Grand Theft Auto IV X360 Review
It's finally here, folks. Three-plus years after the release of San Andreas, Rockstar has delivered the next Grand Theft Auto. But for some reason, simply calling it the fourth game (even if it's actually the sixth) just doesn't do justice to how much different this game is from the last three. This time, the world is much more alive, and it's brought to life but a stunning cast of characters, insanely fun missions, great Hollywood moments, and hundreds and hundreds of little touches that will have you reaffirming your love for Rockstar Games' supreme talent and imagination.
In Grand Theft Auto IV you play as Niko Bellic, a man in his 30s who has come to the US to follow the stories of fortune from his cousin Roman. But once he arrives, he quickly finds out that he's been lied to: Roman's not rich, there's no mansion, and he owes some very dangerous people a lot of money. Luckily, Niko is experienced with a dangerous underground. He learned how to fight back in Eastern Europe, and now his challenge is learning the rules and attitudes of America. He's not the psychopath that Vice City's Tommy Vercetti was, so his cooler head prevails at least most of the time. And unlike Carl from San Andreas, he holds no vestigal loyalty to a backstabbing, nearly-useless gang. Even though Niko's a foreigner, I think his situation will connect with gamers a little better than Rockstar's past protagonists.
At its core, GTAIV isn't that terribly different from the past games: you find targets, take them out, race, fight, defend yourself, drive (a lot), make money, and complete main story missions to advance the plot. There are of course dozens of side missions for perks and cash, and then there's the always-fun opportunity for you to just run or drive around, killing people randomly and going on a spree to see how many cops you can take out before they gun you down.
The basic mission types are pretty much the same, but the way you do them feels so much better than in past games. For example, a bank heist turns into an incredible Heat-style shootout in the streets of Liberty City's Chinatown, while car chases look and feel more like their Hollywood counterparts than you might expect. So it will feel familiar, but with Niko being able to hop over things correctly, get cover behind cars and obstacles, climb short obstacles, drive and shoot simultaneously, and fight with more dexterity than the rather wooden-feeling characters of GTA yesteryear, Rockstar has been able to revisit some of their older mission designs in much more entertaining and better-looking ways.
Both the shooting and driving have been improved greatly in GTAIV. You can easily duck behind cover and either manually aim or use the old lock-on system for targeting - just pull weakly on the left trigger to free-aim, or pull hard to lock on to the most dangerous target in front of you. I know that for some, the mere mention of a lock-on system will trigger a cringe, but really, it's not nearly as useless or obnoxious as in past GTA games. The reason why is that you still need to pinpoint exposed or vital body sections with the right stick, as your enemies will be using cover as well. This makes it so that you can really pump out the kills by locking on, but still need to use the stick and a bit of aiming skill to take people out efficiently.
Vehicles look and act more realistic now, as the suspension sways in more lifelike ways and you can go out of control for more of the "right" reasons than the wrong ones. It feels more like Project Gotham Racing's mix of realism and simulation than it did in the past, although you will only truly feel it in the faster cars. Overall, the driving controls still aren't as good as in racing games, the mini-game controls aren't quite like holding a Wii Remote, and the shooting controls aren't as tight as in shooters, but this game branches so many of those genres simultaneously that it's certainly forgivable.
As you roam around LC, you'll find that the game does an excellent job of making sure you don't get lost. Your way is not just shown through a mini-map, but also laid out with full GPS-style navigation that shows the fastest route to your destination - in some cars, you even get the voice telling you where to turn. And while airplanes, parachutes, tanks, jetpacks, and bicycles are gone, I don't think you'll really miss them that much, especially after you get into the game and try out the vehicles that made it back this time around. And to name them: a full variety of cars, trucks, boats, motorcycles, police vehicles, and helicopters are all included, and they all work better than ever.
The graphics in GTAIV are incredible - not so much in the way of high texture quality, as there are still rough spots in quite a few places - but in the attention to detail laid out in the whole of Liberty City. There are beautiful weather, lighting, and reflection effects, litter on the streets, great shadows under the elevated train tracks, smooth-looking cars and good-looking pedestrians everywhere. And there are hundreds if not thousands of impressive little things that make Liberty City feel like a very realistic but twisted version of New York City.
As far as the characters go, the whole cast is caught up with the technology as well: they show real emotion on their faces and don't have to gesticulate wildly like in past GTA games just to show they're fired up. The lip synching, character animations, great dialogue, and seemingly endless amount of voice acting are all top notch. The excellent Euphoria animation system allows characters to run up and down steps correctly, walk over uneven terrain (and dead bodies!) realistically, and fall and die in ways that go beyond just plain ragdoll physics. Don't be surprised if the person you carjack runs up and grabs onto the door handle right as you take off, choosing to be dragged as you speed up rather than letting their vehicle go.
Liberty City is quite a bit smaller in square mileage than the landmass of San Andreas, but there's so much more detail packed in and just as much playtime overall. It's laid out in five districts, all of which are somewhat analogous to their real-life NYC counterparts: Broker, Dukes, Bohan, Algonquin and Alderney match up with Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and northern New Jersey respectively. All of the city is delivered via streaming technology that works better than what we got on the old PS2 iterations. That's not to say that the game is always running perfectly, as sometimes you'll find brief, mild frame rate issues and medium-distance buildings and things popping up when traveling around, but it won't get too severe to screw up gameplay.
There are many new non-mission things to do in LC. Most of the stuff from the previous three games is here, and I didn't miss what didn't make it back. You can hit up a soda machine, hot dog stand, or diner to buy food and fill your health up. You can send positive or negative responses to emails Niko receives and overhear funny cell phone conversations on the street. You can watch a few channels on TV, take a cab ride from a first-person view to just see the city, and play an arcade puzzle game called Qubed. You can use your cell to call 911 for an ambulance, a fire truck, or the cops - you can even use the latter option to your advantage in firefights that spill into the streets. The new wanted system with its circular canvas areas is more sensible but also makes two to four stars easier to escape than before.
One of the best parts of GTAIV is that there are so many things that can happen that no one can predict. You'll have many of these laugh-out-loud moments in your first few hours of play, but then you'll start getting creative. Pick up your date in a city bus and she'll sit in the seat behind you. Fire a rocket launcher from behind cover without even looking. Get an Achievement for making three triple-20s in Darts. Bump into some guy's car, causing him to come over and try to pull you out of yours and fight you, and having your leisurely drive snowball into a massive, ridiculous bender that ends up with your motorcycle crashing into a taxi minivan in mid-air - with three wanted stars' worth of cops in pursuit - as Niko flies end over end off of a long drop and into the water below. (Then a speedboat runs over you.)
More? You got it. Try taking a garbage truck to the car wash. Trick police into shooting the gas tanks of their own cars, causing a massive chain reaction of explosions that takes out a whole traffic jam. Jump off Rockstar's version of the Empire State Building and break a lamppost in two with your body just before you crater on the ground. Simulate this video with 90% accuracy. Whack a crime boss and call his house to listen to his grieving wife's tearful answering machine greeting. Try and find a building that looks identical to any other building in the whole city (I spent an hour or so doing this with no luck). Snipe pigeons. Scream at a cab driver while in a drunken stupor, trip over your own feet, and run into an old lady, knocking both of you to the pavement.
Bas Rutten's on the TV as some kind of unknown character, yelling about something that doesn't really make any sense. (There are more celebrity cameos in the game, but I haven't found them all yet.) Just before your phone rings, you'll hear that signature interference on a car's radio that many GSM-type phones cause in other electronics. And drunk driving may wind up a massive controversy for Rockstar and publisher Take Two all on its own, but I dare say that it was actually a lot of fun to try and do it without crashing horribly everywhere. And when it comes to taking an Apache-like attack copter into Rockstar's version of Times Square, well, let's just say that driving around and shooting cops can hardly be called a rampage anymore.
Niko is no slouch when it comes to using technology of his own. Rockstar has put together a fake internet that Niko can jump on, which is surprisingly full of things to do, and it has its own versions of things like spam, popups, and popular sites like Craigslist. Very early in the game he'll also get a cell phone which he can use on foot or in the car to bring up various features, like GPS, messaging, and eventually, a camera. The biggest part is setting up various good times with both his buddies and with potential dates. The idea of having a phone has been flirted with in other games, but GTAIV dives right in and it's incredible. There's also the Social Club website that Rockstar set up - on the real internet, that is - which will give you a personal account for your gamertag and let you track and compare your exploits in Liberty City to obsessive levels of detail. Unfortunately, you can't record or share videos of your gameplay like in last year's skate or Halo 3. If there was one feature I wish would just magically appear in GTAIV, that'd probably be it.
As far as the activities Niko can do, he can set up a date or go out with his buddies - that leads to going bowling, throwing darts, playing pool, heading to a bar, or hitting cabernet clubs or comedy shows. Instead of working out at the gym like CJ did, Niko builds relationships with the people he knows by going out for a night on the town and his friends can set him up with some interesting perks. Spending the time in the mini-games building these relationships still feels a little like work, but I had a blast with it anyway - mostly because the game and its characters just ooze charm during these bits.
One of my favorite new things with the story is the amount of choice that is given to Niko. At times in the game's storyline, you'll have to choose who lives and who dies. These aren't just peons in the story, either; these are fleshed-out characters with stories and personalities, so making the call is tougher than you might think. And your reputation with various people in the game will slide and can be damaged based on the choices you make. It's a big change, one that's a welcome addition to the series.
The soundtrack in every GTA is bigger than the last, and the tradition is continued here. With a record number of stations, overall tracks, and genres, the musical variety feels very eclectic. The downside to this is that the music selections are much less focused, and you will likely find that most of the tracks will be unfamiliar to you. This may be good or bad, depending on how much you enjoyed the musical snapshots of yesteryear that Vice City and San Andreas gave you, but I was a little unimpressed with the rock selections - at least most of the other genres had some great tracks. And if you hear a song in-game you like, you can dial a number on Niko's phone and the song will appear on your personal Social Club page with a link to buy the MP3 on Amazon. One feature I would have liked to see is integration with the 360's custom soundtracks right into the game so that I didn't have to open up the Guide every time I wanted to swap between my own tracks. Oh well.
For the first time in many years, GTA has a real multiplayer mode. It's for up to 16 players and can load up seamlessly from your phone in the single player game - you don't have to go back to the menu if you want to start playing online. The different games you play are varied, too: you can do races with Mario Kart-style weapon pickups, flat out team deathmatch, go out with your team and get contracts to steal cars, and quite a bit more. There are four-player cooperative missions where, for example, you go up against tons of AI-controlled SWAT members as you escort a crime boss from the airport to a safe house. And in case you're worried about the lock-on system, it can be turned off on a per-game basis by the host.
All of this is played on the full Liberty City map without limitations, and players can rank up to 10th level when playing online which bestows various perks. It's doubtful that this game will dethrone more online-oriented stuff like Call of Duty 4 or Halo 3, but unlike with many primarily-single player games, this online mode is not an afterthought and many, many hilarious hours can be spent here with your friends.
While it's easy to start adding up numbers to try to demonstrate the scale of GTAIV - 25-35 hours for the main quest, another 20+ for the side quests - it simply doesn't get across just how big and packed with stuff this game really is. The missions are fun and often end up in various comedic or nasty endings, especially when you fail them. With the way Liberty City and its missions were built, I found that it's tougher than ever for a mission to end the same way twice.
The downsides are mostly minor and can be summed up pretty well. There are still some slight physics issues when vehicles are on their sides, and the depth of field blur in the distance is distracting. Cars still wind up being copied by the game engine pretty often, resurrecting that strange effect from the last games when you drive around in a rare vehicle like a limo and suddenly limos start appearing everywhere. The lighting and special effects are amazing, but don't expect the frame rate to stay rock solid everywhere, and there are a lot of places where texture quality was cut in order for the game to work on the 360. Some missions are poorly designed, unfairly dumping cops into Niko's face while he's stuck in a phone call that can't be skipped - if you're on foot, you're screwed, because while Niko can walk and drive while talking on the phone, he won't run. Some of the game's issues are limitations set forth by the Xbox 360 and couldn't really be worked around, so it's hard to blame Rockstar directly for those.
If you are one of the few people out there that for some reason doesn't like Grand Theft Auto, there's a decent chance that your complaints have been addressed in GTAIV. From the thankfully-revamped shooter interface to driving sequences that aren't out to simply punish you, from Hollywood-level cutscenes with great characters to a difficulty level that mostly goes up smoothly rather than in massive jumps, this is simply a better game than before. That being said, there are many signature things about the series that are alive here, and some its faults are still around as well. Either way, for the vast majority of gamers this is going to be their game of the year, and the developers at Rockstar deserve every bit of praise they'll get.