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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.
The missions: Shoot, drive and steal
As you might have guessed, the first 30 or so missions are a warm up to the main event, introducing you to new game mechanics like using the mobile phone, email and the internet, practising the new cover system in a few low-key stand-offs (one based in a warehouse with your Rasta buddy Litlle Jacob around mission 23 springs to mind) opening up the first three areas of the city - Broker,Bohan and Algonquin (the most impressive, visually) and making early enquiries as to the location of that 'special' someone.
The pacing is largely determined by the order you decide to attempt missions, and this will vary depending on the individual player. During the middle section of the game you'll have up to six contacts on the map - each with story relevance. This is one of the triumphs of GTA IV; always ensuring each of the mission threads carry you deeper into the plot, whether it's doing bank jobs with bickering Irish American brothers the McRearys or smuggling diamonds around in a waste truck for Mafioso Ray Boccino.
Even missions from characters like coke dealer Elizabeta Torres and reformed gangster Manny Escuela, who at first seem to be story deviations, all help in getting you new introductions and establishing your reputation across the cities underworld. The net effect is you're always caught up in a fascinating power struggle between any number of criminal characters, which combined with Niko's own personal motivation creates the most tightly-honed GTA to date.
But you probably wanted to hear about some missions? Well, it would be ruinous to give too much away, but the one we've all been talking about comes about 60 or so missions in and goes under the title Three Leaf Clover. It's a mission of epic proportion combining a botched bank job with a relentless gun battle through the streets and subways of Liberty City and an adrenaline-fuelled getaway across the Algonquin bridge smashing through roadblocks. Complete it and Niko's richer than kings. On a completely different tack, we also enjoyed the first helicopter mission with Little Jacob in which Niko has the pleasure of seeing one of his arch-enemies killed with a rocket launcher to the face while hovering over the Humboldt river.
Then there's a great sniper-based mission with hip-hop gangster Playboy-X which takes place on the construction site surrounding Ground Zero with you high on a skyscraper picking union officials off cranes and scaffolding from a lofty vantage point. There's a great surprise later on when Niko has to commandeer a Triad truck filled with contraband by jumping on the roof and holding on before jumping through the vehicles window and shooting the driver James Bond-style.
GTA IV takes the notion of open-world gameplay up another notch when it comes to variation of tactics used to complete a mission. So always look out for alternative entrances (like the back door of a building), alternative exits (maybe use a service lift?) short cuts not picked up by the SatNav and less obvious ways of killing enemies: like switching off their life-support machine. And no, you'll have to find that one for yourself. This sense of liberation from linearity (that many games try to fudge, badly) is a trademark of GTA and nowhere has it been more effectively achieved than here.
It's not all an easy ride though - some missions are just plain tough. To ease the pain of inevitable failure, Niko receives a text message asking if you would like an instant restart. In cases where the mission begins straight from the marker point this is literally an instant retry. However, it's not always that way. For example: in one mission you have to visit a house to get some information from a laptop computer and then receive instructions from your taskmaster on the mobile phone. If you fail the mission you have to do that bit again. And receive the same call. We did this mission three times. And heard the same call three times. Annoying when we already knew exactly where he was going to send us.
It's difficult to see how Rockstar can ever avoid the frustration factor inherent in restarting missions without messing with the fabric of the game, but it did lead to some cursing and silent shaking of the head when we realised we still had to go and buy all our weapons again as well as repeat the preliminary stages of a mission before we could attempt the bit we failed first (or second) time around. The one area that has been improved in this respect is that any character dialogue that occurs in a mission is different each time you play it, often giving you new insight into a character. So there's an argument to say failing gleans you new information, but we don't think you'll be thinking that as you're taxiing back to the gun shop for the third time in a row
Weapons and targeting: Shooting to kill
So has Rockstar really improved the targeting? The most straightforward answer is yes. But with a couple of caveats. Hitting the left trigger will lock onto the target in your field of vision and then you just pump away at the right trigger until the red bars that appear in the cross hairs have gone, indicating death. As if the blood and screaming didn't tell you that. That's all fine and dandy, until there's a few incapacitated and threatless enemies lying around. At which point the lock-on can waywardly choose to target them again instead of the guy behind the pillar shredding you with an SMG.
And now the defence. It rarely locks onto random pedestrians when you should be shooting police but it's actually quite amusing when it does. On reflection, this might have something to do with the fact much of your serious shooting is done either indoors or in areas that have been cleared of innocent bystanders. The key improvement is that when it does lock onto the wrong person it's far quicker to readjust to the correct target with a quick nudge of the stick in their direction - that's really important when your getting savaged from all sides. As a secondary precaution, if you hold down the left-trigger half-way (and this is more difficult on PS3 for obvious reasons) you go into an accurate free-aim so Niko can carry on shooting the person intended even if the lock on refuses to budge.
When it comes to melee fighting, which is actually few and far between, a veneer of depth has been added by giving you separate control over kick, punch and block, but the more exotic makeshift implements of close-quarter murder that San Andreas relished in (screwdrivers, drills, chainsaws) are absent bar the trusty baseball bat and knife. Whether you miss them or not, the bullet-based weapons are far more potent than before (the SMG's in particular are the P90s of GTA IV) and combined with the tight *cover system* make sustained gun battles more precise, controlled and most importantly more enjoyable.
The new stuff: Like the trailer said - things will be different
As well as using your mobile phone to find out about new jobs and contact friends, Rockstar has slipped in a few other present day communication techniques and made them fundamental to the structure of missions. Shortly after arriving in Liberty City, Niko's cousin Roman sets him up with an email account which is used to alert him to jobs (most memorably to set up a gay date). The internet is put to good use, not just as another outlet for Rockstar's ongoing parody of American culture, but to help Niko prepare a resume to get him closer to a lawyer he has to hit, for example. It's not a deal breaker but it's the natural evolution of the 'ringing public phone' found in San Andreas and Vice City.
Niko is occasionally required to get access to police computers to locate a target. The most amusing way to achieve this is to phone 911 in a remote location, wait for the police to turn up and then hijack their car. As well as searching by name the computer can also link up to your phone to identify any pictures that have been sent to you via text mesage. Then you simply hit A and the computer will add the directions to your SatNav. Smart.
Cimematics: The bits you won’t want to skip
Interestingly the stats section of GTA IV has a listing for 'cut-scenes watched'. It's doubtful you'll skip one during the first play through. The main thing that stands out in these scripted cinematics is the quality of the voice-acting and the lip-syncing.
Where some CG sequences can be a pain to sit through due to their ineptitude - fishlike mouths miming a completely different set of words to the ones being spoken, awkward body movements (usually too much use of the hands) skin tones of a burns victim - those in GTA are frequently funny, for the most part intelligently scripted and with fluid, natural animations.
The damage system: Smashing the place up
You might remember how frustrating it was when you failed a mission in any of the previous GTAs because your car blew up? That doesn't seem to happen so much in IV. It took us a while to work out why: the damage dealt to cars is relative to where they get hit. Furthermore, they tend to just come to a shuddering halt, rather than bursting into flames. Real-time damage basically means you can manually decide how to wreck you car. Put a dent in the front and the bumper falls off. Back it into a post and you smash the brake lights. Get shot at and you get free air conditioning and the distinct possibility a stray bullet might pierce the fuel tank and blow you from Broker into Alderney. Basically you've got the potential of Burnout's crunching auto porn transplanted into a GTA game.
And all that street furniture we mentioned earlier: hot dog stalls, dumpsters, cafe tables, piles of cardboard boxes, newspaper stands, lamp posts, parked cars, people, that's all fully destructible too. You don't have to try that hard to imagine the potential for carnage when you've got a five star wanted level and a parade of cops on your ass and you decide to take the pedestrian route. It's messy. Our personal favourite thing to smash into are the mailboxes which eject an impressive spray of papers into the air, all individually floating around in your wake. And we used to think these Rockstar guys couldn't do graphics...
Humans, too, take damage in a more advanced manner. Using free aim you can target different parts of an enemies anatomy and choose to, say, just wound a leg and then follow them around like a psychopath as they hobble away clutching their caved-in appendage. Even more brutality awaits enemies who you can perform executions on, a little slice of Manhunt hidden away in the nasty bowels of GTA IV.
However, the most shocking example of body deformation is far more commonplace (at least in real-life) and guaranteed to make you wince the first time you see it; having hit something solid at high speed Niko is catapulted through the front windscreen and hits the asphalt with all sorts of contorted body mangling. Gloriously unpleasant.
The cover system: Because you can’t just pile in anymore
Already alluded to in 'Weapons and targeting' GTA IV's cover system is worth noting in isolation because it has paved the way to a new style of mission. That of the tactical interior shoot-out. What that means is where in old GTA gun-battles were often confusing, luck-based ordeals, Niko has the ability to take cover behind anything using the left bumper and then use the camera to look around or over objects and fire from safety.
He can even slide between areas of cover. This puts the outcome of a gun battle down to your patience and skill, rather than the lap of the gods, as without this sharp, tactical way of working your way through droves of enemy in confined spaces, you'd be a dead man. Make no mistake, it totally changes the face of the GTA experience and leaves you relishing the potential of duel rather than fearing it.
On the mobile: Your link to the criminal underworld
Roman gives you your first phone and promises one day you'll get a better one which will be a sign you've 'made it'. Well, you do get a new one, from Playboy X, and that's when the real fun starts. Yes, you get a gold camera phone innit. Not only is it your way of communicating with characters in the game in a totally uncontrived manner, it's your key to going on leisurely dates, dinners and days out, keeping track on time-critical missions (with the organiser function) and taking pictures of hooker's asses with the camera.
While your phone is the single most important piece of kit you'll get in the game you can also purchase ring tones for it off the in-game internet, buy new 'themes' or just dial up 911 for kicks and watch the police arrive and bumble around looking confused.
Oh, and should you want to know what that tune is playing on the radio, just dial up Zit on 948-555-0100 and the service will text you the name back. Told you it was useful.
Sound: Music to your ears
The funniest line in GTA IV comes totally at random on the Integrity 2.0 radio station when stalwart radio presenter Lazlow interviews a Central American hot-dog vendor about the plight of being an immigrant worker. After establishing it's a non-story as the hot dog vendor reveals he is, in fact, quite happy with his lot, Lazlow gets a bit mouthy and in response the incensed interviewee retorts, "Hah, why you called Lazlow anyway? That's like some kinda clowns name."
Honestly, it's funnier when you hear it for yourself. The point is, the talk radio stations of Liberty City are as alive and full of biting insight as they were before. And, as featured in San Andreas, Rockstar has pulled that clever trick where when you commit a crime, it appears on the radio news show reinforcing the sense that Niko is having an effect on the way a living world evolves.
Equally, the music, one of the most crucial elements of the GTA experience is as varied as it is full of surprises - Goodbye Horses by Q Lazarus finally makes its game debut. Not being tied to one specific era has meant the sound designers have gone to town and selected music from Miles Davis through to Deadmau5. It's up to you to have your own personal 'moments' but so far we've enjoyed crawling the streets of the posher parts of Algonquin in the driving rain to the ponderous shuffle of Jazz Nation Radio, speeding down Plumbers Skyway in Alderney with Oxygene No.4 by Jean Michel Jarre at sunset and cruising through the neon-lit Times Square to the handbag disco sounds of Gino Soccio's Dancer.
The cops: The bacon factory
The bastards. All they want to do is cause you trouble. This time round the police are less sensitive over you scraping past them in a traffic queue, but they still take issue with you carjacking a vehicle when they happen to be in the vicinity. In fact, reflecting their conservative politics, the police have changed the least in the transition to GTA IV.
That's not to say they aren't still a massive pain in the ass and have a major influence on the difficulty level of certain missions. In once incident that springs to mind, Niko is required to kill a load of Albanians at the Alderney hideout. Having arrived we attempted to take out the guards on the porch from distance with the sniper rifle. Which was working until a passing squad car got involved. Of course, things quickly spiral out of control, there's two dead cops and suddenly we've got mission impossible, being lasered on all sides by angry Albanians and legions of cops. The next time we simply made sure no cops were about, went in the back door and mission complete.
Leisure time: Kicking back and wasting time
To be honest we still wonder why these side-missions make the cut, but if we're pushed we will say that bowling, pool and darts make decent mini-games in their own right and the cabaret acts are worth a look - especially the Ricky Gervais cameo. But in the main going to a strip bar and watching a CGI stripper's crotch being rubbed in our/Niko's face is still a bit weird, even when the graphics are so much improved. Once it's acceptable to include full nudity in videogames and all the girls look like Shay Laren, then we might see the point.
The motivation to give in to these distractions is that making friends and calling them up for dates unlocks benefits which actually assist you in the main story mode. Which is kind of cute. As one example, wine and dine Roman enough and he'll open up a personal chauffeur service for you that'll pick you up wherever and when ever you want. Great when you're stuck on the other side of the city to where you want to be and can't be assed to drive.
Multiplayer: Crime Online
We've already gone in depth into multiplayer at preview stage, and to be honest there isn't too much we can add here except to say that the process of getting into an online match from the game itself is a seamless experience. When tested on 27/4/08 on a home connection we found the service quick and were able to take part in an unranked multiplayer deathmatch with between three and seven people (it supports up to 16) and found no devastating loss in quality, bar the odd bit of pop up.
The way you can easily drop into multiplayer via your mobile means you're more likely to dip into it when you get tired of beating missions, instead of just going off on a mindless rampage round the city. Just hit up your mobile and within seconds you can be doing the same thing only with real opponents.
In our view it's the straight-up deathmatch that will kick off the most as it's basically the online GTA everyone was pining for back when consoles first went online (and that PC owners have been playing for years) it's basically the normal game only you have to take out your human opponents in any manner possible.
If Rockstar had simply given us better graphics, a new city and a bigger set of missions we'd have been happily acceptant and this game would have been an easy eight out of ten. Good, but try harder. Rockstar did try harder, though and we get GTA IV.
We hope we've explained why this is deserving of a maximum score (maybe you should go back and read it eh, wise guys) but in essence it's because it's the best of GTA, evolved and matured and bettered. Not only does it go a long way to fixing the problems of previous games but it maintains a level of 'class' and true innovation that other game designers in this genre strive for but never quite reach.
Part of this is in it's visual flair (hats off to Aaron Garbut and his team) but also the level of sheen applied to all aspects of the experience, whether it's the car design, a well-observed piece of dialogue, a snide cultural reference, a great theme tune, the engrossing storyline or even something as seemingly unimportant as the credit sequence, GTA IV speaks on a level with an adult player rather than dumbing down for the lowest common denominator.
There will be detractors, for sure, but we're convinced that 97% of the gamers who purchase this whether they're existing fans or not will find themselves hooked on it at least until the release of new downloadable content (currently 360 exclusive) later this year. As for the future of the series? This bodes well. And we've been assured the next instalment will raise the bar even further...
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