As you drive around Liberty City, flipping between radio stations, absorbing the inanity of their commercial messages and the bilious hypocrisy of their small-minded politics, you realize that the America of GTA IV is a country coming down from its trip. The humor – some crass, some clever – errs towards the absurd, as the series has always done, but never before has it been so cutting, so impassioned or so relevant.
Filtered through the world-weary eyes of Eastern Bloc immigrant Niko Bellic, the American Dream is all strung-out, sapped dry from the coke-fuelled megalomania of the ’80s, paying in full for the arrogance of its ’90s empire-building – and what little remains is at the mercy of relentless subdivision, as everyone tries to carve off a little piece for themselves. Even the criminal organizations familiar to previous GTAs are at the end of their game: fractious, desperate and doomed. It’s unforgiving stuff – an evisceration of America’s insularity, its gluttony, its petty suburban miseries, its lethargy and artificiality. As funny as GTA IV is, this really is laughter in the dark – brilliantly observed, unnerving and bitter.
This may seem a bit heavy for a GTA game. It is, after all, a series which delights in tooling you up for celebratory moments of carnage. No player of the previous games will be unfamiliar with the experience of standing on a rooftop, gleefully taking down police choppers with a bazooka as support teams screech to a halt down below. Other games have since pared down the genre that GTA first created into entertaining confections – sandboxes which exist solely for the joy of their destruction. It is probably GTA IV’s greatest achievement that it eases the player from this mindset. Yes, there’s still the freedom to cause havoc, and inevitably you do; the difference is that you’re no longer impelled to toy with GTA IV’s world in quite the same sadistic way – you live in it.
This adjustment of tone sees the eradication of the more frivolous, preposterous elements of GTAs past. There are no jetpacks this time around, clothing remains within credible limitations, and helicopters are the most outlandish things you will commandeer. There are no hidden packages, the jumps are fewer and less conspicuous. GTA IV manages to coax you away from casual mayhem by loading you with more meaningful commitments – simultaneously stepping away from and surpassing the kind of peripheral distractions that were to be found in San Andreas.
You develop and maintain relationships with other characters, phoning them on your mobile to arrange hook-ups. The kinds of things you can do with them – going bowling, drinking, playing pool or darts, visiting comedy or cabaret or strip clubs – while breaking up and pulling you away from the main missions, feel no less significant to the overall story. These aren’t diversions but ancillary features of Niko’s life, just as critical a part of the experience as anything else.
Certainly the minigames are competent enough, and the various clubs are mad experiences best left to the player’s own discovery – the kind of thing that only Rockstar would be ballsy enough to attempt. But the real motivation for spending time with your friends is that they make a significant contribution to the texture of the world. Their esteem for you isn’t just a percentile measurement which, upon growth, unlocks extra game modes and side missions; your interactions flesh out and explain Niko’s character in a way that makes him the most sympathetic and well-drawn GTA protagonist yet – as well as perhaps the most tragic and nihilistic. Tommy Vercetti was a wise-cracking Mafioso cipher, more an aggregation of sharp gangster caricatures than a fulsome and believable character. San Andreas’ CJ was a more credible figure, but the fact that he was a likeable chump stood at odds with the player’s sociopathic control over his behavior.
Through encounters with friends and girlfriends, GTA IV tackles this disconnect head on, revealing that the contradiction is in Niko himself: a man troubled by his own bleak world-view, traumatized by his experience of the Balkan conflict. With his humanity whittled down, Niko arrives in Liberty City looking for revenge, but you don’t have to spend long in his company to hope he finds redemption instead. The writing makes a mark not only in quality but in quantity: missions have multiple dialogue options so that you don’t have to listen to the same lines on each replay, and even the GTA tradition of barking pedestrians throws up few repetitions.
The escalation of world detail over previous GTA games is phenomenal. Now you can go to internet cafes, swap emails and look up Liberty City’s various institutions and businesses on the web. A police computer now lists current crimes and has a searchable record of their perpetrators. The radio stations discuss your deeds. Such stuff is perhaps trivial in isolation, but in aggregation creates an unrivalled sense of a living city.
Of tangential benefit to this is the increased sense of physicality – car impacts feel really weighty, be it with another vehicle or a pedestrian’s head, and combat has real heft too, both armed and unarmed. The new Rainbow Six: Vegas-style cover system is certainly an improvement over predecessors, but lacks that game’s level of refinement, occasionally clunking as you stick to the wrong walls. Enemies rarely attempt to flank you at all, unless scripted to do so – nonetheless, your fragility under fire means positioning is important, and gunfights are now methodical, tense affairs in which you creep from cover to cover, picking off the threats with careful headshots, breaking the enemy’s suppressing fire with a well-placed grenade. It’s a shame, however, that Niko’s climbing ability isn’t used more in the missions to extend the number of approaches to a particular objective.
In fact, the one area where Rockstar has done little to radicalize or evolve is in the mission structure. With the exception that you can now instantly restart a mission from the place where you picked it up, this is dirty business as usual. Some novel objectives and minor, but nonetheless satisfying, puzzles smatter the welcome familiarity of assassinations, chases, hold-ups and deliveries. For the larger part, GTA IV goes back to basics, avoiding the overcomplicated multi-part missions of San Andreas, but there still remain a small few of those hallmark GTA design decisions which have you filling the air with profanities – tricky, lengthy missions with a compulsory drive from one island to another before things kick off, often crossing Liberty CIty’s narrow, busy bridges, through toll gates and sluggish traffic.
If these slightly punitive distances can be excused as a quirk of the series, there are other things that occasionally jar. Certain missions require you to chase and eliminate enemies, but you begin to suspect after unloading clip upon clip of bullets into a motorcyclist’s skull that he is in fact invincible, conducting you through a near-invisibly scripted chase sequence before you’re allowed to kill him. The invulnerability, and subsequent abrupt lack of it, is never signposted and feels like a low blow. But this is just a misstep in the vastness of GTA IV.
Closely inspecting Rockstar’s sprawling creation inevitably throws up minor flaws. Very occasionally, making a phone call renders you unable to run or enter vehicles – an unfortunate circumstance to be in when under heavy fire from the local constabulary. Sometimes, your car will mysteriously evaporate following a cutscene or a restart. And an odd bug in our review code caused traffic in the narrow dual carriageways to veer into one another in a madly synchronized suicidal swerve. In other words, GTA IV isn’t without blemishes but, like the texture pop-in and other slight imperfections, they look insignificant in the context of the game’s insane scale. GTA IV’s ambition dictates that it could never have been without flaw – and, at the same time, that such flaws are instantly diminished.
Something that may be more divisive is the driving model – in contrast to the added grit in nearly every other area of the game, these are the splashiest, most cartoonish vehicles of a GTA game yet, with over excitable suspension, reluctant cornering and a tendency to flip end over end if you tap a kerb at any speed. If you come to the game fresh from the streets of Burnout Paradise you can be forgiven for being frustrated – but the car handling becomes a blast once mastered, making the fraught chases a matter of control rather than speed. Rockstar has gone for The Blues Brothers over The Fast and the Furious and, after a few inadvertent doughnuts, it’s a decision you come to admire.
Also contributing to the pleasure of police pursuit is the new Wanted system. A cone on your mini-map now determines an area of alertness that you must escape. Cops appear on your radar, weaving their way towards the center – since being spotted by them re-centers the cone on you, evasion becomes a little like a game of Pac-Man, forcing the player to dart down back alleys in order to shake the heat.
GTA IV undoubtedly represents a progression for the series in just about every way – some achievement coming off the back of something as ambitious as San Andreas. In some ways it simply furthers the formula, but by drawing a world of unmatched depth and interest, it has managed to transcend the clichés of the genre Rockstar first created. But while it’s bold enough to move away from the shallow thrills of ever bigger explosions, it elects not to radically rethink some of the more masochistic elements of its predecessors, leaves some edges a little rough, and surprises you with the occasional cheap trick.
Ultimately, these things matter little, not simply because the amount of content is so staggeringly diverse that occasional failures can be immediately forgiven, but because its cast of brilliantly drawn characters lure you into a greater engagement than ever before. The fundamental template is the same as before, and some of the nuts and bolts feel a little loose, but it’s not only what you do in this world, it’s also how it makes you feel. There are few other games so constantly engaging or entertaining, and it may be a painfully long time before anything else matches up to its breadth of vision.
GTA IV is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.