Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

PC – Keyboard / Mouse controls – 2008
Developer: Rockstar North (Rockstar Toronto for PC)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Playtime: 25 hours.
Paid: £20.48 shipped from 365 Games.

Grand Theft Auto IV has a Metacritic score of 90 on PC, and 98 on PS3 / Xbox 360.
Sales were stated as over 13 million as of March 11, 2009.

Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the most highly-anticipated games of 2008, and received incredible reviews from the gaming media. The open-world action gameplay of the series took its first step into this generation (can we not call it next-gen anymore? Thanks.) and people were absolutely ready for it. This release is huge in scope and influence – but does it live up to the hype? A year-late investigation follows.

Background experience: Have played at least some of most GTA games. A lot of GTA 3 and Vice City on PC, as well as some San Andreas on the PS2. Frankly, I wasn’t that impressed with the console controls for San Andreas, and regretted paying full price for it. GTA and GTA2 were obviously released earlier (meaning I was younger), so I basically would just tool around in those worlds as a lad. The first time I actually finished a storyline in one of them was only a month or two ago, playing Chinatown Wars. For some reason, I’ve neglected to pick up Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. Perhaps I will, now.

Where do you start with a game with the scale of Grand Theft Auto IV? I suppose the city is as good a place as any. GTA4 is set in Liberty City, essentially a recreation of New York City. The size of the city, when coupled with the level of detail the designers went to, is extremely impressive. It can be traversed by land, sea, and air with no loading times – thankfully – although loads occur when beginning missions or skipping through a taxi ride. (Incidentally, being able to do this is great if you’re feeling lazy or are in a hurry.)

Satirical billboards and advertisements add flavor to the streets. The areas of the city range from run-down suburbs to wealthy areas to the extremely neon-lit Times Square-a-like business district, full of skyscrapers. The people of the city walk and talk, seemingly random events such as crashes and police chases occur, and street vendors purvey nuts, hotdogs, and burgers, which conveniently and magically heal your numerous gunshot wounds. A fair few buildings can be entered, such as clothing stores, apartment buildings, burger stores, and so on. There’s a lot to discuss – frankly, it’s a city, and the scale of it should be appreciated. Everything looks great, really. The visuals grew on me as I realized the level of detail to which the city, vehicles, and people were modeled.

There is clearly a lot to do in this game. My playtime of 25 hours was mainly just from completing the storyline. (There is an achievement for finishing in 30 hours.) Naturally, it being a GTA game, I got distracted occasionally. Using taxis for everything could probably cut out a couple of hours of travel, though. I used them fairly often, simply because it’s convenient and cheap. Having said that, driving is as fun as ever, and the police still don’t really care what you do on the roads unless you hit them or run someone over. Even after the story concludes, there are a couple of “find the hidden thing” collect-a-thons, shows and TV to watch, activities to go on with your friends and/or girlfriends (such as playing pool, or darts, or bowling, or catching a live show…), street races, assassination missions, multiplayer modes, deliveries, police missions – or just sightseeing, or straight up rampaging through the town. I didn’t even TOUCH the multiplayer stuff in that time. I felt that a bit was missing – for example, I couldn’t buy new safehouses as in previous games (although the story does give them to you), and sometimes cars didn’t stay outside…

Some people will be happy enough to just use the city as a sandbox and blow stuff up, completely ignoring the story, but there’s a lot of value in it. You are Niko Bellic, a Russian immigrant lured to America by your cousin, Roman, with the promise of riches and women. It turns out you have to work for it. As you progress, your wealth and network grows, and you meet plenty of charming, lovely people. (Actually, some of them ARE really likeable, so the sarcasm there falls short – many of them are real bastards, anyway.)  The more likeable ones will become your friends, who you can go out with for shows, or meals, or drinking. You also meet girls, who can become your girlfriends.

If you have played previous 3D GTA games, you’ll know what to expect from the missions. It felt as though the shooting-based missions – and there are a lot – included longer battle sequences. The cover system was a welcome mechanic, and works well. Blind fire is a good way to rack up the kills while protecting yourself, and being able to pop out, zoom, and headshot feels great, every time. The difference between being behind cover and crouching next to an object could be better defined visually, and occasionally, while approaching an object from a diagonal, I found the game would take cover on the wrong side of the object – it would be helpful if it would cover on the opposite side from the enemies. I mentioned headshots – those are one-hit kills. Not only is this satisfying, but gone are the days of headshots meaning blood-spurting decapitations. Amputations are gone too. Rejoice.

At a few points during the storyline, players have to choose whether to let people live or die, and in a couple of cases have to choose between which of two characters to kill. These are not just incidental people that you meet on the street, but are story characters. Some of these deaths mean next to nothing, and do not stick with you at all, but the first time I had to choose between two people, I actually felt really bad about my decision. Perhaps it was because it was a new experience for the series. It seems that the developers were punishing me for my choice, exploiting my guilt, even going so far as to have the character send me an email saying how lonely he was, which I didn’t read until after I killed him. Sorry, man. (My reasoning was that I’d known the other guy longer – the fact that I felt the need to justify the choice…) Some deaths occur in cutscenes, and as such surprised me, as I had no control over the situation. I found the later decisions in the game to be easier to make. They all have some effect on the game, and I was happy with the way mine turned out. The other side of the coin on the last decision wouldn’t have worked for me at all.

The audio in this game is noteworthy, as there is a vast, vast quantity of it surrounding you. Obviously, all of the storyline characters have many lines of dialogue in both the often entertaining and sometimes outright funny cutscenes and out, all of which is well-done. There is plenty of incidental dialogue from the everyday pedestrians of Liberty, some of which is quite amusing. The addition of a phone to the series is great, as characters keep in touch with you. Dialogue has been recorded and re-recorded for every possible situation, from the police radio saying what colour and type of vehicle you are escaping in, to every mission having entirely different dialogue if you fail and need to retry. (On that note, the missions themselves are sometimes dynamic – one time, my target was identified as wearing a yellow jacket. Next time, it was a blue jacket.) The selection of music includes something for everyone as ever, with the multitude of radio stations. I always enjoy the talkback stations, which are full of funny (and ridiculous) callers and DJs. The ads are satirical and lowbrow, but that’s what people should expect by now. The addition of Independence FM to the PC version allows users to import their own music.

The small touches add a lot to GTA 4. For example, while standing just next to a car, the radio is audible. When driving a car, the headlights can be flicked to high beam. If you turn on Num Lock on the PC version, you can dial numbers on the phone with it. You can go and buy clothes, watch TV, or go online in-game. One supremely cool feature comes from the Rockstar Games Social Club connectivity: A service exists in game called ZiT, which you phone up to find the name of the track currently playing on the radio in the background. They listen for a few seconds, and text the name and artist to your in-game phone. It turns out that you also get this notification sent to your actual email inbox. Nice!

It feels as though this was not a particularly good port. I still prefer the PC controls on account of the combat – aiming and clicking just feels better to me. However, the shadows are grainy, the frame-rate is mediocre, and graphical glitches including pop-ins are not so uncommon. Of course, when it works, it looks great, but the game just does not seem optimized to run on PCs – in fact, according to a couple of online system analyzers, GTA4 has higher system recommendations than Crysis. I should pick that up, then. Also, installation was a pain as it not only took what I can only quantify as “ages”, but I also encountered the WS10 error during installation – apparently it is to do with Games for Windows Live.

Speaking of Live… To run GTA4, you need to install and log in to Live, while the Rockstar Games Social Club client runs in the background. SecuROM DRM is also a factor, and although I didn’t buy through Steam, I chose to run the game through it: Layer after layer of security. A couple of times, SecuROM told me that I was running an illegal image of the game while the DVD was in my drive, so that was impressive, and not annoying. Popular feedback to the delayed PC version has been negative – for example, see the Metacritic page linked above, where users rate the PC version 4.4/10, hammering it mainly for the technical issues. On top of this, PC and PS3 users do not have the option to purchase the two expansion packs, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

I expected a lot from this game, and got more than I’d bargained for. Once my issues with the PC port were dealt with, I found a huge game which I may yet go back to for multiplayer and generally just playing around in. Some people have complained that it went for a more realistic tone than GTA3, but I found this to be a positive rather than a negative.

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