GAMING GREATS: Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)

With number V hitting PC (relatively) soon, Thomas revisits Rockstar’s previous free-roam masterpiece. 

Who made it?: Rockstar North (Developer), Rockstar Games (Publisher).

Genre: Action-Adventure.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows.

Format: Blu-ray Disc, DVD.

Release date: 29 April 2008 (UK).

The Grand Theft Auto videogame series has been one of the most celebrated and politically-scrutinised franchises of all time. Its level of violence, public misconduct and swearing raised the bar for what was acceptable in an M-rated title. Rockstar Games’ first few entries in the series were only small precursors to what was to come for this “Mafia sim”, which spun off countless clones, imitators and millions of gamers who took to the series’ anti-hero protagonists and ran with them.

What many used to consider the best of the bunch, Grand Theft Auto III, was released in 2001 and received numerous accolades; something the previous incarnations of the series had yet to recieve. The following year, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City garnered similar treatment and was hailed as a welcome improvement over III. But it was also cited by many as something of a glorified expansion set and not an entirely new experience. Nonetheless, the impressive Vice City received raves and was soon followed up by the immensely ambitious San Andreas in 2004. To this day, the latter has one of the best overall scores of any free-roam action game to date.

This is where we come to Rockstar’s Mafioso masterpiece, Grand Theft Auto IV. You play as Niko Bellic, a former citizen of undisclosed Eastern-European country that immigrates to Liberty City with the hopes of living the good life with his cousin, Roman. You see, Roman has told Niko of his life in Liberty; the condo’s, the parties, the women, the money, and the luxury. But moments after Niko steps foot off the boat that brought him there and sees Roman’s “mansion” (which turns out to be a cramped little apartment infested with cockroaches), he is no longer impressed with the false American Dream his cousin had been selling him. After settling in a bit, discovering that his cousin is in some serious debt with a bunch of loan sharks, and helping him out with his troubles, Bellic finds himself caught up (and possibly enamoured) with the criminal lifestyle.

First and foremost, Rockstar completely redesigned the physical make-up of the gameplay to fit the 21st Century. There is a plethora of modern gadgetry at your disposal, such as using your mobile phone, which is a very vital gameplay tool. You can dial a number manually (for cheating purposes) or go right to your list of current contacts, select “Activities” and treat your friend to a meal, a show, or anything of that ilk. This is in order to gain “trust” from them and open up new avenues of play. Rockstar have managed to work this idea into the game incredibly well, and throughout you’ll receive calls, have to answer the phone, and receive new tasks to accomplish. On your way to complete the mission, someone else will phone you. Let’s say it’s your girlfriend. Now you have a choice; you can either help someone out of their jam or gain the “trust” of your companion which could help you later in the game. It really is very open in terms of decision-making. It makes for a ton of replay as the gamer may want to go back and replay a section just to try a different choice and see what the outcome is.

This also goes hand-in-hand with the ability to decide certain character’s fates. The first of these is when you chase an NPC through a construction zone and you must decide whether you want to save his life or kill him. Either way, finishing the mission will result in a different set of information (or lack thereof), dialogue, and cinematics. No GTA has attempted this before, and it makes the experience feel that much more involving.

The core gameplay, in what is essentially the eleventh entry in the series, has not changed. You can still steal nearly any vehicle you wish, you can still kill the pedestrians… you just don’t have to complete the missions at all if you don’t feel up to it. But plenty of new features were introduced to spice it all up. You can hail cabs, call your own personal taxi once it has become enabled, among other things. There is even a feature where you can break the driver’s side window of certain cars to jump in, and then Niko hot-wires the vehicle. Hell, Rockstar also saw fit to include a cover system for this entry, which is utilised by positioning yourself up against almost any object in Liberty City and pressing RB. You can either blind fire by simply pressing the Right Trigger or lock-on fire by holding the Left Trigger.

However, you no longer have to painstakingly evade the police once you gain a Wanted Level. All you have to do now is be clear of their radius, lay low for a few seconds, and Voila! The Pay ‘n’ Spray is still probably going to be your best friend by game’s end, but you won’t find yourself using it half as much as other instalments. Rockstar did upgrade the AI, though. Yank a civilian out of his or her car and they just might pull you back out! Police are just as fearless. Get a bunch of them on you at once and it’s curtains. The AI is simply unrelenting. It was also nice to see it relate just as well to the game world; pedestrians interact with each other constantly and one action from you can lead to a positive or negative reaction from the public. It’s astounding.

Visually-speaking, GTA IV is no slouch either. Powered by the same graphics engine that gave life to Rockstar Presents Table Tennis, this will undoubtedly remain one of the best-looking Xbox 360 and PS3 games on the shelf. Lighting is spectacular and the best facet of the engine, as are the wonderfully designed and skinned character models. In terms of its vast lighting and post-processing capabilities, take a chopper through Liberty City at night and simply marvel. Structures are immense and there are very few “doubles”, speaking in terms of Liberty’s many buildings and the abundant citizens. On the downside, and this isn’t necessarily a harsh criticism of the game, I would have liked the developers to have allowed for more access of buildings. That small nitpick aside, character models and their textures are simply amazing; eyes, mouths, hands, legs, and arms move realistically in cutscenes and, thanks to the RAGE engine, are scarily lifelike during shootouts.

Sound effects are great, too, with the roar of various weapons being dead-on, and the accompanying wails of combat being just as affecting. The various radio stations have some great, varied music as well, and it isn’t likely that you’ll tire of them. There are more radio stations here than in any GTA thus far. The number of songs available can feel almost overwhelming.

Voice-acting for GTA IV is the true sign of quality, however. These characters have tons of personality; no matter if they’re criminals or not, you’ll hate to see them go. It is simply amazing that all someone had to do was go inside a recording booth for a couple of hours a day and it would result in such a complex, likeable guy you know you should hate, but ultimately love and might just envy. Niko Bellic could be the franchise’s greatest character creation to date. The other rogues are voiced just as solidly, though. Across the board it is an effectively scripted and performed classic.

Grand Theft Auto IV remains a simply amazing game from start to finish. It will take you anywhere from thirty to forty hours to complete, giving you everything you could possibly want from this world. It is still one of THE games to get for the 360 or PS3, and it is the GTA entry that proved there was plenty of life left in this concept.

Useless Trivia

(Via Wikipedia)
  • Two expansion packs have been developed for the game, originally released as downloadable content for the Xbox 360 version throughout 2009. Both The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony feature new plots that are interconnected with the main GTA IV storyline, and follow new protagonists. The two episodes have been released together for all platforms as a stand-alone game called Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City. A bundle that contained both the original GTA IV game and the Episodes was also released, titled Grand Theft Auto IV: The Complete Edition. The 2009 handheld game Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars revisited the Liberty City of GTA IV.
  • As the first game of the critically acclaimed series to appear on seventh generation consoles, Grand Theft Auto IV was widely anticipated. A major commercial and critical success, it broke industry records with sales of around 3.6 million units on its first day of release and grossing more than $500 million in revenue in the first week, selling an estimated 6 million units worldwide. Grand Theft Auto IV won numerous awards from both gaming and mainstream press, including several recognitions as Game of the Year. As of 2013 the game has sold over 25 million copies.

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