Grand Theft Auto has finally made its long-awaited debut on the PS3. Despite the series’ success, Rockstar’s critically acclaimed franchise has seen its share of both strong praise and criticism. Does the latest game deserve to be held to these standards? Or is it simply a shell of its former self?
In Grand Theft Auto IV, you play as an Eastern European war veteran named Niko Bellic, who is trying to escape his past and live a better life in Liberty City. Your Cousin, Roman, has promised you wealth, cars, and women. But as you come to find out, Liberty City is not the opulent, clean-cut residence that your cousin originally pitched.
Right from the beginning, Niko is thrown into the middle of Roman’s misfortunes and will have to take matters into his own hands. Dealing with drug lords, mob bosses, and the police, Niko will have to steal, kill, and lie his way in order to obtain The American Dream. There will be causalities along the way, both monotone and personal, but through his perseverance he strives to break away from his troubled past.
Niko’s playground this time around is a totally revamped Liberty City. In contrast to GTA 3, Rockstar has really nailed the look and feel of New York City. From the run down areas of Bohan (Bronx) to the upscale Algonquin (Manhattan), it even comes complete with replica version of famous N.Y. landmarks, such as Times Square and The Statue of Liberty (or Statue of Happiness, as the game calls it).
The overall scale of Liberty City is a lot smaller than that of San Andreas, which is a good thing. The open desert and wooded areas from San Andreas are long gone. Within the new Liberty City, there are very few places where pedestrians and cars aren’t populating your view. The reason this change was needed is because many of the areas in San Andreas were completely void of anything, and you could spend way too much time trying to find something to do. These issues are pretty much nonexistent in GTA IV, and help Niko’s world feel more immersive and organic.
What makes Liberty City so astounding is the hustle and bustle of everyday life that goes on. You really get the impression that the city is a living breathing entity that you are simply playing through. Watching people walk by having conversations on cell phones, or witnessing an auto accident with an ensuing fistfight, is almost as fun as actually playing the game. This is both a grand technical and artistic feat on the part of the developers, and I’d love to seem them take pedestrian behavior even further with future GTA installments. Never has bystander interaction played such a pivotal part in open world gameplay.
The overall mechanics of GTA have vastly improved from previous iterations. Driving in general feels more natural and crisp, and although it will take some time to get used to it is a much appreciated change. The melee combat has been tweaked and is more reliable. Instead of simply mashing on one button, kicking and punching have been mapped to different face buttons, one to punch, one to kick. Blocking is also included, and you can even disarm an assailant if they come at you with a knife. While not completely perfect in its implementation, the game is a lot more fun as a result of these upgrades.
By far the biggest improvement is the use of weapons, as the targeting system is top notch. You use one button to lock onto an opponent, and simply flick the right analog stick to jump from person to person. It’s not 100% accurate, but it still works well in most situations. There’s also the ability to free aim and completely forgo the targeting system. Rockstar has also added a cover system similar to Uncharted. Simply tap R1, and you will snap to the closest wall or car, allowing you to stand up/lean to fire at your enemies. This greatly reduces the overall difficulty of the missions, but not so much that the missions become a breeze to play through.
The GPS system also helps with navigation. When you start up a mission, the best possible route is immediately displayed on the top righthand corner, and dynamically adjusts if you miss a turn or two. In addition to the GPS, Rockstar has added taxi cabs that will help you relax and let someone else drive you around the city for a change. Destinations can be set prior to entering a taxi by selecting a target on the GPS map, which is accessible by pressing the Start button. From inside the taxi, you can also select alternate destinations, and even skip the entire trip by coughing a few extra dollars. As you progress further into the game, expect to be using these taxis a lot. It really is a huge convenience and speeds up the sometimes monotonous task of driving across the entire city.
In the end, it’s the little details that elevate GTA IV above the competition. For example, if you run up to a car and the door is locked, you can command Niko to bust out the window and hotwire the vehicle. If you’re running from the cops, they’ll call in for backup and proceed to shoot you down (i don’t recommend running in a straight line). Car crashes are also fun, even when you mess up. Slam into an obstacle or sturdy object fast enough, and Niko will be sent flying through the windshield and tumbling on the asphalt. And you should definitely blow up as many vehicles as possible, as the individual pieces of debris make these some of the most visually enjoyable explosions in gaming history.
This is all possible due to the robust physics engine used in GTA IV. The new ragdoll physics really are spot on, and the way that characters interact in their environment enhances the believability of the game. Running over pedestrians or flying through windshields has never seemed this believable and this fun. It’s not always realistic, but it is damn near close. The physics are even apparent when simply driving in a car; the sway and velocity of the vehicle has a visible effect on whoever’s sitting it. Though the graphics aren’t particularly great, the overall scale is incredible. Though not as visually impressive as the top-tier PS3 exclusives, Rockstar made up for this deficit by designing a game world that feels natural, as if it has an actual history behind the various buildings and industrial structures.
The real strength of GTA IV is its sound design. From the cars swooshing by, to the trains screeching overhead, to the drowned out music playing from random stereo sets, Rockstar has nailed the sounds of a busy city. Even things like colliding with a car or punching someone in the jaw sound so spot on that you’ll find yourself wondering how they got the game to sound this good. Coupled the realistic game world, impressive physics, and natural pedestrian behavior, Liberty City really comes to life. And you can easily get immersed in this game for hours at a time.
Not content with delivering a great story mode, Rockstar was compelled to include 15 multiplayer modes, such as “Deathmatch” and “Cops and Robbers.” By far, the most enjoyable mode is “Free Roam”, where you and your friends have absolutely freedom within the city. As Will Wright once said, the real beauty of GTA is that it allows you create your own games, and “Free Roam” really showcases this awesome aspect of the GTA series. The online isn’t perfect, but the inclusion of it is a definite plus.
Well, on to the bad news. GTA IV suffers from some of the exact same issues that plagued its predecessors. The missions will become rather repetitive since the majority of them require you to drive somewhere, kill someone, and then come back. You will get the occasional race or side mission, but more often then not you will be driving and shooting. Now this may be a negative, but if you are buying GTA game you pretty much know what you are getting into. To their credit, Rockstar really does try to keep the missions a little more distinct this time around, and the cinematic cutscenes tie in heavily with your actions.
Another negative is that with the added realism, a few laborious tasks have been introduced. GTA IV allows you to have actual relationships with your friends, and lets you decide which ones to spend time with, or even ignore. This isn’t a huge hassle at first, but expect to get a lot of angry calls from the people you start to ignore. Just like in real life, the harrasment is a huge annoyance. On top of this, the friendship minigames, such as darts and bowling, are not built well, making friendship in the game very tedious.
They’ve also removed some of the more outlandish things from the previous games. You no longer can buy property, which really is a pain, and by the time you finish the game you will easily have over a million dollars and almost nothing to spend it on. No more monster trucks, airplanes, or jetpacks. You can’t even pimp out your car and throw some nitrous tanks in it. I know they were going for a more realistic approach, but they should’ve practiced it in moderation. For countless fans, GTA wasn’t about realism so much as flat-out fun. Though part IV is still very enjoyable, its strict emphasis on realism makes it feel like it’s missing something.
GTA IV, like previous installments in the series, is a blast to play. Rockstar really went out of their way to improve the gameplay, but in the process managed to remove some fan favorites. But for what they set out out to do, I can only applaud them. The story is amazing, the missions are heart pounding, and the world of Liberty City makes countless references to pop culture and the vices of human nature. This is a great game that truly deserves to be placed on every gamer’s shelf.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
Satisfying vehicle and shooting mechanics.
Amazing story that keeps you going from start to finish.