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SummaryFor every step back Rockstar takes, they make giant leaps forward.
The GoodThe GTA series has always been somewhat of an experiment. The first game in the series was a flawed gem, fun and unique but had many problems, yet it had extreme ambition and the premise of being let loose in a big city was unique at the time. GTA 2 didn't go too far forward, but was still fun (Also the first game I got for my dreamcast.) but it was clear that Rockstar had intentions of going even further. They pushed the envelope with the third entry, and created an excellent trilogy that continued to tweak GTA III's groundwork. They slowly pushed the base framework, but didn't really try to change it massively, experimenting on how to improve on GTA III's formula, which was perfected in San Andreas.
Yet GTA IV is a leap ahead of its predecessors in more than just a tech generation. While some of the variety in weaponry and character alteration in San Andreas is reduced in IV, Rockstar makes up by perfecting the concept of a living breathing city. Many other recent sandbox games such as Prototype and Infamous have used an NYC setting, their game worlds felt incomplete. The city didn't feel complete or unique, let alone alive. Those games are great, but their cities still feel like a simple game map. GTA IV's liberty city, which recreates NYC so well that its downright creepy, feels like a real place. Everything feels alive and real. This gives the game a great immersion value. Rockstar has crafted the best sandbox locale ever, and it boggles the mind how they are going to improve.
The story is also incredible. Although its not quite as great as Silent Hill 2's story, it is easily the second greatest story ever told in a video game. Niko Bellic is an excellent character, you feel for him and grow attached. Despite what he gets reluctantly involved in, he's not a criminal or a villain. His story of redemption and finding a new life in the most corrupt city on the planet feels epic and it will tug on every emotion possible. This is quite possibly the only game next to Silent Hill 2 that had me in tears at the end.
The core gameplay is still here and better than ever. The cover system works great and makes the combat more intense while also eases it up a bit from previous games. The targeting system is also improved, while still a bit fidgety at times, you can now aim with true precision and weapons feel better in your hands then they did in the past. They all feel unique and have kick, they sound great too. Combat is satisfying and packs a punch.
The graphics are superb. Liberty City looks awesome, and character models are detailed and have expressive body and facial animations. The animations are further enhanced by the Euphoria engine, an engine that uses realistic ragdoll/collision modeling even when a human is still alive. This basically means that they will never clip through walls, and the models will bend, animate, and interact realistically with the world. They can be knocked over realistically, and this applies to your character too. This also makes combat more satisfying, shoot a specific limb and it will temporarily cripple them as they realistically react and wince in pain. Sometimes if your foe is near a flight of stairs, shooting them will stumble them and they will fall down the stairs and hurt themselves more before getting up. It is impressive and eerily realistic.
The soundtrack is great, the various stations mean that no matter what music you like, there will be a station that plays something to your taste. Except classical. Why the hell is there no classical station? :( But each station has great tracks that will scratch your itch. I love classic rock and jazz, so Liberty Rock Radio and JNR give me good tunes. My wife likes rap and disco, and they have stations for those too, and so many more. The tracks are all good ones as well, I have yet to hear a stinker on my two stations. The talk radios are also funny.
The cell phone system, while it has its cons, works well and is a great communication hub. You can also meet girlfriends and friends and schedule dates and stuff where you can do minigames. While the bowling minigame is atrocious, others are actually kinda fun. I like doing darts and billiards, and there's a rather funny minigame where you go get drunk with a friend or girlfriend and stumble around. The animations are hilarious, the drunken stumbling is enhanced by euphoria and funny and of course it obscures your ability to drive, which leads to a funny yet challenging cop chase. The characters that count as friends all have different perks for hanging out with them and making them happy, and you will want to hang out with some of them because they are genuinely likable characters. I love playing pool with Little Jacob. Little Jacob is awesome and one of my favourite characters.
The missions are standard fare, but usually of a high quality. There are several standout missions, and several where your choices affect the game and ultimately affect the outcome. These decisions truly carry weight and force you to think. One mission you are hired by a corrupt cop to assassinate his drug addicted brother, but his drug addicted brother wants you to assassinate the corrupt cop. Both characters played a big part and became real, who do you kill? You really think over their roles in your life. There are several moments like this where you are given a choice of life or death for certain characters, and both life and death have different and unique outcomes. The best mission in the entire game though is without a doubt, Four Leaf Clover. Have you ever seen "Heat?" Remember how cool the robbery was? Well, Four Leaf Clover is just about as awesome, but you are in control.
Multiplayer! Yay! The multiplayer is great. Its been a long time coming, but we finally have it. There are several very fun modes, my favourite being GTA race where you race around the city but are given the use of picking up weapons off the road and doing drive by's. Bomb Da Base is very fun, and the games excellent combat system makes deathmatch fun and there is also freemode which allows you and your buds to run around doing whatever you want in Liberty City without restraints or goals which can be fun. Me and my wife love to knife fight on the top of high buildings and see who falls off.
The voice acting is awesome, every character has a unique and distinct voice and they all give great performances. Rockstar has done an outstanding job with the voices, and the acting only enhances the great story. Witty banter is here too, and is funny.
Speaking of funny... RICKY GERVAIS! YAY! Yes, you can go see a Ricky Gervais performance :3 If you don't like him you won't like his part in GTA IV, but I freakin' love Ricky Gervais and his show here is hilarious.
The BadAs good as the graphics are, they have flaws. Namely in the framerate, which takes a dive at random moments, usually during large explosions or if there is a lot of action happening in the water. The game will be very choppy until the action simmers down, and it can be annoying because sometimes this means you don't get to see all of the action. The draw distance, while high, is still annoying and pop up does happen, especially in high speed cars.
Although the car controls have been improved from previous GTA games, they still are annoying as hell. Cars drive clunkily, and its damn near impossible to turn corners, let alone hang a corner. Car control is sluggish and it feels like you are trying to push around a big cart full of rocks. Even worse are the helicopter controls. Air-to-air battles and strafing runs are fun... if you can control the friggen' helicopter. These are THE worst helicopter controls ever. You constantly have to fidget with the height and joystick, it gets confusing because if you don't constantly take your finger on and off the altitude button then you will either go too high or you will sing, and to move the helicopter you have to tilt it a certain direction but they are too sensitive and you will head down and spin out even just barely trying to turn and aiming in a helicopter is nigh impossible.
The cellphone system, while unique, CAN be annoying. Sometimes constant callers will get on your nerves, and even though the girlfriend/friends system can be fun and interesting at times, its annoying when a friend calls you in the middle of a mission and then gets pissed when you decline going out. Also, the bowling minigame is atrocious. I don't know how Rockstar managed to do this since Bowling is pretty straight forward and easy to recreate for just about any form of control, but bowling in GTA IV is about as easy and intuitive as solving the worlds largest Rubiks cube with one hand tied behind your back, one eye closed and the other one with dirt in it, and a 1 minute time limit. Friends often seem to like to go to strip clubs too, which isn't terribly exciting since I'm not turned on by video game girls.
The multiplayer, while incredibly fun, is full of loud mouthed idiots and punks that can ruin your fun. It also sometimes gets laggy and finding games can take a ridiculously long time.
There's no Pink Floyd on the classic rock station, which blows chunks since Pink Floyd is the best band ever. Comon' Rockstar, at least give us "Time" or "Money." Hell, I'll even take "Learning to Fly." Pweease Rockstar? I'll gladly pay more money for at least one Floyd track. Speaking of music, what happened to the MP3/Custom Track player? My 360 has a 120 gb harddrive and plenty of music, and GTA3/VC/SA all had the ability to play tracks from your harddrive, so why not in GTA IV?
While the weapons all have a kick and are fun to shoot, they have been cut down considerably. You won't dual wield anything, you can't use impromptu weapons like machetes, pool cues, golf clubs, etc. even if you see them lying around. I miss the Chainsaw too. Surely there's SOME place in Liberty where you can find a chainsaw?
The helicopter is the only vehicle you can fly. You can't hop into jets or planes anymore, which sucks because I would love to fly around liberty city. Flying is fun, I don't think anyone will disagree. I loved flying around in San Andreas, and there IS an airport with plenty of small jets that are impossible to use, and there is no excuse for that.
The gang AI is somewhat sloppy, and is only marginally improved from before.
Replay value isn't as high as Saints Row 2, but that is a different review.
Not enough Lazlo :(