May 8, 2008

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Grand Theft Auto IV (360/PS3)
Rockstar North, April 29
By Glenn "Liberty City Hard Core" Given production@hippopress.com

There’s nothing like a little bit of immigrant-on-immigrant violence to sell a game.

There are two players who bought GTA IV. One of us is looking for a hard-boiled crime story told in a living city with all the brutality and panache of our favorite gangster stories. The other player wants a free-wheeling sandbox of mayhem and all sorts of nooks and crannies where hidden easter eggs and upgrades lay. Both of these players get most of what they’re looking for plus off color humor and a wheelbarrow of atmosphere. But, everybody should have a few bones to pick with Liberty City and its pro/antagonist, Niko Bellic.

The GTA gameplay receives some notable unpgrades with IV. The combat is noticeably improved, nicely incorporating the cover mechanics of Gears of War for firefights and trimming the overall arsenal. Melee combat doesn’t have the style of San Andreas but there are a number of special moves like disarms and stun that make an unarmed Niko threatening. More notably the entire wanted level sytem has been altered. As the heat rises, a flashing radius appears on the minimap denoting the search area that Niko must escape before police will call off their search. The more wanted, the bigger the search area. You can also evade police by swapping out cars in dark alleys or getting the traditional emergency paint job. Sadly the sluggardly controls of GTA’s vehicles has, if anything, gotten worse. Nine out of 10 cars you jack handle like beached whales. The painful experience of driving is offset by the remarkably helpful GPS overlays and the option to simply take a cab.

Niko’s story — he was lured to America by his brother Roman — is far and away the biggest improvement in the series. For once, I’m actually motivated to see what happens, and though most missions break down to “drive to A kill B, run to C and report back,” there is a greater story at work. The web of crime in Liberty City and Niko’s journey through it are genuinely interesting, even if the voice acting is sub-par.

The best feature of GTA IV is definttely Liberty City. Rockstar has managed to hit the note and tenor of nearly every neighborhood in NYC. There are overpasses that eerily remind me of jaunts though Brooklyn and corners of Liberty City that I can swear my college friends live right off of. Even when games like True Crime map out Manhatten they fail to summon the very character of the streets. Sure, you can fly a helicopter to the top of the Statue of Happiness and get a tad crestfallen when you can see the actual geographic span but every inch of it is rich.

No next-gen title would be complete without multi-player, and GTA IV manages to enter that arena strong. Sixteen-player deathmatches, co-op mini-missions, cops vs. crooks and free roaming play modes seriously threaten to shift the focus of GTA IV away from its strong single-player story. That is, of course, when it works. PS3 and some 360 owners might notice that GTA IV won’t load their saved games, or freezes up when loading. Frame rates have been known to dip during hectic scenes and the overall integrity of character models is below the latest offerings on both platforms. XBOX Live and PSN both have a habit of booting multiplayer matches unexpectedly and some versions of the PS3 hardware won’t even get past the loading screen if you’re using a router (this is all a tornado of rumor at the moment but I can confirm that being logged into PSN before loading up does coincide with the freezing bugs).

GTA IV might deserve perfect tens and A double plusses if these bugs didn’t immediately smack one in the face. For bringing the steaming streets of the five buroughs, the whimsy of multi-player city wide shenanigans and the toils of Niko Bellic, Rockstar gets a solid B+. Patch those bugs out for an A. — Glenn Given