Grand Theft Auto IV Review
Tuesday, May 06, 2008 12:00 AM
As the latest in arguably the most successful video game franchise ever, the long awaited Grand Theft Auto IV needs no introduction, and after a series of delays, rumours and almost impossibly high expectations it has finally seen the light of day. The only remaining question is whether Rockstar North have delivered a game that truly lives up to the hype.
As soon as the game's protagonist, illegal immigrant Niko Bellic, arrives in Liberty City (read New York), GTAIV really does feel like something rather exceptional. The heart of this experience is of course Liberty City itself, last seen in rather less spectacular form in GTA III.
It bears little resemblance to its last incarnation however and feels more like a vibrant metropolis than anything else thus far seen in a video game, complete with a thriving population for the most part oblivious to Niko's exploits.
Everything in Liberty has a somewhat dilapidated and lived-in feel, and this grittier style extends to the rest of the game, adding a welcome touch of realism. Gone are the garish colours and outlandish character customisation of San Andreas, replaced with a subtler palette and more mature atmosphere.
Graphically GTAIV is impressive from the off, the incredibly detailed characters, cars and mean streets of Liberty City all look excellent and are well complemented by some great lighting and weather effects (Ed - I thought the visuals were slightly disappointing, to be honest).
Everything from the top notch cut scenes to the impressive explosions and outstanding facial animation adds to the uniquely cinematic feeling of the game, which can be enjoyed almost completely unimpeded thanks to a significantly stripped down HUD.
From a gameplay point of view, GTA IV is not quite as big a step forward. It features everything you might expect from a GTA game; stealing cars, shooting cops, and mowing down hapless pedestrians are all very much in evidence.
The types of mission on offer are entirely in keeping with previous entries in the series as well, mostly involving chauffeuring non-player characters around and killing people in whatever way you see fit.
Rockstar have, to be fair, thrown in a few more imaginative objectives, as well adding an interesting moral element to decisions. On the whole though, completing missions and negotiating Liberty City's cast of undesirables is easier than it has ever been, partly thanks to a long overdue revamp of the control system.
Niko can climb, scramble or otherwise negotiate his way round most obstacles that Liberty City has to offer, as well as dealing with anyone who gets in his way with a new ease and precision thanks to the introduction of cover and blind fire combat mechanics. It is now relatively easy to lock on to an adversary while hidden safely behind cover, before popping out to dispatch them with a well aimed head shot.
Another new feature is Niko's mobile phone, which makes it a breeze to contact other characters to arrange an activity or mission. The physics system has been thoroughly overhauled too - although the cars still handle like they are on a skid pan, and it is almost too easy to pull off some outrageous stunts, the character's interaction with the environments are much improved, and it's entirely possible to fall down flights of stairs or trip over knee high obstacles, as well as falling victim to some embarrassing car crashes and falls.
The all new multiplayer mode is probably the most significant and enjoyable introduction to the series, allowing you to get online and cause havoc in a variety of scenarios from a classic Team Deathmatch to the more innovative 'Cops and Crooks', in which a randomly selected team of cops attempt to track down their opponents.
All of the online game modes make for frantic action and intense high speed pursuits, but by far the most enjoyable is the simplest of all; Free Mode. This allows you and up to 15 friends the whole of Liberty City to run riot in, from airborne RPG fights to ganging up on the cops.
The attention to detail in GTAIV is incredible and it is immediately obvious how much thought and hard work has been involved. Dropped guns go off when they hit the ground, a detailed in-game internet can be surfed, and if you're wondering what track is being played on a radio station you need only dial up some music recognition software on your phone.
The soundtrack itself is predictably excellent, offering a plethora of groups and genres. The voice acting and sound effects are also of a general high standard, though Niko's accent seems a little unconvincing at times, and some of the car engines and gun fire sound a little underwhelming.
Many of the more obvious flaws in GTA IV have also troubled previous games in the series; the frame rate takes a hit when there are a lot of characters on screen, the game suffers from some pretty distracting pop up, and the way objects in the distance shimmer in and out of focus takes its tolls on the eyes.
Another familiar idiosyncrasy is that as soon as you get in a certain type of car, many more of the same type appear on the roads around you and, while not a major problem per se, it can become a little jarring if you opt for one of the more esoteric vehicles on offer.
Such relatively minor cosmetic imperfections can be forgiven, given the impressive scale of the game. Others have more of an impact on gameplay unfortunately, Niko sometimes has problems obeying instructions, and failing a mission because he is running in circles around your super swift getaway bike or having trouble scaling a ladder is singularly frustrating.
Finally, the artificial intelligence of both your allies and enemy characters can leave a lot to be desired, with some failing to make it up flights of stairs or negotiate a doorway.
While not being the revolution in gaming it has been lauded as in some quarters - being that it suffers from many of the same problems as its predecessors - GTAIV is almost everything you might hope for in the series debut on this generation of consoles. An involving and lengthy single player mode, a plethora of exciting multiplayer options and a distinctive environment make it without doubt the best Grand Theft Auto yet.