"This isn’t the GTA I “know and love.” It’s a new GTA, one that I know better and love more dearly."
I’m trying to remember if there was a single mission in Grand Theft Auto IV I didn’t enjoy. The game’s opening moments are understandably slow, as the process of being introduced to a brand new GTA city is always an overwhelming one, and Rockstar wants to get us off on the right foot. (And yes, this remodeled Liberty City counts as “new.”) The first mission that really stuck in my mind was only a few hours in, when I had to meet an accomplice at an old warehouse with only my reliable Jamaican buddy Little Jacob to guard my back. The conversation takes a deadly turn and Jacob and I wound up shooting through at least a dozen thugs, all of them taking cover and popping blind shots with SMGs, a few smart ones climbing up to the second floor and sneaking a few hits in from there. The encounter is arguably more direct and intense than any firefight we’ve experienced before in a GTA game, and yet it’s only the start of what you’ll find in GTA IV.
I don’t think I can name a single mission that preceded the warehouse scene, but I could probably describe, in great detail, nearly any assignment that followed. Before this moment, GTA IV feels like just another nameless open-world adventure the likes of which we’ve seen constantly since… well, since GTA III hit the scene seven years ago. But afterwards, the guys at Rockstar remind us at every possible moment that they were the ones who made this whole “open world” thing popular to begin with, and damn it, they’re still the best at it. This isn’t the GTA I “know and love.” It’s a new GTA, one that I know better and love more dearly.
I raided a construction site: First I took a window cleaner lift to the top of a skyscraper to snipe a couple of guards situated on tower cranes, then I descended back to ground level and worked my way through hordes of machine gun-toting construction workers just in time to take out my target before he had a chance to board his getaway helicopter. I participated in a drug deal: My contact turned out to be an undercover cop, and I found myself being chased across a rooftop by armored, helmeted LCPD troops. I went undercover: A target was injured and in a hospital, so I donned some scrubs, paid him a visit, put a bullet in his head, and shot through every single fed protecting him on my way back out of the facility. I participated in a bank heist, pursued a pair of bikers through a subway system, kidnapped a woman, and survived more gunfights and car chases than I care to admit.
I could go on and on. In fact, I will.
Once GTA IV gets to the good stuff (and that doesn’t take long), it’s one of those games that just keeps on giving, partly because there’s such an overwhelming amount of content here, and partly because it’s all so much gosh darn fun. You can thank Rockstar for finally fixing one of the key issues that has plagued this series for so long and finally incorporating a targeting system that functions, and functions well. In addition to being able to switch between lock-on and free-aim with the right amount of pressure applied to the trigger, Rockstar has given players the ability to take cover behind any wall or obstacle, just like in Gears of War (or Mass Effect or Dark Sector or any of the other countless games that have imitated this). Once you’ve taken cover, you can emerge and fire at your will, and survival in intense stand-offs will often be determined by careful use of this new mechanic.
Due to the sporadic nature of gunplay in past GTA games, any kind of intense combat often had an element of randomness to it, a certain “close your eyes and hope for the best” feeling that made me uneasy. Not so in GTA IV. Now that players have more control over where they’re aiming and can take cover whenever they need to, gunfights are actually enjoyable. Rockstar must have known this, because GTA IV has more straight-up gunfire than I can recall in any other GTA game in the past. Before, Rockstar often got into the habit of offering goofier, more “experimental” mission objectives. (Just an example: The one in Vice City where you had to pilot the toy helicopter through a building under construction to drop dynamite on key locations.) In GTA IV, there’s no fooling around. You’d think all this non-stop gunplay would run the danger of getting old, yet every encounter offers so many possibilities that’s it’s difficult to get bored.
But improvements have been made in other areas as well, most notably the story, which feels more personal than anything Rockstar has presented in the past. Our hero is Niko Bellic, an Eastern European (read: Russian) immigrant who has come to Liberty City to shed the problems of his past and eke out a new living in the Land of Opportunity. His cousin Roman (who’s a bastard, but a lovable bastard) is an optimist, and sees his crappy career and ramshackle apartment as only necessary evils in what will surely be a wonderful new life. Niko, on the other hand, doesn’t see what’s so great about America and regrets his newfound lowlife status – and that’s precisely what sets him apart from any other GTA protagonist. Aside from being a genuinely likeable character (though a smart script and cinema-quality voice acting), he’s the game’s moral center, the guy who reminds you that as much fun as you’re having, you’re still hijacking cars and killing innocent people. Once details finally emerge about Niko’s real reasons for coming to the States, I could certainly work up the energy to care.
He doesn’t seem too fond of Liberty City, though, and that’s where we divide, because for my money GTA IV features the most convincing and lifelike environment ever seen in a video game to date. There was a time when the locales of GTA games past – Vice City, San Andreas, and the old Liberty City – represented the pinnacle of open world design. Now, they seem like nondescript LEGO towns by comparison, for the artists at Rockstar have raised the bar once more, creating, from the ground up, an environment that literally feels like a real-life location recreated in virtual form. Half the fun of GTA IV is simply exploring the place and admiring the detail that went into its construction.
This is new: Whenever you’re driving to one of your objectives in GTA IV, you’ll have a GPS with you, and the radar at the bottom of the screen will actually highlight the fastest legal route to your destination. I recommend you turn this feature off. Progress will be slower at first, but you’ll learn the streets more quickly when you’re forced to navigate them on your own. By the time I’d reached the thirty-hour mark, I realized I knew the in-game city better than the one I live in. I kid you not.
There are numerous other new features as well, including a cell phone (which makes contacting NPCs easy), an internet, and an improved cop alert system, which allows you to drop your wanted level by staying out of a specified search radius for a given period of time. Not all of the new stuff gets a warm welcome, though. You now have the ability to make in-game friends and get together with them for a couple of mildly diverting mini-games, like bowling or pool. The trouble is that these activities get old fast, and if you choose to ignore them, you’ll still be subject to annoying (and constant) calls from nagging friends inviting you to hang out. The guys at Rockstar were evidently so proud of this development that they decided to remind you about it every minute or so. In truth, the friend system is halfhearted and not worth the attention Rockstar wants you to provide it with.
And while I’m on the subject of the game’s shortcomings, why does Rockstar still insist that an auto-centering camera is a good idea? And why is the main character still incapable of making a sharp turn?
I’m so in awe of all the things GTA IV does to propel the series in a new direction that it makes it all the more frustrating that they still haven’t ironed out a lot of the little issues that have been evident since GTA III. In fact… Aha! I remember a mission I didn’t like! The street race. I always hated those marker-based street races in all of the other GTA games, and they snuck one in here, too! The truth is that this series has never been perfect, and – despite what some alarmingly high reviews from other sources might tell you – GTA IV ain’t perfect, either. But it’s a step in the right direction, and at this point, perfection isn’t too far away.
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