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Saturday | December 10, 2016
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Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

The Grand Theft Auto series has been the jewel in Rockstars crown for a long time and the latest incarnation has been surrounded with unparalleled speculation for well over a year now. Surely no game could live up to this hype? Well once again it seems that Rockstar have proved us wrong, everything they touch truly does turn to gold because Grand Theft Auto 4 is quite possibly the best game I have ever played, period.

I have been one of the few lucky enough to have been playing this game now for over three weeks and in this space of time it has become abundantly clear that no matter how well I write I will never truly convey the epic scope of this latest gaming masterpiece from Rockstar.

You take control of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European who is running from his past and escaping the horrors of the Bosnian War. His cousin, Roman has tempted him to Liberty City so he can at last taste the all American dream. Niko finds out that Roman has been telling more than his fair share of porkies in relation to his supposed success. Niko immediately makes his presence known and he becomes a mercenary with very little moral conscious. This is where the game begins to show its true depth, as the character portrayal of Niko is totally three dimensional, there is no black and white in this game, just hundreds of real life shades of grey. Niko is a seriously messed up human being, and it makes the game all that more endearing, he is totally identifiable as a real person.

If this seems way too serious then relax, because the game is still dripping with tongue in cheek humour and the incredible, bombastic over the top high adrenaline action we associate with this game series. GTA4 however has a new found depth and intensity which takes the game to the next level, the character creation and story telling is like nothing I have seen before. As you progress with Niko his character slowly fleshes out and you can feel his pain, you literally step into his shoes and between the murder and mayhem it is clear you are controlling a guy who is having a hard time coming to terms with who is really is.

Let’s not beat about the bush here, Rockstar are absolute creative geniuses, the city scape is just bustling with life and on my 70 inch high def plasma it is almost as if you are walking within Liberty City itself rather than playing a game. It is common knowledge that this city is based around New York, however Rockstar have injected surreal parallels into the game universe so they can rightfully claim it as their own. It looks lived in, extremely realistic and you never really know what is going to happen around the next corner. Stunningly, as you walk around you can see that nothing is repeated, there are no walls with graffiti duplicated to save creation time, every piece of brickwork has been lovingly hand crafted from the ground up and I can’t even begin to comprehend the man hours it took just to create the city. Poor districts (such as Dukes) have litter everywhere and are depicted with tramps, muggers and groups of youths hanging on street corners, while the rich areas have a higher class of people, as well as noticeable improvements to the decor both inside and out.

There will be many moments of jaw dropping detail if you pay attention. I witnessed a woman getting mugged and the police chasing the thieves by foot. The chase then developed into a high speed race through the city, with me following in my car just bewildered at how everyone around me was seemingly doing something ! Men would try and chat up women, fights would break out, stores would be robbed and this is all just as you go about your own business. It really is a wonder to watch and brings such a dimension to the feeling that you are stepping into a virtual world.

The detail doesn’t end there; day and night cycles, the weather changes and if it rains people pull out umbrellas or cover their heads with newspapers and magazines, they even run for shelter from the storm. Just for kicks, I shot a guy who was walking with a lady, and she ran across the road to get the police meanwhile screaming at the top of her voice. Everyone nearby changed stance, some ran to her aid, some scarpered off and a huge dude ran after me with a crowbar. I actually felt guilty for shooting this poor innocent man before I realised  "Damn, I am playing a game here it is not real!".

Liberty City is on a slightly smaller scale than San Andreas but the detail is innumerably higher, there is so much to do and observe with very little "empty" space. I spent several days just walking around the city before even taking on some of the missions and after three weeks of playing I am still spotting little subtleties I never noticed.

When you enter buildings there are no load times, you open the door and wham, the location is instantly available. Playing devil’s advocate, not all the buildings can be entered and there is no way to tell until you walk up to the door, this might irritate people as it does slightly restrict the feeling of free movement everywhere.

The backbone of the game is the city, and it is without doubt the most vibrant, pulsing virtual environment I have yet to see. This is helped by the fact that the game has over 200 songs available and many where selected specifically for the game. Songs on many of the stations bear reference to the city and every eclectic taste is catered for with reggae, metal, pop and hip hop available. Adverts on the radio station are reinforced with posters on the walls and it seems as if virtual time and events are indescribably linked together.

The game has a fully browsable interweb, TV stations (with advertisements) and you even have email and text messages on your phone. Websites even cover your actions in game and any ramifications. There are weeks of content in the game most people might not even notice and it is this level of detail which still, almost a month later has me waxing lyrical like a foaming at the mouth lunatic.

Your cell phone is a key device in the game and you receive calls and text messages from friends, lovers and associates. This is the mission based interaction system. Sometimes a mission will happen right after a call, some will direct you to a location, however it is one of the focal points of the entire game mechanic. The phone also is used for non mission based fun activities, such as arranging dates with women you meet (or even calling for hookers! tsk tsk). It brings another level of depth to the experience. Thankfully you can use the phone while driving the car, and if you scroll the screen view to look in the window, yes you guessed it, Niko is actually holding it and talking into it, in sync with the scripting. You can modify the phone with ring tones and wallpapers and it can also quickly become a pain in the ass when it doesn’t stop ringing, much like the real thing. You can also ignore calls if you don’t want to speak to that person, and sometimes the phone will ring during a mission based car chase, amusingly Niko will pick up and deliver a witty one liner, much like you see in Hollywood movies.

Friendships are made and broken, just like real life. If you spend time with someone, then you will get access to any special abilities they have, for example if you befriend a gun dealer and spend time getting to know him, you will have access to his weapons at discount. You can even call some people (like Dwayne) to get reinforcements for some missions (thugs).

Every friend you make not only helps you on missions but has dialogue and scripting to add more depth to the game, some will explain aspects of the city and others will know cool places to visit. This isn’t part of the mission based game play but it all adds hours and hours of additional material to the package.

There are even cabaret clubs to visit with stars like Ricky Gervais supplying live standup comedy sketches for your entertainment. Yes I sat for 30 minutes inside a virtual club watching a virtual comedian delivering some hilarious jokes. How cool is that?! Not only this, but when I left, I realised I was drunk and could no longer walk straight and had to be helped to the car by my buddy who found the whole thing rather amusing. Your friends and lovers can get drunk as well, and their personalities will change. Some get extremely abrupt and insulting, and others will want to kiss you and make out.

The main story line in GTA4 is right up there with the greatest ever told. All the main characters are extremely believable and unique and the voice acting is so damn good, it is easy to forget that it isn’t actually real. Some of these characters are such a negative influence on Niko that he starts to act like them to fit in, and others are just so funny they will have you laughing out loud.

From time to time the game presents some hard calls and it is clear Rockstar are trying to suss out who you are, behind the screen, as the dialogue will change with the choices you make. If you kill innocent people for the hell of it, then different avenues of conversation will open up. I actually made a few decisions in the game I immediately regretted and the bitter taste of guilt in my mouth was a hard pill to swallow, especially when I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t really shoot that guy in the back of the head. These morality choices creep up when you least expect them, and they always have you pausing for the right decision. You really will end up caring for Niko and the impact he has around him, and it is very rare I will ever make a comment like that about a game.

Your decisions will affect the ultimate ending, and you end up with several endings depending on the choices you make throughout the game. These endings are so endearing that you will really want to replay the game just to see how things pan out if you had taken a different route through the game.

The main game consists of around 95 story missions which should take around 30-55 hours to complete depending on the paths you take and how good you are with the pad. That is a lot of missions and they never get boring or repetitive, you will be just craving "one more mission" before taking a break and before you know it, night will have come and gone, and you will be sitting in front of the screen wondering why the morning sun is hitting the window beside the television. All these missions are immensely varied, the AI is wonderful and the dialogue fresh and invigorating.

I really do not want to give any of the missions away as there is nothing worse than reading an article like this and having some idiot reviewer blabber on about a mission and how "awesome it was", but I will say that even the most seasoned gamers will be in for quite a few shocks and surprises around mid way.

The combat system is marvellous and clearly has been the subject of many hours of refinement and play testing, it shows throughout. GTA IV finally has a usable targeting system, you hold down the trigger to lock on, you then see a health indicator. Adjust the aim slightly with the thumbstick and if you partially depress the trigger you have free aim which is great for hitting specific body parts or tyres on vehicles. Auto aim works well and will help in situations with many enemies attacking and will help younger players or people just clumsy with the controller system.

GTA4 now has a cover system, if you tap the right shoulder button you jump or take cover behind the nearest object such as cars, bins, billboards or walls.  You can aim while in cover and holding the trigger to fire means Niko will pop out and shoot at the targeted foes. Weapons are varied, from hand pistols, submachine guns, rifles to RPG’s (yes still as deadly as ever but don’t stand too close to the impact zone!). You can also dodge between cover zones, just like in Gears Of War, so a simple push towards the area and tap the cover button. If the distance is too far for a simple rush, he will roll or slide to get there faster.

The cover system doesn’t need to be used for you to be successful in the game however as the AI progresses later in the game, it certainly helps to keep the life circle higher when under fire from groups of enemies. Whether you use it is entirely up to you, but without cover it gets very difficult. There are always multiple ways to beat missions, just like all the games in the series to this point. It is this freeform style of play that so many gamers adore, and rightly so.

The cops in this game can be fierce, you will not get far by running around the city with a submachine gun, killing everyone in sight. The wanted system has been revised and makes the game so much more fulfilling on many levels. When you first hit the basic wanted level your radar displays the police search parameter. The higher you get on the wanted level the broader this search level expands, the goal to escape the cops is to get out of this search area and lose anyone chasing you. After three stars a police helicopter appears and it proves extremely difficult to shake. Escaping the police proves to be somewhat of an artform in itself. You need to make a break for the right direction, get under cover to lose helicopters, and even change cars. If you get seen at any time during the escape the cop will inform the rest of his squad and the search area alters to reflect this. No longer can you enter pay and spray shops with a policeman on your tail to escape, because if he sees you enter and leave, he will know you are in the car! Four stars and above are absolutely crazy and I won’t divulge the subtle changes to the wanted level in the review as I really do not want to ruin your enjoyment of finding things out for yourself.

GTA IV has a GPS system which is accessed via a dedicated menu system. You can enter a waypoint anywhere on the map, and the mini map shows the path you need to take to reach it. This same system is used within the mission objectives and you will never get lost or wonder what the next task is meant to be.

The driving has also seen a huge update on previous games with the Rockstar RAGE engine making its debut, and if you pair this with the NaturalMotion’s Euphoria engine, the game world is brimming with incredible physic detail.

All the cars handle differently and you can actually see the suspension working as well as the tyres squealing on sharp turns. Not only this, but the passengers in the car affect the cars characteristics. If you have a fat guy in the seat beside you, the car will noticeably dip in his direction and cornering will be affected. Likewise, more people in the rear seats will slow down acceleration and braking dynamics. Nikos body has a full torso system, so when he gets hit on the arm, his body reacts in the right manner. It is extremely hard to explain but once you see it in action you will wonder how you ever played a game without it. On more than one occasion I noticed Niko battling with a steering wheel, trying to force the car in the direction it didn’t want to go, equally so, he will cover his eyes or duck, right before a imminent crash.

The graphic resolution isn’t native 1920×1080 and won’t look as sharp as you would expect on an ultra high end PC, but both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 versions are stunning to look at, and the Natural Motion engine just brings the game into another dimension. There are some texture pop in issues and the game could do with 2-4x Anti Aliasing however it runs much better than I imagined on what is (by today’s high end PC standards) rather mid range console hardware. For the 360 and PS3 to be powering all the physics detail and environmental interactions with so few load times and glitches, is nothing short of miraculous. I am however longing for the day when we see it running on the highest end PC hardware (with an Xbox 360 pad of course!).

Other niceties include effective use of depth of field motion blur, high resolution models on vehicles as well as great ambient lighting, both during the day and night time zones. The explosions are incredible and the water effects are stunning, however I really need to reiterate that all these effects become entirely secondary to the awe inspiring game play throughout the experience.

Playstation 3 owners will be pleased to hear that their version somewhat has the edge when it comes to aliasing issues. The graphics are slightly sharper and due to the hard drive installation system the game loads even faster than the 360. The differences are very minor, however it is nice to note that sometimes the Sony console is capable of delivering cutting edge graphics, in the right hands.

GTA4 even has multiplayer, and you access this via your phone from the single player game, which is a rather ingenious system. When you get into a multiplayer game, the whole city is at your disposal including all the people you see in the single player game. You can share the game with up to 15 people at the same time. Everyone has a great selection of weapons, cards and the whole experience is shared via a party system. There are more than a dozen multiplayer modes with "free mode" being the main option. This is a no rules game and you are dropped into Liberty City with up to 15 people and you can basically do whatever you want.

You have a mind numbing plethora of options, such as turning on/off the police, time of day, traffic flow, weather and the weapons available. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are also available and work very well. Mafiya Work is another fun mode, and all the players receive calls from a Mob Boss who hands out missions via the phones. The first to complete the mission gets the cash. One of my personal favourites is GTA Race, you not only race cars, but you can steal your opponents to finish in whatever fashion you so desire! Cop’s N Crooks is another favourite multiplayer mode, this is broken up into two teams with Police on one side and Thieves on the other. The Cops have to stop the bad guys getting to an extraction point by any means necessary. This is a wicked style of play as teamwork is the key to success. It is extremely fun and addictive and it a great standalone game in its own right.

Cooperative is also catered for in three various ways. These are similar to the single player experience with Niko being omitted however you get cut scenes and various dialogue to add spice to the proceedings. This mode supports up to four players and has only a minor variation between missions. The objective never really changes nor do the locations but you have control over the difficulty as well as traffic density. They are only a moderate distraction when compared to the full on multiplayer modes and single player game.

There are ranked and unranked matches, rated on a 0-10 system. As you progress you unlock new clothing and accessories which personalise your character. It is an interesting idea however it is slightly flawed as many modes will not use your customised character.

So far we have gathered that the single player game is one of the best ever made, however it will come as a shock to many that the multiplayer modes are also some of the best I have experienced and there are so many variations that everyone is almost certain to find a mode that appeals.

Grand Theft Auto 4 is not just a great game, it is a sublime, intricate masterpiece of epic proportions. It has taken a huge leap forward from the days of San Andreas and is utterly worth the wait. It has not only fulfilled the hype, but it has pushed the envelope of 3d gaming to a new level. The city is realistic beyond all expectations and the physics detail is beyond compare. With all these positive aspects it would be safe to assume that there is a chink somewhere in the armour, and I am confident to say that there isn’t. The game is as close to perfection as I have experienced and will last many many months with tons of scope for repeated replay.

If you only buy one game in your life, make sure it is this one …. you have been warned.

Gameplay
100/100

Absolutely mindblowing.

Graphics
99/100

Bringing the console experience to new heights.

Sound
100/100

Over 200 songs with wonderful ambient effects, you can even add your own to the mix.

Value
99/100
Will last for months, then we have downloadable content on the way.
Overall
(not an average)
99/100

The best game I have played, Gaming nirvana.

About Author

Stuart Davidson

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