When you finally explore Liberty City on April 29, you won't have to do it alone. Grand Theft Auto IV will be the first game in the series to ship with a complete online multiplayer component, supporting up to 16 players on both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Little information has been released about how this aspect of the game will work, other than the subtle hints that Rockstar has dropped during earlier previews of the game. But with the game now finally approaching release this month, Rockstar decided to blow the lid off nearly all the multiplayer game modes, showing us Deathmatch, Cops and Crooks, Racing, as well as much more. Taking the form of an entire day's play testing at the company's London offices, we were literally able to take Rockstar on at its own game.
As we'd previously heard, the multiplayer mode is accessed by pulling out your mobile phone at any time during the single-player game. A small LCD appears at the bottom right of your view, and in one of the many small touches in the game, different players see different mobile operator logos on their home screens. From here, you can choose to enter the multiplayer game, at which point your single-player progress is saved and your console accesses its online network. As with Burnout Paradise, you'll be able to see which of your friends are currently playing GTA IV online, and if they're in an open party, you'll be free to join them. Likewise, if you choose to create a game, you can restrict it to just your friends list or open it up to the online community. Your character in the multiplayer game world is completely different from Niko: the fairly limited customisation options allow you to choose a male or female template and change outfits and accessories, but not facial details or body shapes.
To get a feel for the new multiplayer game, Rockstar initiated us with a simple four-on-four team Deathmatch. This mode may be simple, but the open world provides plenty of innovative ways to take down the opposition. As newbies, our first urge was to jump into a vehicle and work as a team, performing drive-by shootings while aiming to run over any enemies that got in our way. Both the driver and the passenger can shoot out of the window while moving, with the left bumper smashing out the window then firing your gun. You can aim using the right joystick, and a small reticle appears onscreen to help you line up shooting, as well as driving. There's also a downside to grouping together, especially if your enemy has a rocket launcher or another explosive device. One accurate shot can take out an entire team of people if they're all housed in one vehicle, leaving them to burn together in a burning wreck while the opposing team gets to regroup and rearm.
The alternative to using vehicles--collecting weapons and finding an elevated position--seemed to lead to higher scores. Combined with the new cover system, the environment can be used by clever players to avoid being hurt. For example, players can pop out when they have the best shots or simply blind-fire to keep enemies at bay. Pressing the right bumper snaps your character to the nearest cover, whether it is a wall or another object, such as a car. The Rockstar team was on hand for other tips, such as crouching when using a sniper rifle for better accuracy and always going for a headshot when fighting one-on-one. Even if you're restricted to a handgun, you can kill off an Uzi-wielding enemy using this method because it can bring down even the most heavily armoured foes. When locking on to an enemy with the left trigger, you can then flick the right stick to lift the aim to the head, and if you nail the technique, it takes only a couple of shots to kill someone.
Standard gunplay is all well and good, but GTA has always been about the unexpected opportunities that arise from its sandbox gameworld. Even though the Rockstar team had been instructed to go easy on us during our first game, one of the team members couldn't resist jumping in a helicopter, chasing us down a street, and using the rotor blades to send us hurtling through the air to our death. It was a fitting end to the Team Deathmatch mode, but after getting used to the control system, we were yearning for more. A rocket launcher Deathmatch game was duly arranged, pitting us against one other in a small park at night. The rocket launcher is a powerful but slightly tricky weapon to use because it takes a long time to reach its target and you can only carry six rockets at a time. Luckily, if you run out of ammo or want to get up close and personal, then you can have the option of engaging in a good old-fashioned knife fight.
While the Deathmatch modes were fun, the real attraction of GTA IV's multiplayer may well come from the many other modes that Rockstar has dreamed up. The second mode that we played through was Mafiya Work, where the aim was to complete missions before anyone else in the game. Missions are called in to your mobile from gang bosses all over the city; then, every player competes to carry them out and collect the cash. Once each mission had been issued, the objectives flash up on the map and it becomes a mad scramble for victory. Missions included stealing a certain car or delivering weapons to another location, with the player who has the most money at the end of the allotted time winning the game
The Cops & Crooks mode is another absolute riot where one team plays as police officers who have to catch the other team of criminals. The catch is that one of the criminals is assigned the position of the leader, and he must stay alive no matter what happens to the rest of the team. Other team members can die and respawn on the way to reaching their escape points, but if the leader is killed, then it's game over for everyone. There's also a co-op mode for up to four players called Noose Assault, where we had to help a notorious criminal make it from his private jet to a hideaway while being pursued by a ferocious SWAT team. It's a shame that the entire game isn't playable in co-op, but this mission was a nice alternative to the other more competitive multiplayer modes.
Another surprisingly addictive mode is the racing, which can be played with or without weapons. It won't compete with Burnout or Need for Speed in terms of realism or depth, but leading a pack of eight racers and tossing Molotov cocktails out of the window is still highly entertaining. The host of the game gets to choose the route and the type of vehicle used in each race, while the participants get to choose which individual cars and colour schemes they want to use. If you're playing with weapons, you can collect pistols and grenades by driving over them, while heath kits restore any damage that you take to your car. If your vehicle does get damaged or you just fancy a change, then you can still jump out and steal one, but this does cost you valuable seconds of the race.
On the technical side, Rockstar hooked us up to the Xbox 360 debug version with headphones and a microphone. Despite being located in the same London office, we were all connected to each other over the Internet, which gave us a good idea of the online experience we can expect from the finished game. While you're free to talk to your teammates at any time by speaking through the microphone, you can also call individual players by accessing the mobile phone and just ringing them up. As with many Xbox Live games, the vocal quality can sometimes dip, but the only other issues we encountered were occasionally dropped animation frames when the action became frantic. Otherwise, GTA IV looked like a smooth online experience--and, according to Rockstar both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will be exactly the same in terms of multiplayer features. Rockstar also told us at this point that while the game will support 1080p, the game will only run in 720p natively, and will therefore be scaled up to the higher resolution.
We wondered just how much of a role multiplayer would play in GTA IV, and after seeing it in action, we're pleased to report that it's far from being a simple afterthought to the game. With classic deathmatch and co-op missions combined with cops-and-robbers and mission-based objectives, the multiplayer component of GTA has a wealth of content to offer. We didn't even get to see some of the other modes on offer, which we saw on the menu screen as Deal Breaker and Bomb da Base II. Having finally got a chance to sample the multiplayer action, we're as excited as ever to finally play it on April 29.