Grand Theft Auto IV PS3 Review
I’m such a sucker for hype; whether it be a movie, TV show, videogame or even the latest artery-blocking burger from a fast food joint, if it’s receiving buzz, I’ll wind up checking it out. Being a self-proclaimed hype whore, I blame (and often credit) hype for getting me to do and try things I ordinarily wouldn’t. Hype, for example, got my ass to the theater to see Pan’s Labyrinth (a good movie I never would’ve seen, otherwise). Hype also had me rolling up to the Wendy’s drive-thru for a Baconator (damn you, hype!).
Back in 2002, hype even twisted my arm into purchasing a copy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City; I wasn’t much of a GTAIII fan, but the onslaught of positive buzz forced me to walk in the wannabe-gangster footsteps of Tommy Vercetti. A few hours into Rockstar’s 1980’s Miami-inspired hit, I found myself not only let down, but surprised by all the praise it’d been receiving. Don’t misunderstand, I’m no gaming prude; I enjoy running down hookers and poppin’ caps in asses just as much as the next guy. And I really dug the whole Scarface vibe and crazy cast of characters. However, I couldn’t get past the game’s many flaws; frequent pop-in, blocky visuals, awful collision detection and a laughable jumping animation from this supposedly slick main character, were just a few issues among a long list of problems pulling me from the experience. A couple of years later, hype stung me again with San Andreas; roped in by the reviews, I found myself once again wondering what I was missing out on—were other people really enjoying this silly iron-pumping sim? I didn’t dislike GTA games, I just felt they were way over-rated.
I begin my review of GTAIV with this lengthy prelude because I want to stress that, unlike most reviewing this game, I wasn’t much of a fan going in. That said, GTAIV’s pre-release coverage did have me hopeful for the same reasons it probably scared faithful fans; I was thrilled to hear Rockstar was scaling back the game world (I found San Andreas’ state-stretching romp overwhelming) and generally aiming for a smaller but more quality-over-quantity experience. A few days ago, with the GTA hype-fairy perched on my shoulder, whispering into my ear for a third time, I popped GTAIV into my PS3.
And I’m thrilled to report: I finally get it! I’m sold! I can now count myself a card-carrying member of the cop-cappin’, crack whore-slappin’, car-jackin’ club. Of course, GTAIV is so much more than that. In fact, let me jump right onto the hype-train and proclaim this the best game I’ve played this year. Because I wasn’t a fanboy in the past, my enthusiasm likely stems from places differing from the series’ more faithful following. For example, the first of many times my jaw hit the floor was when I witnessed the game’s off-the-boat antihero Niko Bellic navigate a stairway; the realism in how his weight shifted, hesitated, and accurately favored one foot over the other was like nothing I’d seen before in any game. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune teased a bit with similarly suped-up physics, but GTAIV raises the bar even further. A similarly stunning tech display unfolds every time Niko gets behind the wheel of the game’s many vehicles. Not only does every car have a specific feel, but you can actually see each suspension system doing its thing as you take tight corners, hit potholes or land a jump.
When Niko’s not cruising through Liberty City, he’s walking, running, shooting, brawling, climbing and jumping all with equally realistic results. The shooting, specifically, gets a nice upgrade over previous GTA’s with an intuitive duck-and-cover system. Niko can now grab cover behind pretty much anything, pop out for a head shot, or blind fire when things get a little too hot. Targeting is nicely handled with lock-on and free aim options, as well as body-specific damage; early in the game you’ll be tasked with hurting a thug without killing him, and the only trouble you’ll encounter is deciding whether to aim for a kneecap or the crotch.
GTAIV received lots of pre-release press for not only addressing the series’ famously piss-poor shooting, but also for tweaking the brawling and driving mechanics. And while all these aspects have been refined greatly, nothing compares to the tightness applied to the overall structure of the game; I always found these titles unmanageable due to their sheer size and ridiculous amount of content, but GTAIV brilliantly addresses this with a couple of easy-to-use additions. A super-simple navigation system ensures you’ll always know where you are and where you’re going (you can even drop waypoints onto your GPS for a more handholding experience.) Similarly, Niko’s cell phone manages your missions, contacts and anything else that could become potentially confusing. And the best part: fail a mission, and you can immediately call it back up on your cell. So much of the tedium and frustration saddling previous GTA’s has been entirely erased by these two devices. Due to Niko’s grasp of this real-world technology, traveling Liberty City’s content-crammed world is like putty in your hands.
The word “sandbox” in reference to gaming has always scared me a bit; both because of the detail and refinement that’s left on the cutting room floor to accommodate a sprawling world, and for the overwhelming nature of navigating such a large space. As referenced above, GTAIV’s mechanics have been refined to the point where the latter experience is finally more fun than frustrating. But it’s how the former’s been addressed that really steals the spotlight; Liberty City is a breathtaking open-world environment that’s as much fun to explore as a first time tourist as it is a gun-toting badass. From gritty back alleys to posh brownstones, the city is drenched in detail and brimming with life. Sure, there’s occasional spotty framerate and pop-in issues, but for the most part, very little has been sacrificed in creating this living, breathing world. Food vendors peddle their greasy goods, pedestrians sip beverages, talk on cells, eat, smoke, rant…you name it, they do it. This is as real as civilian AI gets. Expect even more surprises if you attempt to interact with the city’s bustling populace; they’ll defend against carjacking attempts, criticize your clothes and even get in your face following a fender-bender. The inanimate objects are just as impressive. Go to a bad neighborhood and you’ll tread cracked, pot-holed streets. But visit a rich mobster’s home and you’ll see landscaping that’d put Tony Soprano’s well-kept yard to shame. Want to see something really impressive? Visit Liberty City’s take on Time’s Square (dubbed Star Junction) at night—you’ll practically feel the warmth of the steam-spewing sewers and smell the vendors’ roasted peanuts.
All this amazing realism is complemented by characters, plot lines and set pieces that trump many of Hollywood’s high-priced productions; like HBO’s above-mentioned mobster, Niko Bellic is likable despite his despicable actions, and you’ll hang on every thread of his surprisingly dramatic tale long after the closing credits role. And his buffoonish brother Roman, as well as many of the game’s well-written characters, could star in his own spin-off title (we can definitely see more screen time for Niko’s ganja-puffing partner Little Jacob.) Whether you’re witnessing their real-time actions or enjoying their highly produced cut scenes, you’ll enjoy every moment with Liberty City’s story-driving denizens.
While GTAIV has finally caught me in the franchise’s addictive, city-sprawling net with its through-the-roof presentation, amazing production values and much-needed gameplay refinements, it’s not without its faults. I’m probably alone on this one, but I think too much freedom can be a bad thing; while I absolutely love the main story, I found—as I did with previous GTA’s—the side activities a bit tedious. Sure, the bowling, pool and darts mini-games get the job done, but I don’t really want to do these things when I know the next story mission could have me living my movie-inspired fantasies. Why would I want to go drinking with a buddy, when I can be embroiled in a bank heist gone wrong, capping drug dealers, carrying out mob hits or out-racing the cops. Rockstar has by no means done a bad job with these sub quests, and I suppose they’re a necessary part of the free-form genre, but for me they just slow down the action and keep me from the good stuff.
Another inherent evil of open world games is the all-over-the-place degree of realism. At times I was absolutely amazed by realistic reactions from NPC’s like, for example, when my date Michelle consistently noticed if I was wearing new clothes or driving a new car. However, this same observant girl barely made a peep when I crashed my ride into a park bench occupied by an elderly couple. Similarly, I couldn’t believe it when I hot-wired a car and its alarm starting bleeping and its lights began flashing. Talk about being immersed in the moment—my pulse definitely rose a few ticks as I sped away from the curb. A few hours later, though, feeling brave, I strolled into a fire station, got behind the wheel of a fire truck—even sounded the siren—and rolled off as a group of burly firefighters stood by oblivious. Again, this stuff is hard to nail in a genre that offers so much freedom, but it seems better balance could be achieved.
These are nit-picky flaws to be sure, and GTAIV deserves all the buzz words that’ll undoubtedly be excessively heaped upon it; groundbreaking, bar-raising, genre-defining…it’s all that and more. And that’s without getting into the franchise’s brand-new multiplayer modes, allowing you and your buddies to unleash unmatched online wanton destruction in this Big Apple-like playground. There’s no question fans of the franchise will love this game. But, more importantly, GTAIV offers such an addictive, polished, content-packed experience that previous non- to semi-fans (like myself) will finally want a piece of the gangsta’ gaming action.