Second Review: Grand Theft Auto IV (Microsoft Xbox 360)

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Disclaimer: I am a GTA Fan. I’ve played all of the games, including the London expansion and the Stories spin offs. I actually know the layout of the streets in Vice City than I do of the city I live in. If I had to pick only one game to play for the rest of my life, I’d choose San Andreas in a heartbeat.

So yeah, I might be a little biased. But if you can trust the opinions of people who were given exclusive reviews or were locked in a room playing it non-stop before the game was released, then you can probably trust me.

Warning though, this is going to be long. If you want the short version, let’s just say if I had to be trapped on an island with only one video game to play for the rest of my days….I’d still choose San Andreas. Maybe.

Reviewing GTA IV as a whole is practically impossible to do since the game delivers an experience that is so far outside the scope of most video games that it’s like comparing apples and oranges. So I will break it down into 3 sections: The Gameplay, The City, and Multiplayer.

Let’s start with the weakest part of the game.

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The Gameplay:

While GTA games have always been about choosing how you proceed within the game and the crazy characters and stories within the series, for a video game the weakest aspect of has always been the actual gameplay. Aiming controls that would occasionally point to a bystander instead of selecting the enemies who were actually shooting at you, the most basic of melee systems, and some questionable AI have always turned up like a bad herpes rash. Just when you think you’ve forgotten about it another game is released and there it is again! The mechanics were functional at best, and at worst caused the kind of frustration that has sent many controllers to their graves.

In many ways GTA IV is a step backwards. The overall mission structure and gameplay is more simple than what was last seen in GTA: San Andreas. There are no parachutes, bicycles, DDR style competitions, airplanes, stealth mission, taking over territories, owning companies, jetpacks, or casino mini-games. There are no firetruck or paramedic missions for when you steal those vehicles. As far as mission structure is concerned the game more closely resembles GTAIII. A lot of the missions are merely ‘Go Here, Kill These Enemies, Return’ or ‘Follow That Guy’ whereas in San Andreas you’d be jumping out of planes to try and places bombs stealth-like before making an escape.

That doesn’t mean GTA IV is less exciting however. The new aiming and cover systems along with the new physics engine have turned things around for the series. In past GTA’s it was easier to just run some enemies over with a car than bother to leave the vehicle and shoot at them. Now the gunfights are actually fun. Sure there are still some frustrating times when you’ll be behind cover and the camera angle will be in such a way where you can’t see a guy walk right up behind you and kill you, but these are moments aren’t very often and are far less frustrating that past games where you’ve just stood out in the open trading gunfire back and forth hoping you don’t die.

A lot of great moments are thanks to the new physics engine. If you see a guy hiding behind cover except his knee is sticking out, shoot him in the knee and he’ll likely fall out from behind the cover and will be rolling around grabbing his knee making him an easy target. Finally the series feels on par with other 3rd person action games. At the same time most action games out there are only around 10 hours long. GTAIV is at least 3 times that in length, so the repetitive structure of missions is much more noticeable in GTA IV. There was one point where I was faced with another mission where I had to chase a guy in a vehicle and I said “Oh god, not this again”, and to my surprise Niko said the same thing in the game.

There are missions in the game that are great and really pull together some of the unique things within the city that Rockstar has created. One mission that has been mentioned elsewhere is a mission where you have to interview for a job at a law firm. In this mission you have to buy the appropriate clothes and use the in-game website to schedule a interview at a later date using your cellphone’s organizer. Sadly many of the missions are more along the lines of ‘go here and shoot that’ than the mission previously described. Considering how great the in game internet is and how well the cellphone features are used in the game, I would’ve like to have seen more of these features utilized in the missions. There are only a couple missions that even use the cellphone’s camera.

Speaking of the camera, I wish they had the option to let us save pictures taken using that camera and send it to other people online.

Other changes include the new system for your wanted level. You still earn stars as you commit crime that reflect your current wanted level, only now you can get rid of unwanted police attention by staying out of sight and outside the wanted area. This actually makes it easier than ever to evade the police since you just need to drive fast to evade them. In over 40 hours of playing the game I have not been busted once. I know I’m not the only one who in past games tried to see how long you can survvive on a higher wanted level, and in GA IV that thrill is slightly diminished since there are no tanks in the game, and it’s not that hard to escape the police.

The new physics engine changes how you handle vehicles. They have more weight to them now, so driving over 100 MPH and doing a handbrake 90 degree turn is no longer an option. Doing that in GTA IV will send you into a tailspin or roll your vehicle. This took a little time to adjust to, but once I was able to I was weaving in and out of traffic just like and other GTA game.

While some of the more realistic improvements were made to areas of the game there were several small changes to make GTA IV more fun. The GPS system is great for navigating around the city, though I find myself relying on it so much that I don’t know the layout of the streets like I did in other GTA games. Restarting a mission is easy, though it would’ve been nice to have had a checkpoint system for the longer missions. Going to the hospital no longer means losing your weapons. All of this helps keep the frustration down for those times when you do have to restart a mission.

Overall GTA IV takes a step back as far as mission variety goes, but instead of trying to do tons of different things half-assed, GTA IV settles for doing a couple of things very well. In the end it works, and while I miss base jumping and flying planes, it will be hard to go back to the previous GTA games after playing GTA IV.

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The World

Here is where GTA IV truly shines and makes the largest leap from the previous games. Most video games the environment is just something you move through while completing objectives. Liberty City is much more than that, it’s the closest a game has come to feeling like a living city. Oblivion is the only other game that comes close, and while you can interact with more of the people in Oblivion it felt robotic at times and other than the main story it was hard to see your impact on the world.

Liberty City accomplishes feeling like an actual city by the immense amount of detail that covers everything. I’m not talking about the graphics, which are good but certainly not the best you’ve seen on the 360, I’m talking about all of the small stuff. The graffiti that covers many walls the most of us will drive right past and not even see. Can you imagine how long it took some poor developer to add a bunch of graffiti to places that most people will not even notice? I liked Saint’s Row but the city in that game seemed a little too clean for a crime ridden city, in Liberty City garbage is littered everywhere.

Then there’s details like the media in the game such as the TV, radio and internet. Radio stations are nothing new to GTA and it’s still as good as ever, though I’m disappointed that there’s no real modern rock station but there’s 3 talk radio stations. You can watch television in the game, and in fact I’ve wasted more than an hour just doing so. The internet is one of my personal favorite additions to the game. In the past when you did a large mission they’d mention it on the radio, now when you pass a mission it likely will be reported on the internet in a hilarious way, plus find both conservative and liberal slants on the news you created.

Finally there’s friends. Now when Niko meets someone new there’s a good chance that they’ll call and just want to hang out. Hanging out means participating in one of the mini-games such as bowling, pool, darts, drinking, etc. Not everyone will enjoy this since there aren’t very many things that you can do with friends in the game and you’ll likely get tired of bowling or darts pretty quick, but most of this is optional. You can set your cell phone to sleep mode and just ignore the friends in the game and just do the missions. There are benefits to hanging out with friends and keeping them happy as they’ll reveal more of their own backgrounds each time you take them out, plus when they’re pleased with you they’ll help you out in different ways that can make missions easier.

So in any given day in the game Niko will climb out of bed, watch some TV, check and reply to emails, then receive calls from his friends to hang out. He might also get a call to go kill someone as well. All of this adds up to an atmosphere that is unparalleled in any other game out there.

On top off all of that is the game’s story and characters. Make no mistake, GTA IV is an extremely story driven game. Like everything else in the GTA universe the story and characters are all at once satire, exaggerations of stereotypes, juvenile and fantastic. It’s a great cast all the way through.

The stories for other GTA games ‘borrowed’ heavily from inspirations such as The Godfather and Scarface, GTA IV is completely it’s own. It amazes me to hear people claim that GTA IV glamorizes the criminal lifestyle, those who say such things have obviously not played the game. Almost every criminal you meet is either deranged, unhappy, an addict, or scared of the organization they work for. The storyline revolves around Niko Belic and his quest for revenge as well as trying to escape from horrors that happened in the past. Throughout the game Niko acknowledges that he doesn’t believe he’s a good person and feels that after the things he’s seen and done that killing is all that he’s good for anymore. The story is actually a great story of revenge and the consequences of it.

That’s right, consequences. Throughout the game there will be several times when the player is asked to make a choice. Unlike choices that really don’t make much of a difference, like say in Bioshock, these options do have some impact on the game. If you decide to let someone live instead of killing them, odds are you are going to see that person again later. There are actually some really tough decisions to make in the game and times when I turned it off to think about it before coming back to the game later. How the game handles revenge is also remarkable for a game of this type. Of all the games, GTA IV has the strongest story and characters of any of the titles.

Multiplayer

Finally a GTA with multiplayer. Or at least official multiplayer.

Rockstar made at least one big mistake with the multiplayer, there’s nothing in the instruction manual about it. At all. Nothing about how to start a multiplayer match, how to set up a private vs public match, how money is more important than kills, or the differences in the various gametypes.

What the hell? I could understand if the multiplayer was just something tacked on, but for GTA IV they’ve really gone above and beyond with the multiplayer options and gamemodes. However getting into a game can be pretty confusing since it’s not the typical menu based multiplayer you might be used to. When getting a group of friends together you enter Party Mode, which is actually the game’s free mode. Once everyone is together then the party leader selects the game type and then you’re off. Thanks to a lack of instruction though I got a group of friends together then we couldn’t figure out how to get to a specific game. Of course some of that might be due to the fact we started to immediatly attack each other and then it got chaotic. Then there’s little things like how crouching prevents the enemy from seeing a dot above your head, or that once one game is over you can vote on the next gametype.

There are a number of smaller issues. While I’ve experienced virtually no lag, there seems to be an issue with trying to keep a party together. I’ve had friends just randomly get booted out of games. Also this isn’t to do with the game design but while it is great that Rockstar gave a huge number of options for the multipler it’s also a drawback when dealing with the community online. Get ready to hear everyone argue about the time limit, amount of pedestrians, traffic, map location, weapon selection, and every other option. Just about every multiplayer match takes a few minutes for people to argue about the options.

Small issues aside, the multiplayer is a lot fun. While I enjoy online FPS games, nothing comes close to the chaos that can erupt in a GTA multiplater fire fight. Cars exploding, pedestrians fleeing, people getting set on fire, it’s insane. There’s also a long list of online modes that over all the usual types of deathmatchs as well as some unique variations. There are also racing variants with standard and GTA race. GTA race is more of a car combat style of racing, and a lot of times it ends up with whoever is in last trying to just destroy the people in first and second place. There are also some Co-Op modes, and while I love co-op games, these feel almost tacked on and you’ll likely only place them once or twice.

Final Scores:

Story: Classic
Graphics: Great
Sound: Great
Control/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Great
Originality: Good
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal: Classic
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled

Final Score: Great

Short Attention Span Summary:

yeager-1.jpgThere are very few games I consider worth buying for full price, and Grand Theft Auto IV is one of them. The game has a long, interesting single player story. There’s a ton of extra things to do in the game besides the story. There’s an extensive online mode. Most of the gameplay issues of previous GTA games have been fixed, though in the future I hope to see more variety in the types of single player missions. If you’re even slightly interested in the game go pick it up, it’s worth it.

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