Saturday, May 31, 2008

Liberty City = America's New Playground... The Grand Theft Auto IV review

If anyone were to sum up gaming this decade, they would think of three words: Grand Theft Auto. These games that started with GTA III ushered a new era because of its open-world game design and pushed violence to a whole new level due to the amount of freedom provided. While some would say the series started to get a little stale, Grand Theft Auto IV is now the pinnacle of the series and open world gaming. Those who thought Rockstar Games could not top themselves after San Andreas, think again because GTA IV is the complete package with perhaps the best stories told in gaming, major improvements in gameplay, impressive graphics, amazing sound, and a multiplayer component that does not feel rushed. Grand Theft Auto IV is arguably my favorite game of all-time and why games are here to stay on our society today.

Grand Theft Auto IV returns to Liberty City, but redesigned for the current generation of games. The protagonist is Niko Bellic, an immigrant who was promised the American Dream by his cousin, Roman, with the money and the women. That promise did not come to fruition from the outset of the game and Niko's purpose in Liberty City becomes more personal and a revenge tale because his past is revisited. Rockstar's storytelling in GTA4 is more real and personal as previous games as you get an emotional attachment to Niko because you want him to succeed rather than be screwed. Of course, you run into a mix mash of wild personalities such as Little Jacob, the Jamaican you probably not understand what he is saying, Brucie, the genetically stacked dude that is hyped about exercise and cars, to various folks in the mafia. As the game progresses, Niko will face some tough decisions that are crucial to the overall flow of the game as well as leading towards different endings. These choices are sometimes hard to make because of that emotional attachment especially when deciding to kill one important character or another. These types of moments make GTA4's story shine to something special that can also lead to multiple playthroughs to experience the other side of a decision you made previously.

The overall gameplay in GTA IV is significantly improved to previous games especially when it was being heavily flawed by San Andreas. The gunplay received a major overhaul with the new cover system. Aiming still has lock-on, but you can switch to free-aim for a better opportunity for better shots. The cover system does make the shooting elements more of a stop and pop game as seen in Gears in War, which is heavily noticed in the single-player, but it is not a huge factor when it comes to multiplayer. Melee is also improved with a counter system that requires perfect timing to master, but the offensive maneuvers are not as deep as San Andreas's multiple styles system. Speaking of San Andreas, the experience system is removed so you don't need to worry about bad aiming or sprinting. Stealing cars (as well as bikes, boats, and helicopters) is still as easy as in previous games, but stealing locked cars is even cooler when Niko breaks the glass to open up the car and then starting it up by simply holding the accelerate button. The wanted level system also received major changes this time around as the cops will tend to start a perimeter within a circle (the size of that depends on how many wanted stars you have). While it is easier to escape the police because of that circle, the cops can still give a fight especially at three or more stars. While you don't really get a wanted star for speeding or running red lights, the cops tend to get picky like passing a toll booth without paying, stealing a car in front of them, and killing a set of cops can be an easy three stars. There are other many improvements to the overall gameplay of GTA IV as most of them are minor as they cater to more serious players and fans of the series.

The mission structure in Grand Theft Auto IV remains the same of going to mission contacts, watch a cutscene filled with amazing voice acting, and then doing the task (Two of the major islands are locked from the outset). Your cell phone is your best friend in this game calling up friends, getting calls from mission contacts, and taking photos. These missions follow the pattern of previous games of starting to slow and then ramps up as you get better weapons. Of course, there will be the epic missions of robbing a bank, long shootouts thanks to the cover system, and longer car chases (that might be too scripted for some of driving through narrow alleys and traffic accidents. The new autosave system is a relief for series veterans after finishing a mission rather than getting wasted or busted before saving at a hideout. Speaking of getting wasted and busted, you do not lose your valuable weapons if you die, but getting busted by the cops will along with the usual money penalty. Some of the major storyline missions start right away after completing some other ones, which is a relief that an autosave system is there.

Other than the campaign missions, there are plenty of side quests and activities to be completed throughout Liberty City. Most of these provide good distractions from the main storyline if you feel like not continuing the story right away and enjoy Liberty City as a whole. The side quests range from working for the police to hunt down the most wanted criminals, stealing specific cars for someone, being a hired assassin, driving in races throughout the city, and doing random character missions. The other element of activities are the management of relationships with some of the major characters and girlfriends. The variety of activities to take these people out to are astounding such as eating a simple meal, getting drunk, watching a stand up comedy show, getting lapdances at a strip club, or play various games like pool, darts, and bowling. Taking to specific locations will factor in to the relationship or whether or not they like it or not. Another factor is Niko's clothing, in which you can dress up him up to various styles of clothing like suits and street clothes. Then there are the collectable aspect of the activities which make a return in with the unique stunt jumps and the flying rats, GTA IV's version of hidden packages. These can be hard to find, but those who driven to 100% the game, it may take a while to get everything done.

If you're tired of being Niko in Liberty City, there is the multiplayer to mess with, which is a first in a console GTA (San Andreas had minimal co-op so it doesn't count in my book). Even though you have to play the single-player a little bit (not much) to unlock it, the multiplayer is surprisingly impressive and does not feel like a rush job as seen in other games. Once you create a character for multiplayer, you can cruise around Liberty City (all of it) with friends or random people online or test your skills in the various multiplayer modes. There is an amazing amount of variety of multiplayer modes in GTA IV ranging from deathmatch, races, Mafiya Work, Car Jack City, Turf War, Cops & Crooks, and some co-op missions. While kills matter in most of these modes, the most money decides the victor of these modes. Deathmatch (also can be played in teams) is what to expect from other shooters with respawn. Races are divided to normal races and GTA races, which it is a race with weapons added to the mix. Multiplayer races are not really that great especially in ranked matches when pile-ups are expected to happen at the first turn while GTA races have more opportunities to screw up your opponents. Mafiya Work and Car Jack City are objective based modes and also can be played with teams. Cops & Crooks is what it is with one team being the crooks trying to escape while the cops try to stop them. Turf War is another objective based mode of gathering the most money by holding on to as much posts as long as possible. Grand Theft Auto IV's multiplayer is filled with many modes and it is fun enough to be played for weeks and even months.

The graphics in Grand Theft Auto IV are definitely impressive for the amount of detail Liberty City has. While it is not as jaw dropping compared to other games this generation, GTA IV can hold its own being a good looking game. The major change to more real characters than cartoony ones seen in previous games is a great choice bringing out more emotion and charm from the characters. There are also a good amount of civilians throughout Liberty City and the amount of cars in traffic at the Triangle, the game's version of Times Square, is as accurate seen in the real New York City which makes the city seem more real and lively than it should be. The minor grip with the graphics is that there are instances of texture pop-in at various spots and rare cases of slowdown when things get way chaotic. The loading is kept down to a minimum with quick load screens between cutscenes. The city itself looks beautiful and the various engines of graphics and physics combined together is a technical feat for today's standards. The vehicles themselves look great along with the water effects and explosions. The weather effects are also impressive with the rain and sun effects with the glare not being a distraction like it was in San Andreas. While the graphics in GTA IV are not the best in this generation of consoles, the style and amount of detail makes it a good-looking game.

Rockstar delivers again in the sound department as well. The voice acting is among the best in gaming today with unknown voice talents now being known for being a certain character in this game. Niko's voice acting is perhaps the best I heard in all of gaming today. Other characters do shine with their voices thanks to their personalities. The amount of celebrities in this game are not much like Katt Williams doing stand-up comedy and various DJs on the radio stations. The music in GTA IV is another impressive list of old and new fitting in to the New York lifestyle. The mix of musical genres is astounding from rock, R&B, disco, reggaeton, hip-hop, and disco. Some of my personal favorites are the amount of today's music in the game like Kanye West's "Flashing Lights." Ne-Yo's "Because of You," and more. Most of these songs provide great, epic, and awkward moments during car chases in terms of sarcasm pending on which song is played. The other sound effects also sound impressive with the weapons sounding like weapons, rain being rain, and cars sounding like cars pending on how fast they go.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a representation of why gamers love video games, and the evolution of open world gaming in terms of story and gameplay. All the hype and the delays was worth it as this game delivers on what it promised. It is a great looking game and sounds great living up to the series' standards. Niko Bellic is the best protagonist Rockstar has put together in a GTA game being more real and emotional than previous protagonists in the series. The main storyline takes about 30 hours to beat especially if you are going for the "Liberty City Minute" achievement on the 360 version, but it can take longer because of all of the side quests and activities to do in Liberty City. The multiplayer is surprisingly good and addictive with the amount of variety in the modes. With downloadable episodes on the way this fall on the 360 version, Grand Theft Auto IV has legs to be a game you won't stop playing months or even years for now. As a complete gaming package, GTA IV is among one of the best games put together in a while. Liberty City is indeed America's new playground.

Score = 10/10

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

MAJOR Xbox Live connection issues:(