Walking into the Schottler Medical Center brings me to mafia boss John Gravelli, a long-time friend who can help me find one of the men I’ve been looking for. John is old and he is dying. He takes long pauses between statements to cough and breathe from the oxygen mask in his hand. He asks me to eliminate Kim Young-Guk, who is laundering counterfeit hundred dollar bills into Liberty City. Kim's local hangout is the tastefully named Mr. Fuk's Rice Box, and it’s up to me to make sure he doesn’t hang out there anymore.
I have never had such a hard time writing a review as I have had with Rockstar's newest mega-title, Grand Theft Auto IV. It isn't that I don't know what score to give it or whether to recommend it to those who didn't enjoy the other titles in the series, it is just that I don't feel that anything I can write will truly do justice to the size, the scope and the sheer undertaking that is GTA IV. The game is fantastic, a true work of art, and should be owned by anyone who considers themselves a fan of video games. Grand Theft Auto does so many things right that calling it a "sandbox" title is doing it a harsh disservice. It does shooting better then many shooters, driving better then many racing games, and has a better, more involved story then half of the most popular RPGs.
GTA IV is a game that could be (and probably will be) studied for years, with every inch of Liberty City being analyzed ad nauseum. It is easy to look at the general atmosphere of the city and label it cheap, with Rockstar often going for crude humor, which seemingly doesn't do anything but take you out of the game. Naming a Chinese restaurant “Mr. Fuk’s” or a LAN center “tw@” may seem overly silly, but every clichéd or corny aspect of GTA IV helps to shape and build Liberty City. The obvious allusion is that Liberty is simply New York with landmarks renamed, but this is not the case. Liberty City is set in a world that has lost any sense of political correctness. In the real world and in video games, people have constantly pushed the envelope to see how far society would let them go with individual liberty. In our world, radio personalities continually walk the line between edgy and obscene, while GTA takes place in a city where that line doesn't exist. This carries over to every aspect of life and corrupts the morals of the city's politicians, government, and people. In that aspect GTA IV can easily be compared to BioShock, in that Rockstar was able to create a reality completely separate from our own, while remaining entirely familiar with a living, breathing city.
Walking into the front door starts a little conversation where I learn that Kim is upstairs talking to the restaurant manager, and he won’t see any visitors. But I have a job to do. I stealthily sneak in to take out the guard with my knife, but his screams alert nearby guards so I change to my pistol. Working my way upstairs is harder than I thought thanks to a few rounds I took to my back when I tried to eliminate the man with the knife, but I am able to take out some of the guys on the top floor by destroying the guardrails in front of them and shooting them off the balcony.
While it can be somewhat muddy when viewed too closely, the graphics in Grand Theft Auto IV are definitely impressive. The character models aren't as dazzling as they are in games like Gears of War, and the cars can't stand toe-to-toe with Forza or Burnout, but the sheer volume of activity at every given moment makes up for that. The lower resolution is compensated by amazing animations, some of which are more life-like then any game I’ve ever played. Much of this is made possible by the debut of the much-heralded Euphoria physics engine, making the people of Liberty City more lifelike. Characters’ deaths look natural, and shooting someone causes them to start stumbling around. If someone takes a gut shot at the top of a flight of stairs, odds are they are going to tumble down to their death, but damned if they wont try to grab every rung on the banister on their way down. The addition of so many levels of realism allows you to overlook the game’s somewhat low-resolution textures.
The area of Grand Theft Auto to see the most revamp is the controls, with combat getting a significant upgrade. Players can now climb, jump, and take cover seamlessly. Shooting, which used to be the Achilles heel of the Grand Theft Auto series, is now a pleasant and fun affair. While the lock-on system from GTA: San Andreas remains in spirit, the ability to tweak the aim while locking on elevates it from mediocre to brilliant. Hit-detection is top notch and thanks to the Euphoria physics engine, the characters’ reactions to being shot is easily the best in any game to date. Cover can be taken behind just about anything with a simple button push, and works to make the combat portions of the game just as fun much as they are in any other first-rate shooter. The game doesn’t sport the amount of weapons found in previous GTA titles, but the ones it does bring feel realistic and I can’t help but feel like leaving out weapons like chainsaws and flamethrowers are improvements to the title.
After getting upstairs I intimidate the manager, with the help of my pistol, into revealing Kim's location: he has fled through the back door of the office. A quick bullet to the head ensures the manager won’t be able to double-cross me. Jumping into the kitchen, I manage to squeeze off a few shots at Kim as he exits out the back. I change to my trusty carbine so I can finish this quickly. I blitz through the back door, putting me in an alley behind the restaurant. I have a clear shot at Kim, so I walk forward to line it up. Unfortunately, I misjudge the walkway and fall off the platform before I can take the shot.
The multiplayer modes are everything anyone could have ever wanted from such a large series. Fans of the series have been begging for co-operative or death-match play since GTA3 was released, but it was never more then the loftiest pipe dreams of crazed fans. But it appears that Rockstar has listened to our pleas, and with twelve game modes, each of which can be joined by up to sixteen players, GTA IV's multiplayer is one of this console generation’s best. Each mode brings something unique to the game, from a cops-and-robbers setting called Cops and Crooks to a free roaming death-match mode, there seems to be more attention paid to the development and perfection of the multiplayer aspect of the title then anyone could have expected. Even something as simple as opening up a free mode ame with a few friends and killing each other with rocket launchers is incredible, and the body physics are fun enough to make even being killed a hilarious experience. There are public player matches as well as ranked matches for those truly willing to climb the ranks of the GTA IV elite, and seeing as the title has sold immensely well already there is a low chance that there will ever be a shortage of people to play with online.
Plotwise, Grand Theft Auto IV brings up issues that games usually tend to stray away from because of their complexity. Players assume the role of Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant with a shady past, who has come to Liberty City in search of his own American dream, shaped in large part by the grandiose tales told to him by his cousin, Roman. Upon arriving he realizes that Roman's stories have been filled with lies, and Roman was simply in need of some help due to debts and other problems. Slowly, the ghosts of Niko's past come to haunt him in America and he is forced to work his way through the city's confusing crime syndicate to make his place in Liberty City. The plot that plays out is truly epic, and similar to crime dramas such as The Departed or Goodfellas.
Kim quickly jumps into a nearby car, and I manage to take out a tire before losing sight of him, forcing me to continue the chase on a motorcycle parked in the alley. I swerve through traffic to shorten his lead, all while loading as much ammunition into the back of his car as I can from an Uzi I picked up earlier. A arm pops out of the passenger-side and begins firing, but I am able to shoot him through the back window and the gun drops from his hand and skids on the street.
Niko faces moral dilemmas from time to time, but none of them are really any more pressing then those faced by characters in games like Mass Effect. Some will influence cut scenes, dialogue, and even which missions you unlock later in the game, but I wish they had pursued the morality question further. I wouldn't have minded if the game was shortened from 35 hours for the single player portion to 20 hours if there were multiple paths that lead to drastically different outcomes. Most of the missions in the game involve being told what to do, going to the place you are suppose to do it, and doing it, and the crimes you commit range from murder to kidnapping. Despite this, Niko remains a deeply sympathetic character whose plight is completely understandable throughout the game. There are times when you may not agree with his morals or decision-making, but they still add to his character.
The game’s characters are easily the best in GTA history, with nearly every single character, no matter how small their part, leaving their mark. This could be because of the fantastic voice acting, amazing writing, or aforementioned character animation quality, but in actuality it is a combination of all of these. It’s hard not to feel for the characters you interact with throughout the story, which makes their hardships even more relatable.
There is so much content that I feel like I should talk about, but I figure much of it is best left for you to explore. The game has a social interaction system with deep seeded gameplay roots. Dating in the title can give you perks such as being able to heal mid battle, and mini-games, like pool and bowling, are surprisingly fun. Vigilante, grand theft auto, racing, and assassination missions all return, and the radio is fantastic.
There is too much to say, but just know this: Grand Theft Auto IV is quite possibly one of the best games ever made, and there is no excuse for anyone to not play through it. It may be tempting to just run around and shoot civilians until you are neck deep in N.O.O.S.E. helicopters, and if that is how you want to play the game then so be it, but there is so much to do that it is worth giving the game as much time as you can find. For fans of the series it is the best iteration so far, and for those who have ignored the games in the past it is worth giving the series a try.
Kim takes a sharp turn exposing his side to my gun’s barrel, and I unload enough rounds into his vehicle that it explodes. He jumps out of his car, enveloped in flames, and tries to roll on the ground. He never even sees the barrel of my shotgun as I stand over him and fire into the back of his flaming head. I pull out my cell phone and call John Gravelli, letting him know the job is done, and he wires several thousand dollars into my bank account. This is Grand Theft Auto IV. This is the American dream.