Just one small piece of this living, breathing cityThe scenario I’ve just relayed to you is just 10 minutes in the life of the main character and a mere snippet of the whole Grand Theft Auto IV experience.
The story of GTA IV follows Niko, a Bosnian civil war veteran who has come to Liberty City in pursuit of the ‘American Dream’. While the missions follow the same vein as previous Grand Theft Auto games: steal car, drive to location, kill baddies, head back to base; it’s away from the bog-standard objectives where Grand Theft Auto IV really shines.
The GTA experience is yours to tailor to your own needs. If you want to follow the main mission you'll enjoy a good deal of sex, drugs and wanton violence amongst the many driving missions, but alternatively you can choose different paths and go out on dates with your girlfriend, play mini-games, drive around the city exploring, or test the boundaries of the game’s superb physics engine by causing carnage and destruction on the streets.
You see, the formula that has worked so well in previous games has hardly been changed in GTA IV. If you’re familiar with the franchise you won’t find many surprises in terms of gameplay, but the difference now is that it looks better and feels more realistic, so much so that at times I’ve found it hard not to scream with delight or punch the air at my latest blood-thirsty assassination or riveting car chase. It does almost feel like you’re playing the lead role in an epic movie yet you’re also the story writer who can change the script where you see fit.
The atmosphere in the city, the attention to detail and the exploration of the sprawling metropolis is what really makes it feel special and unique. It looks amazing. The new camera angles which you can apply when driving around the city allow you to view it in ways that you’ve never been able to before, but even on foot the detail in the brick-work, animations of the pedestrians, the cars and the buildings is nothing short of brilliant.
In a short space of time driving around the suburb of Broker I’ve witnessed many things that have stopped me in my tracks. On street corners, I've watched people deep in conversation, gesturing with their hands and revealing their emotions through their facial movements. I’ve been a victim of road rage, in which I’ve bumped into a car and then watched a man get out, slam his door, and then come at me wielding a knife. I’ve seen a woman walk down the street bump into a stranger and then spill her bag of shopping on the pavement. As the contents leaked, a baguette rolled into the road and a car swerved out the way to avoid it. It's pointless yes and may seem irrelevant, but it's this type of small detail that makes the city feel so alive.
As the world goes by as normal (well as normal as it can be in Liberty City), and people go about their daily business, you know that you're just one small piece of this unique experience and effervescent city. Anything can happen and it probably will. I’ve only just scratched the surface, yet the intricate details and the buzz that encapsulates this living, breathing city is totally intoxicating.
And all of this without any load times.Despite the scale of the four suburbs and the amount of action on the streets, you seamlessly move from one location to another, into cafés, cabaret clubs and drug dealer’s dens, without a single flicker.
The realistic nature of the GTA experience is thwarted somewhat by the initial bouts of hand-to-hand combat that you need to play out before you get hold of your first pistol. It feels sluggish, slow and unresponsive and sometimes even Niko himself moves with the grace of a 20-stone Gorilla. Nevertheless, you don't need to use your fists for long and once you do get a fire-arm you do feel more in control during the frenetic shoot-outs, thanks to the excellent cover system.
My biggest bugbear so far though is driving. I haven’t yet managed to perfect the art of turning a corner without smashing into something. The brakes just aren’t very responsive on any of the vehicles I’ve driven and even on a simple A to B route I always manage to inadvertently crash into things. As a result, you need to take things a bit slower than you’d like on the roads, which isn’t so easy when you have the cops on your tail. Nevertheless, despite driving being one of the main activities in GTA IV, it still only feels like a minor issue and one that you can live with because everything else in the game is so close to perfection.
I’ve still got a long way to go to complete Grand Theft Auto IV, but I’m driven by the want to experience more, the need to see more cool stuff, and the overwhelming urge to explore what is the most incredible city I’m likely to walk around until the next GTA game.
There are some small issues here and there, including poor hand-to-hand combat, annoying camera angles, glitches and even a bugged objective, but the scale of the game is so huge that they pale into insignificance when you sit back and take into account the greatness that oozes out of every building brick and pavement slab in this stunning game.
I've also written a short review of the official game guide for GTA IV.
Looks the bollocks
Can tailor the experience to suit your own needs
A living, breathing city where almost anything can and probably will happen
Do all those things that you're not supposed to do
Hand-to-hand combat feels clunky
Poor brakes on cars
A masterpiece in terms of looks, physics and AI. It's the GTA that we know and love, only better looking.