In your first several hours with Grand Theft Auto IV, it's easy to want to approach it with a checklist of expectations and start comparing it to what you think a "next-generation" Grand Theft Auto game should be.
- New carjacking animations? Check.
- Improved gunplay? Check.
- GPS on the map? Check.
- Corny-yet-still-somehow-funny jokes? Check.
It's natural to want to take that sort of clinical approach to a sequel, but as I moved through Liberty City and became more entrenched in its story, that stuff simply ceased to matter. At that point, and for the rest of the game, the only thing that mattered to me was Niko Bellic, the game's protagonist. Is he going to survive this time? Are his new-found friends going to make it out alive? Will he ever find what he's looking for, and will finding "that special someone" bring him the inner peace he needs? How did every single person he encounters end up so psychologically damaged?
That psychological side to the game translates into characters talking about how they feel, and about what they're going through. It's extremely well-written and made a serious impact on me. This isn't the carefree killing-and-carjacking romp you might have expected. The way the characters act made each life harder and harder to take until I found myself rooting for Niko, hoping that he'd find what he was looking for and finally get some peace. Of course, once you've gone on a crime-spree that has you working for just about every different criminal in Liberty City, getting out unscathed simply isn't an option.
To say too much more about the specifics of the story would start to detract from your own personal enjoyment of discovering it for yourself. It made a serious personal impact on me, and there were some plot twists that simply made me stop playing for a few hours because it started to hit a little too close to home and started reminding me of people in my own life. Seeing these virtual lives getting torn apart by heroin addiction, depression, or forces beyond anyone's control made an emotional dent on me that no other game has done before. That makes being the man in charge of who lives and who dies even tougher. Later in the game, you'll start to make very tough decisions, where you'll have to kill one of the people you've been working for at the request of the other. By that time, I was so invested in these characters that the choice felt like much more than pushing a button on a game controller.
Though you'll make choices at critical points in the game, the impact on the overall plot is mostly minimal. One choice you make near the game's conclusion makes the most impact of any of Niko's decisions, and the choice you make here determines how some of the final missions go, leading to one of two possible endings.
One last thing about the way the story and characters play out: unlike most GTA leads, Niko is no pushover. He's got a sharp, sarcastic tongue and he doesn't just mindlessly follow whoever is giving the orders. This helps acknowledge the insanity that's going on around him and makes him a likable character. Yes, he's out there doing horrible things, but he's not doing it to run some Tommy Vercetti-like empire. He's doing it to survive and to hopefully find some closure along the way.
So if you've read this far, you've probably figured out that this is a much darker game than the previous GTA games. Though the tone borders on nihilistic at points, the game is still filled with a bunch of lighthearted humor that exists at the periphery. The game still has a bevy of radio stations, each with its own DJs and commercials that make all kinds of jokes at the expense of American society or the culture of New York City. You can also watch TV in many of your safehouses, and there's a collection of shows there that also provide the same type of humor. News is delivered by the Fox News-like Weazel News, which provides a slanted view of the things happening around town, calling almost everything that occurs a "terrorist threat." The tone of the humor is exactly what you'd expect from the series, though the modern setting makes that humor feel a little more biting. Either way, this time around it also serves the purpose of preventing things from getting too dark and serious. It makes for a nice balance.
The majority of things you associate with Grand Theft Auto's gameplay haven't changed too much in GTA IV, though many of the familiar things you expect to see in a GTA game have been refined a bit. Combat, both armed and unarmed, is probably the biggest overhaul. When unarmed, you have two punches and a kick, as well as the ability to block and counter when necessary. But more often than not, you're going to be strapped with a melee weapon or a gun of some kind. The game now has a cover system, letting you stick to walls and other objects, blind fire, and pop out to take a few aimed shots before getting back behind cover. This addition alone makes shooting much easier to deal with than it's been in the past. The game's lock-on targetting has also been tweaked. Overall, most of the people who have had serious complaints about the way GTA handles shooting shouldn't find much to complain about this time around. If anything, it makes things a little <em>too</em> easy, as popping off headshots is a breeze now.
The bulk of the story is spent with you approaching mission start points, which triggers a cutscene to set up the mission. Then you're off on your task. The things you do in GTA IV aren't dramatically different from what you've seen in previous games, but it feels a lot more grounded in reality this time. You aren't learning how to use a jetpack, or helping someone take over the music biz or anything like that. Instead, you're overseeing diamond heists, shaking down people for protection money, or following gangsters back to their bosses so you can clean them all out at the same time. Throw in some dirty cops, some New York crime families, a shadowy government agent, and a whole lot of Russian mobsters, and you've got a lot of work to do. Failing missions is no big deal, either, because you can easily warp back to the start of a mission after you fail, die, or get arrested. Also, you don't lose all your weapons when you fail, so the time it takes to get going again is pretty minimal.
But what if you need some more firepower before taking on the next mission? You're given access to underground gun shops, but it's even easier to get in good with Little Jacob, the friendly neighborhood rasta/dope dealer/gun seller. If you're friendly with him, you can give him a ring on your cell phone and he'll roll through with a trunk full of toys at discounted prices. That's one of the many benefits of maintaining friendships in GTA IV.
While you can date girls with mostly-predictable results, you can also cultivate friendships with a handful of the guys you meet throughout the game. You'll occasionally get phone calls from them, wanting to hang out, or you can initiate a play date with your dudes with a call of your own. You can visit strip clubs, go out drinking, play darts, go bowling, take in a set at the local comedy club, play pool, and so on. Getting to know these characters a bit more makes them seem a little more human, and you get some real insight into some of the characters' stories, as well. Or maybe you just want to keep hanging out with Brucie, the genetically jacked steroid monkey who loves cars, VIPs, staying alpha, and "putting bitches to the sword." If you and Brucie become close buds, he'll hook you up with a helicopter. The other bonuses, such as being able to call a cab that will take you anywhere in the city for free, or the ability to rig cars with explosives, certainly make things easier for you.
In addition to all the single-player stuff you can do, the game also has an online side that lets up to 16 players join in a variety of modes. Most of them seem fairly standard, like team deathmatch, a pair of racing modes, and an objective-based mode where one team of thugs tries to escape while a team of cops tries to take them down. There are also a few co-op modes for up to four players, but calling these "modes" is a bit of a stretch. They're more like individual missions that you can play again and again. They're fun, but they feel like a tease because there are only a few of them and they don't change much, so once you get good at them, they're a breeze. All they do is make me wish that the game had a larger co-operative component to it, because they're probably the most interesting part of the multiplayer mode. There's also a free mode that lets you and 15 other players run around the city with no real objective, which can be fun if you just want to screw around.
Getting into and out of the multiplayer mode is done via your in-game cell phone. It's a pretty slick integration, but it's not without its issues. For example, if you run into any network trouble and can't join a match, you're kicked back to your single-player game, where you have to pull up the phone and try again. If you set up a game and realize you want to change modes, you have to quit all the way back to your single-player game and try again. Switching to some kind of multiplayer menu once you get into the multiplayer side of the game would work better.
All of this stuff is put together into a great-looking package. Liberty City really comes alive in GTA IV, thanks to some terrific building design. The environment looks rich and realistic, and makes the GTA III-era Liberty City look like a bunch of flat facades by comparison. The visual quality also really helps in the cutscenes, because the facial expressions of the characters can effectively convey emotion as they deliver lines, which helps give the story its impact. Animation-wise, the characters move well and there are lots of little touches, such as the over-the-top stumbling that Niko and friends do when they've been drinking, that help make the game look great. The frame rate is mostly stable and it runs at a playable speed, provided you aren't getting too crazy. When piling cars together in an attempt to make a huge explosion, I managed to get the frame rate down into what looked like single digits. Also, the game doesn't always convey a great sense of speed. When you're in the faster cars, the whole game seems to skip along, rather than giving you a fast, smooth look at the world. It never gets so choppy that you can't handle your vehicle, but it's very noticeable, especially on the 360.
The game is backed by some terrific audio, from character voices to the soundtrack, to the sounds around you. Niko's footsteps are especially well-done. They'll echo off nearby buildings if you're running across a quiet street, and they'll generally reflect the surface you're running on--like the metal walkways of a cargo ship, for example--really well. The gunfire sounds great, car engines are appropriate, and plenty of pedestrian dialogue helps make the city feel complete.
The soundtrack is, once again, all over the place, with enough variety to keep you hearing new things for quite a long time, provided you're open to scanning around the radio dial a bit. At some point during my time with the game, I discovered that I sort of like dance hall. Weird! The DJs, commercials, and talk radio stations are great, and deliver the perfect level of ridiculous satire mixed with dick jokes.
This is the first time in a long time that a GTA game has debuted on multiple platforms, and of course, people are going bananas trying to dissect every little difference they can. From my time with both versions, I found the PS3 version to run a little smoother, though neither version is immune to drops in the frame rate when things get crazy. The PS3 version installs up front and seems to load and stream a little better as a result. The 360 version's loading and streaming is entirely dependent on the quality of your hardware's DVD drive. On one system, I had no problems, the loading seemed perfectly snappy, and it generally wasn't a thing. On the Xbox 360 Elite I have at home, though, I could hear the disc thrashing about as it tried to load, and occasionally objects and roads would appear a second or two too late, causing me to ram my car into invisible objects, in one case. Thankfully, I had another 360 at my disposal, but if your drive is already a little iffy, just know that you might run into some occasional streaming issues.
Of course, the 360 version has achievements and will apparently have downloadable content down the line, so if I were choosing, that's the direction I'd lean in. But the story is just as great on both platforms, and you really can't lose either way.
It was difficult to anticipate how Grand Theft Auto IV would turn out, given the way that the whole "open-world game" thing is being done to death across as many different games and settings as possible. Rather than try to out-do the Crackdowns and the Saints Rows of the world with bigger land masses and more missions, Rockstar went the other way, and managed to craft an amazingly impactful story and weave it into an open-world game in an incredibly meaningful way--all without losing the heart and soul of what makes Grand Theft Auto so popular in the first place. The end result is absolutely masterful and absolutely worth your time and money.