Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto IV

Believe it or not, there was a time not long ago when video games weren't just sociopathic murder fantasies.

But, of course, the epoch-defining release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 changed all that. Now all anybody gives a shit about is what sort of guns you can wield, how much stuff you can blow up, how often the characters swear and how many whores you fuck.

Naturally, the answer Grand Theft Auto IV gives to all these questions is: lots. But thanks to the brilliant minds at Rockstar, it manages to do it all with consummate style.

While Vice City centred around Tony Montana rip-off Tommy Vercetti in the garish surrounds of mid-80s Miami, and San Andreas allowed the player to control CJ in Boyz In The Hood-ish early-90s Los Angeles, IV's anti-hero, Niko Bellic, arrives in cynical, brutal, loveless and present day New York-aping Liberty City.

Niko – straight off the boat from Serbia – meets up with his cousin, Roman, and is quickly given access to a mobile phone and the internet. Rather like Ashley Cole and Jermaine Pennant, GTA IV uses the mobile phone in inspired fashion, allowing you to access missions, organise activities with friends, arrange dates or simply shoot the breeze.

The internet is used in much less interesting ways. You receive the odd email from other characters and from family back in Serbia, plenty of unfunny spam, the opportunity to read news reports about the havoc you're wreaking around Liberty City and access to an online dating service. All nice touches, certainly, but you sense there was much more Rockstar could've done with it; that the GTA series hasn't taken the opportunity to offer pornography on its in-game internet is downright head scratching.

There are a couple of other new additions to the series. Cars aren't all magically unlocked now, so stealing them often requires smashing the window, setting off the alarm and hot-wiring them. This will obviously make you more visible to the police, so the ability to use Roman's car service or hail taxis is useful. The cabs can be used to instantly transport you to your destination but you'll pay more for the privilege. It's a neat idea that solves the series-long problem of having to drive infuriatingly long distances to missions but like, say, Oblivion, it does stop you exploring the city as much as you might otherwise.

It's the combat that has undergone the biggest refinements, and it's finally now possible to target enemies accurately and instantly using the shoulder buttons. Hey, Ocarina Of Time managed to get it right in 1996, but whatever. The new cover system, too, is handy, but it's nowhere near as sophisticated as Rainbow Six's and far too often you'll find Niko glued to the wrong surface and promptly bukkaked by billions of bullets.

Liberty City itself and the people within it, though, are the game's biggest successes. Unlike San Andreas or Vice City, you genuinely feel for this world and its inhabitants. Not only is Niko the series' first vaguely sympathetic character, but the supporting cast of gangstas, government agents, steroid addicts and Rastafarians is dripping in diversity and charisma.

While you listen to Iggy Pop, Roy Ayers and Juliette Lewis talking about your actions on Liberty City's myriad of radio stations, your friends will call you to go bowling, play pool, or simply to go out and get drunk. The more you hang out with your friends, the more likely they are to provide you with work, but the conversations ebb and flow so brilliantly that you'll want to natter with them anyway. Dates, meanwhile, will compliment or diss your choice of clothing and venue.

Liberty City is certainly inspired by New York, but not totally beholden to it. Unlike most game worlds, far from feeling like it only began existing the second you turned on your console, Liberty City looks and feels lived in. Drive to the affluent areas of Algonquin and the streets are newly paved, the cars more expensive, the police more plentiful, but take a trip to downtown Bohan and crack dealers, prostitutes and heroin addicts litter the streets.

It’s a good thing that the scripting and the characterisation are as good as they are, because the missions themselves are a bit of a letdown.

Seven years on from GTA III and it's still a matter of driving to a point on the map, watching a cut-scene, driving off to a mission, completing it and saving. Rockstar have added some new dynamics, such as eavesdropping or using the camera phone to identify the right target but there are far too many missions that you see you chasing the target using the kind of gameplay that Taito perfected in 1988 with Chase HQ.

It would've been nice to see the developers tinker more boldly with their well-worn format, but the dialogue goes a long way to preventing things becoming stale, and Rockstar should be congratulated for creating the most coherent and atmospheric gameworld ever seen.

Of course, to enjoy GTA IV you will need to ignore the fact that it's a mass-marketed piece of hyper-violent misogynism being cynically targeted at teenagers, but that's another story.

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