What with GTA IV being the single biggest game release of 2008 there's going to be a lot of reviews and opinions out there vying for your attention. So in this 360-centric appraisal we're doing things a little differently - cutting the fluff that surrounds most reviews and getting to what matters.
Like: What's new? What are the weapons like? How do the cars handle? What's the story? What are the best missions? How good a location is the high-def Liberty City? All that and more are included here and you can even skip to the bits that you want to read first, because no-one wants to read a paragraph of puff before they get to the meat.
If you've somehow ended up here and wanted a PS3-specific review click here to read the Grand Theft Auto IV PlayStation 3 review over in the PS3 channel.
Your central character: Niko Bellic, the Balkan difference
First up, Niko’s not f***ing Russian, he’s Serbian. That's important. And he’s probably the coolest videogame character we’ve ever played as.
Forget the tiresome arrogance of Tommy Vercetti and the faux-bling gangsterisms of CJ - Niko has a depth of character which is extraordinary in the mono-dimensional world of videogames. Fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe, he’s a man with a shadowy past: people trafficker and veteran soldier of the most recent Balkan war.
Niko comes to Liberty City, city of opportunity, after receiving an email from his cousin Roman, who claims he is rich and living in a condo with girls with ‘big titties’. It only takes the first cinematic to show this has been one big lie; he actually runs a cab firm in fear of the Russian mob and lives in a cockroach infested hovel.
As you unravel the plot it becomes clear that Niko is a good man who has seen some very bad things. Initially, on arrival in Liberty City, his motivation is to make money, but the story soon introduces a second, more pressing issue - a quest to find that ‘special someone’ alluded to in the trailers.
He’s loyal to his family (ie. Roman and his girlfriend Mallorie) and while it’s down to the player to dictate some of his behaviour, he shows none of the traits of misogyny that other characters in the game drip with. A kind, innocent side to him is portrayed through his relationship with Michelle (the first girlfriend). Where does he take her on a first date? The fun fair. Put simply, he’s a stone-cold killer, but you’d be quite happy leaving him alone with your kid sister.
It’s not just through his intriguing back story that Niko becomes a more human character than previous anti-heroes; it's also down to the way GTA IV introduces more naturalistic body animation. You can see this in the lope of his walk, the way his feet touch every step when he runs down stairs – even in the movement of individual fingers.
Drivetime: Getting around Liberty City
As befits the title a large proportion of game time is spent negotiating the environs of Liberty City at breakneck speed in an admirable roster of vehicles. One of the single greatest inventions to assist you with this (in ground-based vehicles) is the new SatNav device.
If you need to reach a remote location and can’t afford to get lost, just hit the map, set a marker point and the SatNav will work out the best route, indicated by an easy to follow coloured line. Without it, finding your way about would often be a nightmare given complexity of some of the freeway interchanges.
The only area we could fault it (and in fairness it mimics a real-life GPS) is when you take an alternative route (say, to avoid the police in the heat of a chase) and it has to recalculate the route. The second or two delay it takes to do this is enough to send you off course - and in extreme cases fail a mission. At least it never crashes or claims it's lost satellite reception...
If you can’t be bothered to drive Niko can flag down a taxi using the left bumper and then jump in by holding down Y (just be careful not to tap it or he’ll perform a carjack instead). Inside you have the option to travel to any location on the map including mission start points and markers via a scenic route or an instant skip (at an extra cost). Usefully, taxis can also be used during a mission.
For the impatient gamer these are indispensable when the difficulty ramps up and you start failing missions. Even better, if you get cousin Roman in your good books by taking him out enough you’ll get the services of a private chauffeur who is only ever a phone call away.
However, driving around the city with the radio pumping often creates some of GTA IV's 'special' moments; cruising the streets of Algonquin in the driving rain with Miles Davis or speeding down the freeway at sunset to the sounds of Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene No.4. You'd miss out on this if you just took taxis everywhere.
In terms of vehicle handling, each vehicle's nuances and engine noises are exactly as you might expect for their type. If anything, Rockstar has given them a small dose of simulation-style control. It’s not Gran Turismo, for sure, but where San Andreas’s cars could feel lighter than air and bounce around with bizarre gravity, GTA IV’s respond more authentically to bumps and smashes.
Most importantly they all feel different. Trash trucks and lorries are slow and cumbersome, sports cars devilishly fast and easy to hurl round corners with careful application of the handbrake button (x). Bikes are lethally quick yet irritatingly slow to pick up off the floor and climb back onto when you take a tumble. Which you will at least once in all of the bike chase missions.
The visuals: Sucking in the atmosphere
Like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, the creative minds at Rockstar have always had a love affair with the city of New York – it’s where their HQ is based and home of ex-pats Sam and Dan Houser. The result is that Liberty City is an occasionally breathtaking homage to their city d’amour, rich with detail and stylised interpretations of famous landmarks.
Part of the character of the city is dictated by the light, weather and cloud patterns which were captured using time-lapse photography over a period of six weeks. The effect is an ever-changing colour palette which shows Liberty City in bright sunlight, dense fog, dramatic thunderstorms (the neon reflecting off the wet tarmac are a high-def treat) and almost monochromatic dusks.
The trick they’ve pulled is to realise a distinctly mature, 'organic' and intelligent vision of New York. There’s artistic license (they’ve sacked off the fifth borough of Staten Island, probably because it’s so boring) but famous areas like Times Square, Central Park and Broadway fill you with a sense of excitement - like you're a tourist arriving there for the first time on a weekend break. Even if you’ve only ever seen Manhattan in the movies you’ll feel like you’ve been there in the coolest way possible.
However, it's not just the neon lights, foliage and street furniture (Rockstar actually has a 'props' guy) that create the unique NYC/LC aura - it's what's going on in the background: the police pulling people over on the Algonquin bridge, the hot dog vendors, the drunken bums, the dodgy dealers lurking in the shadows of Bohan's run-down housing projects.
And while in San Andreas these bit part characters were like clockwork dummys, traipsing around on a never-ending loop now each one feels more like an individual. It gives Liberty City an eerie sense of the real - well, as far as any game has managed up to this point - and is the perfect location for GTA IV's story to play out in.