Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV for Xbox 360Niko Bellic receives letters and emails from his cousin Roman, speaking of wealth and luxury beyond his wildest dreams in Liberty City. After only a few years in America, Roman Bellic has a mansion, a sports car and many beautiful women in his life, and urges Niko to join him. After working the passage on a container ship, Niko is introduced to the truth -Roman’s seedy, cockroach-ridden apartment, crappy car, stressful job, and a struggle to appease the aggressive gangsters looking to collect on his gambling debts. Niko doesn’t like to see his cousin pushed around, and in the face of his defiance, the gangsters begin to negotiate – for Niko’s services. So begins Grand Theft Auto IV – a magnificently byzantine journey into a corrupted, rusting American dream.

It’s less than two weeks after the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the largest entertainment launch in history. The game took US$310 million in its first 24 hours, and US$500 million in its first week, putting other blockbuster media events like Halo 3 (US$170million) and the movie, Spider-man 3 (US$148million) in the shade. Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the GTA games so far; we’ve seen the start, the roots, the amazing transition from 2D to 3D, and moved from a sunny island city to an entire state. Sam Houser, co-creator of GTA, said that the difference between the last games and GTA4 would be as great as the leap from 2D to 3D – an ambitious claim. GTA4 took four years and a record breaking US$100 million to make.
Let’s take a look at the results.

System: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Genre: Action, Driving, Shooter
Release date: April 29th, 2008
Players: 1 (16 online multiplayer)
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Origin: UK
Rating: M for Mature with Blood, Strong Language, Violence

NB: This review was written after 35 hours of play, reaching 45% completion, on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Here’s the final trailer for the game, showing some of the missions, characters and vehicles in action:

One Of The Crowd
It’s difficult to know where to start with such a large and varied game, but let’s start with one of the building blocks: Euphoria, the novel animation engine, and something that makes GTA4 very different.
With Euphoria, moving characters do not repeat sequences, sitting, climbing, and punching the same way each time. Euphoria generates characters’ actions moment to moment, based on artificial intelligence, biomechanics and physics, so no two reactions are the same. AI reactions fuse a wealth of priorities -balance, the desire to look at a point of interest, any retaliation, and even self-preservation. Characters will hold out an arm to protect their face, run and hide, generate a facial expression, drop their bags, try to grab a ledge to prevent a fall, lose balance and topple over…all worked out on-the-fly as the behaviors, physics and AI work together, producing a unique result. Sounds great, right? With Euphoria in the hands of the developers of Grand Theft Auto, you have a virtual city peopled with thousands of characters with individual AI and behavior, going about their business.
You have Liberty City.

Star junction Grand Theft Auto 4 screenshot

Only Their Parents Can Tell Them Apart
There is little resemblance between the setting of GTA3 and GTA4, despite the common name. This Liberty City could pass for New York City in a police line up…and of the two it’s more likely to end up in one. It’s a dangerous, filthy, beautiful place. The level of environmental detail is astronomical, and has the ability to startle you even after days of play. To try and illustrate it through examples would lead to a laundry-list as long as my arm, and to be honest I’m not even sure my arm is long enough.

Liberty City breathes.
Gone are the pedestrian ‘types’ of previous GTA games – you won’t catch four identical guys hanging out on a street corner in Hove Beach. You won’t drive past the same recycled building facade ten times between Francis International airport and Bohan. All of the space saving tricks that videogame developers have used for years and years – using repetition and patterns to build up the game world – it’s all gone. You won’t be able to spot patterns. Liberty City is a complicated, hugely varied, asymmetric place, the jumble of which feels incredibly organic and real. A lot of Liberty’s ingredients are borrowed from New York City, and they’re masterfully blended and remixed. Players familiar with NYC might even have a small advantage – the reproduction of some neighborhoods is so good that knowing where you’re likely to find a hot-dog stand in New York is an asset in Liberty City.

Grand Theft Auto 4 screenshot of Algonquin from Dukes

When The Going Gets Tough
I played for five or six hours before firing a gun, and that wasn’t just because I was exploring. Story missions start off with a feeling of low-grade menace, featuring a lot of driving and intimidation with fists and words. The hand-to-hand combat system is detailed, with a countering system that relies on your reaction speeds and a variety of blows controlled by button choice. The fact that firearms aren’t instantly introduced makes it a big deal when Niko is finally holding a gun, and the choices he makes with that power are not glossed over or belittled. The game provides a strong motivation to start out on a life of crime in Liberty City – nothing about Niko’s progression is wanton or gratuitous – only the gradual yet ceaseless escalation of violence from these simpler beginnings leads to the huge gun battles and explosions the series has come to be known for, and Niko is not silent on how difficult this is. When the firearms arrive on the scene – and this can be at the moment Niko is handed a gun as part of a mission, or as a result of independent play, the controls are more advanced than previous games. There is still a lock-on feature, but it is coupled with both free-aim and precision aiming which are rapidly picked up and great to use. The cover system is not as smooth nor as seamless as in Gears of War, which it is often compared to, but it’s still very good – it’s absolutely essential in missions with more than one armed opponent, and the only difficulty comes in moving through complex cover, which sometimes works smoothly with Niko scurrying from one cover spot to another, but occasionally requires the manual override of toggling the cover system on and off while moving.

A new addition to GTA which quickly becomes an essential part of play is Niko’s mobile phone. Using it he can call friends and employers, request a cab, receive text messages, take photographs (with a later, nicer model) and even call 911. The phone becomes a vital tool for both plot and free roaming play. The cellphone is also how the multiplayer and cheat menus are accessed.

Grand Theft Auto 4 screenshot of dinghy firing

For all the innovation of the Grand Theft Auto games, they’re constricted by the very same features that make them unique. When you pack over a hundred crime-based missions into each game, there are bound to be some similarities in the sequels. Crime bosses want goods moved around, evidence removed, people wiped out and intimidated, money obtained. There may be a thousand spins on these themes and they make for excellent videogame fodder, but some of the mission themes in GTA4 could be generously filed under ‘tried and tested’. Example: A vehicle rigged with a delicate bomb needs to be driven to a target. To make it more interesting, the vehicle is either a superb sports car prone to damage or a lumbering truck, both of which will require the player to exercise some patience and driving skill. It makes sense, it’s challenging and fun, but it’s been done more than once.

Beyond a few generic similarities to the previous games, the mission design and structure in GTA4 is excellent. A lot of work has been put into this aspect of the game design, and the missions are almost exclusively a joy to play. Yes, there is a lot driving and violence, but each mission is different. The themed side missions of vehicle ‘collection’ or time-challenge deliveries are varied – the target vehicle is in motion, the center of attention, outside a police station, or involved in a robbery…and the package destinations are hidden, far away, or guarded. Some missions are easy and others are tough, but the trickier missions that you’re likely to repeat are a lot of fun, and there is alternate dialog for many of them, so they are different when you opt to try again. Some missions are run-of-the-mill, even for the GTA games, but others are absolutely incredible; truly landmark videogame experiences that you’ll want to revisit many times.

GTA4 Under The Bridge

Choice has always been a mainstay of GTA. Choice of mission, activity, vehicle…but it has always been choice without negative consequence. If there was ever a penalty for a bad choice it was only in the grind needed to repeat sections of failed missions. GTA4 (and an increasing number of other games) presents the player with choice with uncertain consequences. Would-be victims of Niko plead for their lives, employers simultaneously request each other’s demise, and at each fork the consequences affect the path of the game, and ultimately the ending. If you put to one side a player’s involvement in the plot and the choices to which their own preferences will lead them, and take a purely mercenary approach to these choices – at stake is the time the player has invested in the game and their desire to experience the best the game has to offer as an outcome of that investment. While it’s certain that GTA isn’t about to punish a ‘wrong’ choice at any of these junctions, the uncertainty over the ‘best’ course of action is inescapable, with hours of investment and game-hopes at stake.

All of this said, the overarching story, or at least what I have seen of it at 45% completion, is outstanding. Your impressions of Roman, Liberty City, the game you play and the people you meet, all of it is fodder for this story. Even your preconceptions are manipulated, taken along with the twists and turns of the story, which rivals Hollywood in scale and ambition. GTA4 has the startling ability to evoke emotion – it will be a wake-up call to game writers everywhere. It is shocking that a videogame can provide amusement, gratification and enjoyment and still, in its dark moments, produce such powerful emotions as remorse and even guilt. There have been only three moments when I’ve found myself sitting in front of a videogame with my mouth open, astounded. One of them was the pivotal moment in Bioshock… and the other two have occurred in two weeks of playing GTA4. This is a powerful game.

GTA4 East Hook Driving

Four Wheels Good
Driving in GTA4 is trickier than the previous games – the cartoon feel has given way to a few touches of reality. It’s still nowhere near Gran Turismo levels of realism, but a floored accelerator from a standing start will result in fish-tailing, vehicles respond better without the gas pedal on the floor, and just like a real car, the best handling comes from using the gas and brake in harmony around corners and through traffic. Mastering the driving system is naturally complicated by the huge range of vehicles, each with different performance, balance and steering sensitivity, but that’s what GTA is all about! In the course of the series so far, Rockstar created over 400 artificial brands and companies, and they didn’t start from scratch in GTA4, so you’ll still be able to scream through traffic in an Banshee convertible, and weave through crowds on aFaggio scooter, even if they look different to their predecessors. There are a lot of additions to the GTA garage as well, many of which satirize current vehicle trends like hybrids and giant SUVs. The added realism, not to mention the accuracy of the physical environment – stairs and kerbs are real, not ramps with ridged graphics on top – mean that motorcycles are a dangerous mode of transportation for all but the most skillful, and even then there’s nothing stopping a bad NPC driver wiping you out.

Here’s a video of a three-star police chase across Liberty City in two very different vehicles. Keep an eye out for the pedestrian responses, the vehicle handling and damage, and the organic city design:

Meet Mr. Nikolai Bellic
Niko is an enigmatic protagonist; more of a three-dimensional character than any of his predecessors in the GTA series – he has motivation, he has history, and, surprisingly, eventually, he has principles. He is an Eastern European war veteran, once involved in human trafficking, who is frank and open about the serious damage his past has wreaked upon him… but shows no intention of reforming. He is a hired killer, and yet shows himself to be vulnerable. At times he is vengeful, at others merciful and kind. He rains sarcasm down upon people of whom he disapproves, but consents to carry out work on their behalf for the right price despite his contempt. When situations are dire he seems unflappable and pragmatic, but is incredibly protective and enraged whenever his cousin Roman is threatened, even if only emotionally. He freely acknowledges that he cannot escape his past…and that, perhaps, answers he craves could be found in Liberty City.

The people Niko meets in Liberty City can set him up with work, become friends, lovers or enemies. Relationships are an important aspect of GTA4. Spending time with friends -mini games of bowling, shooting pool, eating, drinking, playing darts – can develop their trust and lead them to offer resources and services that can be very helpful to Niko. As his relationships develop, Niko finds out more about the people around him and reveals more about himself. Friends and girlfriends are a major avenue for both story and humor, and while maintaining the increasingly large number of relationships can seem a lot like work, there have been few activities I’ve played through that haven’t been worth it.

GTA4 Niko And Roman

With Friends Like These…
Grand Theft Auto IV features 16 player online multiplayer, with 15 different gametypes. See this VGB post for all the details. Multiplayer was an oft-criticized absent feature in previous incarnations of GTA, and amateur developers came up with homebrewed multiplayer add-ons for San Andreas and Vice City on the PC. I’ve clocked 35 hours in single player in the last two weeks, so my online time has been a little limited, but I’ve played a few game modes:

Free Roam is a mode in which the whole city is packed with weapons and vehicles and open for play with no objective other than those you set yourself. While it almost always degenerates into a gunfest around the common spawn point, exploring and hunting each other down over the entire map is enormous fun – there is scope for helicopter dogfights, boat racing, and custom games of any kind. Just racing to get to a helicopter to take on a friend who was already airborne was one of my favorite moments of play so far – he was hunting me from the air as I dodged through the cranes and containers at the docks, and while he sabotaged my intended ride by slicing it to pieces with his helicopter rotors, I managed to take him out through the cockpit glass with a sniper rifle.

This multiplayer mode – go anywhere, do anything, carries with it the true ethos of the GTA games.
The Deathmatch modes – individual and team, are an interesting affair, and can become entirely different games depending on the settings selected by the host. Turning off auto-aim and the ability to see other players on your radar leads to a crazy brawl where chance-taking frequently pays off – with those settings on it becomes a game of stealth and circumspection, tactics and timing. The open streets and vehicles mean GTA deathmatch is a very different animal to, say, Call of Duty 4 – you’ll be firing at longer range, with more margin for error, but also a greater reward for accuracy and tactical positioning. Scores are money based – a premium for a kill and a supplemental score for picking up cash that has been dropped.

‘Cops ‘n Crooks’ is a team game where each side plays a part – cops have radar, crooks do not, the crooks have to get one of their number, the VIP, to a goal, and the cops have to stop them. I’ve only played one match of this but it’s obvious that teamwork and tactics make a huge difference, and I’m looking forward to getting to grips with it again. The size of the map means there are enormous numbers of ways this type of game can be played.

‘Team Mafiya Work’ was the only gametype where I saw any performance drop or lag online – in this mode, small teams work together to carry out GTA-style errands around the map and prevent other teams from doing so. All the players were converging on the last remaining objective, and apart from drawing my wife into the room with the deafening firecracker-rattle of 16 machine guns all going at once, the framerates dropped and there was some lag with player movement and the explosion graphics. Even with this issues so obviously impeding play, this mode was great fun.

GTA4 Takedown

Welcome To Uncanny Valley – Population 9.5 million
Liberty City, for me at least, rings so true it crosses a threshold of detail into an area of perception where it’s frustrating that I cannot interact with it further; I want a first person view, I want to interact with the incredibly lifelike NPCs beyond a shove or a punch, I want to access more interiors and part of me wants to be able to focus on one object and the see clarity and depth of detail maintained at a minute level to accompany my focus, just like the real world. The level of realism makes me want these things. It has nothing to do with my understanding of technological possibility. GTA4 is a technical triumph. It is a deeper reaction, a feeling, like the uneasy ‘uncanny valley’ feeling humans get from a nearly-but-not-human robot. I’m not saying I want GTA4 to be a 100% perfect alternate reality; just that the traditional limitations of games with regards to player-world interaction feel odd in a world so precisely and enormously detailed.

While the humor of previous games is still present, it lives on in an uneasy relationship with the new, grittier realism of the rest of the game elements. Niko’s path is very grim and dour – the plot missions are tough, dirty, and morally questionable in many cases, some to the point that they cause Niko to rail against his employers. Niko and Roman endure setbacks and failure. So you have that angle, which frequently engenders emotional responses unusual for a videogame – remorse, uncertainty, guilt; and then you have the very brazen humor of Liberty City’s media and the overwhelming satire embedded in the gameworld and the characters Niko works for. Niko takes his time and agonizes over a single death, but also kills unquestioningly at the behest of buffoons. There’s a bit of a moral mismatch there.

Now for the scores!

Fun Factor: 10
An undeniable ten out of ten. While there are a couple of work-like elements, they’re optional and have their own fun factor and humor.
Everything else in GTA4 is pure gaming gold.

Graphics: 10
Stunning, beautiful, gritty, occasionally mind-blowing and uniformly impressive.

Audio: 10
The environmental audio- the background noise of Liberty City, is excellent, and the mixing effects are superb – standing at the side of the freeway, the sounds of the vehicles passing by at speed display the distinctive tonal swoop of the Doppler effect. An immense amount of radio, outstanding and extensive voice acting, including alternate mission dialog – GTA4 goes above and beyond Rockstar’s already high bar of excellence in this field.

Ingenuity: 9
If this is the only area GTA4 isn’t ten out of ten, that’s because of the category itself. GTA4 is one in a long line of games that have piled innovation on innovation while keeping a core game principle – that of free-roaming exploration and non-linear play, and GTA4 is still a sequel. It has its own successful innovations – the cab system, the cellphone, the multiplayer, the fleshing out of the virtual world to an astounding level, but it remains the child of the games that went before it.

Replay Value: 10
I’m already planning to replay this game. There’s something about looking back at the origins of each GTA story that makes me want to re-experience it. Apart from my own intentions, there is plenty to keep you revisiting Liberty City – the fact that seemingly-scripted moments of humor and unbelievable coincidence and brilliance can occur unexpectedly, a huge amount of non-story related missions and activities, multiplayer rankings and challenges through the Rockstar Social Club, the epic amount of play required to hit that elusive 100% completion…and to cap it all, for Xbox 360 users, there are two batches of DLC coming, the first due in August 2008, and it apparently features at least an additional 10 hours of play. What form that will be, Rockstar are keeping under wraps.

GTA4 Harbor Contemplation

This game deserves the stellar recognition and record-breaking 6 million week-one sales it has received. It is an incredible achievement, an outstanding piece of entertainment, and undoubtedly the most enjoyable and complicated work of satire ever made.