The "Grand Theft Auto" videogame series has been one of the most celebrated, as well as one of the most politically scrutinized, game series' of all time. Its level of violence, sexual and public misconduct and, later, profanity raised the bar for what was acceptable in an "M"-rated videogame.
Rockstar Games (then known as DMA Design) first few entries in the franchise ("Grand Theft Auto" and "Grand Theft Auto 2," respectively) were only small precursors to what was to come for the quote-unquote "mafia sim" that spun off countless clones, imitators and millions of gamers who took to the series' anti-hero protagonists and the felonious acts of violence and degradation you could perform on innocent bystanders, police officers, and sex-starved prostitutes.
What many consider the best of the bunch, "Grand Theft Auto III," was released Fall of 2001 and received numerous accolades; something the previous incarnations of the series had yet have thrust upon them. The following year, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," received similar treatment and was hailed as a welcome improvement over "III," but was cited by many as something of a glorified expansion set and not an entirely new experience. Nonetheless, the impressive "Vice City" received rave reviews and was soon followed up by the immensely ambitious "San Andreas" in 2004. To this day "San Andreas" has received one of the best overall scores of any free-roam action game to date.
This is where you enter Rockstar Games latest Mafioso masterpiece, "Grand Theft Auto IV." Delayed from Fall of 2007 to April 29th (yesterday) of this year, this was the game anyone who was anyone was waiting for. Although it hadn't received the ridiculously expensive ad campaign or the unabashedly shameless plugging of your everyday "Halo 3," Rockstar expected "GTA IV" to be the game that sold well during its midnight sales event, throughout its official day of release, and all year long as well. Yes, Rockstar certainly seemed proud of their violent, profane, sexually explicit little opus and, as everyone is well aware, that pride in their work is well warranted. But shouldn’t they be proud, you ask? That's not the question. There is but one question on every gamers head they are itching to ask - just how good is this game?
You play as Niko Bellic, a former citizen of undisclosed Eastern-European country that immigrates to Liberty City with the hopes of living the good life with his cousin, Roman. You see, Roman has told Niko of his life in Liberty City; the condo's, the parties, the women, the money, and the luxury. But moments after Niko steps foot off the boat that brought him to Liberty City and sees Roman's "mansion," (which turns out to be a cramped little apartment infested with cockroaches), Niko is no longer impressed with the false American Dream his cousin had been selling him. After setlling in a bit, discovering that his cousin is in some serious debt with a bunch of loan sharks, and helping him out with his troubles, Niko finds himself caught up (and possibly enamored) with the criminal lifestyle soon after.
First and foremost, Rockstar have completely redesigned the physical make-up of the game play to fit into the 21st century. Although “III” was released in 2001, which is the closest any of the recent games have gotten thus far to being “up-to-date,” there were few modern technologies. Hell, it could’ve been set in the '90s for all any of us knew. One thing (or several things, actually), “GTA IV” does is make sure that you know you are in modern society with a plethora of modern gadgetry at your disposal. Such as using your cell phone, for example. It’s not just a cell phone; it’s a very vital game play tool. You can dial a number manually (for cheating purposes) or, as small example of your phones uses, go right to your list of current contacts, select “Activities” and treat your friend to a meal, a show, or anything of that ilk, in order to gain "trust" from them and open up new avenues of game play.
Rockstar have managed to work this idea into the game incredibly well and you’ll find that throughout the game you’ll receive calls, have to answer the phone, and you’ll have a new set task to accomplish. On your way to complete the task for that person, someone else will phone you. Let’s say it’s your girlfriend. Now you have a choice, you can either help someone out of their jam or gain the “trust” of your companion which could help you later in the game. It really is very open decision-making. It makes for a ton of replay as the gamer may want to go back and replay a section just to try a different choice and see what the outcome is.
This also goes hand-in-hand with the ability to decide certain character’s fates. The first of these is when you chase an NPC through a construction zone and you must decide whether you want to save his life or kill him. Either way you finish this mission will result in a different set of information (or lack thereof), dialogue, and cinematics. No “GTA” has attempted this before and it makes the experience feel that much more involving.
The core game play, even on what is basically the 11th entry in the series, has not changed. You can still steal nearly any vehicle you wish, you can still kill the pedestrians… you don’t have to perform the missions at all if you don’t feel up to it. But new features have been implemented all the way around for what has been dubbed the franchises “fresh start.” You can do things such as hail cabs, call your own personal taxi once it has become enabled, among other things. There is even a feature implemented where you must now break the driver’s side window of certain cars to be able to enter them and then Niko must hot wire the vehicle before he can use it. Hell, Rockstar have also seen fit to include a cover system for this entry which is utilized by positioning yourself up against almost any object in Liberty City and pressing RB. You can either blind fire by simply pressing the Right Trigger or lock-on fire by holding the Left Trigger.
The game's title, “GTA IV”, is exactly as it sounds; a brand new start for the series. Where “III,” “Vice City,” and “San Andreas” were part of the same trilogy, this is an entirely new chapter in the “GTA” saga that fixes as much as it adds. For example, you no longer have to painstakingly evade the police once you gain a wanted level in hopes of getting rid of it. All you have to do now is be clear of their radius, lay low for a few seconds, and voila. The Pay ‘n’ Spray is still probably going to be your best friend by game's end, but you won’t find yourself using it half as much as other installments.
Even the added game play bonuses taken from the others in the series (such as maintaining a relationship with girlfriends, going out on dates and such) play second fiddle to all that has been improved, revamped and added in this installment. Game play-wise, “GTA IV” stands head and shoulders above all of its predecessors and competition. It will be quite some time before another free-roam game can do what this title has been able to accomplish.
Rockstar have even upgraded the AI for this entry. Yank a civilian out of his or her car and they just might pull you back out, wait for you to re-orient yourself, and try to wail on you. Police are just as fearless. Get a bunch of them on you at once and it’s curtains. The AI is simply unrelenting. It was also nice to see the AI relate just as well to the game world as they did to our protagonist, Niko Bellic. Pedestrians interact with each other constantly and one action from you can lead to a positive or negative reaction from another pedestrian. It’s astounding.
Visually speaking, “GTA IV” is no slouch either. Powered by the same graphics engine that gave life to Rockstar’s “Rockstar Presents Table Tennis,” this will undoubtedly remain one of the best looking Xbox 360 games of the year. Lighting is spectacular and the best facet of the engine, as are the wonderfully designed and skinned character models. In terms of its vast lighting and post processing capabilities, take a chopper through Liberty City at night and simply marvel. Structures are immense and there are very few "doubles," speaking in terms of Liberty City's many buildings and the abundant pedestrians. On the slight downside of things, and this isn't necessarily a harsh criticism on the game, I would have liked the developers to have allowed for the entering of more buildings, though.
That small nitpick aside, character models and their textures are simply amazing; eyes, mouths, hands, legs, and arms move incredibly realistically in cut scenes and, thanks to the RAGE engine, scarily lifelike during shootouts, out-of-cinematic conversations and as pedestrians simply walk down the street as well. I can’t say it enough; this is one of the best looking games I have ever played, from the fantastic looking water and sky effects to the brilliant lighting and bump-mapped-to-the-nth-degree character models. Those who bought a next-gen system craving a game that could produce visuals worthy of each system's respective price tag, you will not be disappointed. It looks that damn good.
Voice acting for “GTA IV” is as good as it’s ever been in the long-running series. These characters have tons of personality; no matter if they’re criminals or not, you’ll hate to see them go. Voiced with tons of flair and made very likeable for such a cold-hearted fellow, Niko is something of a man’s man and it is simply amazing that all someone has to do is go inside a recording studio and voice a videogame character for a couple of hours a day and the results can bring to life such a complex, likeable guy you know you should hate, but ultimately love and just might envy. The other characters are voiced just as solidly. Trust me, the guys performing the voiceovers here seemed to have had a hell of a lot of fun doing them.
Sound effects are great with the sounds of various weaponry being dead-on and the accompanying sounds of combat being just as good. The various radio stations have some great, varied music as well and it isn’t likely that with as many of them as there are that you’ll tire of them. There are more radio stations here than in any “GTA” thus far. The number of songs available can feel almost overwhelming.
“Grand Theft Auto IV” is simply an amazing game from start to finish. It will take you anywhere from 30 to 45 hours to complete (45 hours if you want to do absolutely everything) and if you were one of the few who didn’t pick it up the first day it was released and you are a “Grand Theft Auto” fan, then you’re probably not that a big a “GTA.” fan after all. This is the game to get for the 360 (as well as the PS3) and it is the “GTA” game to get as well. It’s bigger, better, badder, faster, and stronger. Trust me; it’s everything you could want and more. Actually, why the hell am I writing this review? Everyone’s probably playing it right now.