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GTA IV

The Grand Theft Auto series has been getting bad publicity and excellent reviews for years. Grand Theft Auto III was an instant classic, and the two parallel entries after it were a little less satisfying, but still miles above most open-world games. So GTA IV was hyped wildly as being the first “next-gen” Grand Theft Auto entry, to use a ridiculously meaningless term. If that’s what players are looking for, a next-gen GTA, GTA IV has about as much of that as Rockstar could fit into one game. But the entry also takes a wild divergence from the rest of the series, upping the realism in spades and creating the most “alive” city that I think we’ve ever seen in a video game.

To get the technicalities out of the way, GTA IV is an absolute technical marvel from every angle. Models and textures are not exactly up to the standard set by other AAA games, but what GTA IV lacks in visual quality (which is very little) it makes up for in amount and complexity.

Nico stands looking at the ground while construction workers stand around him.

Almost every single place you visit in Liberty City you’ll find citizens participating in daily activities. There’s something different for everyone to notice as they traverse the land, that extra element of interaction between NPCs and environment that will make a player sit back and consider what a grandiose world has been created for the sake of stimulation and entertainment. The fact that such a composition can run fluidly on the current generation of consoles is an excellent accomplishment. And not only is the visual component of the city present, but the audio as well. Cell phones and horns honking and people arguing with mountains of dialog are just a few of the convincing and high-quality sound effects present. A day-night and weather cycle contributes even more to the environment, creating quite the masterpiece of an open-world for the player to explore. Just today I loaded up a save and was standing on a sidewalk while it was raining, and someone running while covering their head with a newspaper ran into me and fell into the street. I felt bad, and I hadn’t even done anything.

GTA IV’s environment would be impressive on its own, but as an official entry of the series it hosts a criminal with a collection of missions to complete for various characters, and a moderately detailed backstory for its main character, Nico. I found the missions to be entertaining most of the time, but there are a few issues with the core gameplay that keep them from being excellent. Still, driving around with your NPC friends is an interesting experience, because the people in this game feel really delicate, like they actually hold life you need to protect. The Euphoria engine in the game contributes in great part to this, because the physics behind character animation has a huge element of realism that is not present in games without the technology. The only way I know how to describe its artistic effect is a very high-quality blend of animation and ragdoll effects, often very convincing, and providing a very dynamic property to all physics-based occurrences.

Driving

One of the absolute most important parts of the GTA franchise is driving various automobiles. The physics system in GTA IV is not without glitches and flaws, but for the most part driving the cars in Liberty City feels incredibly good, albeit completely different from any of the prior entries. The speed is one issue - most of the cars will feel much slower than standard cars in GTA III. This gives a good feeling of weight, but at the expense of some of the excitement of speeding through the city. I tried a couple of game tweaks, which have been lovingly created by the modding community and give unique and faster feels to each vehicle, and found that I liked the feel of them much more than the vanilla experience. However, even without tweaking, there is a lot of enjoyment to be had. That said, it does start to get old when you feel like you’re going slow and many of the missions you set out to accomplish involve driving increasingly long distances. But the crashes have extreme weight to them, and every once in a while Nico will fly out of the windshield and bounce along the ground, and hitting the right obstacles or getting hit by the very same car will kill you in one go. For me, the added danger added a lot of excitement to the driving mechanics. I was especially happy when I accidentally ran into a gas station and the whole thing exploded, killing me instantly. For a moment I didn’t even know what happened, and then I was dead.

A nice car speeds down the streets of Liberty City.

Shooting

Rockstar took a note from shooter trends a la Gears of War and implemented a cover system that players can use to hide behind walls and corners. It comes in handy during particularly crowded firefights, but I avoided using it for the most part because it’s just not my style in a game like Grand Theft Auto to play it safe. I used the “lock-on” option for shooting to play with a 360 controller, because I enjoyed that piece of the gameplay from past entries. However, it did turn out to be a bit too easy, as you’re allowed to shift your aim to different parts of the body. By memorizing the tilt required to score headshots the shooting becomes less interesting, so choosing where exactly to shoot your enemies can be a big part of the gameplay. If you need to get past cops, you can either blow their heads off or shoot a leg. With choices like these, along with the added realism, it’s safe to say that this is the most brutal GTA so far, and to such an extent that many players will feel twinges of guilt for their mass murdering rampages. If a woman is confronted on the street, she might end up cowering against a wall crying. Such detailed touches bring the consequences of player actions to the forefront of the game, driving a set of emotions that may or may not have been present for players of earlier entries in the series. This is a very positive direction for violent games, and should not be taken lightly.

Nico's arm recoils from the force of his gun firing a bullet into his victim, whose wound squirts a fountain of blood toward him.

When starting a mission, there is always a cutscene to watch explaining the reason why you must drive to point A, then B, and kill C. Some of the cutscenes drag on uninterestingly, but every once in a while the writing quality really shines, and the voice acting is almost never disappointing. Most of the characters have something about them to like, and some of them have development that spans GTA IV and Episodes from Liberty City. More entertaining and a little closer to the kind of scripted events I can support are some of the conversations that the characters have while you drive from A to B, which can even vary so that when you fail a mission you are sometimes treated to content you otherwise wouldn’t have come across.

Roman yells into a microphone while Nico stands at a vending machine in the background.

The animation is also fantastic. Although slightly exaggerated from time to time, there was never a question as to what any of the characters were expressing verbally or physically (although Little Jacob and company can be hard to follow from time to time - I felt more Caucasian than usual during these sequences). There is quite a lot of unspoken dialog in the game, which is part of what makes the numerous cutscenes interesting. However, after considering the implications of what these cutscenes mean for the player, I think that GTA IV could have done with less non-interactive cutscenes and more gameplay. If Rockstar had somehow integrated communication into the gameplay it would have been far more interesting, but the route they took is one of heavily scripted linear experiences for the main campaign, while leaving the city to provide a more dynamic environment. This choice makes sense, based on how much care was taken in the design and creation of the environment, but because the campaign is what players are going to be spending the most time on, most of the experience feels more linear than it should given the scope of the city. The animation when you are in control is also spectacular - if Nico is on the phone, you get to see hand gestures as you walk the streets, which are sometimes as entertaining as a full-blown cutscene but with the added interaction.

Nico stands talking on his cell phone while a car explodes a few feet away from him.

One of the things that I think drives GTA IV from being another generic fest of violence is the heavily satirical nature present in almost every aspect of the game. While the characters all have real issues to deal with, the environment that they are a part of does not echo the same tone. I find this dynamic between the game’s cast and environment creates quite a complex situation, although the only one able to see it is the viewer; neither actor is aware of the contrast they create together. At every turn there is a wealth of commentary on modern living. Everything from the clothing men and women wear to they way the speak and act has loads to share about our current state of communication and mannerism. Radio stations and advertisements still beat you over the head with satire, which maintains a consistent ratio of exaggeration across the entire game world. It’s the kind of criticism that has to be seen first hand to appreciate, as the only way to experience it is to be immersed in it. This is the same reason GTA IV receives such negative reputation from the media - no one from Fox News is going to play a video game to see what they’re actually reporting about.

But there’s no arguing that there’s a lot of shooting, stealing, sex, and drugs in the game. For the kind of environment that Liberty City is trying to create, that’s not a bad thing. Or is it?

Nico looks at a red-lit wall in a seedy shop.

The only way to find out what your opinion is on the violent nature of the environment is to play through it yourself. While many games are just about the shooting, I would argue that GTA IV is trying to say something a lot more substantial than “shooting is fun,” but sometimes even the game itself tries to disagree with me by presenting me with never-ending firefights on a consistent basis. Is it to satisfy the “shooter” urge of its core audience, or rub it in their faces until they can’t stand it anymore?

Even with its issues, GTA IV _is an incredibly immersive game that I think accomplishes the goals of the series better than any of the other entries, even if I like _GTA III slightly more. I think it’s worth playing for being one of the absolute best games in the sandbox genre, as well as for the enjoyment to be had from the points it makes and the excellent interactive experiences it makes possible. This is a game that is almost guaranteed to create dynamic moments worth sharing that no one else will ever see, because it truly is a world of its own.

Rating: Worth Playing