GTA IV is an experience that transcends all its relevant flaws to become easily one of the finest games in recent years
GTA IV puts you in the shoes of a Serbian immigrant, Niko Bellic who has come to the "land of dreams and oppurtunities", Liberty City to meet his cousin Roman who is supposedly filthy rich with huge mansions, a garage full of sports cars and hot tubs with three women. Niko is enticed enough to break his poverty-ridden shackles of post-war Serbia and come to Liberty City to fulfill his "American dream".
Roman is debt-ridden, lives in a run-down apartment that has no women but certainly has enough cockroaches and wants Niko to help him run his struggling taxi business to help him get rid of the ever-increasing debt from the Russian crime barons.
From the very beginning, the game establishes the Niko-Roman camaraderie perfectly. They share a kind of bond that any two brothers with contrasting natures would. They argue, they bicker, they hurl abuses at each other but when either of them is in danger, they can risk their own lives to save each other as well.
On his journey, Niko will meet many characters, each more memorable and likeable than the other. The fact that these characters have unique personalities backed by the series' trademark powerful, witty, street-smart dialogues and voice-acting helps their cause too. Brucie, the pill-popping alpha male is easily the most likeable from the lot. His dialogues and presence-of-mind catches even the usually witty and sarcastic Niko off guard and has you rolling around in laughter.
You'll meet similarly likeable oddballs, misfits in Niko's Machiavellian odyssey but there's a difference when it comes to characters from the past titles in the series and GTAIV's characters. While characters in past titles could often be defined in a clichéd nutshell, GTA IV's characters although might appear clichéd initially, but they eventually rise above such clichés and pack surprising amount of complexity within them enough to demand your respect.
These misfits all have their own little ambitions, fears and devils from their past that makes you realize that these characters aren't just supporting tools for your protagonists. They are characters who are also struggling to achieve their ambitions in a harsh, unforgiving city and in a tale with a theme involving "survival of the fittest" you can often see why some of the characters end up doing things as they do in the game. They have their own goals and they can go to lengths against you the moment Niko's and their interests' conflict.
Niko came to America hoping to leave behind his dark, scarred past behind and begin afresh. But poverty forces him to enter the never-ending vicious cycle of crime where he's forced to do things he would otherwise never dream of doing just for mere sustenance. He isn't a mindless, psychopath like the previous protagonists in the series. He does it because he has no other alternative. He shows a blatant dislike for his work, hesitates doing them, often argues with his employer to avoid killing someone and at times even spares innocent targets lives. You feel for Niko and the predicament he finds himself in. Every loss he suffers makes you feel pitiful for him and every little step he climbs in the success ladder makes you feel proud of him.
This surprising amount of depth and maturity from a GTA game is initially both shocking and surprising to even a fan of the series but you eventually realize that Rockstar has shifted the tone of the series to something serious and they're doing absolute wonders with it.
Gameplay in GTA IV has received a "cloaked revamp" staying true to its shift of tone of the series towards more realism. Things have definitely been revamped for good and many older features have been rehashed too and presented differently. At its core, GTA IV is very much an open-world game. Missions open up to you on the Map, some of which associated with the main story, others just developing separate, intersecting threads elsewhere. Just like previous GTA games, the story progresses via cutscenes which take mostly before a mission. Conversations or otherwise are directed with intensity and charm that perhaps only GTA games can boast of.
Where the game has changed is in the way you play it. Firstly, the physics engine is the core driving force behind this change. Euphoria, Rockstar's own realistic physics engine makes every motion of every character model from Niko to a NPC realistic. The way you walk, the way you climb the stairs feels immensely realistic. The ragdoll physics are also well-implemented.
The gameplay changes are more apparent the moment you're behind the steering wheel of a car. The wild, arcade-like controls of previous GTA games are long forgotten. Instead GTA IV has realistic controls often resembling the likes of semi-simulation racers like Forza Motorsport. Now you just can't swerve off the corner like you did earlier. Instead you'll have to do so while keeping one leg on the brakes to facilitate swerving. It takes sometime getting used to the change in driving but at the end it's a whole lot more satisfying. GTA IV also has realistic damage physics, so any dent on the car's body will show up genuinely. Unlike the previous games where excessive damage to car led to it going up in flames eventually ending in an explosion, GTA IV has a more realistic design. Damaging too much will only lead to engine dying or tires tearing off. Your car will catch fire only when someone shoots and damages the petrol tank area. The drive by controls also feel a lot easier and less annoying when ever you have to multi-task between shooting and driving.
The core shooting has been worked upon as well. The lock-n-shoot system remains the same but this time with an addition of the ability to take cover behind objects or walls. When near such an object, a touch of the left bumper puts you in cover. The idea is good however its implementation leaves few things to be desired. Firstly, the camera is restricted when you take cover. Often, the game takes cover behind a far object rather than a nearby one which can be annoying considering there is little margin of error in a game like this. Nonetheless, despite these minor niggles, GTA IV's shooting can be immensely fun just like in any other GTA game. This shooting fun increases exponentially in certain story missions like the one involving a bank robbery gone bad(similar to "The Job" from Vice City)
Police system has been revamped a bit in this game. The amount of police attention you've attracted is still described in stars. The larger crime spree you go into, the greater number of stars and more police attention you gain. The chases have this time been changed. Earlier, if you could avoid police for few minutes, you could lose stars. This time, you have to escape from a "sphere" of police vigilance that appears on the game's mini-map. If you're able to escape the sphere without being spotted and stay low for sometime, you will lose the police attention. It is an easier but nonetheless a lot more streamlined approach to the series' concept of police chases.
San Andreas was the first GTA game to feature role-playing like customization. GTA IV may allow you to wear your own clothes, but doesn't feature that much amount of physical customization as San Andreas did. What GTA IV does do is create RPG-like "decision-making" situations. New to the series, certain story missions ask you to make a decision. You might have an innocent thug at gun point and you might be asked if you would save him or kill him. Saving him might mean he will never forget your gratefulness but might mean you facing the wrath of your employers. Killing him will ultimately mean hurting Niko's conscience. There are 4 decisions similar to that around the game and one at the very end. These decisions despite being few in number can be intensely impactful upon both the player and Niko. Different missions might open up based upon the different decisions you might take. This not only leads to a worthy incentive for multiple playthroughs but also forces the players to consider Niko's predicament frequently. Killing a friend might give you a posh Algonquin apartment, but would you really want to lose a friend in a city as hostile as Liberty City? The game forces you to answer similar questions like that and with surprising intensity.
Easily the most revolutionary change in GTA IV is the inclusion of mobile phone. This little device which has become an essential part of most of our lives today plays an important role in the life in Liberty City as well. Nearly everything you do is integrated via mobile phone. People you meet in the city will often give you their phone numbers. You'll also receive messages from your friends or employers at time informing you about an important event taking place in the game. Many of the game's missions use the camera of your cell phone to take pictures of for example a double-crossing agent caught red-handed stealthily.
You can also call your friends and hang out with them at the local pub, play a game of pool or you can use the special "friend" services they offer.
For fun stuff, you can also download wallpapers and ringtones from the in-game internet websites or you can also use a special "ZIT" mobile service to know the name of the song and the artist playing on the radio.
Besides all that, an important use of mobile phone is its integration of multiplayer modes. While playing single-player mode, you can jump into multiplayer game by a single touch of mobile phone along with your friends. This seamless transition is not only an innovative idea but it is well executed too.
GTA multiplayer has always been fun but often overshadowed by its much-superior single player mode. GTA IV does introduce few new modes besides the traditional deathmatch, free-roam, racing, capture the flag etc. It's mostly nothing special beyond the usual GTA fun but with friends. The single-player mode will still take up the bulk of gaming time for most of the players.
GTA IV looks beautiful despite the fact that its graphics may look aged today. The sight of the sun rising above the Algonquin skyline is still a site to behold like it is in real-life Manhattan. The character facial expressions look realistic enough to convey the emotions the trials and tribulations that the story puts them through.
GTA IV is set in Liberty City, which has completely changed from what it was in GTAIII back in 2001. Now, the city is far more detailed, realistic. But unlike any other open-world game I've ever played, Liberty City is very well a living, breathing place with its own charm and soul. Every building, every street of Liberty City will strike you as having its own unique personality. Each street has something special which sets it apart from every other street in the city, gives it its very own identity. This becomes apparent from the very moment you first step in the city. Smoke bellowing out of the sewers, dark crime-ridden alleyways, cheap apartments greet you into what is apparently GTA IV's rendition of Brooklyn. The moment you step into the streets of Liberty City, you realize with a shiver down your spine that Rockstar's efforts of creating a realistic version of New York has been fulfilled and how.
Few hours into the game, you'll have your own distinct memory of every part of the city accessible to you. You'll have to rarely refer a map from this point on, since every road has now become familiar to you. You've become a part of the city.
Even the NYC's "boroughs" named as Algonquin (Manhattan), Broker (Brooklyn), Alderney (Jersey), Dukes (Queens) and Bohan (Bronx) are distinct in the game having their own peculiarities co-relating with their real life counterparts. You would likely come across suit-wearing businessmen chatting on their mobile phones and limos in Algonquin but you'll find a completely different crowd elsewhere. Graffiti on walls and buildings are a common sight in Bohan whereas finely mowed lawns are a more common sight in Alderney. This gives each area of the city its own distinct flavor and nothing seems out of place in this city.
Perhaps more than anything else what adds more to city's already absorbing persona is the entertainment, the TV shows, the radio stations, the internet sites, the random strangers you meet in the city.
GTA series is usually famous (or infamous depending upon your sense of humor) for its humor and GTA IV has undoubtedly got to be one of the funniest games of this generation….if you've got an acquired sense of humor that is. GTA IV takes a satirical stance at the entire American culture driven by Niko's sarcastic remarks as an outsider and its radio stations and TV shows. It has enough misogynistic comments, racial digs, stereotypes of all sorts to offend anybody but the game always does it in a sense that will have you rolling around in laughter even if the joke was meant to offend you. Witty social critique humor doesn't get better than this.
Like the previous GTA games the game features radio stations which play every time you enter a car. Liberty City has a wide array of radio stations (much like what we find today) ranging from usual suspects like rock, metal, alternative, punk, indie, rap, hip-hop, 80s pop, jazz to surprisingly unique additions like a Russian radio station featuring its indigenous artists which are surprisingly good. There is also a strange "spiritual radio station" that has some ambient music plus some inappropriately humorous commentary. There are also radio talk shows featuring RJs who talk about various political issues (usually terrorism) mostly followed by stereotyping a particular community as terrorists.
There are also some "radio soaps", a hilarious one featuring a sexist judge who works in a divorce court. He can be funny or offensive depending yet again upon your sense of humour.
Now in GTA IV you can also watch TV in your apartment/safehouse. There are usually 6 to 7 odd channels most of them ranging from uproaringly hilarious parodies of popular real-life TV shows (like VH1's Fabulous Life) to stand-up comedy shows. The TV shows are easily the biggest draws when it comes to humor in GTA IV. There's a channel that shows live poker challenge 24-hrs a day with the same players playing till the end of eternity. The commentators on that show parody what we often hear our sports commentators do –hyperbole and exaggerate. Easily the two of my favourite TV shows are "The Men's Room" and "Republican Space Rangers". The latter is a cross-parody between Halo and the stereotypical Republican. Hilarious is an understatement here.
Internet plays a key role in GTA IV. Besides offering hundred or more sites for leisure browsing and source of instant humour, it also acts as a portal for certain story missions later in the game. You also have your very own email account which gets spams (which again are funny) as well as emails from your mother (which builds up back story of Niko), friends or potential date interests. Yes, GTA IV does have the girlfriends feature from San Andreas but this time you can browse through potential girlfriends from a dating site. You can meet them for a blind date and if things go well you can get her number by the end of first date too. Besides that, there are dozens of detailed sites which parody some or the other part of the internet world.
There are entertainment activities that you can enjoy alone or with a friend in Liberty City too. Besides, bowling and pool (which feature their own minigames) there are pubs, stand-up comedy shows and strip clubs. When you go to a pub, you usually end up drunk and driving under such circumstances can be dangerously hilarious. When drunk, the game's camera goes haywire, the vision gets blurred and the controls purposely unresponsive. Driving back to your home in one piece while dodging cops can be incredibly fun. The stand-up comedy shows feature two prominent real-life stand-up comedy artists Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams. Both bring their unique sense of humor to tickle your funny bones. The strip clubs usually have dingy, little rooms that have strippers in G-strings "entertaining" you while your controller vibrates. Fan-service to pervs, anyone?
You also meet random strangers across the city more than once and they have their own little stories attached to them. Some of these however short they maybe are surprisingly good like the one featuring an illegal immigrant who was in the same ship as you or a teenage girl who ran from her Kentucky home to Liberty City but became a junkie instead. What these missions do at most is give Niko's character more space to develop and it certainly shows. Niko is a protagonist most of the gamers will care and sympathize about.
GTA IV isn't flawless though. Perhaps the only "valid" flaw is also the game's biggest strength. It's shift towards a more mature and serious tone creates a wonderful story with complex, grey-shaded characters but also the realism kills the "over-the-top" fun the series became popular for in the first place. Sure, it is obvious that neither of those two things can co-exist but lack of "over-the-top" fun also kills the replay value to an extent. Causing random mayhem isn't easy now. However, to be honest irrespective of what GTA fan community might think, I personally prefer this kind of a serious GTA.
There are also weak moments in the story line too.
Somewhere after the midway and before the final stretch of story missions, the game starts feeling repetitive. Mission design becomes bland, cutscenes lose the same ferocity of earlier and even Niko starts doing questionable things without asking questions. The missions start feeling boring with clear repetition in between the halfway mark and the final stretch. That's the only part of the game GTA IV appears on unstable footing.
All those worries are however safely buried when GTA IV easily features a complete, fulfilling albeit a poignant ending. I won't tell the nature of the ending to avoid spoiling it for those who haven't played it, but GTA IV's ending will stay in your mind long after it's over at the awe of the way Rockstar have managed to answer its critics.
Graphically there are flaws as well. While it is visually sound, the pop-up issues from the series remain. Skyscrapers pop up from the horizon as you fly across the sky which is unfitting for a game of as much finesse and budget as GTA IV's The frame rate tends to suffer at rare occasions when you create too much of frenzy on-screen.
Then there are the taxi missions, vigilante missions, delivery missions as well as hidden packages and stunt jumps all given a face-lift for the new generation. That still doesn't hide the fact that such missions are mostly unnecessary and the fact that you can continue causing random mayhem after the story ending lessens the amazing impact of the story.
GTA IV was unarguably one of the most important game in this generation so far. San Andreas attracted acclaim and controversy in equal amounts within and outside of the gaming community. Rockstar had to redeem themselves while keeping the series' acclaim intact. All they could have done was give us a bigger, better GTA game and we would be happy. But instead what they did was shift the tone towards realism and a more mature narrative and characterization chucking aside "over-the-top" violence. GTA IV still retains everything we've loved about the series. The trademark sharp, satirical humor is still here with enough racial digs and stereotypical and sexist jokes to offend and humor equal amounts of people.
It still features oddball misfit characters which have surprising amount of depth in them this time around. Above all, GTA IV succeeds in creating two of its chief strengths – Liberty City and Niko Bellic. The story of the harsh, unforgiving city and a struggling illegal immigrant forced to face his past to meet ends is something we could never have imagined Rockstar pulling it off in the kind of manner they did.
Perhaps, in Rockstar's eyes, the best way to answer their critics who feel their games promote violence is to make them watch the final dialogue of GTA IV. The single sentence alone could make them believe that maybe, just maybe the bad-boy of gaming is changing for the good.
GTA IV is an experience that transcends all its flaws to become easily one of the finest games in recent years.