Whenever I start one of these Grand Theft Auto reviews I find myself talking endlessly about how fully realized the cities are. I talk about how every house looks different, the changing of tone from community to community and how much fun it is to explore (perhaps even live) in this Rockstar Games created world. But with Grand Theft Auto IV I find myself unable to start out my review with mindless chatter about the locale. Not because I find the city bad, but rather because for the first time ever there is something more fully realized than the game's fictional location. His name is Niko Bellic.
It shouldn't seem weird to call Niko the star of Grand Theft Auto IV; after all, he is the lead character in the game. But in the past entries in this franchise the main character played almost a secondary role to the city itself. But that's not the case with Rockstar's newest masterpiece; Niko Bellic is the real reason to buy/play Grand Theft Auto IV. Niko is perhaps the most fully developed video game character of all time, a character that has complex emotions and amazing depth. He's a flawed man, yet we root for him because deep down we understand his plight. If we remember this game for anything, it's going to be because of Niko Bellic.
Thankfully he's not the only star. I don't think I have to describe the crazy amount of hype and anticipation surrounding this game. For millions of people around the world this is more than a game, this is an experience unlike any other. And as crazy as it sounds, maybe these people are actually on to something. Let's face it, no so-called GTA clone has even come close to matching what Rockstar Games has been able to do. Not just in sales, but also in quality and innovation. Right when you think one company has the franchise topped, Rockstar Games comes out and proves that they are the king of the sub-genre.
Grand Theft Auto IV is no exception. It has been four years since we've had a console-specific Grand Theft Auto game (regardless of how good they were the two PSP 'Stories' games don't count), and Rockstar Games is proving that they've had a lot of really good ideas in that time. From a gameplay point of view this is not a revolution in the same way that going from Grand Theft Auto II to Grand Theft Auto III was, but there's definitely enough new here to warrant a closer inspection.
Don't get me wrong; it's not that Grand Theft Auto IV feels like a small step up (because it doesn't). This game's enhancements go beyond simple gameplay tweaks and a better narrative, the revolution is more about how this game makes you feel. The brilliance of this game is in the depth of the character, the nuance of the city, the way everything looks like it's supposed to look, the way characters react realistically, the way that people actually get mad at you if you ignore them. The brilliance of this game seems to fall into a lot of categories that I don't usually talk about when critiquing games, social improvements, enhancements with the animation and the intangible emotions. At first glance this may look like just another Grand Theft Auto game, but by the end of the game you will feel like you've really experienced something good. No, not good, something truly mind-blowing.
Hyperbole aside, Grand Theft Auto IV begins with Niko Bellic sailing into the harbor of Liberty City, a metropolis best known for welcoming immigrants and having really, really strong weed. Niko has traveled all the way from the Eastern Bloc in hopes of living the American Dream. Unfortunately he was suckered by his cousin, a compulsive liar by the name of Roman. The huge mansion that Roman promised is actually a run-down apartment. The expensive sports car Roman supposedly drives? You guessed it, it's a taxi cab. The life that Roman has talked about is all an act, and Niko is about to see the ugly side of city living.
But Niko is a complex character; he's more than just a sucker for believing his brother's lies. He's a tough guy who has served in the military and is running from a past of illegal activities. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of doors open for Niko when he lands in Liberty City. His immigrant status is causing some problems and he isn't exactly qualified to work a nine to five. Instead he finds himself taking any shady job he can get, which usually requires him to protect somebody, deliver something valuable or go all the way and kill somebody.
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