“We’re all looking for that special someone…” opined GTA IV’s anti-hero Niko in the trailer that you’ve no doubt watched about a billion times by now; and we can’t help but agree with the sentiment. For all the comic-book flair of Crackdown and the faux-street vibes of Saints Row, most of us are still looking for an open-world experience that matches the technological ambition of the new generation of console hardware at this point. A title that can conjure up the feeling that we had on taking those first steps around the giant playground of GTA III all those years ago, and realising that almost anything was possible. Thankfully, with Rockstar taking the design of the series in a full circle and returning to the stomping ground of Liberty City for GTA IV, we’re all set to re-live the dream; and who knows, “maybe here… things will be different”.
As a pastiche of American culture, the GTA series has always been very specific in it’s attempts to lampoon the ‘American Dream’ within some of the high points of recent history. Each of the main story arcs – from the bombastic criminal underworld of GTA III, to the 1980′s Cuban-inspired Vice City or the 90′s LA gang life of San Andreas – has always dealt with the same core elements; namely, to get rich or die trying. GTA IV is the first in the series to hold up a cultural mirror to our own present timeline in that respect, and the results are not entirely as expected.
The eastern-European protagonist Niko, for example, is unlike any anti-hero that we’ve seen in a GTA title thus far. Arriving on the shores of Liberty City as a confused and often bewildered observant to the American way of life, we proceed to see the story through the eyes of someone completely alien to the rampant culture of capitalism and greed, and indeed to the microcosms of other nationalistic stereotypes that the storyline often represents. It’s an unusually subtle approach for Rockstar, but grounding the series in reality and alienation makes for a suitably different experience, and one that represents our own cultural idealisms more than we’d perhaps like to admit. The undercurrent of bemusement running through the facial expressions and the consistently high quality of the script serves to embellish a vast amount of empathy, and the sense of being the only sane person in a city full of lunatics is certainly more representative of the real-life New York than any other videogame has managed to capture to date. Make no mistake, Niko is destined to become an icon of the videogame world, and for once, it’s for all the right reasons.
Indeed, this is such a sombre and considered affair at times that it’s difficult to recognise the same anarchic DNA that courses through the veins of the series; but scratching the surface reveals the usual propensity for light relief, and the ever-watchful eye of Rockstar’s production department has outdone themselves in that department. Everything from the presidential elections, internet dating, and terrorism; through to the fear-mongering of Fox News, is present and correct in some form – and there aren’t too many dud jokes amongst the pack this time around. Even though the storytelling has grown up and we’ve got a fresh perspective on the lead character, this is still GTA; with all the comedic trimmings present and correct.
Aside from the obvious maturation of the plot, the initial response to the mechanics will be slightly more muted. There are changes here, and significant ones at that, but it’ll take a little bit of experimentation to uncover their true potential.
Vehicle handling, for example, is largely unaltered. The cars themselves still have the same bouncy suspension and a slightly increased propensity to under/over steer depending on which model you’ve liberated from the streets, but all in all the driving mechanics are pretty much exactly the same as previous games. That isn’t to say that traversing the streets of Liberty City is anything other than smoothly implemented of course, and the sheer variety of different vehicles and handling types has to be applauded. It’s not an area that needed a great deal of polish, and serves to anchor the game firmly to it’s genetic roots as a result. Not everything needs to be revolutionised to serve a purpose, in that respect.
Thankfully though, Rockstar has definitely added a considerable amount of polish to the areas that really needed to be affected, and none more so than the combat controls. Wielding a gun is no longer a simple case of locking on with the left trigger and firing until either one of you drops to the floor, and a brand-new cover system underpins the more tactical approach this time around. Hitting the right bumper (or R1) snaps Niko into a covered position against whichever object that you choose, with the enemy AI also boosted to be able to utilise the same system. Firefights take on a considerably more ‘Gears’ of War’ hue as a result (complete with destructible scenery), with Niko popping in and out to dispatch any foes foolish enough to break position, sliding and rolling around the environment to safety. Whilst the fluidity of snapping in and out of cover isn’t quite up there with the very best examples of the genre, it’s a robust system that completely removes the frustrations of old; and feels satisfying throughout.
Perhaps the biggest alteration of all though comes with the integration of the ‘Euphoria’ physics engine that underpins almost every aspect of gameplay. What this essentially means is that every character in the game interacts with objects (and each other), in a completely believable manner. Walking into somebody will result in Niko using his arms to brush past them, for example, or the simple act of running down stairs or opening a door has a consistently believable sense of weight and connection. Combat and vehicular damage, as a result, can come across as sickeningly realistic at times, with bodies crumpling under tyres and dragged down the street, and hand-to-hand combat that’s imbued with a new sense of brutality.
The old ‘pre-canned’ and stilted animations of GTA games past are completely removed here, and the sheer variety in the Euphoria implementation means that you’ll never see the same results twice when engaging in any of the action elements. Even more impressive is the completely uniform implementation throughout the world. When driving a car, your passengers will be rocked around convincingly in their seats, and if you hit an obstacle at high speed, there’s a good chance that at least some of the occupants will be catapulted through the nearest window. Implementing a deep physics system into an already sandbox-oriented environment is simply the icing on an already richly-baked cake, and proves to be as much of a diversion as any of the main missions themselves.
Speaking of which, the variety of mission types is another potentially contentious issue here. The focus on grounding the narrative in a little more reality means that some of the more outlandish tasks of old are simply nowhere to be found. You’ll not be wielding a jetpack around the empire state building for example, or dogfighting in an F16 this time around. In their stead is a progression of driving and combat quests that build on the basic foundations of the game, steadily ramping up in scope and complexity as the game wears on. For those of you interested in the crime genre as a whole, you’ll also be pleased to note several homages to dramatic series such as The Sopranos and CSI, and one rather obvious reference to ‘Heat’, intertwined into the storyline in an absolutely genius manner.
Without being too specific about some of the aspects which are best left to be discovered by yourself, the lack of grandiose scope doesn’t mean that Rockstar has skimped on the innovation either. Indeed, Niko’s obsession with his mobile phone (which serves as a core plot device and gameplay mechanic throughout the game), plays into the storyline in some unique and engaging ways, and it’s that sort of innovation within the reality of the mundane that serves to provide the necessary charm.
As with all previous titles in the series, the real star of the show is the environment itself, and – much to the relief of the doubters – Rockstar has yet again managed to raise the bar in that regard. Whilst Liberty City lacks the sprawling countryside and epic races to the other side of the map that San Andreas introduced, what we’re presented as an alternative is arguably the most densely-packed and highly detailed city to ever grace our chosen medium. Every street, every building and every character is infused with personality and a unique design that rarely drops below the incredibly high watermark that they hit from the beginning, and it simply doesn’t let up. Whether it’s watching the sun rise through the downtown skyscrapers of Algonquin (Manhattan), or taking a boat out to sea to peer through the fog at the incredible skyline, GTA IV is nothing short of beautiful throughout.
The pedestrians and general street life are also a complete revelation. Where previous iterations essentially formed around a bunch of limited automatons with a few pre-scripted animations, GTA IV introduces it’s own complex eco-system to the streets, and imbibes the atmosphere with some genuinely realistic interactions. People answer phones or get confused when yours rings in a nearby vicinity, pedestrians open up umbrellas and dash for cover in the rain and people get distracted at toll booths; needing a quick blast of the horn to awaken their senses. Police chase criminals independently and flash their lights to get cars to move along, heads turn when a pretty girl walks by, and you’ll even be called out on your accent from time to time.
All of which is barely scratching the surface on the possibilities. GTA IV is simply alive with interaction on an unprecedented level, and whilst the traffic and pedestrian density is a little low in the parts of the city that should by rights be a little more congested, the believability on show is simply breathtaking at times.
…and justice for all
That isn’t to say that there’s no room for improvement of course, and if we have to pick apart one aspect of the design, it’d be the ever-present graphical faults that have plagued the series since it’s 3D reincarnation, and it’s a little unfortunate that they rear their head once again here. Pop-in has been drastically reduced, but still exists to an occasionally noticeable degree, and whilst the framerate is generally solid, it’ll still dip in the usual places of high action from time to time. Neither of these elements are anywhere near as bad as the last-generation versions, but for series detractors, they’ll certainly be worthy of a mention.
Also on that note, some of the graphical post-processing effects used to enhance the fidelity of the world can be a little counter-productive at times. During intense periods of sun, for example, foliage and trees take on an almost brush-stroked appearance at odds with the realism of the rest of the man-made environment, with bright sun-shadows dancing and becoming fuzzy on movement. It’s a strange effect and not entirely dislikeable, but you get the feeling that the technology isn’t quite up to the level that they need to implement such filtering at this stage.
At the end of the day, such minuscule issues are never enough to take away from the impact of the revamped Liberty City though. It’s a place that will easily eat through 50 or 60 hours of your time, and on top of that, Rockstar has also included a multiplayer mode with enough depth to rival any of the top online contenders at the moment (look out for a separate feature on that aspect next week).
The depth of content and the exquisite attention to detail will leave you with a grin whenever something new comes along, and it’s testament to the design that the game manages to keep such moments flowing consistently throughout (we could have filled 50 pages detailing all of the finer points, but you should really experience them yourselves). It isn’t going to be a game that’ll convert anyone that didn’t like the series previously, and GTA IV does, at times, tread a fine line between evolution and revolution; but most importantly of all, it never once errs from the side of brilliance. Hype be damned, this is one of the finest open-world experiences to ever grace a home console, and deserves to be praised as such.