Grand Theft Auto IV
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: April 29, 2008
In a series rife with over-the-top entries such as Vice City and San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV takes things in a new direction: gritty realism. This time around you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has arrived in Liberty City in pursuit of the American Dream (and I’m not talking about Dusty Rhodes). Upon arriving, he gets caught up in the criminal lifestyle found in other GTA games, eventually racking up countless murders and other violent crimes. Along the way, he meets a colorful cast of characters (some brilliant, some annoying) who help push the story along by providing new missions.
The core sandbox gameplay found in previous titles is largely the same, but everything is more realistic, beginning with the driving controls. A lot of people were instantly turned off to the game due to its vehicle handling, which is drastically different from years past. Cars are a little more difficult to handle, at least at first, and it’s a little too easy to lose control while traveling at high speeds. The learning curve will bother some gamers, but I found the controls to be satisfactory as I grew more comfortable with them.
Another aspect that tries to make the game more “real” is the heavy reliance on Niko’s cell phone. People are always calling Niko. If they aren’t telling him about new missions, they are wanting to hang out and go bowling, play pool or go get some drinks. Going out with friends is, unfortunately, a necessity if you are looking to do everything the game has to offer. This means that in between missions you will often have to call some friends (or potential girlfriends), pick them up, go out and do something, then drop them back off. While hanging out to sustain relationships is realistic, it’s more of a nuisance than anything in video game form.
The game’s main missions are pretty much what you would expect — meet with someone, drive to a location, kill some people, outrun the cops and then pick up your reward. This is the basic formula that encompasses the majority of the missions, although every now and then there is something unique to liven things up. My personal favorite involves participating in a bank heist gone bad and then having to shoot your way out; it reminded me a lot of the Michael Mann classic, Heat. While there is some redundancy involved, the occasional spurts of different tasks keeps the game fresh.
Unfortunately, the game’s mission checkpoint system still feels like it is in the stone age. This is a major issue for me, as it can be unbearably frustrating to start a mission, drive all the way across the city, complete a task or two and then end up dying before completion. If you die or get arrested, you are screwed. You can’t restart at the point you died; instead, you have to start the entire mission all over again. Times have changed, Rockstar. This shit does not fly anymore.
Another thing that can be grating is the clunky combat/shooting system. While certainly improved over past entries in the series, GTA IV’s combat still does not feel natural. The new cover system is a good idea in theory, but sometimes it can be difficult to actually get into cover and remain there. This can lead to being left prone for enemy fire. The new targeting system is improved, but again, it still leaves something to be desired. The appropriate steps have been taken, but Rockstar just isn’t quite there yet.
Really, even though all of these gripes are perfectly justifiable, Grand Theft Auto IV is an impressive video game, hands down. It’s not perfect, but I have never played a game that has created such a massive, living and breathing city like Liberty City. There is just so much to do, and you can play the game to your liking. Liberty City feels like the sadistic little brother of New York City, with its own distinct areas modeled after real life locales. Quite frankly, the game’s world is beautiful in its own dark and grimy way. The graphics are slick, and even breathtaking at times (I love driving on the bridge with the skyline in the background). The soundtrack is as great as ever, and even the hilarious satire news stations are back.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a major technical achievement in the video game industry, and it really is something to behold. Even with its flaws, GTA IV is a great experience that is worthy of the many, many hours that so many gamers have invested in it.