Grand Theft Auto IV is the story of Niko Bellic and it very much is a story driven experience. Unlike San Andreas, Vice City, or GTA III, the mindless enjoyment found in jetpacks, aeroplanes, and rampage missions take the backseat and a narrative worthy of a Hollywood crime-thriller takes the wheel. Which is not to say GTA IV is lacking in the fun department, more so the game has been refined and perfected, a far subtler, more engrossing experience, at heart more intelligent, but through this a far greater game than it’s predecessors.
This subtlety is reflected throughout the city, a fictionalised yet accurately replicated New York. Walking through Star Junction the city is lit up both vertically and horizontally, street artists paint, advertisements flicker, police chase a criminal, a stream of yellow cabs flow through the veins of the city. Above planes cross the sky and the Empire State Building looms. No other game has created a city so alive. Its residents have thousands of spoken lines and each one reacts differently to Niko. Punch a homeless person and he might run, smash the windscreen of a taxi and its owner will fight. Open fire in the Bronx and more often than not a steady stream of street gangsters will open fire on you. Do the same in The Triangle and the police will swarm at you like hornets.
It’s not just the residents that come varied. Points of interest litter the four islands. More than ever, the buildings of Liberty City can be explored and those that can’t, which still make up the majority, look incredible, each one unique. The hundreds of cars that swim through the city all drive differently, perform differently depending on the weather conditions, react differently after being damaged. Some explode; others roll to a halt and sit dormant, another might restart. The attention to detail here is incredible, and unrivaled.
Similarly each of the nineteen radio stations are varied, some feature the ranting antics of favourite DJ’s such as Lazlow, other’s boast impressive selections of music from their respective genres. The subtle enjoyment found in simply driving about the city listening to the radio is incredible. Not only is the radio the best from any GTA game, but Rockstar have also incorporated television into the game, with numerous comedy-rich channels, and an in game internet with over a hundred pages. This in itself would be impressive, but the quality, humour, and intelligence on display in each of the mediums is astounding. No other game can boast such wit, and such depth.
Much is made of the mobile phone. Missions delivered, friends called upon for vital services (Little Jacob can deliver guns, Brucie an escape helicopter), a camera used in a number of missions, and the multiplayer are all accessed through the mobile phone. Failed missions can be restarted through text message. It adds a dimension of accessibility that dispels the frustrations found with having to drive to a mission start point.
Gone are the limited draw distances of previous games. A quick helicopter tour illustrates just how technically incredible the game is; a graphical knight in armour with all the production values expected of a GTA game, and then even more. Roads shimmer in the rain, blood spray laces walls, exploding vehicles shatter in a shower of scorched metal – flames rocket into the sky, people move realistically, the city blurs as you reach top speed in a sports car glimmering in the sun, Niko’s eyes adjust coming out of a building, the sound of an incoming call interrupts the radio. It can be overwhelming, and yet it’s only after leaving Liberty City that you appreciate it most. If ‘unrivaled’ is becoming familiar, it’s for good reason.
GTA IV could survive without a narrative, with hours worth of activities to undertake in Liberty City, assassin contracts, races, stunt jumps, hidden packages (in the form of pigeons), social activities, helicopter tours. But Rockstar have crafted a narrative that raises the bar higher than its rivals, so expertly written that it often feels filmic rather than a game, blurring the line between the two mediums.
It’s the story of Niko Bellic, an eastern European war veteran in search of the American dream. Of course, as he steps off of the boat he rides in on, he plummets into the seedy criminal underworld of Liberty City, and the promised ‘American dream’ becomes a hazy silhouette on the horizon. In this sense the game reflects its predecessors. Niko works for a variety of contacts dotted about the city, with revenge, retribution, murder, and police, waiting fists clenched about every corner. The missions are the familiar blend of assassinations, car chases, drug trafficking, and robberies, but through ninety plus missions, the game never drags. Most impressive is the huge set pieces on display throughout the game. One mission sees you robbing a bank then escaping the police on foot, it sounds like Michael Mann’s Heat and plays out in a similar vein. But with N.O.O.S.E (the games version of SWAT), and police helicopters chasing you, the mission is an adrenaline-riddled example of some of the innovative missions on offer. Add to this the newly implemented ability to be hug cover in a Gears of War style, the gunplay is even more fun than before, and firefights become far more tactical, rather than simple run and gun moments where the generosity of your armor is all that is keeping you from the bays of death.
However where GTA IV differentiates itself from its passed, and rivals, most is in the engrossing nature of the narrative, and the huge depth bestowed upon every character within. The quality of the voice acting has much to do with this, particularly Niko’s, but also the subtle hints of the many character personalities in the cut-scenes, and the in game conversations had with partners as you go about your missions all piece together to form a hugely deep pool of character. It helps fashion some of the most dramatic moments in any videogame I’ve ever played, especially toward the games dramatic finale, and it’s difficult not to feel attached to Niko himself.
GTA IV surpasses its rivals technically, whilst setting a new standard for storytelling, one that is unlikely to be beaten by anyone besides Rockstar themselves. It’s a huge yet subtle leap forward for the franchise in every sense, maintaining that which made the previous games so popular, whilst improving and expanding alongside it. It’s undoubtedly one of the finest games of this generation and if perfection exists, this is as close as the sandbox genre is to it.