Summary: Niko Bellic doesn't need an introduction.
And I'm not quite sure how I feel about that. Don't get me wrong. GTA IV is an incredible achievement, and easily the most playable, most refined game in the history of the series. If you're only going to play one game this year, uh, and you're over 17, this should be it. But morality has creeped into all of the crazy carjacking and cop-shooting gunplay, courtesy of a troubled Serbian protagonist haunted by what happened to him before he escaped Europe and deeply troubled over what he's doing to make a buck now in good old Liberty City.
So while there are still plenty of laughs here, and unlimited opportunities to get your SMG on in some of the zaniest crime sprees and cop chases imaginable, sober reality sticks its head into the tent a little too often for my liking. By about the midway point of the story missions, I found myself over the new graphics, the new mini-games, and the greater scope of the gameplay. I was longing for the simpler old days when CJ was burying construction foremen alive for looking at his sister and Tommy Vercetti was taking anonymous payphone contracts to murder wives for a few bucks. GTA was once a cathartic place where you could work out frustrations with the real world by going medieval on the ass of this virtual one; now it's more of a morality play that ladles out guilt with the once-gleeful carnage.
But these ethical dilemmas aren't all that noticeable at first. You play Niko Bellic, an illegal alien who's smuggled into Liberty City from his native Serbia aboard a freighter in the dead of night. His goal is apparently to live the American Dream, courtesy of the supposed riches of his immigrant cousin Roman Bellic. Of course, Niko soon discovers that Roman's tales of mansions and three-ways with hot American girls with big, round titties (a recurring theme) are complete crap. In actuality, he's a cowardly gambling-addicted idiot who's running a cab company and is constantly running from the loan sharks he's screwed over.
Feel of the game is similar to both San Andreas and Vice City, and sort of merges the two. Aside from the "immigrant experience" stuff, the opening hours of play roll out a lot like the previous two GTAs. Roman sets you up with a safehouse and you begin climbing the criminal ladder by taking part in story missions like driving thugs around town, beating up Albanian goons threatening your cousin, and so on. All of the RPG stats introduced in San Andreas have been ditched, although you can still regain health by chowing down at fast-food joints like Cluckin' Bell and Burger Shot, or by grabbing a hot dog from street vendors. Clothing options from Vice City have been ported over almost intact, so you can throw on funky togs to impress the ladies. Missions still let you fly planes and choppers, but the James Bond nonsense that San Andreas got into involving Harriers and jetpacks has been mostly tossed in favor of doing ever-crazier things with cars and motorcycles.
Core GTA fans will probably be happy about these developments, as I heard nothing but complaints about some of the San Andreas role-playing, particularly the work-out and eating necessary to attract women. But I really missed the RPG elements from San Andreas. I found that they really helped me identify with CJ, and felt that they would have let me identify more with Roman, who came off more as a movie protagonist I was watching than a character I was living.
It's actually a pretty dull introduction to the game, and I found it very restrictive. I could deal with the same old blocked bridges (this time due to a terrorist threat at the start of the game) closing off access to some of the map, but GTA IV takes away a lot of essentials in the beginning. One of the first things I did with San Andreas and Vice City was to get to know my surroundings and make a few bucks playing cabbie for an hour or two. This wasn't possible in GTA IV. Instead, I had to get in good with Roman first. I had to take him on a boys' night out, preferably to a strip club to see the American titties he loves so much, before he okayed me to drive one of his company cabs. This can be done really early in the game, but still, not being able to steal a cab right off the bat just feels wrong.
Everything takes a much darker turn when the tutorial-style missions wrap up, though. Not to drop any spoilers, but in small talk while driving to missions Niko reveals to his first girlfriend and Roman that he's actually in Liberty City looking for somebody, and that his experiences in "the war" pretty much "ruined him" for life. He even goes off on a rant with Roman at one point, giving a lecture about how bad things happen to people that they carry through their entire lives, and how they can't be removed simply by getting on a boat and moving to a foreign land. Cheerful.
Niko's tortured soul is on display more and more as the story missions develop. I found this whole aspect of the game a little too serious, although I sure can't argue with the quality of the plotting, dialogue, and acting. Everything is first-rate. While the story may start out as a "Wild and Crazy Guys" farce, it soon evolves into a serious drama layered with moral overtones and choices about how good or evil you want Niko to be. The end result for me was sympathizing with Niko, getting ever more curious about what could have happened to him in Europe. Even though I found the basic play structure awfully similar to the now six-year-old Vice City, the story pulled me along. I had to figure out what was really making this guy tick.
Additional story and setting development kept me playing into the wee hours of the morning as well. What's on offer here simply blows away anything in the previous three GTA games. Liberty City feels alive. It's absolutely huge and is modeled more accurately after New York City than it was way back in GTA III, with landmarks like the Statue of Happiness and pretty authentic takes on NY boroughs like Brooklyn (Broker) and Queens (Dukes). The only drawback is that this urban jungle is, well, a little too urban for the most part. Although there are some nice suburban areas with brownstones and elite mansions, most of the time you're wheeling around concrete canyons that just don't have the personality of, say, the beachfront strip in Vice City or the hillbilly Badlands in San Andreas.
I wasn't quite as enamored of some of the other added attractions. GTA IV offers up all sorts of pastimes to keep Niko occupied when he's not killing to win friends and influence people, though most of these options are repetitive and rather dull. They flesh out Liberty City as a real place, yet at the same time aren't all that engaging. Dating and socializing with friends (which involves the same activities, less the chance of getting some action at the end of the night) are both kind of lame. Still, you've got a good half-dozen options for every date or night out with a friend. You can throw darts, shoot pool, go bowling, get hammered and drive drunk, check out a surreal cabaret show, line up dates via an online matchmaking site, and hit a strip club for some amazingly raunchy lap dances. Seriously. There are more sex positions mimed in the lap dances than anything available in a Hot Coffee-enabled San Andreas, so I'm a little amazed that the game got an M rating from the ESRB.
Anyhow, I got some chuckles out of all of these options, although they mostly wore out their welcomes pretty fast. Only the internet dating had me enjoying coming back for more, just because the potential of hooking up with freaks was too hard to resist. Unfortunately, you're sort of roped into taking part in these mini-games, as you need to go on nights out to make friends, and you need friends to open up all mission opportunities as well as make available sideline business opportunities like driving Roman's cab, making deliveries for an incomprehensible dope king, and more. Buddies can sometimes help you out in missions, as well, but the payoff isn't very good considering the incredible amount of time you have to waste on boring nights out to gain their friendship.
And the radio stations, well, suck. Although randomized track lists and more mentions of what's happening in your game are impressive changes, there just isn't anything close to the song variety that was present in San Andreas. You can spin around a dial with loads of options than run from talk radio to ambient rock, but most tunes are either third-raters you'll barely remember, like Heart's "Straight On" and ZZ Top's "Thug," or anonymous rap or alt-rock. Yes, I'm a mid-30s white guy, and maybe not the core audience for GTA anymore. Still, I can't really see even a young 20-something getting all fired up over a soundtrack featuring Murphy's Law, Juliette and the Licks, and Jill Scott. I actually found myself listening to the jazz station, as it included some catchy Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and wasn't as irritating as the alternatives. Man, I may be older than I thought. Oh, and one more gripe--whoever decided to cut off the end of Black Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell" with DJ patter needs to be shot.
Look and sound of GTA IV is just about identical on both Xbox 360 and PS3, by the way. I played both versions and didn't notice any appreciable difference, aside from the faster loads on the PS3, which installs part of the game to the hard drive before you start playing. If I had to pick one or the other, I'd go with the 360 edition solely for the exclusive online content coming out over Live starting this August. But if you've got both systems and don't care about the downloadable extras, pick PS3. I found the 360 game an incredible burden to my console, cranking up the noise of the fans and disc drive to vacuum-cleaner levels and causing two hard crashes during the opening cinematics. Once I got past the opening, however, it was clear sailing save the ungodly racket coming from my TV cabinet.
Well, most of the time. In addition to Niko's constant wrangling with morality and making judgment calls like the early one where he can ditch helping Roman avoid a beating to carry on with his other activities, like a date, there are consequences for damn near everything you do in GTA IV. Although the basic structure of play remains the same, and most of the mission goals awfully familiar, everything has been tightened up and given more of a structure. Sometimes, this is a very good thing, as you can now replay failed missions with a tap on your cell phone and take cabs and trains all over the city when you don't feel like driving. But at other times, it's almost as if the developers at Rockstar gave the critics an ear and tried to prevent you from reveling in the nihilistic crime sprees that CJ and Tommy Vercetti could get away with in San Andreas and Vice City.
For starters, cops are everywhere in Liberty City. During the day, you can't drive more than a block without running into at least a couple of cruisers and boys in blue walking the beat. Watch it when you're taking corners, as it's really easy to sideswipe a cruiser or run down a fat street cop and kick off an inadvertent chase. It can also be tough just to jack a ride in peace, as you're in cop sight a lot of the time and you now have to take a few extra seconds smashing out windows and hotwiring some vehicles. This is a lot more realistic and flat-out cooler looking than simply wrenching a door open and taking off, at least.
Ditching cops is more involved now, too, as you can only lose your wanted stars by escaping a search bubble that pops up on the mini-map whenever a chase is on, and can only use a Pay and Spray if you're out of sight of the boys in blue. This makes more sense than the "run around until the star disappears" concept of the last two GTA games, and isn't particularly difficult to pull off as there are lots of open stretches where you can bury the needle and leave pursuers in the dust. But chases tend to drag on longer now because there are so damn many cops in the city that you're forever running out of one search bubble and right into another (the center of the bubbles change depending on the latest cop to spot you).
Battling on foot is also a whole lot harder, even though combat is smoother and smarter. A new hand-to-hand fighting system incorporates combo attacks and blocks, and new weapon targeting lets you zero in on specific body parts with pistols and SMGs and the like. Niko can also now use cover, hug the wall by open doors, climb fences and ladders, vault over objects, and even occasionally pick up junk to use as weapons. So you generally can't mindlessly button-mash to beat the hell out of enemies.
But this greater ability to fight and use the environment is sort of negated by much tougher opponents. Cops are better shots here, and can seemingly drop you with one or two bullets to the back. Get a copter on you and it's usually game over really fast if you can't grab a car. Pedestrians are also quicker to fight back in mugging and carjacking attempts and can actually lay a serious beating on you if you're not careful. They're also more commonly armed. I tried the standard old "make a few bucks by mugging everyone in sight" trick at the start of the game and quickly wound up running for my life from a couple of pissed-off Guidos with pistols and knives.
One aspect of GTA IV that isn't lacking, though, as it was in past games in the series, is multiplayer. Rockstar has now moved from the rudimentary two-player rampages available in San Andreas to full-blown online multiplayer modes of play. Some of the 15 options are pretty basic and predictable, if necessary and expected, games like deathmatch, team deathmatch, race, and the like, but the largely generic stuff is made up for with free mode. At any point in the solo game, you can now fire up Niko's cellphone and go online, meeting up buddies for a wide-open rampage through Liberty City. This feels like a natural extension of the main campaign, not a totally separate experience, which just increases the living, interactive vibe of the whole GTA IV experience.
Being stuck rushing through the solo story missions to get this review up as quickly as possible, I didn't get much of a chance to mess around with the multiplayer games. But given that I've got a couple of really good friends who are more addicted to GTA than I am, I imagine that I'll be spending a lot of time online in free mode for, oh, at least the next two or three years.
And Now, the Moral Majority
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