Grand Theft Auto IV Updated Impressions: Missions, Mayhem, and Drunk Driving?

We check out an updated demo of Rockstar's highly anticipated next chapter in the Grand Theft Auto series. Does it still have that special something?


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Rockstar recently hit town with an updated, work-in-progress version of Grand Theft Auto IV and gave us a look around the promising new entry in its acclaimed series. The game was running on the Xbox 360 and featured a slew of upgrades since the last time we saw it in action. While we still weren't able to get our hands on the controller and get a feel for it ourselves, we got a meaty look at a handful of the game's missions, as well as some of the requisite showcases of its richly detailed environments.

Given our familiarity with the game, our demonstrator just hopped into our first mission demo, which featured a character named Brucie, who was seen briefly in the last trailer released for the game. The mission kicks off with a cinematic that finds GTAIV's mysterious protagonist Nikolai entering a garage asking for Brucie, who needs some professional whacking done (the murderous kind). Niko is tasked with stealing a police car and giving Brucie a phone call once he's done so.

This isn't going to end well...
This isn't going to end well...

Securing a police car can happen in a few ways--you can choose to either cause a ruckus that attracts the police and carjack one, go out and search for one on the streets, pop over to a police station and help yourself, or call the police to report a fake crime. During our demo, Brucie sent an SMS with the suggestion that you could "dial 911" in order to get a police car to your location.

Once Niko gets a car and loses his wanted level by getting out the range of the police looking for him, you'll be able to access a very cool new gameplay element: the police database, which is accessible via any police car by hitting the left bumper. We watched as Niko entered his intended target's name and was rewarded with his mugshot and last known address (which you could set on your GPS city map). If you've taken a picture of someone with your cell phone, you can also search the database by photo. Upon arriving at his victim's pad, Niko makes his way to the door only to have his intended target run off like a bat out of hell once he realizes Niko isn't there on a social call.

Our demonstrator actually failed the mission initially and let Niko's target get away, allegedly to show off the game's nifty replay option, which takes the form of a text to your cell phone. On our host's second attempt the chase became much livelier, with Niko chasing his victim by car through the Liberty City freeway system and trying to shoot him dead. You can shoot out of the car window while driving, and change weapons while in the car. Besides giving a nice tour of the sights and sounds of Liberty City, the race let us have a peek at the local airport--complete with planes going about their daily business. The dramatic flight for life provided a perfect showcase for the various chase-cam options, such as switching between several views including one that focuses on your target, as well as a refined aiming system while driving. Once Niko's target was adequately perforated and exploded, he gave Brucie a call asking for his payment. The cell phone sequences showed off where the phone fits in on the game HUD: it appears in the lower right-hand corner, across from the map in the lower left.

Before moving on to our next mission demo, we got a look at some of the nonmission shenanigans you can get into, which tie in to some of the game's social aspects related to your relationships with non-player characters. We had a look at a segment where Niko gives his cousin Roman a call and the pair head over to a local watering hole in Bohan, the game's version of the Bronx, and get good and messed up. The trip began with Niko helping himself to a car. Rockstar reps noted that the nicer the car, the nicer the GPS in it--so you can expect the more upscale GPS models to speak directions if you've set a locale for yourself. Once Niko had a swank pair of wheels, he picked up Roman and then used his GPS to look for nearby bars, in this case one called Beer Garden.

As Niko came upon a toll booth on his way to the bar, our demonstrator slowed down and allowed him to pay. As with most things in the game, normal acts like stopping at red lights and paying tolls are optional but can affect your wanted level if you don't abide by them. Once the pair arrived at the bar, we saw them go in and heard Roman proclaim his hope of finding girls with low self-esteem. One short cinematic later, the pair, who were what the Russians might call drunkski, stumble out and, in a goofy minigame sure to raise a few hackles, Niko must get Roman home. Because he's more than a little messed up himself, your challenge is get Niko's sorry butt to his actual car, which is made quite a challenge due to a wavy camera angle and, we're told, an overly sensitive control scheme that makes the act of walking a challenge. Once you get in the actual car you're burdened with the same shifty camera and twitchy controls as you make your way back to Roman's place.

Once Niko's adventures in poor judgment were over, our demonstrator moved on to the next mission, set in Algonquin, the game's version of Manhattan. We saw Niko meet up with a new African-American character named Playboy X who is looking to recruit Niko. The arrangement appears to be a good fit, as we see Niko saying he needs money and doesn't care if he lives or dies. Playboy and Niko's chat is interrupted by the appearance of another new African-American face, Duane Moore. In a good and awkward moment Duane attempts to reconnect with Playboy and "pick up" where they left off, but it's clear Playboy isn't too stoked to have Duane be a part of his business. Playboy eventually goes inside leaving Niko alone with Duane and setting the stage for awkward moment number two as the pair chat a bit about "business." Their conversation is cut short by Playboy, who heads out with Niko to go on an errand.

Ah, rooftop's a way of life in the Grand Theft Auto series.
Ah, rooftop's a way of life in the Grand Theft Auto series.

We see the pair make their way through the city to a parked car and pick up weapons and a radio headset. They then switch vehicles and head over to a waterfront area, where Playboy explains how security is laid out, and his description is complemented by a cinematic showing where lookouts whom Niko has to kill are. Your mission is simple: Kill the lookouts and get inside to take out the Mafioso union leaders in order to impress a character called Yusuf. We saw Niko make his way over to a crane to get a good shot at the lookouts, whom he promptly takes out, resulting in short cinematics of them falling dead from their crane-based outposts. After the lookouts are sorted, Niko makes use of a window-washing platform to reach the roof of a building. Once inside he begins shooting up fools, resulting in blood-droplet effects on the camera.

The sequence also showcased the games new aiming system, which lets you juggle between a free aim and specific body-part targeting. Pulling the trigger lets you free-aim, while holding it down lets you lock on and target specific body parts. As Niko is going on his killing spree, Playboy is heard offering tips via his earpiece. The closer Niko gets to his targets the more the opposition ramps up; thankfully, this provided a good showcase for some of the arsenal you'll be using. We saw Niko use grenades (this level was used as a grenade tutorial) and our old favorite, the rocket launcher, to clear his way. Another nice touch was blind-firing from behind cover, and sliding into to cover on his knees. Once the opposition was cleared, Niko killed his target and rang up Playboy.

The next mission kicked off with Niko and a gent named Ray coming into an office. Ray offers up Niko's services for some work; it seems the Triads want to offload something, so you're tasked with hijacking a truck in Alderney, the game's equivalent of New Jersey, and then checking in with a Mr. Bell. As Niko made his way to the hijack area, Rockstar reps noted that the GPS Niko uses to get there always provides the best legal route, allowing you to make your own less law-abiding shortcuts if the situation requires it. Once Niko is in place, he hides and waits for the truck to come.

Main character Nikolai will meet all sorts of unsavory characters in GTA IV.
Main character Nikolai will meet all sorts of unsavory characters in GTA IV.

When it finally arrives, we see Niko sneak his way to it and start shooting. As he's opposed by various folks, we get another great example of why you should never consider crime without a rocket launcher close at hand--it's pretty handy for wiping out anything in your way. Unfortunately, Niko's truck starts to head out, and the spry Russian leaps for it, introducing a climbing mechanic you'll initiate with the touch of a button. Once you're on the truck you'll have to use the D pad and analog stick to stay on it and make your way to the cab. Once inside, Niko makes short work of the driver and helps takes the truck, calling Mr. Bell for directions. He's instructed to deliver the truck and its contents as a "wedding present" to a specific location, which Niko does.

The last demo we had wasn't of a mission but a small showcase of Liberty City and everything that's getting packed into it. We got a fly-through of the city that took us up past the statue of "happiness." When Niko was controllable again, our rep hopped into a boat and zipped around the waterfront to show off the impressive water effects, physics, and different camera angles. The sequence also featured some subtle water effects that kicked up onscreen, and because it's a GTA game, we got to hear some music.

This particular demo, while still focused on specific elements of the game, offered an effective tease of the game's variety and size. We're liking the mix of missions, even the goofy drunk stuff, simply because the game seems to be a logical expansion of what we've seen in the previous games. All the free-roaming stuff we've liked about the previous games is in, but the promise of the other mechanics we've only seen hinted at--the Internet, the police database, and in-game relationships--is really intriguing. We're also eager to get more of the story, since Niko's obviously got himself a whole set of baggage that seems fit to burst; we're hoping this makes for some good plot twists.

As far as the visuals go, it should go without saying that the game is looking pretty slick on the Xbox 360, with the environments continuing to gain a sexy layer of polish. It looks like the development team is delivering on its promise of a living city with a logical expansion of what we've seen in the previous games. The Xbox 360's processing power has afforded Rockstar North to layer in a hefty number of pedestrians and ambient detail such as street clutter and garbage. We also have to make a special call out to the game's stunning lighting, which, while still being polished up, is some of the most impressive we've seen. While lighting is, understandably, a somewhat played-out element in graphics this generation, GTAIV's is still noteworthy for its subtle shifts.

The character models look good, although we'll be nitpicky and wish the game's animation were a little more consistent. While there are some really nice bits of subtlety, such as Niko's leaning into turns as he runs, there's also some of the slightly jerky stiffness we've seen in previous games. It's hardly a game-breaking issue, but it's noticeable. Overall the game's frame rate is pretty consistent, although it does jerk some. We can attribute some of that to our version's work-in-progress status, as well as the insanely ambitious open-world madness that is a series staple; but we're hoping that the game purrs along at a solid, smooth frame rate when it ships.

Guys like this always have something more than a spare tire in the trunk of the car.
Guys like this always have something more than a spare tire in the trunk of the car.

GTAIV's soundtrack is arguably just as significant a component as its visuals, due to how key atmosphere is to the whole experience. From what we've heard so far, the game is at the very least on its way to matching the high level of quality we've heard in the previous entries in the series. The voice acting is coming along really well and very effectively sets the game's gritty tone. Niko sounds like one world-weary dude, and the crowd he rolls with sounds pretty lived-in, too. In addition to the assorted characters in the game, Liberty City itself is really getting its own unique personality thanks to a rich, dense collection of sounds that anyone who's been to a city like New York will respond to. Traffic, pedestrians, and the general ambient noise of a bustling city are all falling into place. The other big part of the audio package is the game's soundtrack, which, while still a work in progress in what we heard, seems to be covering all the bases of faux radio stations and genres that we've come to expect from the series. You can also use your cell phone as a radio, meaning the soundtrack doesn't have to stop while you're out of your vehicle taking down some targets.

While this all sounds well and good for the 360 version of the game, we know there are more than a few folks wondering what the deal is with the PlayStation 3 version, which, to date, may as well be a unicorn for all we've seen of it. Well, while we didn't get Rockstar to bust out a PS3 development kit and a version of the game for Sony's platform, we were assured that GTAIV is essentially identical on both platforms in terms of visual quality and content (well, at least until those Xbox 360-exclusive chapters hit). In fact, we're told we should be getting a look at the PS3 version in motion in the next few weeks. GTAIV is currently slated to ship in the next few months. Look for more on the game in the weeks to come.

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