Grand Theft Auto IV
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Take Two
Release Date: Out Now
Players: 1, 2-16 online
Words By:

Well here I go with what is probably the most pointless review of the year. Why is it pointless? Well, because if you love the GTA series you’ve already ordered/got it, and if you don’t, this certainly won’t change your mind about the record-breaking franchise.

So then, for the new generation of consoles, what’s new then? The game is set in a re-imagined Liberty City, based closely on New York City, complete with many real life buildings, structures and landmarks, albeit not in their exact geographically correct places or called their proper names. You play Niko Bellic, a Serbian veteran of the Bosnian War who comes to the United States aboard a ship called the Platypus, in search of his long lost cousin and the "American Dream". He soon falls into a life of senseless crime and violence, decides to do anything for money in order to “better” himself, and works his way to infamy and fortune along the way, in typical GTA-style.

GTA IV was always going to have a tough, nay an impossible act to follow after San Andreas, but it’s also had some notable imitators who got to the 360 first. There was Saints Row and then Just Cause, so has GTA upped the bar and extended the benchmark again? Hmm… well without falling into spoiler territory no, probably not in some ways. Unsurprisingly the play area simply isn’t as vast as San Andreas, and you can’t do as many wild and wacky activities or stunts either (no planes, no driveable trains, no jet pack, no articulated trucks, no BMX or mountain bikes, no base jumping or parachuting, Fire or Ambulance missions). You can play 10-pin bowling, darts or pool, and go to clubs, on dates to bars or restaurants, but you can’t buy a network of properties to act as a ‘save network’ as in San Andreas either, in fact I think there are only 4 safe houses in the entire game, and you lose one of those, but they are less important than before as the game autosaves after every completed mission. You can buy Niko new clothes in various outlets dotted around the city’s 3 main islands, but CJ’s eating/dieting/ workout mechanic from San Andreas is gone too (but that’s probably a good thing). Garaging vehicles has gone too now, and you simply park vehicle you want to keep in a 2-car sized space outside your abode.

It’s also worth mentioning that Niko has a much more realistic feel than past GTA heroes, he has weight, momentum and inertia and thus feels more sluggish. In fact, he feels just like you’re controlling a large, slightly clumsy man, and it’s no more apparent than when he runs, realistically leaning into corners, or if he bumps into someone they usually go sprawling, often dropping anything they’re carrying, and shopping bags will scatter their contents everywhere! Niko is also a touch more fragile than past GTA heroes, and now falling from any sort of height will result in death (well, a KO back to a medical centre and a hefty bill), and falling from a speeding motorcycle or crashing a car heavily (you can be thrown through the windscreen now) can hurt or even KO Niko too.

I must say have a few issues with the game’s control system, which by default still has an annoying lock-on system (but thankfully, you can turn it off). I’d much rather have free aim and some “aim assist” on my side than an intrusive lock on. With the default system you can free aim all the time, but this is done by half-pressing the left trigger, and it’s too easy to press too hard during stressful shootouts, sometimes leading to you aiming in a completely different direction to where you want to – arrrgh! - bad memories of the only thing we didn't like about GTA III come flooding back... The game also seems to have at least 2 uses for every button on the joypad, depending on situation/context, which means the game is slightly confusing and fiddly at first, but you do get the hang of it, and a new in-vehicle shooting system is way better than the old, tired “drive-by” mechanic.

Ah yes, back to the man, Niko… I think the developers aimed at a kind of Jean Reno (Leon) or maybe Jason Statham-type character look, but he’s not as charming as Reno and he’s no looker either, and never feels as cool as GTA 3’s man with no name, or Vice’s Tommy Vercetti. But on the positive side he has had a lot of attention lavished on him. I think I may as well now simply lapse into a list of things I’m noticed along the way, but I’ve attempted to avoid too many spoilers, so forgive me:

It was a cold morning early in the game and you can see Niko’s breath steaming. One time when I got KO’d my weapon went off as I fell to the floor and dropped it. The ragdoll effects in the game are exceptional, run someone down or fall from a motorcycle and it looks bone-crunchingly painful now, and bad guys tumble down steps and fall from ledges in pleasing ways, and bodily damage is always accompanied with realistic blood splatters. Niko’s hands feed the steering wheel of every vehicle realistically from lock to lock as you steer, and when you blow the horn, Niko pounds the centre of the wheel, just as he should. A highly-tuned supercar belches flame from the exhaust on down-changes; a junker backfires, belches smoke and loses power as you accelerate, vehicle’s engines and suspension parts are all intricately modeled, road surfaces are curved and bumpy now, no more sudden slope changes – overall there’s simply an awesome level of attention to detail. When you recover your health by eating he actually takes the food from the vendor and takes a couple of bites from it. He grumbles and tries to wipe the raindrops from his clothes when it rains. And Oh my!, the rain – simply the best rainstorms I’ve seen in a game yet, as the streets glisten, slick and slippery and fast driving becomes even more dangerous.

And there’s more, much more… GTA III made me sigh with pleasure the first time it rained and afterwards a rainbow was visible, and the weather as a whole really looks realistic now. Sunny, foggy, rainy, sunrise, pitch dark, sunset all look the part, even if sometimes around 8pm things seem to go a bit Technicolor golden as the sun sets, or as bleak and grey as a monochrome movie when it’s rainy.

As with the previous games in the series, GTA IV does a superb job of supplying a living, breathing city for us to act like a sociopathic killer in. New Liberty has truly amazing ambient sound, and lots of little touches, like the guys sweeping up, or raking leaves, or using a watering can, or Niko’s footprints in soft surfaces, or the way vehicle get dirty. But there’s a lot more going on technically too; once the game is loaded at the start, there’s virtually no loading, apart from when you enter a safe house or go to a cutscene. In-game you can drive/fly from one side of the city to another without a single load. And everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - seems movable or destructible or at least damageable in some way, an extaordinary feat when you begin to take in the complexity of new Liberty. The variation in the city's architecture is realistically diverse and sometimes muddled and confused, with everything from skyscrapers to junk heaps, elevated expressways to narrow back alleys. Some walls can be shot through, if you crash a vehicle into a building it now leaves a jagged crack on where it should be, as well as crumpling the vehicle’s bodywork in a pleasingly realistic way – from tiny scratches to massive deformation and even total destruction. Explosions send flaming wreckage and smoke high into the air, and flames will even spread to start new fires, even to people, and the heat from the flames will burst a car’s tyres. Shot tyres don’t just go BANG and go flat, but leak the air realistically, and the tyre’s rubber gathers at the bottom and flaps just like it should, eventually ripping from the rim so you leave a trail of sparks behind you. Knock a lamppost down and the base fizzles and sparks electricity from the broken connection. Car doors now have collision detection on them so you can do Driver (the movie, not the game) –esque car door removals, or even use an open door to flatten an irritating cop. Sometimes the previous owners of a vehicle will grab onto the door handles and not let go, or land on the bonnet of a car when hit and get dragged along – not nice, but realistic. There are a few frame rate stutters, and texture pop up, and cars still disappear too quickly at times, but you’d have to be a hard man indeed to overly criticise a game that looks this good (and unlike many games, it looks just like the screenshots), lets you see SO far, and has this much going on at any one time.

As in day to day modern life, cell phones play an important part in the game, and early on your cousin Roman gives you one. It soon becomes the hub of your game, and you become as reliant on it as many people are in real life. You can call people (everyone in LC seems to have one), arrange dates, reply to messages, get jobs, organise races, retry missions and it’s even used to access the multiplayer mode. The internet is also an unavoidable evil, and Niko uses the Internet cafés around the city (once again amusingly called ‘Tw@t’) to surf the net, send/receive emails, get more jobs/missions and arrange dates with dubious females. The whole thing is done in a wonderfully realistic and humourous way, complete with dodgy sites, pyramid scheme spam and phishing. You can use the police computer in a stolen cop car for various activities too. You can’t just steal a taxi and use it to earn money anymore, but taxis play a huge part in the game in a different way. Now you can hail one and get it to take you to any of the characters or notable destinations in the game, or even to a waypoint of your own choosing. You can have the driver go at a normal speed, or ask him to hurry, but you take your life in you hands with this, as their driving ability – just like most real taxi drivers – isn’t always up to driving fast in traffic. You can even simply ‘skip’ the journey for an extra charge making taxis a virtual “warp mode” if you really can’t stand the thought of driving from one end of the vast city to the other, or are just in a hurry.

Grand Theft Auto IV is the first console game in the series to feature an online multiplayer mode, not something I was expecting much from to be honest, particularly after Saints Row’s laughably poor effort at a multiplayer game - but how wrong I was. GTA IV’s multiplayer mode is nothing short of an astonishing achievement. GTA IV’s multiplayer game isn’t consigned to some pokey arena or multi storey car park, it’s played out, depending on the game type and the options, in the full play area from the story mode, and the host of the game can control variables such as time of day, weather, number of cops, pedestrians, amount of traffic, location of game and weapons etc. to suit. The multiplayer supports up to 16 players, you can use a customisable male or female character in some modes, and with cash earned during online games you’ll be able to purchase new outfits. The online games are also split into ranked and unranked matches, or you can form a party of friends. It plays just like you’d want it to, with total mayhem being the frequent end result, but plenty of opportunities for tactical play as well.

There are fifteen different game types;

Team Deathmatch, where 2-8 teams compete to accumulate the most kills in a traditional deathmatch type game.
Team Mafiya Work, in which 2-8 teams compete to complete contract work for the "mafiya", such as escorting/killing targets or stealing cars
Team Car Jack City where 2-8 teams compete to steal cars and earn money for keeping them undamaged
Cops n' Crooks, featuring a team of cops who must compete against a team of crooks. This features an "All for One" variation - requiring the cops to kill the crooks' "Boss" before he is escorted to the extraction point – and also the "One for All" variation - requiring the cops to kill all of the crooks before they reach the extraction point.
Turf War, involving two teams who compete to take control of designated areas of the map and control them for as long as possible.
There are various racing and co-op modes as well;
Race, in which players compete in a traditional, straight automobile race through checkpoints. Many of the various types of vehicle from the story mode can be selected; supercars, 4x4s, vans etc. Or there’s GTA Race, where players race through checkpoints, but with that special GTA ‘something’ - weapon pick ups along the way and medikits to “heal” car damage turn this into some sort of X-rated Mario Kart!
Hangman's Noose is a co-op mode that requires players to collect someone from the airport and safely escort him to the extraction point before the cops kill him.
Deal Breaker is a co-op mission that requires players to assault a construction site held by enemies, then chase a group of enemies before they escape out of range.
Bomb da Base II is a co-op mission that requires players to clear out a ship, then sink it with explosives.
The game also features what is possibly my favourite, a Free Mode, in which players have the entire map open to explore, with no end goal or mission to complete. You can simply drive around and explore, or set up jump or best crash competitions, or just see who can die in the most spectacular way!

GTA IV retains the previous game’s remarkably believable handling and physics, surpassing many “serious” racing games in my opinion. The way tyres lock under braking, or the way the unloaded inside tyre spins on a tight turn, or the various grip levels of the various surfaces depending on weather conditions (see a vehicle churn up the sand on a beach and tell me if any rally game has done it better). Boats handle like they should, and oh what a good job they did on the water, with a decent ripple & wake effect and lovely reflections. Helicopters feel right too, meaning that GT IV is so much more than just a driving/shooting game.

GTA’s famous wit and irreverence thankfully remains intact (I noticed a street called Guantanamo Avenue, Koresh Square and the Empire State Building is called the “Rotterdam Tower”). It has some laugh-out-loud moments during the story (Ricky Gervais appears at the comedy club and on the radio) and on the ubiquitous radio programmes (GTA stalwart Lazlow is back). The radio stations and a varied soundtrack are as much a part of the GTA games as cars & guns, and Liberty City has 18 (!) this time around. I don’t think the soundtrack is quite as good as some in the past, but songs by such notables as Queen, Thin Lizzy, Bob Marley, The Sisters of Mercy, John Coltrane, The Who, Black Sabbath, Kanye West, Smashing Pumpkins, Busta Rhymes, Aphex Twin, Elton John, R.E.M, Barry White and ZZ Top caught my ear, and as always there’s something to appeal to everyone – even a Jazz station.

Apart from the GTA series’ usual massive headcount and inexcusably indiscriminate killing, or the regular activity of killing one gang of scumbags in order to ingratiate yourself with even worse lowlifes, there are some truly memorable missions along the way. A particular highlight was a mission that saw Niko and friends bumbling their way through a bank job, just so brilliantly reminiscent of the Al Pacino/Robert De Niro movie Heat. GTA IV is probably slightly darker than the previous games, and this is reinforced by Niko’s ability to do execution-style killings, and the game even gives you the power of life or death over some characters in the story.

So anyway, to the crux of the matter. Yes it’s violent, slightly sexy - even nasty at times and gratuitously so, but let’s all just remember it’s a just a GAME, and a game that you miss to your detriment as a rounded gamer and normal member of society. GTA IV is quite simply another masterful piece of escapism and entertainment from Rockstar. I expect that many, many drinks will go cold, and meals and appointments will be missed thanks to it. The stonking multiplayer game could keep you and your mates occupied for months alone – but so could the story mode if you don’t plough straight through it, and hunt down all of the hidden items and achievements (and of course there’s episodic DLC (downloadable content) to come as well), prolonging GTA’s often imitated but unique ability to provide a life consuming, day-disappearing sandbox. It’s that good a game. No, I’ll qualify that statement: it’s THE game. The game of the year, no doubt.


Best Bits

- Violence, humour, fast cars, fast bikes and fast women…
- …And helicopters
- And guns
- Sounds amazing
- Great soundtrack and radio chatter
- Genre-defining multiplayer mode
Worst Bits

- A few frame rate stutters and pop up


by: Masonic Dragicoot

Grand Theft Auto IV:
The Bradygames Signature Series Guide
Publisher: Bradygames
RRP: £12.99
Words By:

A game as good as Grand Theft Auto IV deserves a good companion, and here it is. This beautifully produced guide book will help you find all the secrets, all the hidden weapons and give you some handy tips and strategies if you want them as well.

It'd be easy to spoil a even a game as big as GTA IV with a clumsy guide, so serious gamers often treat them with caution, distain or even ridicule. But Bradygames have 10 years' experience and have been careful to arrange the guide so that things for general play that you may want to use often (like the maps), well apart from the main story guide. If you don't want any story "spoilers" it's entirely possible to get help finding a handy armour or rocket launcher without ever encountering the pages that walk you through the main story missions.

   

But... if you do need help then this guide really pays for itself, with every single secret item, weapon and vehicle placed on the detailed maps. Every single character in the game - even the random ones - have been carefully given their own sections that detail their involvements and walk you through their individual missions.

   

With a guide to Xbox 360 achievements, the multiplayer modes and even tips on how to please Niko's girlfriends (ooh - er!) I found it hard to find fault with this GTA 'bible'. The guide also never feels the need to be 'platform specific' so PS3 owners are just as well catered for - this surely makes it a must buy for all serious fans and completists.

click to visit Bradygames website

by: Big Tony

Copyright © Gamecell 2008