Grand Theft Auto IV review
Very deserving of its praise, little of its hate


Grand Theft Auto IV was almost four years in the making, a sequel to one of the most both critically and commercially successful series of all time. The huge franchise had forever remained a tongue-in-cheek crime simulator, characterised by its previously unique and expansive open-ended sandbox design. Every tale so far offered the hardships of one man’s struggle and rise through the criminal system, each time starting at the bottom of the chain – a simple carrier perhaps – and finally boasting a position as one of the most feared and respected members of the business. Despite its stone-set plot, the series on a whole has continued to develop over the generations; from a shallow birds-eye original, to an aesthetically iconic third-person cross of not only urban warfare but also an actual life simulation, incorporating elements of role-playing games in terms of stats and development and suggesting a prominent focus of every-day activities from exercising at the gym to regularly eating. Being the first Grand Theft Auto title to grace the new generation, hype had formed by the masses and expectations were extremely high for the final product, especially considering the $100 million total cost, making it the most expensive game ever developed. Was it worth the resources? Probably not.

But it’s really good anyway.

The returning Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto III fame takes a breath of originality and introduces a protagonist not influenced by a particular cultural gangster stereotype or taken directly from a gangster-themed film: Niko Bellic is an Eastern-European mercenary, abandoning the homely familiarity of the Yugoslav wars and similarly-based criminal system in attempt to experience the ‘American Dream’ with his supposedly successful cousin, Roman. Having little talent or job prospects, almost immediately the brown-haired, thick-accented foreigner is propelled into crime having to protect Roman from, or work for, several local criminals Roman had fallen in debt of. Starting with only small-time friends and enemies of his cousin, Niko continues to expand his contacts as he takes on more and more jobs with a growing reputation. As the plot develops, the prominence of Niko’s past emerges and the cynic attempts to discover the truth regarding a horror experienced in the war and find the traitor responsible for the death of thirteen of his friends.

Gameplay takes no revolutionary steps away from its traditional design, though brings a glimmering layer of polish and refine. The run-and-gun, lock-on-and-shoot returns and no typical Grand Theft Auto fan would feel alienated by its controls. What is new, however, is the exclusion of the irregular and pre-determined, horrible sights used by the assault rifles, RPG's and similar weapons; instead, all guns share the same default view that can be used either with a straight forward lock-on, or aimed specifically by holding the trigger lightly and directing with the right analogue stick. Pressing the right analogue in in this situation will also reveal a more focused zoom, or in the case of some weapons – obvious examples being the sniper selection – a sight specific to that weapon is used. In addition to this new feature, realism has been expanded through the use of a cover system very reminiscent of that used in the Getaway series, or somewhat similarly, Gears of War. Pressing right bumper throws Niko behind the nearest obstacle, where you're almost coated in invincibility. From this position you can lean out of the cover through the usual aim button, left trigger, and the feature eliminates the Rambo-heroics of the previous titles, and is a necessity in sticky situations considering increased accuracy of the AI. This is not to say shoot-outs have any more depth, as might be expected, or the AI has been significantly developed; in fact, these scenarios have been largely simplified and – for the most part – have become extremely easy. It's a waiting game: sitting until the right opportunity arises, auto-targeting an enemy and firing a few skill-less shots off, and finally repeating this until the area has been cleared – a dungeon, almost.

While this is not immediately much of an issue with the game – admittedly I lasted a good 15 hours with no considerable complaints – it's from this that you can draw my (and apparently everybody else's) biggest issue with the game: repetition. The missions are the same, the same, and then more of the same. You must drive from A to B, either pick up a stranded friend or clear a scenario of enemies, and then escape – probably back to point A. It's the bulk, and it's formulaic. On the few occasions a spark of originality interrupts this formula, it's rarely for the best; it seems, on occasion, to pride itself on needless gimmicks that only exist to hinder gameplay rather than progress it. I'll give the example of your camera phone; one mission is to photograph a group of gang members without being caught, text this photo back to an ally, and have it clarified as to which gang member is actually your target. This makes little sense when the majority of the time a huge marker shows you who to kill without the slightest of a prompt anyway, let alone needing to photograph someone you've even been told is in a grey hat. Gimmicks, sadly, play a rather integral part of Grand Theft Auto IV, with your mobile phone existing as the hub of all activity in the game. I think it's fair to admit I was initially wooed with its arrival; selectable ringtones, backgrounds, a set of contacts, a variety of events – it seemingly has everything; but as your friend roster rapidly increases, it becomes terribly difficult trying to balance your social life with actual game progress. Throughout the game your friends will invite you to social activities, such as drinking or pool, which is good for the sake it leads to a positive outlook on your character, and can in turn unlock specific benefits from some of these characters (working exactly the same as girlfriends.) The flaw in the system makes itself apparent soon though; neglecting a social outing – which is actually automatic during a mission – immediately drops this karma rating, and it's likely you'll just end up accepting the entirety of the world hating your guts. Without elaborating too much on unnecessary gimmicks, I'll even quickly mention there's actually a completely redesigned hand-to-hand combat system, with the likes of multiple attack buttons and a counter attack; you'll use this on the tutorial tip and never again. You can also watch TV.

In terms of vehicles, everything is as would be expected and it's not worth approaching the topic with significant depth; it controls a little tighter than it always has done and is insanely fun. The physics engine is – without a doubt – one of the most impressive things this game has to offer, and watching your body flail through the air following the crash of your car, as that too flew through the air, into a traffic pole...is something else. The inability to fly planes is a little upsetting, though.

Other than repetition and the inclusion of gimmicks, my final biggest complaint with the game is actually lack of gimmicks – good gimmicks, anyway. Being a big fan of the series on the whole, the Playstation 2 titles' progressive increase of quality and content established an expectation, and it's very disappointing noticing every step they take back from features you would expect to be reasonably easy to place. These include the ability to fly said planes; physical (and visible) body damage; RPG-esque levelling up; bicycle riding; a vast selection of houses; a significant amount of purchasable goods, seeing as there's now only three clothe shops, and so on. These are all, in reality, inconsequential, minute features but they were the small features that set a standard, and forced Grand Theft Auto onto its well-deserved pedestal. To inexplicably ignore these improvements, despite more than enough resources, seems incredibly lazy thinking.

It's really not at all all bad news, however much it may seem I slide that way. The campaign length, in comparison to the majority of other recently released action, shooter or sand-box game, is extremely lengthy; considering the compulsory missions alone, a typical player could expect at least 25 hours out of the game. This is ignoring the endless amount of the content aside, ranging from things like solving some poor sod’s marriage to finding a girlfriend on a dating website and treating her lavishly; not even taking notice of the time spent, it’s easy to rack up to 40 hours just enjoying yourself. To get such a high running time out of a game through personal enjoyment is rare outside of RPG's in modern gaming, with developers concerned with short and shallow, satisfying bursts of action. Grand Theft Auto IV promises all 40 hours without the slightest amount of grinding, and presents itself as a complete package. It's relatively easy to pick and rip apart tiny flaws in an overwhelmingly polished game; you can say that the game sits three quarters amazing, and that one last quarter, really nothing less than mediocre, pales a ghostly shade in comparison. The game is extremely fun, extremely long lasting, and extremely well written. The story is compelling and the myriad of characters Niko comes in contact with throughout the story are absolutely hilarious. Without a slivering tingle of a doubt would I recommend this game to anyone – it's no shallow action game, it's an experience, and you'd be silly to not even try it, regardless of reason. The only people that should have any quarrel are those used to the previous titles, but even then the game is still brilliant; the changes just need to be accepted for what the game is – completely unrelated.

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