Grand Theft Auto IV Review

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Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Developer: Rockstar North

Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Reviewed on Xbox 360

The Grand Theft Auto series is a dream made real for the Houser brothers, whose enthusiasm for American culture and individualism has made them millionaires. While the series has been portrayed in the mainstream media as some evil, brain-twisting game that turns children into killers, the reality is that it's an over-the-top, satirical look at American pop culture developed by people in Scotland (Rockstar North). Yes, it's brutal, it's violent, and it's definitely earned its mature ("M") rating. It's also one of the best examples of "games as art" that can be thrown at Roger Ebert, coming as close to an interactive movie as any game has done.

Kevin Rice

Choose Your Own Adventure

While games like Half-Life and Call of Duty are movie-like in their structure, over the course of the game every user experiences a series of scripted events. Yes, you're interacting with the virtual world, but your hand is held the entire time. You must accomplish task X to get to point Y. GTA 4 is the best example of a game where the user is not led by the nose through the game. Instead, the player leads the game through his or her own actions.

Playing as Niko Bellic, you are an illegal Eastern European immigrant who fought in the Balkan War. You've been reading letters from your brother, Roman, and his life in America sounds like a paradise, full of posh housing and plentiful women. Your arrival proves that Roman was fantasizing more than living the American dream, and after a brief introduction, you're basically left on your own to explore the fantastically large, detailed Liberty City, based on New York City.

This is where the GTA series stands apart from all of its clones. Yes, there are missions to complete that advance the storyline (and what a storyline it is), but you're under no pressure to complete them. You're free to wander around, exploring every nook and cranny, eavesdropping on conversations, and yes, stealing cars, trucks, motorcycles, forklifts and nearly everything else with a motor.

The Low-Brow High Road

Like your real life, there are plenty of things to distract you. There are over two hours of fake television to watch, and the radio for which the GTA series is famous has never been more expansive. Perhaps the best part of this is the completely satirical nature of the entire setup. The TV and radio talk shows are laugh-out-loud hilarious and perhaps a little telling: they sound so real that you can actually relate them to things in your life outside the game. They are intentionally exaggerated, but intangibly true. The TV ad for Piswasser beer or the radio ad for baby purchases ("Why mess up your own body?") may seem extreme, but then you listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch late night television and they don't really seem out of place at all.

The GTA series has never been family friendly, and GTA 4 is no exception. The language itself merits the Mature rating (not to mention the intense violence, use of drugs and alcohol, partial nudity, etc.), but it's done here in a manner that is both believable and plausible. It's not violent and full of swearing for the sake of being violent and foul mouthed. Instead, it's part of living in a big, bumbling metropolis full of people more self-centered and self-righteous than Jerry Falwell blaming Katrina on gay people.

Move Along. Nothing to See Here...

You can only wander around the big city (and parts of New Jersey) for so long before the urge to start playing the game proper takes over. Early missions involve the usual suspects: Steal this car, take out that guy, rough up this person for protection money. Each mission is designed to be progressive, giving you more of the wonderfully inventive back-story along with better weapons, cash, etc. There are dating "missions" as well, where if you play your cards right, you'll end up going up to a woman's apartment for some "hot coffee." In hilarious self-mockery, Niko says, "This had better not end up on the internet." And then nasties get bumped (off-screen).

Speaking of the internet, the game includes a surprisingly expansive fake Internet, complete with email spam (lots of it), dating sites, corporate sites, and hidden secrets. You can even do a little research on GTA 4's fake internet to get a few tips about missions before attempting them. You may even end up as content on the fake internet if you play your cards right (or wrong, depending on your point of view). Combined with the radio and TV stations, this pseudo-net only adds to the immersiveness and believability of Liberty City. No other game comes close to this level of detail and perfectionism.

Outside the fake internet, there's an entire city to be explored, and what a city it is. New York natives will no doubt feel quite at home here. It's not a street-level replica of the Big Apple, but all the major monuments are there, albeit renamed and slightly morphed. It's here where your missions take place, and being the huge place it is, it's here you'll probably get lost. The GPS system is nice (and it's a funny, black humor touch that your GPS is talking to you throughout a wild chase and gun fight), but many missions require you to travel long distances before getting to the meat of the action. Fail your mission and you have the option to start it over, but there are no mid-mission saves. This can get frustrating on the particularly difficult missions, but it's certainly not a show stopper.

While there are tons of missions with set goals, how you go about reaching those goals is in your hands. For example, I had a mission where I was supposed to rough up someone and let them know I mean business. I chased them through the streets and eventually ended up on a construction site, several levels up. I was just supposed to "teach him a lesson" as it were, but instead I (accidentally) pushed him through a pane of glass whereby he fell, screaming, to his death. I figured I'd just screwed up the mission and was going to have to start over. Instead, the game said to itself, "OK. You did it that way," and moved on. You are leading the game through itself, not the other way around.

Virtual Interaction

Nearly everyone you meet is a believable representation of a real person, although a few holes shine through. While the voice acting (and audio in general) is superb, the reactions you get from various people are a tad askew. There's no way Rockstar can account for every possible situation, and 90% of the time, they nail it. For example, if you fail a mission and then retry it, the conversation the second time around will often be different from the first time. Everyone speaks in a believable, if sometimes hard to understand, accent as well. (Turn on the subtitles!)

But some things don't make sense. You can pick up your girlfriend in six different cars (or even a helicopter if you want to), and she doesn't blink twice. Get in a minor accident and she freaks out like you just ran over her dog. Then on the next date (yes, there's a next date), there's a complete case of amnesia and all is good with the world. While most interactions you have with people depend on your previous actions, sometimes it doesn't add up right. For example, you often have the option of killing a bad guy or letting him go, and that decision affects the rest of the game in how people think of you, interact with you, etc. But sometimes, two completely opposite actions have the same result. With a world this real and interactive, it's a minor quibble, but because GTA 4 is otherwise so complete, such jarring results stands out when they happen.

Throughout the 30-40 hours it will take you to complete the missions (if all you do is follow every mission), you'll notice the insane amount of thought and detail that went into your personal sandbox. You don't have to look at the map to know you've gone from a projects neighborhood to a wealthy one; it's self evident. You don't have to look at who you're talking with; you can tell by their voice. There are over 1,000 pages of scripted dialog, over 1,000 people helped make the game, and it reportedly cost around $100 million to make it. And it shows. The well documented verbal tirades and 20 hour days of the Rockstar staff are on display, and their demands for nothing short of perfection have made what is the most interactive, enjoyable, visceral virtual reality ever seen in a game.

Bring Your Friends

Because the single player game isn't enough, there's a full online component that allows for both cooperative and competitive play. While the competitive play is fun, it takes the right people to make it fun. In most cases, the whole city can be used, which is awful for those that aren't familiar with their surroundings. You'll all start at point X, but two minutes in, you may never see another human player.

There are a ton of options for setting up the online game, including city boundaries. Tighter boundaries alleviate the "way too big" issue (especially with a limit of 16 people). Hosts are free to set up whatever rules they want, and this can make for some fantastic games. Races, in particular, are devious. While the object may be to cross the finish line first, how you get there is up to you. This allows for limitless options, as many players are content to make sure you don't ever cross the finish line. You can start off on foot, steal a bus, and then put that bus parallel to the finish line. Watch the crashing ensue. It's fun, fun stuff, although it's far better with a group of friends. When you see how your friends act with complete freedom, it can be extremely telling.

It's Only Starting

GTA 4's sprawling cityscape and enormous variety of options and possibilities are the virtual tip of the iceberg. The game has already proved to be wildly popular (approximately 3.6 million copies sold on day one, breaking records everywhere), and for Xbox 360 owners, downloadable content will expand on what is already a virtual universe of things to do.

Even without the online component or the future downloadable content, the world of GTA 4 is so sprawling and immersive that most gamers will probably never reach the "100% complete" mark. You can complete all the missions and still be in the 60 percentile range. (Those damn pigeons are a pain to find.)

GTA 4 succeeds where so many other games have failed. While plenty of other games have been very interactive and engaging, nothing touches GTA 4 when it comes to immersiveness and believability. And, unlike most other games, players will not experience the same game twice. Even replaying the same mission twice will produce different results. We all experienced that great sniper level in Call of Duty 4, but in approximately the same way. In GTA 4, you could probably forego the rifle altogether and bitch-slap the guy. And that's what makes it so great.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on May 7, 2008 10:40 AM.

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