Grand Theft Auto IV Review
A game of impressive scope that sets a new bar for the genre, in both it's amazing detail and excellent gameplay. If only Rockstar kept the PC port in the right hands.
There is no better propaganda to join the console way of life than Rockstar’s PC version of Grand Theft Auto 4. The initial setup is just the beginning of tons of PC-specific annoyances. Installation of service updates for Windows. Internet activation of SecuROM. Compulsory registration on the Rockstar Social Club website, without which it is impossible to play online or to load your short movies to the site of developers. Connecting to the Social Club client, and then of course Games For Windows Live. The megabytes of content you have to load before you can even start the game properly, your hand twitching as you fight with the graphical settings, the constant fps drops, trips to the shortcut command line options…during all this time the guy with an Xbox 360 finished a couple of missions.
But enough of that, on with the game. And so we begin our life as Niko Belic, an immigrant from Serbia who jumped on the boat across the ocean in hopes of a better life that was promised to him by Roman, his cousin. Roman claimed to live the life of luxury since moving to Liberty City – a replica of New York city – and charmed his cousin to make the move. However upon arriving, it becomes rather clear that Roman may have exaggerated his worth in “the New World” a little. The “Ferrari” turned out to be a used-up taxi cab, and the debt is piling up. But lack of funds does not scare Niko, a war veteran back home, so he gets his hands dirty and starts looking for work. Work starts off slow, doing some delivery missions and learning your way around the city. But it won’t be long until you are hijacking, killing, robbing, and lying your way through the city – now you know you’re playing a Grand Theft Auto game.
The metropolis, based on New York city, is a busy and rather dark city, with missions spread out across its various neighbourhoods and back alleys. The classical formula in this regard has not changed. The extras from previous games are gone though, so no more DoDo flights, RC Cars races, trips to the gym or military tanks trying to run you over. Expressive palette of colors is gone, washed away by the common “next-gen” bug of greyness and urbanization. On the other hand the pedestrians now actually feel alive, everything feels 3D and has proper shadows, and mornings bring a fog that would make the Silent Hill series jealous. The game took a huge leap towards realism and actually pulled it off without coming across as dull or static.
The reason for is? The love Rockstar has for details and humour. Ballots promoting an election candidate, social and political satire and commentary are found left and right. Not to mention full-fledged talk shows with real celebrity voices, and a huge internet system with tons of content ranging from classic spam emails to hilarious scam websites. New in this game is the inclusion of yet another media, the TV – it is filled with various hilarious and “educational” programming which airs at certain times of the day, so this is probably the first game you have played where you try to catch a simulated TV show on time… The radio is back of course, with even more stations, music, Dj’s, ads and infomercials. One thing is for sure, you’ll never be bored with LC’s entertainment.
In terms of characters, Niko obviously shines as the main anti-hero. The range of emotions that our cold-blooded killer goes through is really mesmerizing, as we watch his emotional state change and his facial expressions reflect every little annoyance and nervous tick. Even during firefights outside of cutscenes, there is a sense of personality now – you are not just yelling obscenities at the bad guys, there is emotion in Niko’s voice here, and in facial expression as well.
But fear not, the supporting cast of characters and “friends” are just as well-done as the main role. And friends, don’t laugh, are one of the main illustrations of how a series has moved forward. Their lives are full of their own problems, they ask you for help many times, but also return the favour if you are in a difficult situation. But there are plenty more ways to interact with your friends than just use them for extra firepower – going out to a bar for a drink and then driving home afterwards is as much fun as it sounds, even in a game. The social activities aren’t just limited to alcohol consumption of course. Bowling, billiards, darts, cabaret and strips-clubs – are all avaliable services of the city, which welcome you with open arms should you decide to come in (weapons-free, of course). But forgetting all that, it is simply fun just to talk to these characters and to hear what they have to say, what their story is and what bothers them. You’ll never feel like you’re just talking to an NPC as a means to waste time while you drive them around. Usually the most unexpected and random details can occur during conversations, and you will find yourself stopping before you reach your destination just so you could finish listening to the conversation. In Rockstar’s world, there are no NPC cardboard cut-out characters. Everyone here lives and breathes, together with you. And sometimes, you can almost feel the need some of these characters have to just get away, leave this corrupt city and find a new beginning.
The characters would be shallow without good script, and there is plenty of that here. This is not Mass Effect-style dialog maze, however the game is very well written and has quite a few more lines than your average shooter. Curses are used very tastefully and randomly, so they do not put a negative spin on the conversations.
Missions in GTA4 are quite thrilling and entertaining. However if you take a moment to look at the “big picture” you will see a lot of repetition, and at times even predict what will happen next. Go somewhere, kill/steal, escape – that’s the general layout. But Rockstar has managed to keep things fresh, even though they overuse the formula during the whole game, by changing locales, characters and reasons behind your actions. You’ll probably notice the similar mission pattern, but you won’t be bored by it. There are tons of missions to do in the city, with main story missions taking roughly 20 hours to complete on their own. However it’s definitely worth checking out the side quests, especially while they are available – later on as you progress the main storyline, many will disappear and you will be able to play through them again without restarting an earlier save. Missions are often heavily scripted, which makes the initial setup somewhat dull as you cannot choose what happens. However in the later, “escape” stages of the missions, you are free to choose how you want to get your primary assignment done.