"My cousin is here! Niko Bellic! He's the f*cking man, bitches!" The man clad in a silk jacket with an outdated geometric pattern shouts, taking a celebratory swig from a bottle of booze in honor of his cousin Niko, who just set foot on American soil after a long journey via cargo ship. "Where's the sports car?" Niko asks, his thick Eastern European accent unable to hide the disappointment that his cousin Roman—who just picked him up in a rusted-out sedan—has been feeding him made-up tales about his life in America.
So begins Grand Theft Auto IV, the newest—and easily the best—entry in the wildly popular GTA series. The game manages to take the tried-and-true sandbox game experience—take on missions to earn cash and climb the corporate ladder of a criminal operation, or just go sightseeing around Liberty City—and turn it into something that feels, if not completely new, than at least expertly updated.
Whether it's the Hollywood-style plot, the introduction of modern-day conveniences like text messaging, GPS and the Internet into the game experience, or just the fact that the game's powered by more advanced technology, Grand Theft Auto has matured into something that feels as much like a living, breathing piece of interactive art as it does a video game. We have a hard time imagining anyone picking up this game and not feeling like this is one of the best $60 purchases they've made in a long time.
The game starts out slow, easing you into the environment and controls. We appreciated not being thrown into shootouts right away, giving the story and characters a chance to breathe. We were several hours in before even got our hands on a gun.
GTA IV's lead actor is the city itself, beautifully rendered (with different lead artists listed for the different boroughs) and positively bustling with activity. At one point, a hapless pedestrian was hit by a reckless driver (not us, we swear). A minute or two later, as traffic lined up behind the accident, an ambulance pulled up with its sirens blaring. A paramedic actually got out of the ambulance, and while he didn't seem to know what to do at that point and just stood around, it was still an impressive example of how the AI characters inhabit the city as more than just window dressing.
As for the stars in the game, Niko Bellic, his cousin Roman and the other principle characters look great, but some of the secondary characters look a bit like clunky PS2 holdovers. Nico also adds something long missing from games—a decent "walking down stairs" animation.
While the dialog and voice acting are at the high end of what we've seen in video games, there's still a clear difference between this and a B-level Hollywood production. In large part this is attributable to the current limitations of video games as a medium. Computer-rendered characters lack the subtle non-verbal cues you'd get from real-life actors, so in even the biggest-budget games, every story note must be delivered by flat, to-the-point dialog. Hence, we get characters over-explaining their feelings and opinions, leading to some awkward exchanges.
Obviously the biggest area of improvement over past GTA entries is the on-foot game. It no longer feels tacked-on, and while the camera still has a little trouble with tight indoor spaces, the game stands on its own as a competent third-person action/adventure. The auto targeting during shootouts is a dream compared to older GTA games, and the ability to take cover behind objects is also a huge plus. The cover system isn't as advanced as, say, Gears of War, but it helps make the game's extended gun-fests fun instead of frustrating.
Despite the new emphasis on character development and the pedestrian sections of the game, Grand Theft Auto IV is still built around driving. The basic mechanics of jacking cars and racing them through crowded city streets get a few tweaks. Getting into a car now usually involves breaking the window to get in, and then spending a few valuable seconds hotwiring the ignition, rapidly pressing the trigger buttons on the controller to speed up the process.
Even more so than in past versions, the kind of car Nico drives has a major impact on the game. GTA games have always had cars than handled better than others, but some cars in GTA4 are especially loose and hard to control when executing the kind of high-speed maneuvers required by the game. Using the handbrake to execute hairpin turns and drifts is, in general, more difficult than before, and you'll have to actually have to think about slowing down a bit before taking a tight corner.
The majority of vehicles, however, are easy enough to drive, and all have a satisfyingly realistic sense of weight and heft. Another plus—the cars themselves seem much sturdier. In previous GTA games, so much as looking at a car in a funny way could make its hood and front bumper fly off, and it was nearly impossible to get through even a simple mission without sustaining serious body damage.
The cop-to-civilian ratio seems to have doubled in the game, so car-jacking now comes at a greater risk. Once you're spotted, the cops will give chase and you have to escape their radar (demarcated by a red circle on your onscreen radar) before they call off the hunt. If another cop spots you on your escape, the radar will re-center on you and you'll have to work extra hard to shake them. It's most challenging to escape the cops, but not unmanageable. One time we walked up to some cops at a roadblock who were guarding a bridge from a terrorism threat, and our wanted level went from zero to five stars instantly. When that happens, you need to be some kind of four-wheeled Houdini in order to escape.
Perhaps the single most troubling holdover from the previous installments is the annoying safe-house save system. With missions that can take an extended period of time, and require trips to several locations, not having a save-anywhere system will turn off mainstream and casual gamers. The game does offer auto-saves at key points, but reloading the game from there usually takes you back to your safe house, not the location you saved from. Then again, it's easier than ever to re-do failed missions. Just access a text message on your cell phone and you'll be popped right back into the mission. The phone is also your lifeline for getting missions and calling other characters for favors (or just to hang out).
Mini-games based on strippers, hookers and bars provide some much-needed fun time for Niko and they're a great way to take a break between missions or when having a tough time completing a task. We called Roman and went to a bar, then after many drinks had to drive him back to his cab company as the camera swayed wildly (the game wisely suggests calling a cab). After one-too-many fender-benders, the cops were onto us, but we managed to escape the long arm of the law. We also visited a strip club and went to a private room for a dance. It's racy and sexy, but still won't displace any real-life strip club experience. Mini-games like darts and bowling are passably fun, but we wouldn't play them more than once in a while.
Some of the other interactive features, such as shopping for clothes in several clothing stores, have an awkward interface, making it a chore to try on different looks. Plenty of clothing items are available, but unlike GTA: San Andreas, the changes to Niko are cosmetic—you won't upgrade your stats or change your body by working out (San Andreas' most RPG-like experiment).
The in-game radio has more songs than ever before, with a diverse music selection. Well-known artists like Iggy Pop and Juliette Lewis, (plus cult figures such as Roy Ayers and Femi Kuti) play DJ to the game's diverse selection of 18 radio stations, playing modern rock, electronic music, hip-hop, jazz fusion, international music and talk radio.
Finally, the wait for a true GTA multiplayer experience was well worth it, and the online game modes (mostly variations on deathmatches, car races, car races and self-contained co-op missions) add a lot of value to an already jam-packed game. Multiplayer is not as integral part of the game as it was to, say, Halo 3 or Call of Duty 4, but playing over the entire city map is brilliant. Online matches are accessed right from the game via the call phone, and we'll have a more in-depth take on the game's multiplayer offerings once the game is released and the servers are fully populated.