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.
Fans of the Grand Theft Auto series will no doubt recognize how this game begins, outside of the immigrant twist; Grand Theft Auto IV starts out like every other game in the series. But unlike every other game in the series, Niko's goal is not to own the most property in the city or get to the top of some gang. The story in Grand Theft Auto IV feels a lot more natural, it's a personal story about this one guy who has to live with the consequences of his actions. There are still a lot of crazy over-the-top missions, but the story is a lot more intimate this time around.
Interestingly enough, the missions in Grand Theft Auto IV haven't changed all that much. Then again, that may be a testament to how good Rockstar Games is at creating interesting missions. If nothing else, the missions serve as a tour guide (an extremely violent tour guide, but still a guide) to the hotspots in Liberty City. In the 30+ hour storyline you'll find yourself running down bad guys in a fictional Times Square, shooting down helicopters next to a fictional Statue of Liberty, strolling through a fictional Coney Island, getting lost in a fictional Central Park and even scaling a fictional Empire State Building. You'll also have a chance to see a lot of seedy apartment complexes and visit a bunch of run-down houses. Needless to say, you're going to see a lot of real estate when you go through the story mode.
You'll also be introduced to a number of really cool characters, including an impossible to understand Rasta drug dealer, a steroid ridden car collector and a woman with the lowest standards possible. And that's just in the first few hours, before the end of the game you'll be dealing with some real big players in Liberty City, all of which are memorable and well acted. This is definitely one of the best Grand Theft Auto stories; it's doing an excellent job of imitating The Wire, which isn't entirely a bad thing.
Like all of the Grand Theft Auto games of the past, GTA IV generally has four or five different missions open to you at any one time. One thing that Rockstar Games has added this time around is the ability to make a choice. While it's not in every mission, from time to time you'll be given the choice of who to kill, or even if you want to kill somebody at all. You'll be given social choices, too. Do you go on your date or save your cousin? All of these things play into the overall sense of actually being involved with this world. There's one choice towards the end of the game that will even determine how the end game plays out for you. There aren't enough of these choices, but this is definitely a step in the right direction for Rockstar Games and Grand Theft Auto.
Oddly enough the biggest gameplay addition doesn't really sound all that impressive on paper. That's because it's nothing more than a cell phone; the little piece of technology that almost all of us have. But here's it's more than just a phone, it's your lifeline to all sorts of personal relationships. It's the way to get a job and get things done. It's the way to keep up with your love life. The phone turns this game from being you against the world to you feeling like you have a close knit group of friends and family. This may sound like something minor, but it really adds a lot to the entire experience.
The phone is about more than just personal conversations. You can also use your cell phone to take pictures, call up cheat codes or get quick and easy side work for a few extra dollars. This is the kind of addition I expect to see in every Grand Theft Auto clone in the future, and maybe a few that you wouldn't consider to be clones.
As expected there's more to this world than just completing missions and advancing the story. Like all Grand Theft Auto games, it's easy to get completely side-tracked by doing everything but the story. Not that this is a bad thing, since almost all of the mini-games are fun. The way you find these mini-games feels a lot more natural, too. For example, you'll be able to bowl at the bowling alley, shoot pool and throw darts at the local pub and get drunk at a club. And that's just the beginning of the mini-games. There are a lot of missions you can do for your friends, including drug running and finding specific cars that people are looking for. What's more, you can also steal a police car and get two different kinds of missions. One of the missions has you going to some enemy stronghold and just killing everybody inside, while the other has you chasing after an escaping criminal and arresting him (well, more like beating him till his pulse stops).
And that's not all. On top of all of those mini-games are a few different non-interactive shows you can attend. The most entertaining of the two is the comedy club, where Ricky Gervais (creator/actor in the original UK version of The Office) and Katt Williams (Norbit, Epic Movie) do an incredibly funny stand-up routine. If you're not in the mood to laugh then why not try the cabaret? There you'll find everything from singing to dancing to magic tricks to a cowboy performing stunts. It's not the best thing Liberty City has to offer, but it's a fun place to take a date.
And get this; you don't even need to leave your safe house to be entertained by Liberty City. In a Grand Theft Auto first, Rockstar Games has added actual television shows that you can watch. I don't know if it's a social statement or not, but there's something kind of depressing about being a guy on a couch watching a guy on the couch watching TV. Maybe it's just me. Either way, the hour or so of television programming is all top quality, complete with funny commercials, over-the-top TV shows and a few surprise celebrities. The best of the television broadcasting has to be the spot-on Republican Space Rangers and the History Channel-like documentary about the birth of Liberty City. Beyond that there's programming for guys, a show about rich people and even televised poker.
On top of all this is the internet café, where you can communicate with your family back in the old country, look for dates online, buy new ringtones and make a MySpace page. At first this all looks like just extra stuff that you can do when you get bored of running from cops, but it won't take long before you realize that all of these elements play a significant part in the storyline. Make no mistake about it; Rockstar Games has put all of this stuff in deliberately. It adds a lot to the story and creates a full world that offers a lot of the same extras you would have in the real world.
But who cares about all of this atmosphere if the controls are bad. Grand Theft Auto has always had a reputation for having somewhat subpar controls. It's not that the games felt bad, but there was never the same amount of attention put on the controls as the world itself. Thankfully that has all changed with Grand Theft Auto IV. While Rockstar Games hasn't resolved all of the control problems, they've fixed enough of them to turn this from a so-so playing game to an action game that is extremely easy to control.
The biggest change comes with the shooting mechanic, which still has you targeting your enemies but also giving you a lot more freedom to aim and control your shot. There is also a fantastic cover system that feels like it was ripped right out of Gears of War. There are entire shoot out missions built around the new cover system, so figuring out how to use the objects in the area to your advantage is crucial to you beating the game. And to top it all off there is now a hand-to-hand combat system, so getting into a street fight is suddenly something I look forward to, not run from. In all the controls have been properly updated, still giving you the feel of the old Grand Theft Auto games, only now with a lot more depth to them.
The vehicles (from cars to boats to helicopters) have also received some work. In Grand Theft Auto IV the different cars all handle differently, so you will find yourself always looking for one or two of you favorite cars. In most cases the cars feel more natural, so even when you're skidding out of control you still know what you need to do to get out of the situation. The boats also feel better this time around, as do the helicopters. Some may gripe that their favorite Grand Theft Auto ride doesn't feel exactly the same, but for the most part I think all of the cars were tweaked to handle better, not worse.
And then again a lot of the time you won't even need to drive yourself around. Because it is essentially a recreation of New York City, Liberty City is overflowing with taxi cabs. In the old games you could steal the taxi and be on your way, but by holding the "Y" button you can flag down a cab and have him take you where you want to go. Not only is this a time saver (for a few dollars more you can pay the cab to literally skip the trip and you'll be instantly transported to your destination), but these taxis allow you to take in all of the sights and sounds of Liberty City.
I cannot stress enough how stunning Liberty City is. While a lot of it is cityscape, Rockstar Games has managed to do an excellent job of making every block of the game look and feel different. What's more, the different islands (four major ones in all) are all very unique. They come with their own atmosphere and group of people. Heck, they even have their own unique architecture and hang outs. They all feel like they are living and breathing, even though I know that they are nothing more than I's and O's on my Xbox 360 disc. But that isn't the point, because Liberty City is how you feel, not how it was done.
In fact, it's better you don't think about how Rockstar Games was able to pull all this off. It's more than just watching the countless different people walk by, it's about how they all animate and interact with the world. And it's not just them, it's Niko too. The attention to detail is staggering, especially when it comes to body movements and facial expressions. You really get the emotion from these characters, and that turns out to be a crucial part of selling this world. Grand Theft Auto IV isn't about selling you a big "sandbox" world that you can play around in, it's about selling you a world that you actually care about, a world you will want to come back to time and time again.
Part of the appeal of this entry has to be the graphics, which, for the first time ever, don't completely suck. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is a spectacular looking game. No, it's not as detailed as Gears of War, Call of Duty 4 or BioShock, but considering the scope of this world I don't see how you could fault them for it. It's clear that Rockstar Games had to cut a few corners to make everything work, just like they've done ever since Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001. There are a number of glitches and imperfections (background pop-up, disappearing cars, etc.) that seem to dog this franchise no matter what system you program them for. Thankfully none of these issues impact the overall enjoyment of the experience, but it is funny to see some of these problems still rearing their ugly head seven years later (on new hardware).
But in my excitement to talk about the story, the city, the improved controls and the greatness that is Niko, I have forgotten to mention one of the most substantial additions to Grand Theft Auto IV. It's this improvement that takes this game from merely a 50 hour experience and turns it into something you'll spend hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours playing. It would have been easy for Rockstar Games to take the easy way out and give us only a few different game modes, all of which are half-baked and pointless. But that's not what they did here; they turned Grand Theft Auto into an online experience that feels like no other game on the Xbox 360. This isn't just another online third-person shooter, the addition of cars, people, cops, huge buildings and helicopters make it all magic. It's not as streamlined as Call of Duty 4, but it's one of the best online multiplayer games you will play this year.
Believe it or not, this game comes pre-loaded with 15 different online modes, including everything from free-for-all shooting to races. At their best these modes are extremely rewarding and exciting, even if you'll sometimes complain about cheap deaths and bad starting locations. A lot of the game modes require teamwork, especially when it comes to play cops versus robbers and things like that. Even something as simple as an online race can turn into all out warfare with the addition of guns and grenades. What could have felt like a watered down Midnight Club sequel is given a unique twist that makes you like it even more. On top of that, you will be collecting money for every person you kill and race you win, and as that money adds up it will level your character up and allow you to customize your character even more. It's not nearly as deep as the Call of Duty 4 system, but it's not bad for being something tacked on to a 50 hour video game.
Grand Theft Auto IV is an event. It's like that major blockbuster movie that you absolutely must read or that TV show that everybody keeps talking about. I don't think it's too much to say that this is the game that Rockstar Games will be remembered for years from now. It's a massive game full of great locations, a fantastic story, a ton of online modes and one of the greatest video game characters of all time. Even if you're not the kind of person that normally likes these Grand Theft Auto games, I have a hunch that once you meet Niko Bellic you're going to fall in love. After putting dozens of hours into this game, I have no problem calling this game an absolute masterpiece, easily one of the greatest action games of all time.
It's easy to talk about how amazing Liberty City is in Rockstar Games' newest action game, Grand Theft Auto IV. But this time around the city isn't the real star; instead that part goes to Niko Bellic, one of the greatest video game characters of all time. This is an event game, the kind of thing you simply need to own ... even if you don't consider yourself a Grand Theft Auto fan.