A lot has changed in the gaming world since Rockstar released GTA: San Andreas, the last entry in the incredibly successful and highly controversial Grand Theft Auto series. The next generation of consoles has taken the forefront, and with it changed the scope and scale of gaming in many ways. In the last several years especially, games have pushed the boundaries of their genre to limits never before seen. Games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, and Uncharted have made incredible strides in storytelling, featuring characters whose every move is believable. Call of Duty 4 took realism to a new level, and even in GTA’s own sandbox genre games like Assassin’s Creed and Crackdown added so many leaps forward in gameplay.
Part of GTA’s charm has always been it’s outlandish clichéd characters, below average graphics, and a paper thin narrative that lent itself more to the over the top comedy it was based around than any type of serious emotional connection. How would the series hold up in a gaming world that has made so many strides in a different direction. With GTA IV, the answer is apparent….phenomenally well, due in large part to the fact that this iteration of the series takes all these advances to heart, but retains enough of its own characteristics to feel at once familiar and like a breath of fresh air.
At first glance, GTA IV looks great graphically, even if not quite awe inspiring. However the devil is, as they say, in the details and the details are what set this game apart. Most gamers are trained to look at graphics as a whole rather than individual details, as most games are made to look great while in motion. GTA breaks this trend by actually looking more impressive upon closer inspection. City blocks have details that make even the most plain of buildings usable as a landmark. Cars that look the same from a distance, might reveal varying levels of rust, wear, and tear up close. This level of detail extends from the graphics to just about every aspect of the gameplay. The oddest thing about this is that even though GTA IV is much less photo realistic than many other games, the attention to detail makes the game world feel more realistic than just about any other game the industry has seen thus far. All is not sunny in terms of visuals however, as the unfortunate issues with Pop-in and an unsteady framerate that have plagued the GTA series since its transition to 3D rear their ugly heads once again. They are occasional and certainly not as severe as in past iterations of the series, however they are noticeable enough to warrant a mention.
One of the other areas that a considerable more detail has been spent in GTA IV than in previous games in the series is in terms of the main character, Niko Bellic. Not only is Niko more believable than previous GTA leads, the stuff he says and does is more realistic. The way he moves, behaves, and responds to the actions of those around him makes him one of the most accessible and likable characters in recent gaming memory. Like Nathan Drake in last years phenomenal Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, Niko has an everyman quality that makes him much more appealing than the hulking musclemen or stereotypical antihero you find in most modern games. This leads to a much deeper connection with Niko’s story than that of any of the other cookie cutter “rags to riches” tales the GTA series has relied on in the past. Even though GTA IV is a step backwards in terms of character customization from San Andreas, it only takes 10 minutes in Niko Bellic’s shoes to see that it just wouldn’t fit with the mood of the game, and it’s definitely for the best.
Carrying the themes of detail and realism along, the driving in GTA IV has seen an overhaul of its own. The game’s called Grand Theft AUTO for a reason (and not just cause “Grand Theft Walking Your Sorry A** Everywhere” would be grammatically incorrect and hard to fit on the box), and driving is a huge part of the game. The driving physics have been dramatically altered from the arcadey “floor it and handbrake every turn” style many fans of the series may be used to. The cars in GTA IV handle much more realistically, and if you try to whip that crappy compact car around a 90 degree turn at 80 mph you’re going to end up in a very bad place. While this may turn off many long time fans of the series, the traditional GTA style of driving just wouldn’t fit in the well crafted world of Niko Bellic. It definitely takes getting used to however, and most (especially those who aren’t fans of sim style racing) will probably find themselves frustrated initially. The difficulty does subside with practice though, and once you learn how to navigate the twisting turning streets of Liberty City it begins to feel very natural.
It also adds drama to the game in terms of car selection, as just about every car on the road handles differently. You’ll have to be much more selective than ever before when trying to pick a ride, which can make things very tense when you’re being chased down and need to make a last minute decision. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the game has come from trying to outrun the police in an inferior car, weaving in and out of traffic and having to use alleyways, roadside hazards, and some crafty driving to escape instead of raw power.
The mission structure in GTA IV is very similar to past entries in the series in terms of progressing the main storyline. Make a friend/contact, go to his/her spot on the map, get your mission and go. You will, like the other games in the series, see many mission types repeated over the course of the story with a few minor changes. While this is disappointing in a way, it manages to feel less repetitive due to the connection you will feel to the story, to Niko, and to the various individuals he comes in contact with. This connection is also the basis of the new relationship building actions you will take during the course of the game.
For the first time, not only will you get missions from guys like Niko’s cousin Roman, or his Jamaican friend Little Jacob, you will also have the opportunity to hang out with these guys. Whether you are going drinking, out for a bite to eat, or playing one of the new basic but fun mini-games like Bowling, Pool, or Darts, it’s hard not to feel closer to the characters you spend more time with. Conversely, it’s hard not to feel bad when you miss a date with that special someone because you were too busy massacring an entire biker gang singlehandedly. As an added bonus, increasing your relationship level with certain characters allows you access to various side missions as well as special character specific perks. Like everything else mentioned so far, this adds a degree of “real life” to the game, as it gives Niko a life and personality outside of the structured missions.
GTA as a series is known almost as much for its comedic value as its gameplay, and IV continues this tradition. The newly added television stations give the classic GTA radio station comedy a visual edge, and the results don’t disappoint. While puns and visual satire do add a degree of comedy to the GTA series, the lion’s share of the fantastic humor the game has become known for is due to great sound work, and IV is no exception. The radio stations are spot on, and the talk satire is as good as ever. The music in the game fits very well with the overall tone of the city, although some will be disappointed in the fact that not all of it is instantly recognizable. Finally, the voice acting for most of the characters is spot on, and in terms of timing and delivery its difficult to find a more well acted main character than Niko Bellic.
As if the fantastic single player experience wasn’t enough, Rockstar crammed in a robust multiplayer experience as well. Not only does it feature the traditional Deathmatch style gameplay we’ve become accustomed to, but they took advantage of the uniqueness of the GTA series and created new modes to match up with your expectations of what an online GTA game should be. Cops and Crooks is just what it sounds like, and a complete blast from either side. The new driving physics are capitalized on through an online street racing mode, and most importantly, the free mode allows you and your friends to wreak havoc on Liberty City however you choose. Multiplayer and the GTA universe go hand in hand, and these new online modes really take game to an entirely different level.
I could go on for another couple thousand words about the amazing experience that is GTA IV, but what’s most important for you to know is that this game is an absolute masterpiece. Is it perfect? No. No game is, and no game ever will be. What this game does overall however, it does better than any other game in its genre. It also provides more entertainment and value for your $60 than any other game so far this year, and everyone (17 years old + of course) should experience it for themselves. GTA IV sets a benchmark that games in all genres will be held up to in the coming years. It has taken the best features of modern game design and combined them all to create a world that is both believable and awe inspiring, and a game experience that is unforgettable.