to purchase new clothing with cash you earn as you rank up.
Outside of Free Roam, Rockstar has also implemented 14 other gameplay modes that you can partake in, ranging from deathmatches to mission work, cat ‘n’ mouse games to turf wars. The guys over at Rockstar North left little to be desired within the brilliantly executed online environment. One of the more pleasing features of the online portion of GTA IV is the ability to play online with not only pedestrians and traffic enabled, but with non-player police serving as a third party in various scenarios. With that said, the inauguration of online play within the Grand Theft Auto universe provides a huge step up in not only the game’s direction, but user-experience altogether.
If this review went on for another 10 pages, I still couldn’t list everything you can do in Liberty City. I’ve completely managed to avoid mentioning the scandalous drunk driving mechanic within the game. That proves testament to my point though – Grand Theft Auto IV is filled to the brim with limitless opportunity. Contained within Grand Theft Auto IV is one greatest video game stories ever told, and that’s only the beginning. It has its flaws, but it’s the most ambitious game made to date and, without a doubt, the best game so far this generation. Keep on rockin’ Rockstar, you’ve got yourself a winner.