Monday, June 9, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

The World is Yours.

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The Grand Theft Auto series is a glutton for media scrutiny and many an activist's whipping boy. What some fail to realize that under the violence and mature subject matter lies a good series of games. Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized the gaming industry as well as introduced gamers to a new form of genre-- the sandbox game. Since then there have been many copycats and mimics, both good and bad-- the most notable of the bunch being Scarface, The Godfather, and the most impressive, Saints Row. With all of its wannabe successors ready to dethrone its perch at the top of the mountain, does Grand Theft Auto reclaim its crown as king of the sandbox with GTA IV?

With the promise of a better life, Niko Bellic hopped on a boat setting sail to a land of opportunity and where the streets are paved with gold, Liberty City, America, much to the opposite of his former Eastern European home. He swiftly is greeted by his jolly cousin Roman who promises Niko a life of luxury and absence of worry. Unfortunately for Niko, his bubble is quickly burst as his condo is cockroach fodder and his limousine looks strangely like a crappy taxi. Oh, wait. That's because it is. As you progress through the game you learn that Niko had an ulterior motive outside basking in the warm glow of the neon signs of Liberty City. He's on a quest for revenge. In the meantime, Niko delves into the underworld of the crime-ridden city taking odd jobs, working for real slimeballs, and dancing around the sights of the fine folks at the LCPD. Past protagonists of the GTA series have been somewhat of a series of slimeballs themselves, but Niko Bellic breaks tradition. He shows sympathy and is none too eager to cross anyone showing his immense loyalty to folks. Every playground needs some playmates, no? GTA is known for having some off the wall characters, and GTA IV is no exception. You'll be playing ball with a steroid-crazed bodybuilder, an incredibly angry mob boss, and a rasta like no other. The story is well-written, the dialogue is scripted towards Hollywood levels, and the voice acting is some of the finest around. It's just a shame that there's too many filler characters who really don't further the story-- just the playtime.

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A look at one of the game's many bridges.

GTA is a big playground for players to mess around in. Don't want to follow the story just yet? You don't have to. Feel free to drive around and shoot around at your leisure. And these two functions are the main bread and butter of the GTA series-- driving and shooting. GTA IV is no different. This time you can befriend several characters and get them to like you by picking them up and taking them to several activities including pool, darts, bowling, drinking, eating, seeing a show, or taking a trip to the gentleman's club for some good old fashioned quality time. Some of these minigames even outdo some Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network games, but in the world of GTA IV, they're just gravy on a giant mound of mashed potatoes. By getting a character's infatuation or friendship for Niko at a high level, you'll unlock a character-specific ability such as buying guns at a discount or bombs to hook up into cars to watch them explode in all their magnificent glory. Unfortunately, for dating women it's a much more shallow experience. Basically one date they're frigid, and the next they invite you inside for some "hot coffee". It's a shame this function wasn't build up upon.

One thing that hasn't changed is the formula of the game. If you have a good formula, why try to mess it up? The flow goes something like this: you watch a cutscene, a character in the cutscene says someone's done them wrong, you travel to where their character is, teach them a lesson, bada bing, bada boom, the process repeats. There's also a copious amount of side missions to partake in. These range from helping out secondary characters to assassination missions and vehicle fetch quests. You'll have a difficult time telling which missions are for the main story and which are secondary because they were almost all given the same care. The missions themselves could have used some more variety which the previous GTA, San Andreas, possessed. GTA IV's missions are usually a mixture of travel, chase, and kill, or travel, kill and chase, or travel, chase, and kill, chase-- you get the idea. There's little variety here. There aren't as many missions that will give you the "oh, my God, this is go %#%#ing cool" feeling that you had in past GTAs. Truth be told though that no other sixty dollar game will give you as much playtime than GTA IV. The main mode will last you at least thirty hours if you try for 100%,

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As if the first bridge shot wasn't enough, here's another!

Towards the middle of the game Niko will have made many acquaintances, and it can get pretty overwhelming trying to please them all as they're stretched out over four main islands. This is where the godsend comes in-- Niko's cell phone. This technological beauty allows Niko to get new mission objectives, coordinate dates, and utilize special services such as setting up races, getting picked up by one of Roman's taxi service cabs. However, the phone is not without its caveats. I can't remember how many times I've had Niko start calling someone in the middle of a police chase. I'm trying to escape from the pigs, but Niko is casually chatting to a client on the phone while walking at a snail's pace. I don't want to hang up because I'll miss the conversation permanently. It's happened more than once, and it's a crappy spot to be placed in.

Nonetheless, Niko's cell is also your gateway to the incredibly fun multiplayer mode where you can shoot it out, race it out, or duke it out with fifteen other players. You begin by creating a simple character, and then you can select from one of a dozen different gameplay types from co-op missions, to a cops and robbers mode, to weapon-filled races, to team kill skirmishes. Normal battles are anything by normal as you can essentially have all of Liberty City as your battlefield. You can even split the battlefield to isolate it on one island. The city is your playground, but what makes the difference are where the weapons are located and where players spawn.

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I'm in a Liberty City state of mind.

The gameplay of the Grand Theft Auto series has usually been an afterthought compared to the phenomenal presentation values. GTA IV has changed this, and it all starts with the shooting mechanic which has been completely revamped. This new mechanic is led by the all-new cover system. If you can stand behind it, you can probably use it for cover-- walls, trash cans, car doors, etc. The lock-on targeting is more forgiving and easier to use, but it's still finicky. You'll want to lock onto the person shooting you directly in front of you, but the game will have you locked onto a pedestrian eight miles away (hyperbole) instead with no way to change focus. Targeting in vehicles has been changed, too. With the right analog stick you can aim the targeting reticule at wherever while you drive with the left. If the new "realistic" driving mechanics have you cursing at the screen when you spin out for the twelfth time, you can always call on a taxi to essentially warp you to any location in Liberty City. Another change to ease the frustration of past GTAs is the warning system. Each time you gain a star, your HUD (on the bottom left of the screen) will display a flashing blue and red sphere. To escape from police pursuit, you need to escape the sphere without causing too much trouble in the process. The sphere gets larger the more stars you obtain making four star plus pursuits difficult to retreat safely from... that is, without being carted out in a body bag. The HUD also allows you to set waypoints showing you exactly what streets you need to take to reach your destination. Some cars even have a GPS feature with an automated voice telling you where to go.

This isn't the only detail available in the game. In fact, the real beauty of GTA IV is in the details, and there's just SO much to take-in and consume. Liberty City is a fully fleshed out entity. The random strangers you can meet and accept missions from change based on the time of day, much like the traffic itself. You can head to the local internet cafe to send e-mails to loved ones and friends, check out the over 100 different web sites available, you can watch television in your safehouse such as the hilarious World Poker Tour spoof, listen to the always updating talk radio news, Weasel News, watch a cabaret show where you can either listen to the song of a woman tired of her female persuasion or a magician who hasn't quite nailed all of his tricks, or go sight-seeing at all the sights of Liberty City, the landmarks, the easter eggs, the posters, and of course, the chatty citizens themselves. And if your phone is looking peaked, you can shop for new ringtones and wallpapers.

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To escape the feds, escape from their alert sphere.

How do you really judge the graphics of a title that's free-roaming that gives players the ability to go anywhere at any time compared to graphical powerhouses like Gears of War that stick to predetermined paths? Well, in Grand Theft Auto IV's case, it really has nothing to fear. It's a nice looking game. The day and night cycle offers some impressive views of the city, indoor areas are well-crafted and look fine, and piloting a helicopter to get a great look at the city is a jaw-dropping experience. The first time you drive across the monolithic Broker Bridge seeing the skyscrapers of Algonquin distinctly rising over the horizon is a sight to behold. It's just phenomenal. Regardless, there are some differences between the two versions. The 360 version suffers from framerate drops as well as pop-in and draw-out issues. The PS3 version doesn't have these problems, and it's more colorful than its 360 counterpart. Your version of choice will depend on which you prefer-- better graphical quality or future DLC and achievements.

The soundtrack, however, isn't very good. San Andreas had a large catalog of memorable tunes and past hits. GTA IV really does not. There were only two stations I enjoyed-- the jazz station and Liberty Rock which played mostly classic rock from ELO to Queen. Regardless, this gripe basically has to do with musical tastes, so I can't fault the game for not using more recognizable artists.

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Nighttime offers a whole new perspective on Liberty City.

That isn't to say the game's going to get a free pass due to my enamor with how much Rockstar put into the game's details and presentation. There's some more problems to delve into. There's much less character customization than in San Andreas. Losing the main character's need to eat is all well and dandy, but the clothes and options available are on the pithy side. Niko himself is tough to control (i.e. frustrating) in narrow spaces/alleys. Also, you will have accumulated all this money by the end of game-- anywhere from a half million to a full million-- but at that point there's ironically nothing to buy. There's no extra safehouses to purchase to make traveling time much shorter, and there's little in the way of clothes to purchase, too.

Overall, GTA IV is a fantastic title that is a must-buy for any PS3 or 360 owner at the very least interested in the series. Does it have the best mission variety? No, that's more San Andreas' forte. Does it have the best soundtrack? No, that's more on Vice City's territory. Does it have the best designed world? No, I actually enjoyed the state of San Andreas more. Regardless, GTA IV does have the most fleshed out world, the best characters, and the most streamlined approach in its design. It's one of the best games of 2008, and it's one title that Rockstar outdid themselves on.

[SuperpPhillip Says]

Story: There's a lot of filler characters who really have no purpose to the main story. Other than that, it's good.

Graphics: There's some issues with the 360 version, but nothing overly annoying. The PS3 version, however, does beat it in this category.

Gameplay: New mechanics such as cover, upgraded auto-aim, and more realistic driving.

Sound: Masterful voice work accompanied by a disappointing selection of music for the most part.

Replay Value: The story mode will take most gamers thirty hours to complete, and multiplayer is incredible.

Overall: 9.0/10 - Oh, wow. A good score, and I didn't even get an $800 bag of schwag.

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