As our alter ego Niko Bellic sails across the Atlantic towards the unknown promised land of America, you can’t help but draw parallels with Rockstar’s own journey. Having conquered the last generation of consoles, they now face an uncertain transition to the Xbox 360 and PS3, where the pressure to exceed the already high standards is enormous. With such a burden, this is perhaps the most important game in the series since Grand Theft Auto III.
With that in mind, Rockstar have kept the same foundations that have held the series in such good stead until now. The formula will be familiar to many; work your way through the criminal underworld, killing undesirables and pocketing increasing amounts of cash in the process. The characters you’ll meet and the missions you’ll do for them are as varied as ever, but now include a greater deal of choice. The series has always given the illusion of being open, but in GTA IV your destiny is in your hands more than ever.
This is perhaps the most important game in the series since Grand Theft Auto IIIThis is perhaps best illustrated by the game’s most prominent innovation; Niko’s phone. Fully realised with an address book, messages and organiser, it forms your interface with the world around you. In previous games, characters would just call you, but now this communication is two-way. Meetings can be instigated, girlfriends called, backup requested and so on. It provides an ever present link to the game’s characters and plot, immersing you in the world in a way that previous games didn’t quite manage to pull off.
Liberty City itself makes a welcome return, although not in a form that you may remember it. Rockstar’s parody of New York is more realistic than any GTA city before it, using a roughly accurate street plan but maintaining a depth of character that the likes of Vice City had in abundance. Despite the loose mapping between Liberty City and New York, there are places where the two are perfectly aligned and if you’ve been there, spotting these is rewarding in its own right.
Driving around the streets for the first time raises suspicions that GTA IV might not be as life changing and we might expect it to be. Most vehicles are plagued by understeer, the handbrake turns the road into a pseudo ice rink and the camera doesn’t adjust quick enough when cornering. The vehicle handling is more realistic than before, but it’s perhaps not entirely suited to the game. That said, you can get used to it reasonably quickly and once you learn to adjust to the driving style, it’s perfectly tolerable.
The vehicle handling is more realistic than before, but it’s perhaps not entirely suited to the gameWhat is welcome is the ability to shoot in any direction from within a vehicle. Chasing down other cars is now far easier, since you can shoot out their tires with greater accuracy than previous games ever afforded. It can be a little awkward to pull off, but then you’d expect firing a machine gun while retaining control of your car to be.
On foot, the gunplay is even better. Shooting used to be the series’ real weakness, but GTA IV is a vast improvement and brings it into line with other action titles. Niko can free aim or lock on to targets, as well as using cover like many third-person games now allow you to. The inconsistent aiming methods of old are now gone, so using an assault rifle is no longer entirely different to a pistol, for instance. Elaborate shootouts are now far more feasible and Rockstar have taken full advantage of this, with some excellent set pieces throughout the game.
However, GTA IV‘s defining achievement is the reduction in the time you waste driving around unnecessarily and the level of frustration endured because of it. In San Andreas, you’d be forgiven for quitting entirely after the tenth time that you had to drive back to the beginning of one of those damn race missions. Thankfully, such painful repetition is a thing of the past.
GTA IV’s defining achievement is the reduction in the time you wasteWhenever you fail a mission, you’ll get a text message giving you the option to immediately return to the point just after its initial cutscene. The game also autosaves after you complete each one, which is an absolute lifesaver given the shocking reliability of the Xbox 360. Getting around is another area where time can be cut down; Niko can now hail cabs, which can take you to any point on the map for a small charge. You can sit back and watch the city from the back seat, or just skip to your destination. These improvements might sound incidental on their own, but when combined make GTA IV a far less infuriating and aggravating experience than its predecessors.
One area that you’d naturally expect refinement in is the game’s graphics and on this point, GTA IV certainly delivers. The series has never had and probably never will feature groundbreaking visuals, but Rockstar definitely knows how to get the most out of the hardware available. This quasi-paradox might seem confusing, but few of the shiniest games around include a world so large or rich. Pop-up is still present, but is less pronounced than before and is made up for by the lack of load times between parts of the city.
Although it doesn’t have the finest graphics on the market, Rockstar have made great use of a few technologies and techniques to give GTA IV a real cinematic feel. Motion capture brings cut scenes alive and makes the game’s characters all that more credible, while selective blurring and more lifelike explosions give shootouts more vigor.
GTA IV’s audio is nigh on perfectThe user interface is also worthy of note. The game’s mini-map is now host to Niko’s health and armour levels, as well as indicating how close you are to losing the police. When you’re on the run, a blue circle appears on your radar and once out of it, your wanted level will lower after a certain length of time. This makes the task of escaping much clearer and the game is better for it.
As you might expect from Rockstar’s track record, GTA IV‘s audio is nigh on perfect. Countless hours of licensed songs are spread across over a dozen radio stations, with the likes of Iggy Pop and Karl Lagerfeld amongst the DJs. The talk stations also return, with the same wealth of comedy that no other title has come near to matching. Some of the music might be a little obscure, but it still succeeds in adding an invaluable layer of depth to the already rich game world.
Liberty City is not just a backdrop for the game’s missions, but an intricate environment that you’ll come to love. The attention to detail is remarkable at times, especially when you least expect it. There’s a fully realised Internet, the chance to go bowling, play pool, check your balance at an ATM, take helicopter tours and much more. Some of the excesses of San Andreas like the need to keep fit are gone, but there’s still so much to do that you could spend an entire day without touching a single mission.
It excels in creating a genuinely cinematic atmosphereIt’s also a world that you can now enjoy with friends. Accessed through Niko’s phone, online multiplayer includes 15 modes which can accommodate up to 16 players. There are several traditional adversarial modes like deathmatches, races and escort missions, plus co-op missions and a free mode where you can explore and cause havoc in the city at will. Multiplayer is a long awaited feature, but more importantly, it’s one that allows people to share the spontaneous nature of the Grand Theft Auto experience.
It’s in these defining moments that the game truly comes together. GTA IV may not have the best graphics, gunplay, A.I. or driving, but few other games have ever combined so many elements so successfully. It excels in creating a genuinely cinematic atmosphere, with writing on par with anything Hollywood can produce and action sequences that would sit comfortably in any movie. Liberty City has the depth and character to keep you playing for months, and the measures to reduce the frustration that previously dogged the series will make sure that you do just that. GTA IV is a rare gem and one that you’ll remember playing for years to come. It might be one of the most controversial games ever created, but it’s also one of the best.
By Philip Morton