Review: Grand Theft Auto 4

It’s not perfect, but when a game is this amazing, it shouldn’t matter.

It is a cool morning in the city, the streets still slick and wet from the night’s rain. I pull up to my tiny apartment and shut the car off. I can hear the engine crackling from underneath the hood as it begins to cool off from the long drive. In the distance, a subway train passes, its vibrations gently rattling nearby chain-link fences. As I head inside, I can hear a nearby pedestrian’s cell phone ring. By the time I am in my apartment, I am too far away to make out what they are saying. After watching a little bit of TV, I lay down on my bed and try to get a few hours of sleep. A save file already exists. Would you like to overwrite it?

Make no mistake, Grand Theft Auto 4 is here and the level of detail and love Rockstar Games has put forth in to the title is rather staggering when you get down to it. So much so, that it can actually be a little daunting upon booting the game up for the first time. For those of you living under a rock, the Grand Theft Auto games are known for their freedom – they drop the player in to a world where you can do just about anything at any time. Cruise around the city in a stolen car, pick up hookers, or commit crimes and engage in shootouts with the police – the unscrupulous options available are as varied as they are shady. From the moment you step off the boat as Niko Bellic, the controls immediately set the tone for the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto: More realistic, and more serious. Immediately you will notice that while functionally the same, everything in the game feels like it moves with much more weight and momentum now, especially when you step behind the wheel of a vehicle. Cars lean and sway in wide arcs around turns, much in the same way it can feel in a real car; this can be extremely disorienting at first. Even for gamers who were masters of utilizing the hand brake in previous GTA games, it can feel a bit like re-learning to walk.

But it doesn’t stop there. The theme of “more realistic and more serious” seeps its way in to nearly every element of the game, from the game’s art style, to the realistic physics and animation, to the increasingly political-focused radio and TV (full of lots of anti-terrorism parodies and scare tactic hilarity), all the way to the the distinct lack of “Insane Stunt Bonus” cash rewards and “Rampage” side-missions found in previous games, this is a game that tries to build a focused, realistic world for the player to inhabit. Those of you expecting to deliver pizzas Crazy-Taxi-style or sky dive from an airplane full of heavily armed government agents, those types of activities have been scaled back considerably. However, if you’re the opposite type of person – one who enjoys the dramatic, bloody mobster storylines of past games, Grand Theft Auto 4 delivers on that better than any game to come before it. Niko Bellic’s tale is a somber one of a man who comes to America on the dreams and promises of his cousin, with intent on starting a new life and putting his sordid past behind him. But, as is always the case of Grand Theft Auto, these people have a hard time leaving behind the violence that defines them. Though Niko Bellic himself is initially sarcastic and gutsy (refreshingly so), his story and his evolution as a character only continually grows darker and more threatening as the game progresses. GTA4 focuses more on realistic characters and their believable reactions to the increasingly dangerous situations around them. That’s not to say the game is completely devoid of humor, it’s just not as crazy and cartoon-y as it used to be.

The biggest and most dramatic impact the realism has on the game, to me, involves high speed car chases with the police. In past games, I considered these a staple of the franchise – there was nothing more satisfying (and stress relieving) than mowing down a few pedestrians to pump up my wanted level a few stars in order to induce an epic car chase across the game’s expansive cities. Even on a two star wanted level, there were police around every street corner, and they drove dangerously to force you off the road. Grand Theft Auto 4 substantially changes the formula to not only be more realistic, but to be easier, as well. Pedestrians have to physically call the police to report any crime they see you committing, and once they do, a “danger zone” will appear around the player. Leave the “danger zone” without being seen by the cops, and your wanted level will quickly vanish and the police will forget about you. Obviously, the higher your wanted level, the larger the “danger zone” gets, though it almost never grows so large as to be unavoidable. What this entails is that you will often find you can lose the cops in most vehicles (even slow ones – I managed to evade a 3 star wanted level with very little effort in a big slow semi truck), completely nullifying the “epic” cross-city car chases of the past games. In the nearly 70 hours I’ve spent with GTA4, I was only ever busted once – and that was purely on accident.

In keeping with being a much more character-driven game, perhaps the most interesting new addition to Grand Theft Auto 4 is the branching pathways. There are a number of missions throughout the game where you are given a simple option: kill somebody, or let them live. Though initially seeming to involve random characters you do not care about, as the game progresses, your choices become increasingly more difficult and morally conflicting to make, all building towards one of the game’s multiple, emotionally-charged endings. The game rounds itself out with plenty of other new improvements too, including a much-improved cover/targeting system, the ability to ride in taxis as a passenger (which can completely negate all travel times in the game), in-car GPS systems to ensure you never get lost, and the return of GTA: San Andreas’ dating system – except this time it’s been expanded to cover all of Niko’s friends in the game, many of which offer special bonuses for close friendships. Not all improvements are as welcome as others, though – in particular, I found myself relying too heavily on the GPS to direct me to my next objective. Normally, in most GTA games, you acquire a very intimate relationship with the city you are occupying, eventually memorizing every inch of every street corner and alleyway. Perhaps a side-effect of GTA4′s dense city, I had a hard time leaving the GPS disabled as turning it off meant I frequently became lost – and just knowing the option was there left me with no patience for learning the street layout.

In spite of all the complaints I seem to have for the game, though, they are insignificant considering the scope and the variety contained within. Though there were negative parts that would sometimes nag at me here and there, those moments were vastly outnumbered by tons of dramatic, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat fun, making up one of the most entertaining and immersive gaming experiences of 2008. I had initially wanted to begin this review by writing about how in the weeks leading up to the release of GTA4 I went back and started a new game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and how a lot of my favorite gameplay elements from San Andreas were missing from GTA4, but by the time I finished the game, I realized that it didn’t really matter. Grand Theft Auto 4 stands on its own – not as a game chasing its own shadow, but as an unparalleled experience that nobody who enjoys videogames should miss.