Jean Michelle Jarre is on the radio again. The sky cracks white as the low boom of distant thunder almost threatens to drown out the plaintive electronica. I watch my employer, a man who has spared my life and the life of my cousin, walk into his grotty little Cabaret Club and I know that he cannot leave it alive. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for twenty two hours now; I’ve stolen cars for a crazed roid head, chased and gunned down a Biker Gang in a small idyllic park. I’ve murdered people, destroyed property, delivered drugs, hunted criminals, shot pigeons and driven Taxis.
In short the subsequent flurry of action in the Cabaret Club would be the finale to a great game, in Grand Theft Auto 4 executing this target is merely a prelude. In fact with Seventy story missions still in front of me I’ve barely completed a fifth of the game and still have yet to open up two of the three islands that makes up Liberty City. But this moment in the rain, on a rooftop with a man’s life in my hands is what defines Grand Theft Auto 4, a moment of melancholic reflection before the bitter end. That is an early defining point of the game for me, the moment in which I realised that Grand Theft Auto 4 was as great as the hype had led us to believe. The first few minutes in Liberty City were always going to be a cold shower of sorts, a harsh wall of reality to the preconceived expectations that had been built.
I will admit to being briefly disappointed by the way main character Niko Bellic lurched around the screen, and the way that objects in the distance popped in and out of reality, the heavy handling of the cars and the plodding pace of the initial missions. Every GTA game would start with its basic tutorial missions, but with such Grand Theft Auto 4’s depth of content the numerous tutorials and options threatened to choke the first few hours of the game. Certainly running errands for your cousin, buying some glasses to impress a date and beating up some wannabe hoodlums wasn’t what I expected of the game, but even San Andreas was cursed with a cumbersome start.
In looking at what makes GTA4 work it is probably wise to reflect on its predecessor San Andreas. San Andreas would represent the natural evolution of the GTA3 series, Rockstar confident enough with their engine to create a sprawling and immense game. Everything about San Andreas was huge, from the county wide play area to the cinematic scope of the missions. Naturally the move to the Next Generation would mean that San Andreas’s follow up would be a slighter game, but whereas other developers would have panicked at this proposition Rockstar made it GTA4’s greatest virtue.
The dichotomy of the game is that Niko is a character far more willing to resort to crime but also a far more human protagonist than San Andreas’s Carl Johnson. CJ would represent a burgeoning humanity within the series, a central character who looked after his own and questioned the crimes he was forced to commit for his own survival. Unlike Vice City’s psychotic Tommy Vercetti, CJ was noticeably troubled by his actions and actually represented a man trying to keep above the mire he found himself in. Niko Bellic has this same kind of characterisation, he is a man haunted by his past and stuck in a mindset where he accepts what must be done. His interactions with his cousin, his friends and his employers all help to flesh out a truly human character and Niko becomes at once both likeable and sympathetic. However he also embraces his nature as a hired gun, working for anyone who can afford his services and it creates a character constantly at odds with himself.
Niko Bellic is a Serbian immigrant who has travelled to Liberty City to live with his rich and successful cousin Roman Bellic. Fleeing a life of violence for purported comfort Niko instead finds Roman living a ramshackle life and finds himself having to delve into the murky underworld to keep his heavily indebted cousin alive. Through conversations with Roman we learn that Niko is a veteran of the Bosnian War and later dialogue reveal the horrors he witnessed during his service. If nothing else Grand Theft Auto 4 is a pinnacle in videogame characterisation, the story and dialogue helping to craft a character who is perhaps one of the first truly sympathetic protagonists in videogames and certainly one of the most fully formed. This is largely down to Michael Hollick who provides Niko’s voice and much of the characters motion capture. Niko is undeniably an anti-hero, charismatic but also unpleasant. Hollick seems to understand this perfectly and consequently there is a genuine humanity to Niko which gives a real sense of weight to the serpentine plot.
The core of the game is the friendships that Niko fosters during his time in Liberty City. Niko is given a mobile phone at the start of the game and every character he meets adds their details to his phonebook. Certain characters even strike up friendships with Niko and will call up to ask to hang out. These friends will regularly call you up to suggest hanging out, you can either choose to fob them off or pick them up and hit the town. There is a pleasing range of activities to choose from, certainly you are never stuck for something to do be it bowling, playing darts, going to a comedy club, playing pool, frequenting a strip club, grabbing some fast food or just getting hilariously drunk, but more than anything it is the conversations on the way to these activities which makes the endeavour worthwhile. Your friends and associates have hundreds of lines of dialogue and are so well crafted that it is easy to get attached to them.
In gameplay terms the friend system represents an evolution of the property ownership segments of Vice City: Stories. In that game you could raid other businesses, turn them into your own real estate and then play minigames to ensure a constant supply of money. In GTA 4 catering to your friends needs does not supply you with money, but instead gives you access to individual perks. Getting your cousin to like you is simplicity itself and nets you the free use of taxi cabs around the city whilst another friend will provide his services as a mobile arms dealer. The perks themselves are always helpful but they are just additional to how much story and character is formed through these impromptu activities. As stated earlier each character seems to have hundreds of lines of dialogue and they’re almost always interesting and usually hilarious. It is ridiculously easy to get attached to these characters and you almost feel guilty after a particular nasty crash or incident sends one of them to the hospital.
Realism is a buzzword being used to describe Grand Theft Auto 4 and to be honest I can see where people are coming from but the idea of a realistic Grand Theft Auto is patently ridiculous. Certainly in comparison to San Andreas (with its city wide gang wars, alien artefacts, casino robberies, airfields, and government funded missions) Grand Theft Auto 4 has a more realistic take, but it still has moments of sheer video gaming joy. Whilst realism is a misnomer it is safe to say that Grand Theft Auto 4 is a more grounded experience than either Vice City of San Andreas. Whilst Vice City, San Andreas and the two PSP spinoffs all told a rags to riches tale, GTA 4 is content with moving its protagonist from squalor to comfort. There are no mansions in GTA4, you can’t buy businesses in the game, you will barely make a million dollars and Niko Bellic will rarely rise beyond his station as a hired gun. What this grounding does is ensure that each mission is important. The brutish gunplay, more realistic handling of vehicles and strength of characters makes even a simple escort and kill mission kind of exciting.
The gunplay in GTA 4 is a definite highlight, taking the usual GTA mechanics and adding a Gears of War style cover engine and a Crackdown derived auto aim system. It is still not perfect, having free aim be activated by the same trigger as auto aim can lead to the player wrestling to pull off headshots, but it is a massive improvement over previous games in the series. In particular the cover mechanic adds a new dimension to the games usual run and gun style. Niko is far more susceptible to fire than his counterparts and as such the only way to ensure survival is by adequate use of cover. Of course this cover mechanic isn’t perfect, you can sometimes get stuck on the wrong side of a wall, but it is a great addition to the game. What really makes the gunplay in GTA 4 work is the sound work. Sure shooting from cover is cool as it the way that gunfire will realistically damage cars and walls but what ties it all together is the booming sound of gunfire. Even the pistol in the game has power to it and later missions can sound like something from a Michael Mann films as M-14 fire echoes around city streets. This sound work is just one of the things that makes Liberty City feel far more alive than previous environments, even little things like the way your phone ring will echo if you’re under a tunnel help to create a true sense of immersion.
Immersion is a key word with GTA 4; it is a game that almost demands that you become invested in its world and its characters. I’ve already touched upon the characters and story that help to create such a robust and vibrant world but it is the little touches which really bring Liberty City to life. The internet in the game is a great example, you have to use it now and then but mostly it is just for sending and receiving emails. If you start to explore GTA4’s internet you’ll come across a wealth of viewable sites. Most of them are straight parodies of existing sites, but the depth of content on each page is enough to make it seem almost real. What’s great is that as you complete missions the internet constantly updates with news sites offering reports on your crimes and internet blogs updating (sometime with information about Niko if you date the right girl). What the internet does is give context to your actions, plotlines are setup and resolved through the news sites and often news stories you’ve read will be worked into a mission later on in the game.
Liberty City is given even more life by its inhabitants, a diverse bunch who will quite happily go about their daily routine whilst Niko does his murdering. Just watching the crowds can reveal how much care and attention was put into the game. People interact with each other, mobile phones go off prompting conversations and the emergency services are constantly operating around you. Pick any Ambulance in the city and you’ll be able to follow it to someone who has been hurt, watch a street fight long enough and you’ll see police break it up and drive the felons off for processing. Even the city itself is given its own personality with different districts having distinct visual styles and residents. Liberty City is an obvious facsimile of New York and its design goes a long way to establishing that New York. It is at once both cosmopolitan and utterly dangerous and Rockstar seem at home both in the squalor of the projects and the decadence of Times Square. Whilst it doesn’t offer a diverse environment as San Andreas it creates a singular environment which is utterly cohesive and at times is quite staggeringly beautiful. Certainly driving across to the central island as the sun rises over a phalanx of skyscrapers is kind of awe inspiring.
Of course the problem is that without these little touches the game can become very sparse to the unobservant. Being brutally honest the missions do often devolve to a simple formula of going to a location, scaring a guy, pursuing him, waiting for his car to stop being invincible, and then shooting the holy hell out of his vehicle until he’s dead. There are some apparent little touches (often in chases a stray bullet will score a headshot and your quarry’s car will just swerve off the road as its dead driver lies slumped on the horn) but if you choose to ignore the news reports, and the internet, and the friend activities the game can become almost alienating. There are moments of inspired mission work (an epic bank heist is one of the best missions in the entire series and another mission where you’re chasing a helicopter through times square, you’re passenger launching rockets with reckless abandon, is kind of awe inspiring if the weathers right) but unless you’ve truly connected with the characters there’s nothing here that we haven’t done before. Similarly those just wanting to go on a kill crazy rampage might find their efforts thwarted by Niko’s apparent lack of health and some overly diligent cops. Firefights in the open generally don’t end well and even vehicles don’t offer much protection from bullets. As such unless you’re constantly on the move your rampages will likely not last all that long.
GTA4 is far more concerned with telling its story and its later missions whilst not offering new game play options have thrust and weight due to the narrative. Those expecting a next generation version of Vice City are going to be undoubtedly left wanting as GTA4 even eschews that games use of music. GTA: Vice City was a revelation to many due to its use of licensed music (GTA3 had a smattering of music, but aside from its opera selection it was all rather obscure). Playing a game with Gary Numan, Blondie, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jan Hammer on the radio was something a bit new. Whereas Vice City went for easily recognisable hits of the 1980s GTA 4 took a different view on its radio stations.
As such a lot of the songs you hear on the radios are not what you would consider well known, the classic rock and hip hop station have perhaps the most recognisable songs, but fit the game perfectly. Each radio station is just expertly put together and truly suits the game. Everything from African Jazz to Hardcore Punk is represented and the track listing for each station has very few duds. Driving around in the rain to Philip Glass is fantastically evocative, whilst the indie rock beats of Radio Broker provide a suitably tense score for some of the pursuit missions. It is a testament to the design and structure of each station that barring the Hardcore Punk station I listen to and enjoy each station in the game. As well as suiting the game world completely the game also manages to create its own iconic songs. Certainly its use of Arm and Arm and Get Innocuous! has given new context to those songs, whilst taking off in a Helicopter on a stormy night as Queen’s One Vision kicks in is as iconic as anything in Vice City.
So what we have is a witty and engaging update of the Grand Theft Auto ideal, a game where morality is given centre stage and the decision to kill is actually given dramatic weight. It is surprisingly complex for a videogame and some of the decisions you take later on actually transcend the usual gamer think (i.e. What is of most benefit to me as a player? What allows me to get an achievement) and actually force you to think emotionally about what you are doing. Of course if you buy Grand Theft Auto to have sex with hookers and go on rampages you may find yourself disappointed, unless you go online.
The drop in online multiplayer of GTA is perhaps one of the biggest revelations in the game, by bringing up your in-game mobile phone you can access a variety of online modes and drop right into the action. There are a variety of game modes from a free roam mode which drops you and up to fifteen other people in Liberty City to standard death matches and races. There are some well designed co-op missions and even a King of the Hill variant. However the three game modes that seem to get the most play are Cops n Crooks, Mafiya Work and Car Jack City. Cops n Crooks splits players into two teams, one team are crooks and have to get their boss to a designated extraction point, one team are the cops and have to kill the boss before he escapes. Despite some fundamental design problems (the lack of rounds means that most games end in draws or are won by the smallest possible margin).
Car Jack City has teams of players scouring Liberty City for designated cars to take back to a lock up for Cash, whilst Mafiya Work has teams working for a powerful mob boss who is constantly phoning in missions. Mafiya Work is probably my favourite mode for two reasons, for one it forces the two teams to converge on singular goals and as such it ss almost always incredibly hectic and often the jobs you are undertaking are ridiculously hilarious. One task has your mob boss explaining how his ex-girlfriend wants to be an actress, he promptly asks you to pick up his laptop to take to somebody so some pictures of her can be distributed to ruin her career. As such the game type becomes a mix of sheer slapstick lampoonery with an undercurrent of black GTA humour.
Of course the problem is that your opponents are often not interested in having fun. In fact the GTA online community is perhaps one of the most hostile communities around, with all of the worst players from Halo and Call of Duty migrating over. In the month that I have been playing the game online I have not come across a single other team who did not embody the very worst that Xbox Live has to offer. From people team killing in co-op games to sheer hostility in pre and post match lobbies (“If this was real life, we’d murder all of you” is ridiculously common expression at the moment) it is almost intolerable. Worst still are the gamers, who are intent on taking off the auto aim function of the game. If GTA was a straight shooter I would probably agree with turning auto aim off to and have more skilful games but GTA isn’t a straight shooter and all that having auto aim off does is slow a hectic game down to a crawl. Games with auto aim tend to be all kinds of chaotic, with explosions and vehicular homicide abound, games without auto aim tend to devolve into teams slinking across the ground and trying to merge into the background. It takes a game that was a little unique and turns it into a poor COD4 clone, but that is the nature of Xbox Live and online gaming in general.
Still if you are playing with friends and hosting your own games GTA’s multiplayer can be an absolute blast. Even just driving around Liberty City in Free Mode can be hilarious when you throw some like minded individuals into the mix.
GTA is not a perfect game but it is also a game deserving of a 10/10. It represents a will to change by Rockstar and whilst the nuts and bolts of the game are largely the same, there is enough evolution to make GTA 4 feel completely fresh. There are some fundamental flaws in the game, not least the way the game handles money forcing you to nickel and dime at the start and then giving you hundreds of thousands of dollars with nothing to spend it on, but the positive outweighs the negative in nearly every instance.