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SummaryThe Splendors and Miseries of Liberty City
The GoodAfter the previous game pushed the series to the limit in terms of size and variety, GTA IV comes as a successful attempt at taking the series to the next level with more detail and more realism.
GTA IV follows the same design philosophy as the preceding games in the series - let the player roam a huge virtual city, stealing vehicles, wreaking havoc, and completing missions to advance the story. While there are less vehicles and less variety in missions in this iteration (more on that in the "Bad" section), it allows us to do pretty much all those things we loved doing in the earlier 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 than before.
While there were a lot of "cartoony" features in the previous games, GTA IV definitely feels more true to life - and hence more immersive as a virtual world. Not only the structure of the city, but also the nature of the missions, driving, combat, and even the story feel more realistic. 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. 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 them here. There is also more shooting in this GTA, and those sequences tend to be longer and more detailed.
The biggest star of the game 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 developers.
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 GTA IV. I can't even begin to describe what those websites laugh at - it would be simpler to tell what they do not laugh at. Law and politics, food, tourism, fashion, love relationships - everything is mercilessly blown to pieces by this satiric machine. Same goes to the awesome 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 - it's entertainment inside of entertainment.
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.
A cool new feature is the possibility to decide the outcome of some of the missions. Basically, you can let the protagonist choose whom to kill, or choose between killing and sparing the life of the target. The final decision even leads to a branching storyline and two different endings. I can only say that it's a pity they implemented this interesting mechanic only in a few missions.
GTA IV is much more convincing that its predecessors in its portrayal of a soulless, greedy, violent city. As amusing as the characters of previous GTA games were, it was hard to take them seriously. The characters of GTA IV, on the other side, are fairly realistic sketches, downplaying the grotesque buffoonery typical of the earlier installments. In particular the protagonist is noticeably more likable. He has a well-developed backstory and even displays bits of moral awareness, serving as a merciless commentator to the events of the game, judging himself and the entire Liberty City in the process. The supporting cast is strong as well, with many of the characters breaking away from caricatures and clown roles their counterparts were assigned in earlier installments. The game's story even has sad and tragic undertones.
Unlike most other reviewers, I firmly recommend the PC version of GTA IV. I can only testify that it ran perfectly on my almost three year old PC. The reason why I prefer the PC version is (besides the obvious reason of being able to install "nude strippers" and "nude hookers" mods) because no gamepad will ever be able to compete with the 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.
The BadUndeniably, the weakest part of GTA IV are the story 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. GTA IV 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 more serious approach to world design, anyone who had so much fun with the previous installment would probably be disappointed with 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 IV could have gone a step further and add even more interaction to the game world. You still cannot enter most of the buildings, and it's only possible to pick up some small objects.