You'd be hard-pressed to find a more anticipated, or scrutinized, game than Rockstar's upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV. The release of the game's trailer in March saw the 50-odd seconds of teaser footage poured over like evidence in a CSI episode, with fans (ourselves included) rabidly dissecting it frame by frame. To further stoke the fires of anticipation, Rockstar Games recently hit town and did the previously unthinkable: They gave us a look at a work-in-progress version of the Xbox 360 game. Whereas years past have seen us getting access to GTA games when they were much further along in development, Rockstar, confident in how development is going, raised the drape and let us get a look at GTAIV months before it hits. Our guided demo showed off a tiny bit of the city and gave us a taste of what Rockstar is cooking up for what is arguably the most anticipated game of 2007.
The demo opened up with the game's Russian hero, Niko Bellic, standing in a building--the offices of the taxi service, to be exact. As our demoer guided him around the interior, we were given a rundown of his story. The Eastern European immigrant will come to Liberty City at the request of his cousin, Roman. The trip seems like a smart move for Niko, who's had a rather rough life so far. The picture of life in Liberty City painted by his cousin is that of opulence and easy money. Upon arriving, Niko gets a reality check. Roman is living around the poverty line and drives a cab. Once that recognition hits, Niko realizes he's got to find a way to eke out a living, which is where the story begins. Given what was shown and implied in the trailer, we expect Niko's career search to take some interesting, and probably violent, turns. Rockstar reps noted that Niko's path through the game isn't going to tell a stereotypical "rags to riches" story; instead, it will offer a grittier tale that's about survival, "rags to slightly better rags" to be exact.
Once we got the rundown of the story, our demoer took Niko out for a stroll in the city. As the tour started, we got another quick primer on the city. The Liberty City in GTAIV is a modern-day metropolis that's a bit different than the one we know. The city is based on New York, though there's no version of Staten Island in the game. For fans at home already working on their maps, the borough of Broker is based on Brooklyn, Dukes is based on Queens, Bohan is based on the Bronx, Algonquin is based on Manhattan, and Alderney is based on New Jersey. Our tour took us on a run-through of some of the neighborhoods in Broker, underneath the Algonquin bridge overpass, and eventually out to the docks to look out on the city proper. The environment had a lived-in look that featured pedestrians, homeless, trash, steaming manholes, traffic, and an impressive array of little touches used to set the scene. But, while we expected all that, the demo showed off a new wrinkle to the densely packed environments: height. Though "verticality" has turned into one of the catchiest buzz words for new games, it's still an interesting feature to see. From the sound of it, GTAIV is going to let you go up or down buildings in the game as needed. Our demo showed Niko climbing a power pole and taking a look around at the environment--highlighting the impressive draw distance. But we also noticed that the dense city environment, which is roughly the same size as San Andreas, will be a layered locale with things to see and do at different heights. If it works the way we're hoping, it might offer some additional options when avoiding the police.
But avoiding police, like much of GTAIV's gameplay, is something that Rockstar wasn't going into too much detail on. There was no talk of the upcoming downloadable content or exclusive material for the PlayStation or Xbox 360. What was shared was that the role-playing elements are being dialed back, so Niko won't be morphing into a superman by the end of the game. Carjacking is being tweaked, so you can now break windows to jack parked cars. You'll be able to call people via cell phone and help move the story along, offering you more control over how the story will progress. Though you won't be able to fly planes, you should be able to fly helicopters. One of our big questions, what kind of online multiplayer the game will offer, was met with a coy assertion that the team wants the multiplayer to rival the single-player experience. Reps did note that it will not be a massively-multiplayer-online-game-style persistent city. Other details, such as the game's heads-up display, are still being ironed out. We did see a menu system that had all the expected options; we're just curious as to how it will be implemented. The driving force behind the game is its story, according to the team. So, to that end, the gameplay experience must be seamless. We're pleased to see the lengths they're going to for this to happen already. Moving in and out of buildings is seamless, and you'll have ample places to go in and out of, though not every building in the game is able to be explored.
The visuals in the game come courtesy of Rockstar's proprietary RAGE engine and offer a comfortable complement to the game's new look. The city area we were shown had all the real-world elements that are key to a GTA game's atmosphere: pedestrians, traffic, and a lived-in look. The key difference, as you can see in the trailer, is the level of detail and the art style. The expected bump in graphics seems to be agreeing with the team's ambitious tendencies, resulting in a dense city with rich lighting and populated by a diverse group of people. The little touches that were wrung out of the last generation of hardware are now fully realized, with proper lighting, particle effects, and shadowing being used to highlight the distressed city streets, old buildings, dusty windows, and vast panoramic views of Liberty City.
As for the residents, our tour of the city gave us a look at a sampling of some work-in-progress models that are set to be used for the non-player characters you'll meet. The models sported a higher level of detail and looked good, albeit nondescript, like any good NPC. Niko is the star of the game, with a character model that reflects his mental baggage. The detailed model has a decidedly gritty look that makes it pretty clear he's been around the block a few times--maybe even hit by some cars. Animation was early but seemed to be coming along fine. His gait when walking was deliberate and was on its way to adding to his world-weary vibe. Our demo also focused on showcasing a number of subtle touches being worked into GTAIV. The standouts were Niko leaning in a direction as he runs and, most awesomely, his breaking windows on parked cars so he could jack them. Though we just saw a small slice of what to expect from the game's visuals, we have to say we're impressed by the restraint we're seeing. In a time when so many games on the PS3 and Xbox 360 are going all out with the special effects and a glossy look, GTAIV seems to be drawing on the effects and tech it needs to establish a convincingly rundown look. While it may not bowl you over with blinding use of light blooming and other stereotypical "next-gen" effects, we've seen most of them used in subtle ways. But the game is focused on its realistic look, and we're pleased by what we're seeing.
The game's audio was far from finished, as Rockstar reps were quick to point out what we heard in the demo was very placeholder, with a fraction of the audio that will be in the final game peppered through it. It seems as though the plan is to expand on the concepts used in the previous games, so you'll hear tons of ambient chatter and city sounds designed to sell you on the game's virtual world. Finer elements such as voice acting and the ever-popular radio stations are still being ironed out. The team is mulling over the direction of where to go with the radio stations, given the tone of the game. There will be plenty of variety in music, but what those types are remains to be seen. The voice acting in the game is in a similar state of reevaluation. The team is thinking on what would best serve the story in terms of the talent used and the direction. As with the previous entries in the series, Rockstar is competing with the standards set by GTAIV's predecessors, which all featured great voice acting. As it stood, what we heard of the audio was coming along fine, and finished or not, we liked where it was headed.
Ultimately, our demo of the game was a pretty controlled experience and was more about showing off the world and the possibilities of what could be done inside it than showing off specific gameplay features. That said, even this modest look at a fraction of the city shows a whole lot of potential. The nuanced story; greater interactivity with the world; densely packed, vertical environment; ambitious scope; and increased freedom all seem like the right ingredients to have in play for such an anticipated sequel. Factor in the mysterious online multiplayer and downloadable content, and you have about as fully loaded a sequel as you could ask for. Grand Theft Auto IV is currently slated to ship this October for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Look for more on the game in the coming months.