Grand Theft Auto IV
Admit it. Last September when all the talk was of Halo 3, sales records, and gaming finally hitting the big time, the actual big time, you thought your hobby had reached its zenith and would struggle to ever regain the same 'real world' impact, the same acceptability, the same clout. You were wrong. Master Chief may have a certain something, but when it comes to titillating the masses, en masse, there really is only one game that has it all. The launch of Grand Theft Auto IV isn't so much like celebrating the arrival of a major new videogame, as it is like welcoming an old friend into your home, probably your best friend, and realising that those other loafers you've been hanging-out with lately just aren't as quick, aren't as witty, and just aren't as outright entertaining.
Poor Niko. He's just off the boat from eastern Europe in Liberty City, and already the American Dreams that fueled his passage are collapsing around him. The cinematic introduction that also pays stylish credit to the game's makers, introduces us to the star of the show, his hopes of a better life in the States, and subsequently crushes these hopes on the mean streets of this virtual psuedo-Big Apple.
Niko's cousin Roman has a big mouth, and equally sizable American Dreams of his own: big money, big cars and, err, big breasts. Unfortunately, he's fed lies of his successes (non-existent ones) to Niko, who discovers the harsh varieties of real life in the metropolis from the off, stumbling across Roman's seedy apartment, gambling habits, financial problems and miserable job. Cleverly, Rockstar North use this introductory period to teach us the game's controls (key elements such as driving and the mobile phone, in particular), as well giving us a little insight into the world you'll be a part of, the characters you'll be interacting with.
Your first mission will be saving Roman's skin from some particularly irate loan-sharks, and responding to in-game calls and texts to your mobile phone, you'll engage in your first shaky car-chase, a few early fisticuffs, and start the process of making your mark on Liberty City.
Things have changed. The visuals have moved up the scale several notches, offering us a next-gen world more rich, immense and diverse than anything we've come across previously. A few key gameplay alterations have also been ushered in, the mobile phone being the most important. This serves as a hub to all the possibilities open to you at any given moment. Fancy a date with sexy office lady Michelle. Why not? Drinking with Roman? Again, just pick up the phone. This handy gadget will give you access to guns, help you make contacts, and more than a handful of times, will also see you saving Roman's bacon from an assortment of unfriendly types. As your standing increases, of course, bigger jobs involving bigger fish will make their way to you via this all important device.
Given this new organisational tool, you might have forgiven Rockstar for making GTA IV just a little more tightly scripted, in order to control and push those cinematic sequences that were so popular in past games. These story instances do still make it in, and are better realised than ever, but the core sandbox dynamic also remains untouched. Should you just prefer to ride around town wreaking merry hell with cars, cops and pedestrians, you most certainly still can. What's more, you'll find the big city more 'alive' than ever, the world and its inhabitants responding to your crimes realistically. Just driving around town, there's a wonderful sense of being part of a rich, living and breathing world, a feeling that everything is there for the taking and nothing is out of bounds. Eat a hot-dog to repair your health, mug a pedestrian, steal that Hummer-alike and cruise around listing to the radio's hilarious shock-jock parodies. Everything is at your finger-tips, nothing is wasted.
Having played GTA IV extensively, I can also now appreciate the time, resources and all-out blood, sweat and tears that must have gone into the game. The myriad of in-car radio stations are a perfect example. They were always a highlight, but now they're better than ever, offering more eclectic musical choices, some inspired audio accompaniment, and some occasionally laugh-out-load funny DJs. Thousands of man-hours must have gone into such a feature, and much of it could pass the less explorative player by, yet the developers bothered anyway, ensuring that that those that do take pleasure in this touch will never be let down. This is the breadth of GTA IV. Some of the entertainment venues around town are another example (go bowling and actually go bowling, watch a cabaret show, et al), or the television back at your seedy safehouse (more parodies galore). The level of thought and detail put into every feature is frankly obscene, deciding what to do with your time is perhaps now the biggest problem.
This Grand Theft Auto is massive, and I mean truly vast, especially once those pesky terrorist threats have been put aside - the bridges opened - allowing you to explore and experience the full scale of Liberty City. A word on graphics. They're good. Very good. Especially when you consider how much there is, the attention-to-detail, the texturing, the modeling that goes into streets some players might never go down, or might just whizz through as part of some high-speed chase. This is GTA taken to the next-generation in every way possible. The cars deform realistically, and during those spectacular crashes your vehicles will roll and (sometimes) flip wonderfully. Physics have been improved greatly, and this really aids the driving side of things (where once again there is more variety), inducing genuine surprise during the more intense sequences.
Spend an evening on the sauce with Roman, and Niko will stumble through the streets, and, if you ignore the game's advice and decide to drive instead of taking a cab in such instances, the ensuing drunken police chase is so convincingly haphazard as to leave you feeling genuinely queazy afterwards. Highly authentic, indeed.
Which reminds me about the cabs, of course. Yes, if you want, you can opt to take an iconic yellow taxi to your destination, forgoing the driving side of things entirely. What game, with such an emphasis on driving and the importance of this activity, would then offer you an alternative just in the name of completeness? GTA really does have abyss-like depths.
Combat plays a large part in Niko's meteoric rise through the city's underworld, and the fighting has received lot of attention over past iterations of GTA. A basic cover mechanic is in place, and you can be far more subtle in your approaches to rivals, now. Zooming and firing a weapon has also been overhauled, the innovations being of the sensible variety here, making the whole experience seem much sharper and more intuitive. The physics work well during fight sequences, as your foe tumbles over nearby obstacles, and occasionally flies backwards through a glass window, which shatters satisfyingly.
Back in the car, and you can now fire from the vehicle in any direction while driving, and the scenery is also a tad more interactive - lamp posts and debris scattering during frenzied chases that dip up onto the side-walk, sending the plentiful pedestrians scattering.
Stepping into a 'Tw@' net cafe, you'll discover another joy along the same lines as the television and the radio; and entire mock internet awash with satire and general tomfoolery, yours to once again explore or ignore. The internet is another useful communications service, like the phone, and a number of missions will be undertaken via contact made online.
Niko is perhaps the most likeable, and certainly comprehensible, alternative hero we've taken charge of in a GTA game. As you progress you'll learn the horrible war-ravaged secrets of his past before Liberty City, and this helps give context to his in-game actions. When it comes to the murdering of pedestrians, it is also fairly obvious (despite whatever the Daily Mail says), that this is not the point of the game, nor is it encouraged (I'm fairly sure this is not part of Niko's moral make-up), and the fact that bystanders can become inadvertently involved is once again more about authenticity, a living world, than it is about deliberate carnage. By revealing details about Niko's past as we go, the game always manages to keep you hooked, even when the main plot is really getting into full swing, and your undertakings become more dangerous, more complicated and beautifully extended.
The scripting is engrossing, and the voice acting maintains a high standard throughout, no mean feat when you realise the accents on offer could have made proceedings somewhat comical. Speaking of comical, it is unusual to discover a game that actually makes you laugh, in an 'adult way', with its excesses and turns of phrase - as well as its sly digs and chides at real world people, organisations and events. We even get a stand-up routine from Ricky Gervais, which is worth going in search of.
If all this grandeur wasn't enough, number four also comes with a full and extensive roster of online modes. Most of the modes on offer turn out to be themed spins on the usual multiplayer fodder, but once again Rockstar's attention to detail and insistence on completeness means there's plenty to do in the company of online cohorts, should the title's off-line pleasures be proving a little solitary. It will be interesting to see how this side of the title develops, or whether gamers will prefer to stick with the purity of games more focussed on net-play than this, which at its heart is all about Niko's interaction with the city, and its interlocking stories.
Are there any down-sides to GTA IV? Well, the scale of the world can see there being a little slow-down when things get really busy, but given how much is going on at these points we can probably forgive this slight bugbear.
As games close an ever-tightening circle around the mass market, it seems entirely appropriate that a new Grand Theft Auto now takes to the stage; Nintendo has softened up those non-hardcore gamers with a little Wii Fit, and now its time to invite those players into the back room to find out what we've all known for years. Namely, that games like GTA IV can offer all the story, all the immersion and all the witty, post-modernistic commentary you could ever wish for, wrapped-up in grin-inducing gameplay that never lets up or becomes repetitive.
This is indeed a vital game.