Grand Theft Auto IV PS3, Xbox 360
With top marks rushing in from all corners of the globe you’d think Rockstar had hit upon the Holy Grail with GTA IV. They may have come very close, but when you achieve perfection where do you go next? If you step back from the hype for a second you can see GTA IV is not without fault, but on the other hand it’s obviously a title that will go down in history as a gaming great.
What does that mean though? Well, it’s increasingly hard to pin down what exactly makes a game great. I once thought more solitary environments best suited critical reproach, with the likes of Portal and Shadow of the Colossus being two of the most impressive titles over the last few years. Interestingly, the locations in both games were mostly devoid of life, but conversely the games themselves were highly vivacious in terms of entertaining the player as they advanced.
With Rockstar moving back to Liberty City and getting back in the New York groove for their latest addition to the Grand Theft Auto series, it is quite easy to see they’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of attaining the illusive fun factor that most games strive for. At its core though it is still the same Grand Theft Auto we’ve grown accustomed to since the series jumped to 3D.
You could even argue missions are in part imbued with the same pragmatic routines that were on show in previous games in the series, but on the other hand it is overtly obvious it’s a huge step up in form for the series; everything is tighter, more refined. Although it feels clichéd to say so, Liberty City does in fact feel very much alive. Every square inch boasts something new or exciting that will catch your attention.
There’s more to it than just graphical changes though, and there’s more to it than the lifelike animations provided by the euphoria engine. The city really does feel lived-in this time round. You’ll walk up a street and see someone else getting arrested. You’ll see car crashes that you had no hand in. You’ll see people getting a lift in a taxi, and if you follow the cab long enough you will see them get out. Sure, it’s all been scripted in some way, but there seem to be thousands of ways in which stuff might play out, keeping you almost always surprised and impressed. Going back to play any of the predecessors after IV makes these previously ground-breaking titles seem almost archaic in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong – San Andreas was a good game – but even the most ardent fan would agree that it lost some of its appeal by trying to do too much at once. As a result Rockstar were not shy of stripping some elements of the game back to the core, and choosing to build them up again from scratch rather than just heaping more on for GTA IV. Gone are the questionable RPG elements, silly missions, outlandish forms of transport and OTT weapons. Activities are also streamlined, so that players are never subjected to tasks that feel like chores.
Then there’s the little touches. The whole HUD is much cleaner than before, all cars now have GPS (so there’s no excuse for getting lost), guns no longer float in mid-air waiting for you to pick them up, being usually propped up against some object or a wall. Stunt jumps are still around, but they now seem better suited to the environment and don’t seem as obvious as they did before. Hidden packages are done away with, and you now have 200 pigeons to hunt down instead. A major change in the game mechanics is that you now get to keep your guns if you die rather than get arrested. They all may be seem like small extras, but it’s the tiny things that add to the game’s appeal. The result is a more believable world for Niko to traverse.
Of course, there is also the addition of mobile phone, which is probably the most ingenious facet of the game. Not only is the phone used to trigger some missions, restart missions if you fail, and give you some updates as you advance it is also used to keep in contact with friends. You can ring them should you want to go bowling, having a game of darts, or just get drunk out of your mind and try to drive home. If you build up a good enough relationship you can then use the phone to contact friends and ask for various perks, such as calling in bodyguards to back you up and ordering supplies. You can also access the game’s multiplayer by a few quick presses on your keypad. As if that wasn’t enough there’s also a hugely in-depth version of the internet with spoof versions of loads of real world websites, from dating sites to Craigslist. You can buy ring-tones and themes for your phone online, check emails (including spam, which ends up being much more entertaining than those in real life), or you can just read the news.
The missions on show this time are far more varied than ever before. A few of the earlier ones may seem a bit mundane, but this just makes the later, more epic assignments you’re tasked with as you progress seem that much better by comparison. Many of these missions are still highly influenced by some movies, but for the most part Rockstar have tried to keep things more original this time round. Better still, there are new things to see and do right up to the end, so even when you reach the last island you’ll still see brand new elements of the game make an appearance instead of just playing similar styled missions in a different locale. In addition, the game no longer gives ‘bosses’ the luxury of a bigger health bar; your encounters with these important characters are instead handled in a much more realistic way, the first waterside encounter setting quite the exciting precedent for the way of things to come…
It’s not the perfect city though. There are still missions that annoy, and a few that are bit too long. You can still suffer an unfair death when the targeting takes one of it hissy fits, and the cover system can be prone to a few glitches every now and then. The fist fighting mechanic is also not all that interesting, but it is an improvement from San Andreas. There are still a few technical issues too, such as pop-up and a few frame rate problems when reaching the more densely populated parts of the city later on in the game. As a result the game may not totally impress everyone that plays it. However, it is likely most of those went in with their expectation set sky high in the first place.
So, as you can see GTA IV is not perfect, but it is unlikely there will ever be a game we could fairly label with that heavy moniker. It is however an absolutely essential landmark title for the games industry. In terms of the sheer scope, emotion, ambition, and the stupidly high fun factor it offers, there is no better available in the genre today. In fact, no one else comes anywhere near. In truth, it’s seeing where Rockstar go next that should be getting people the most excited, but for now we should all just stand back and revel in this true moment of gaming glory as we know they don’t come around all that often.