As promised, here’s my take on GTA4. As you’ve probably gleaned from the title, I think GTA4 is pretty damn sexy – but we’ll get to that in a minute or two. In order to set the mood, I thought I’d start with a bit of history on the franchise, and how GTA4 came to be the epic adventure that it is.
When I played Grand Theft Auto for the first time, way back in 1999, I felt like a kid who’d just found his dad’s secret stash of pornography. The game was already garnering negative attention from the media, lending it all the qualities of an exotic forbidden fruit, and once I got it running with hardware acceleration on my 3DFX VooDoo 2, gaming bliss reached epic proportions.
The style of play seemed new at the time. You’re a guy in the middle of a huge city, and you’ve got a bunch of missions to do – but you don’t have to do them if you don’t want to. Instead, you can just run around the city causing as much havoc as possible, or hop online and do the same thing with your friends. ‘Sandbox’ gameplay had finally arrived to the action genre, and the concept was brilliant. If you’re not up on your gaming history, you can play the original GTA and its sequel, the aptly named GTA2, at Rockstar Classics.
In 2002, Grand Theft Auto 3 was finally released for the PC (I’ve never owned a PlayStation, so it was my only option). I pre-ordered the game and received it on the day it came out, but wasn’t able to play it for a week… It turned out that my clunky old 3DFX VooDoo 3 video card just wouldn’t cut it. After a minor hardware upgrade, I was jacking cars in full 3D, and loving every second of it. GTA3 was to GTA as Super Mario 64 was to Super Mario Bros. The action was successfully ported to 3D, and it was amazingly fun. GTA3 was the second coming of the sandbox game.
Subsequent releases in the GTA franchise were similarly excellent. Vice City and San Andreas were both beautiful, worthy successors to GTA3, with each game taking the good concepts from the last, and leaving the rest behind. Despite how great these two sequels were however, the RenderWare engine Rockstar had been using since GTA3 was starting to show it’s age. It was obvious (to me, at least), that Grand Theft Auto needed something new. It needed a new engine, which would take advantage of current-gen hardware. It needed a face lift.
Enter Grand Theft Auto 4.
Grand Theft Auto 4 is a masterpiece. Almost every aspect of the Grand Theft Auto gameplay has been revamped, each with the skill, style, and expertise that only a veteran of the genre like Rockstar could deliver. If you’ve been looking for a reason to pick up a “next-gen” video game system, GTA4 is probably the best excuse you’ll get.
At this point I should probably mention that at the time of this writing, I’m only about 20% through the game. This is both a testament to how large the game is, and a warning that I’m not anywhere near finishing the game. Judging from the quality of my first 10 hours of play though, I think it’s safe to say that my opinions won’t change too much.
The first thing everyone inevitably notices about GTA4 (and rightfully so) is the graphics. Gone are the boxy cars, cartoon people, and goofy animations of the past. In their place is a re-imagination of Liberty City, modeled from the real-world city of New York, and complete with realistic physics, incredibly detailed vehicles, and more life-like people. Everything casts a shadow, cars rock and bounce as if they have a real suspension system, trees sway in the wind, the ocean ripples gently, the weather / atmospheric effects are practically photo-realistic… The number of graphical improvements between GTA4 and GTA: San Andreas is so great that it would be impossible to mention them all here; I’ll let the game’s screenshots speak for themselves. And through all the changes (in graphics and beyond) however, you’ll notice that Rockstar has still managed to retain their usual style, so while you’re busy exploring the new world, you’ll often have a nice feeling of familiarity, no matter how lost you might get.
The soundscape in GTA4 is as equally impressive as the visuals. Everywhere you go, the ambient sounds of urban life are present. The inhabitants of Liberty City have a seemingly limitless amount of oral blurbs, and the main characters of the game banter along with each other as good as any actors in a movie. There’s a ridiculous amount of radio stations in GTA4, each with their own unique set of music and oft-hilarious commercials. You can buy new ringtones for your in-game phone with in-game dollars. And you know that little “bzzt bzzt” noise your car radio makes right before you get a cell phone call? That’s in there too. GTA4 is simply a treat to listen to, and the sounds of Liberty City are just as convincingly realistic as the visuals.
Once you’re done gawking at the virtual city Rockstar has put together, you’ll delve further into the game itself, and you won’t be disappointed there either. This is where the familiarity of past GTA games comes to fruition in a more tangible form than other places; anyone who’s played a GTA game before will be instantly familiar with the style of play. As you progress through the game, the city map will become populated with icons representing all the different activities you can do, and you’ll have to visit these key locations to advance the story. Each visit to a mission-giving character triggers a cut-scene, after which you’re tasked with whatever deed suits the whim of that person. Each completed mission pushes the narrative forward. This simple flow of events is how every version of GTA has operated, and Rockstar was smart not to fiddle with it too much. The only major changes to this formula are that you now can receive (and launch) side-missions on your cell-phone, and you can retry failed missions quickly, without having to drive to the target location again. Oh, and the game automatically saves your progress, so you don’t have to worry about getting killed on the way back to your safe house after each mission.
The game controls similarly to before, but with the added realism of the game world comes the added realism of not being able to run at super-human speeds or jump over cars. It may take GTA veterans a while to get used to this, but as you grow to appreciate the life-like qualities of the game world, you’ll find that you won’t miss these things at all.
As with past GTA titles, particularly Vice City and San Andreas, the list of extra activities included in the game is quite long. Around the city you will find various locations to buy clothes, entertainment, play games like pool, bowling, and dart, or just grab a bite to eat. You’re free to use your cell phone (or one of the local internet cafes) to contact various people in the game, to hang out or to date. You can, of course, just go driving around and exploring, if you like. And if you get bored with all that, then there’s the multiplayer.
Being anxious to play through the single player campaign, I’ve not had as much time as I’d like with GTA4’s multiplayer, but I have put in a few hours and from what I have seen, it’s a blast. Jumping online via Xbox Live is a cinch, and it didn’t take too long to party up with a friend and find a game. There are a ton of different modes, but I’ve yet to try hardly any of them. Team deathmatch is my favorite of the few that I have played, and I’m sure that once I get more time to play, I’ll be participating in more online hijinks.
By now I think it’s obvious that I highly recommend you get Grand Theft Auto 4. It’s one of the most complete games I’ve had the privilege to play in the last few months, and beats out just about everything that rushed into the holidays last year. Even if you’re one of those people who’s written GTA off as a “murder simulator,” I suggest you at least give GTA4 a shot. I think you’ll be surprised at just how much humanity Rockstar has managed put into the game.
In closing, Grand Theft Auto 4 isn’t a perfect game on every level, but the franchise has come a long way from its roots, and even if you object to some of the content, there’s more than a few things here that you can’t help but like. GTA4 is a masterfully conceived game, and is probably one of the best games you’re going to play on Xbox 360, PS3, and eventually (hopefully) PC.
Screenshots courtesy of Rockstar Games.