The Splendors and Miseries of Liberty City
After the previous game
pushed the series to the limit in terms of size and variety, GTAIV comes as a successful attempt at taking the series to a new level with more detail, more realism, and more serious approach to story-telling.
GTAIV follows the same design philosophy as the previous games in the series - let the player roam a huge virtual city, stealing vehicles, causing havoc, and completing missions to advance the story. While there are less vehicles and less variety in missions in GTAIV (more on that in the "Bad" section), it allows us to do pretty much all those things we loved doing in other GTA games - with the exception of those that were added in "San Andreas". However, the dating that was first introduced in that game is still here, and is more fleshed-out and realistic than before.
While there were a lot of "cartoony" features in previous GTA games, GTAIV definitely feels more realistic. Not only the structure of the city, but also the nature of the missions, the story, the driving, and especially the combat, feel much more like in real life. Cops have become more intelligent, and the new system of losing wanted levels works great. Combat has undergone a significant improvement. There is a solid hand-to-hand combat system, but more importantly, the shooting has become much more enjoyable. The targeting works like a charm (at least with the mouse), and the new cover system adds tons of possibilities. While I always struggled with the shooting parts in previous GTA games, I have absolutely no complaints about the shooting here. There is also more shooting in this GTA, and shooting sequences
tend to be longer and more detailed.
The biggest star of GTA is Liberty City itself. It is one of the most beautiful game worlds ever created. The amount of detail is overwhelming. Every building is unique, and there is logic and continuity in the design of the city that makes it feel much more real than previous GTA worlds. They added tons of detail to the behavior of the pedestrians. People talk to each other, quarrel, play games, eat, go online, carry things, etc. It's a pleasure to just walk around the city and see what people are doing. They would utter various comments when Niko interacts with them - in different languages (I can verify the authenticity of Russian language). There is so much life in the city, so many things are happening, that I find it very fitting that the final credits roll over panoramic views of Liberty City, the outstanding creation of the game developers.
But there is another side to this beauty. The developers have created a disturbing picture of a city where the only law is money and where hypocrisy is so deep that you can't tell truth from lies any more. GTAIV is a merciless, cynical, grotesque satire. Much deeper and more poignant than in previous GTA games, the satire of GTAIV manages to be shocking in its portrayal of a soulless, greedy, violent city.
Adding a whole new level to the immersion in this world are the genius internet and TV. They have created a fully functional fictional internet for this game, complete with websites, hyperlinks, ads, e-mail, etc. You can spend hours just browsing this net. The amount of work put into this is simply astounding. The internet really gives an edge to the dark satire that is GTAIV. I can't even begin to describe what is laughed at at those websites - it would be simpler to tell what is not
laughed at. Law and politics, food, tourism, fashion, love relationships - everything is mercilessly blown to pieces by the satiric machine of GTAIV. Same goes to the amazing TV. I remember spending a whole hour just watching TV in the first apartment I got in the game. Educational shows, commercials, talk shows, cartoons - everything is there, and everything is penetrated by satire.
Of course, there are also the outstanding radio stations. I remember how amazed I was when I browsed through the channels and suddenly heard John Coltrane's original recording of "Giant Steps". It was, without exaggeration, one of the best gaming moments I've ever had. To include legendary jazz recordings in a game about thugs and mafia - if this doesn't mean high class, I don't know what does.
The obvious improvement of GTAIV - to the point of reaching an entirely new level - is in story and characterization. As amusing as the characters of previous GTAs were, it was hard to take them seriously. The characters of GTAIV are much more like real human beings. The star of the show is the protagonist himself, Niko Bellic. He leaves the somewhat likable CJ from the previous game far behind. Niko has tons of charisma, and it's hard not to sympathize with him. He is a killer just like the rest of GTA protagonists; but unlike them, he is bitterly aware of what he is. The war has changed him, has made him cynical and desperate. He has nothing to lose, as he himself admits. But from what he says during the game we realize that he fully understands what is happening to him. What's more, he understands what is happening around
him. Killing bad people for bad people, he has no illusions either about the morality of his own actions or about those who give him the missions. The terrible hypocrisy that surrounds Niko has no effect on him. He serves as a merciless commentator to the events of the game, judging himself and the entire Liberty City in the process.
The sad story of GTAIV is much deeper than in any of its predecessors. The conversations are much more intriguing and thought-provoking. It is clear that there can be no happiness for our hero, and this theme is underlined throughout the whole game. The supporting cast is very strong and much more realistic than the collection of clowns in previous GTA games, no matter how memorable they were. Many of the characters have a "double bottom", and it is surprising and even touching to discover some humanity in the criminals of Liberty City. The ruthless killer Patrick McReary is no stranger to loyalty and honor: he takes care of his old mother and protects his family - unlike his brother, the corrupted policeman Francis, one of the most detestable characters in the game, who is ready to kill his own brother to preserve his reputation. Characters like Dwayne Forge or Little Jacob can even be described as genuinely likable, despite their criminal occupation. Finally, there are important characters in the game who try not to be involved in crime, such as Bernie Crane, Kate McReary, or Niko's cousin Roman, whose unbeatable optimism provides a nice contrast to Niko's cynical view of the world.
One of the coolest features in GTAIV is the possibility to decide the outcome of some of the missions. Basically, you can let Niko choose whom to kill, or choose between killing and sparing the life of the target. The final decision even leads to a branching story line and two different endings! I can only say that it's a pity they implemented this wonderful feature only in few missions; I certainly want to see more of this in the next GTA.
Unlike most other reviewers, I firmly recommend the PC version of GTAIV. I can only testify that it ran perfectly on my almost three year old PC - but then again, some magical force seems to have been protecting me from bugs, slowdowns, and crashes lately (touch wood). The reason why I prefer the PC version is (beside the obvious reason that you can't install "nude strippers" and "nude hookers" mods on consoles) because no gamepads will ever be able to compete with mouse in a shooter. Console versions can only offer clumsy aiming with analog sticks or "automatic aiming", which takes away half of the fun. No, when I play a game with many shooting sequences, I want to aim with the mouse like a human being, thank you very much.
Undeniably, the weakest part of GTAIV are the missions. It looks like they have run out of juice here; but I certainly don't blame them. After all, what could they possibly invent, without repeating themselves, after the incredible variety of San Andreas
? It was inevitable that they would go for a more realistic approach to missions: less tricks and gimmicks, more simple driving and shooting. GTAIV feels much more like a shooter than the previous games; most of the missions are simple assignments that boil down to "go there and do some more third-person shooting". While it is understandable that such style of missions goes well with the overall realistic and serious approach to the game world, anyone who had so much fun with the previous installment would be probably disappointed by the lack of variety here.
There are also less vehicles than before. Once again, we were spoiled by "San Andreas". Planes, monster trucks, tanks, and dozens of others are gone, and with the exception of a few missions, you'll be spending nearly all your time in regular cars.
I still feel that GTA could have gone one step further and add even more interaction to the game world. You still cannot enter most of the buildings, and you can only pick some small objects.
The Bottom Line
GTAIV is not the "biggest and baddest" installment in the series; San Andreas
gets this title. If you expected even more vehicles or even greater variety in missions, you won't get them here. But while GTAIV undeniably loses to its predecessor in variety, it stands head and shoulders above it (and above all previous GTAs) in terms of story, characterization, realism, and detail. It is not as insanely fun as "San Andreas", but it is a more genuinely immersive game. Its magnificently corrupted world and its cynically sad story more than make up for everything fans of the series would hold against it.