Immersive Underworld Makes ‘GTA IV’ a Great, Gritty Ride

With the long-anticipated arrival of the next installment in the “Grand Theft Auto” (GTA) series, Liberty City does little to disappoint. Car chases, assassinations and shady drug dealers still litter the landscape of Liberty City, yet this game adds an in-depth view from the perspective of the main character. The player’s own choices and actions are more evident in “Grand Theft Auto IV” than in previous titles. This break from traditional “GTA” games not only allows the main character to evolve more freely but also allows the interactions and cut scenes to change throughout the game.

“GTA IV” stars Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant who has come to America to escape his war-torn past. We follow Niko as he rises from a lowly cab driver, learning new ways in America, to a major player in the criminal underworld. How he rises and whom he topples on his way to success is not defined within a rigid framework like most action-adventure games, and Niko’s reluctance to backstab and murder some of those who cross either him or his associates is illustrated by his actions. He often rejects the demands of his friends if they are too outlandish or if he morally disagrees.

During the opening cut scene of “GTA IV,” I was immediately impressed with the graphics and fluidity of motion in each character. The first hour of the game looked like a movie and stayed that way throughout the game. In other games, when a cut scene is inserted, the graphics are always of a higher quality. However, Rockstar Games apparently decided that seamless transitions between movies and gameplay were a better idea. After the opening cut scene ended, Niko got in his car and browsed the infamous “GTA” radio and all stations offered. There’s a remarkable amount of musical variety: John Coltrane, Black Sabbath, The Who, Busta Rhymes, Kanye West and even Stephen and Bob Marley are all featured in the latest “GTA” installment. The sound quality was also impressive. In the game, sitting in a cab or driving a car while listening to radio mimics real life. The small intricacies of “Grand Theft Auto IV” are what make the game realistic, and the music is no exception. “GTA IV” stands out among other “GTA” titles and other games in the same genre like “Crackdown” or “True Crime: Streets of L.A.” It has the variety of gameplay and freedom of decision that “Crackdown” lacks, as well as the complexity in mission structure that “True Crime” so desperately needs.

Smarter Enemies

The most vital new additions to this game include the cover system and a slightly altered targeting system used when engaging enemies with a gun. This improvement puts “GTA IV” on par with classic shooting games like “Splinter Cell” or “Gears of War.” Characters are now able to take cover behind doors, cars, buildings or almost anything in the game environment. With this new ability to cover comes blind firing, or firing behind cover without exposing yourself. This allows for an increase in combat strategy because Niko can now force his enemies into cover while he moves from a battered, bullet-ridden crate to a sturdy concrete wall. With these new additions, the intelligence level of Niko’s enemies has also increased. No longer do they mindlessly run at the main character like zombies. Tactics and cover are utilized by AI (artificial intelligence) and require players to think more carefully about where, when and how to engage their enemies. Similarly, the updated targeting crosshair allows the player to see the health of whomever he or she is shooting. The auto-lock-on targeting system can be frustrating at times because of its difficulty in changing targets, but this does not have a relevant impact on the combat aspect of game play.

The vast improvement of the storyline from previous “GTA” titles is not the only upgrade that Rockstar Games has made. The new RAGE graphics engine makes the world of Liberty City appear true to life. Each part of the city is modeled after its New York counterpart. Brooklyn has become “Broker,” Manhattan is “Algonquin,” Queens is “Dukes,” Bronx is “Bohan” and New Jersey is “Alderney.” The level of detail and accuracy in Liberty’s simulation of New York City is realistic and lifelike. Although the in-game world of Liberty City is considerably less massive than New York itself, the level of detail and number of buildings you can actually explore is more than enough to offset the relatively small interactive environment.

However, this level of detail comes with a price. Players are no longer able to buy lavish beachfront houses or penthouse lofts overlooking Central Park. Although there is no shortage of places to stay during Niko’s adventures in Liberty City, the lack of an in-game real estate department was disappointing. Similarly, character customization was also reduced. Lifting weights or running for hours no longer improves the main character’s physique. Neither will eating the infamous “Heart Stopper 6 -lb. Burger” from Burger Shot. There are no barbershops to help change Niko’s appearance. Facial hair, hairstyle and tattoos remain the same from beginning to end. However, there are many options when it comes to clothing. From buying new sunglasses and a Russian fur hat at the “Russian Store” to getting slate and obsidian suits at Wall Street-located “Perseus,” there are multitudes of clothing choices. In fact, some missions in the game actually require certain sets of clothing to be bought and worn.

The enhanced detail also applies to Niko’s movement as our main character interacts with the world around him. Appropriate facial expressions and great voice-overs are common throughout the new “GTA” landscape, and each pedestrian you pass will perform some actions like smoking, or even passing out on a bench. “GTA IV” is a refreshing improvement to the lemming-like movement of pedestrians in previous Rockstar games, in which the only action they would typically perform was mumbling and bumping into each other. In “GTA IV,” after sprinting a good distance, Niko will become winded and be forced to stop. When changing directions, Niko skids to a stop before continuing on. All these effects add to the high level of detail present in the game.

Getting There

Using a vehicle of any kind on the Playstation 3 console is another new update. The Sixaxis controls allow you to adjust the pitch and roll for helicopters, boats and motorcycles. The slightest movement or tilt of the controller will cause a desired (and sometimes mortally undesired) reaction in the vehicle you are using. This can be easily disabled with a simple movement of the left joystick.

But if driving isn’t your cup of tea, you still have other transportation opportunities to explore. “GTA IV” now has a cab system in which the main character can actually set a waypoint on the map and have a cab driver get as close to it as possible. Other locations are programmed into the cab once you discover them, which allows for easy access to that hidden sniper rifle or fast transit across town. “GTA IV” also features a usable subway system comes with a real-life map containing each route and various points of interest around the city. There are four different subway lines than span across the Liberty City landscape.

Getting lost was always an issue in other “GTA” games, but Rockstar has solved that problem as well. When in any vehicle, the game will actually calculate the required shortest route to take in order to reach your destination. Getting across the vast Liberty City landscape is no longer an issue, as the in-game global positioning system (GPS) even includes treacherous one-way streets and will tell you how to avoid them. The GPS is clearly displayed on the mini-map and is easy to navigate and read as you travel to your destination. In certain cars, the GPS has an audio function.

Rockstar also added a new shooting-from-a-vehicle feature similar to that of “Saint’s Row.” This new addition allows for the player to control where they can shoot and in which direction. This is a vital upgrade from the “90 degree rule” found in the previous “GTA III” series in which the character could not aim forward or backward. Additionally, grenades can now be dropped out of a car to cause maximum automotive carnage.

Mortal danger is a common condition for any “GTA” protagonist, and a new version of the game’s auto-save feature allows players to replay missions as needed. After each mission is successfully completed, the game automatically saves, which eliminates that long trek back to your safe house.

The new cell phone feature contributes to the new “GTA” experience. Niko can call any of the people he meets to join him at a wide selection of restaurants or even head to the local theater to watch a show. The cell phone is easily customized with different ring tones and backgrounds, and the phone itself can be upgraded throughout the game. Perhaps the most important feature of the cell phone is the ability to repeat failed missions through it. If the person you are escorting accidentally gets blown up by an rocket-propelled grenade, for instance, the cell phone will be sent a text message asking you whether or not you would like to try again. In previous “GTA” titles, the only choice in this situation was to hope and pray that you saved your game.

Rockstar Games has a long history of providing entertaining and exciting games to the public. “Grand Theft Auto IV” is no exception. It tells a somewhat believable story of crime, racism, poverty and the criminal counter-culture in a city that gamers can relate to. Greater freedom of choice and the plot’s reliance on decisions made by the player are important and vital improvements to the “GTA” series. Seamless transitions between indoors and outdoors and from cut scene to cut scene create realism and promote involvement in the game.

The long wait for Grand Theft Auto IV: Liberty City was more than worth it. Rockstar Games has created a masterpiece.

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