The last time we got a look at Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar showed us a rather modest taste of what to expect from its highly awaited crime epic, one that gave us only a basic idea of the kind of urban playground the developer was creating. More recently, Rockstar took all that theoretical stuff we've been hearing about with regard to the game's new mechanics, and put it into impressive action with a new demonstration of the Xbox 360 version that started answering our questions about how the designers will change the gameplay in the fourth iteration of their seminal open-world action series. Can they tinker with the formula that sold 900 billion games across the cosmos without damaging its core appeal? Our answer right now? Yeah, they probably can.
After all, it was Rockstar who invented the open-world action model that has since influenced franchises from The Godfather to Crackdown to Jak & Daxter. Grand Theft Auto essentially defined that giddy sense of criminal freedom, by which you could wreak utter havoc on the hapless citizenry (and the citizenry's cars) with relative impunity and explosive aplomb. So it's ironic that it's Rockstar who is now restraining that freedom with GTA IV, which will place more immediate and noticeable limits on--and stricter consequences for--the sort of illicit behavior you can get away with as you go about your dirty business around Liberty City. The goal of this constrained design isn't to ruin your happy crime sprees, but rather to immerse you deeper into the world of Liberty City by making some of those explicitly gamelike elements of the GTA titles a little more realistic. We observed some of those limits and consequences in action during our demonstration.
The session began with the game's poster boy for troubled pasts, protagonist Niko Bellic, starting out his day in Star Junction, which is GTA IV's version of Times Square. Niko received a cell phone call from crooked cop Francis McReary, who was intent on blackmailing Niko into running some shady errands. Your cell phone will act as one of your primary means of interacting with the residents of Liberty City. In past games, you merely accepted calls--and their associated missions--when they came in, as dictated by the story. But in GTA IV the phone is a two-way device, as you can just pop it up at the bottom of the screen, scroll through your list of contacts, and make a call when you need to reach out and touch the right (or wrong) person. In Rockstar's words, the cell phone is one new example of the way GTA IV will have you actively "instigating, not just reacting to" the world around you.
As it turned out, McReary wanted us to ice a lawyer who had been compiling evidence against the dirty cop. But unlike in past GTA games, the player had to go through a more subtle and lengthy process than simply striding into the law office, weapons ablaze, and gunning down every sucker in the place. What better way to get face-to-face with the lawyer in question without raising any eyebrows than to score a job interview with the jerk? To do that, we saw the player head to one of GTA IV's new Internet cafes, affectionately known as "TW@," and log onto the law firm's Web site to submit his resume and request an interview in person. Like with the cell phone, you'll be able to access a graphical interface that lets you surf the Web, check e-mail, and other basic functions whose purpose is primarily to tell you where to go and what to do next. Again like the phone, the Internet will act as a familiar real-world method of disseminating information and instructions to you without jarringly taking you out of the gameworld.
But before Niko could perform the hit, McReary helpfully pointed out that he would need some firepower to complete his task (yes, there will still be guns in the game). Niko was able to whip out his cell phone and ring up a "friend," a Rastafarian named Little Jacob who could help him get what he needed. Alas, in keeping with GTA IV's more realistic tone, you'll have to say goodbye to your beloved chain of Ammu-Nation stores. Guns won't be available from any mom-and-pop corner shop; you'll have to deal with shady characters like Jacob, who we saw selling a lovely array of automatic and semiautomatic weapons right out of his car trunk.
Continue on to see how Rockstar has made the process of stealing a car more meaningful--and more dangerous.
Before we could get our dirty mitts on those guns, we had to make it from Star Junction to whatever dirty back alleyway Jacob was currently calling home. Now, the normal method of getting from point A to point B in past GTA games would be to find the nearest parked car--all of which conveniently seemed to have keys in the ignition, waiting behind unlocked doors--and go for a reckless joyride to your destination. Not so in GTA IV. Stealing a parked car involves an actual process this time around--you'll see Niko actually break out a window with his foot or his elbow, reach into the car and unlock the door, and then get in. Entry into the car will be followed by an animation lasting several seconds of Niko hotwiring the car, before he finally starts the engine and is free to drive away.
All of that would just be so much protracted window dressing on the familiar act of, well, grand theft auto, if it weren't for the roving and very attentive eyes of the law. At various points in the demo, we saw the consequences of committing an offense within a police officer's line of sight--and yes, the list of offenses will include jacking a car. Even a minor crime like that will give you an instant wanted level, which will now be indicated on your mini-map as a physical search radius in which the fuzz is actively looking for you. You'll see driving and on-foot cops represented as distinct icons within the search area, and of course, the key to survival will be slipping out of the search area without being detected.
That may be easier said than done, though, because you'll actually hear the cops report your last known location and even the details of your appearance at the time you committed the crime. If another cop manages to spot you within the search radius, then your current position will become the new center of the search area and you'll have that much more ground to cover before you make it out safely. There are a number of tricks you can use to fool the cops, though. For instance, pull into a secluded alleyway where you're not within sight of the law, hop into a different car, and drive away peacefully and the cops won't be smart enough to recognize your new ride.
Before heading off to meet Little Jacob, Niko stopped for a hot dog from a street vendor, which will replenish some of your health like past games' fast food grease pits (which will also return here). Given the potentially sticky consequences of stealing a car, the player in our demo opted to flag down a taxi cab (after being amusingly dissed by the first cab that drove by) and enjoy the scenic route to his destination. Again, you'll interact with the cab interface directly within the game world--you'll see a first-person view from the back seat, with possible destinations listed on the fare meter next to the cabbie up front. Lock in your drop-off point, and you'll be free to sit back and enjoy the ride through Liberty City, which is made visually interesting by a controllable camera angle from within the car. Luckily, if you're in a hurry you can choose to skip the travel and essentially warp to your location in a more timely manner.
By this time, Niko had acquired his weapons and gotten a callback from the law office setting up an interview. So he had only to make himself look the part of an aspiring lawyer before he could cleanly get away with his dirty deed. That involved heading to one of the game's new clothing stores, Perseus, for a crisp new suit. You'll have at least a limited range of clothing customization options in GTA IV, though your affect on Niko himself will be more limited than in San Andreas. (No chance to pack on muscle or fat this time around.) Once he was dressed for success, the player took another cab to the law office, got buzzed in and was immediately led to the office of his target, where Niko sat down and began the interview process.
One interesting thing about the exchange was that Niko appeared to have the option to hang out and endure the interview process--namely, the lawyer's incessant blabbering--as long as he wanted. We didn't get to see what would happen if the conversation had gone through to completion, though, since the player eventually cut things short by standing up and aiming his gun at the lawyer. The poor guy mistook Niko's actions for an aggressive power play, and amusingly threw out the zinger that "guns don't kill people, videogames do" before Niko remorselessly popped him one. The gunshot naturally caused the secretary outside to flip out and sound the alarm, forcing Niko to fight his way out of the firm against a formidable police presence.
Read on to find out how the shooting action has changed in GTA IV.
The cinematic, action-packed sequence looked like a traditional GTA shoot-out, though Rockstar reps pointed out that the shooting controls have undergone serious refinement. They didn't go into too much detail--saying that we'll have to get our hands on the game ourselves before we find out more about the shooting--but it looked to us like the auto-targeting will let you snap from one target to the next more quickly and easily than in the past. One new feature the reps did show us in detail was the new cover system, which lets you hunker down behind just about any flat surface, Gears of War-style to pop out with occasional aimed shots or even fire blindly over the edge of the cover.
You'll have to choose your position carefully, though, since some cover will be destructible, and police will be able to shoot it out after a few moments of heavy fire. This section of the demo ended with Niko out in the street, exchanging fire with numerous police before they caught up to him behind a street vendor's cart and killed him. We didn't get to see what happens after you die, but Rockstar said the process of getting apprehended or killed will result in trips to the jail or hospital, respectively, similar to the process in past games.
We got to see another sample mission in our time with GTA IV. McReary had yet another errand for Niko and summoned him to a dockside rendezvous for the details. Yet another cab ride later, Niko arrived and initiated a typical GTA-style cutscene in which McReary laid out the specifics of this job. Wouldn't you know it, he was being blackmailed by yet another shady character (the guy obviously has some skeletons in his closet), and he needed Niko to take the guy out. As luck would have it, this particular job was fast-tracked; McReary sent Niko straight to the payoff location to whack the blackmailer. The player in our demo decided to jack a secluded car this time and cruise over there himself, which gave us a look at the driving controls this time around. The only real change is that the camera angle has been offset slightly to the left while you're driving, which is intended to give a slightly more cinematic presentation. It didn't look like this new perspective would interfere with the actual feel of the driving much, if at all.
Upon arriving at the crowded public park where the blackmailer was waiting, Niko received a text message from McReary containing the blackmailer's number, which was automatically entered into his phonebook (as all numbers sent to your cell phone will be). What happened next was one of the coolest and most unique things we saw in the entire demo, and again it tied into Rockstar's goal of making you feel more like you're really in the environment of Liberty City. Niko stood at the top of the observation deck area, looking down at the various people milling around, dialed the number and then scanned the crowd to see who picked up their cell phone just as the conversation started. Spying a man sitting on a bench nearby who had done just that, the player had to wait for the conversation to play out to confirm the identity of his mark by also making sure the same guy hung up his phone at the right time. Not surprisingly, he did, and Niko approached him from behind and pulled out his weapon. One bullet to the back of the head later, and Niko was fleeing from the scene--and the ever-present police--among the crowd of scattering, screaming onlookers.
Throughout the demo, we were impressed at the scale of Liberty City--which should be expected by fans of GTA by now--but even more so at the finer details present in Rockstar's mock version of New York. Every street in the city has been named this time around, so you'll actually hear police announcing your last known whereabouts at a particular intersection, or you'll be able to chart your route as you take a taxi from Broker (i.e. Brooklyn) to Algonquin (or Manhattan). The various architectural styles of New York are naturally represented in the game's detailed environments, and we saw a diverse array of people crowding the streets. The details will extend to your own interactions, too. Niko will actively push people out of the way when they get too close, much like in Ubisoft's forthcoming Assassin's Creed, and one minor fender bender we saw in traffic resulted in an individual tail light getting busted out on the car in front of us.
We were assured that a variety of radio stations and other pop-culture references would appear in the game, though the limited amount of driving in our demo meant we weren't exposed to much music. However, we couldn't help noting that GTA IV doesn't lean heavily on one central influence in the way that Vice City was so clearly inspired by Scarface and Miami Vice, or San Andreas drew so heavily from Boyz n the Hood. Rockstar says parallels to previous movies and TV series will obviously be evident in some elements of the final game, but the company says it's attempting to create a fictional work that can better stand on its own as an original story than past games in the series. In their words, "it is an immigrant story in a version of New York...and that's it." Grand Theft Auto IV is now less than three months from its October 16 release date--so thankfully we won't have an excruciating wait before we get to see how that immigrant story plays out--and we hope to bring you more on the game before then.