Thursday, July 10, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Review (PS3 and Xbox 360 Review)

Videogames are the new form of story-telling. When done correctly, they can engage the viewer into a world that is usually better than their own. Even with all the controversy surrounding the series, Grand Theft Auto has always done a great job in connecting the player with the characters, storylines and environments. The open play gives players essentially the controls to do things at their own pace. Yes, you will have to do some mandatory tasks to open up the entire ‘world’. Once you’ve done that, nothing holds you back from non-stop enjoyment.

Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t build on the III canon and offer the gamer an entire country to play with, but rather takes us back to the city that started all the hype: Liberty City. The people behind the game decided to give us a city with so much to offer and so much detail that you will forget about the fact that San Andreas gave us an entire state to play with. The Burroughs that makes up Liberty City are all extremely well developed with plenty of places to see and things to do. Feel like getting something to eat, you’re not too far from a variety of eateries including hot dog vendors at various street corners. Want to play pool, darts or even bowling? You’ve got options. Heck, just want to sit back, relax and have a laugh, drop by the comedy club where Katt Williams is performing live. You might not be able to buy property, but you have so many other things at your disposal make up for that.

The GTA III canon of games all had great and engaging storylines. You had your basic story, based on getting back at those who ‘screwed’ you over and along the way, you meet up with people who you at first trusted but later had to ‘take care of’ later on, or those who you thought were ‘slime balls’ but were there when you needed them the most. GTA IV is no different. This time, instead of playing as an American, we get the opportunity to play as immigrant Niko Bellic, a former soldier who fought during the Bosnian Civil War during the mid-90s. Niko has had some problems back home in the Balkans and made the decision to come to America after reading the great stories he heard from his cousin, Roman. While we’re led to believe that his reasons to come to America were to ‘Live the American Dream’ we slowly realize that Niko is there for revenge.

Not wanting to go into too much detail, during Niko’s service in Bosnia, something went wrong and people he cared for died. He feels that the person who back-stabbed his unit is hiding in Liberty City and he wants to find them. The goal in the game is to find this person, but it won’t be easy for an Illegal immigrant with no money and a cousin who told grand stories of success, but actually owes more than he has. This is why Niko needs to be-friend various people and essentially become a goon-for-hire in order to get those with power to help him find the person he is looking for.

Niko is not your stereotypical main character. He’s not American and doesn’t connect to the average American. You need to understand the fact that he is different to understand his actions. If you accept him as a foreigner and his manners, or the fact that he tends to be very accepting of people, you will turn to love him for what he is. There are some great moments where we see just how difficult it can be for someone who doesn’t speak American English to understand the slang of the area.

While all the characters you interact with in the game are all extremely unique and well-done, the storyline does tend to drag on a bit. This may understandable since anyone would have to do a lot of hard work to get to that ultimate goal. The ‘main’ objective for Niko slowly becomes the sub-plot and his ultimate finale deals with an entirely different issue and character. This is common with the GTA III canon, but this could have been a great opportunity for RockStar to do things a bit differently and surprise us. While the levels are great, there are some that just don’t make sense as to why Niko would agree to do them. One particular mission, which is also probably the best mission ever made (an homage to the film Heat), really wasn’t necessary for Niko to take part of but was an pleasure to play. The game also puts us into situations where decisions must be made and those choices will affect the game later down the road. These are nice because it forces the gamer to make a tough decision. What is impressive is that other characters react differently depending on the choices you make.

With GTA IV entering the HD era, the graphics and sound in the game are absolutely incredible. Everything from the cars, buildings and people are all extremely well detailed. The pedestrians might not look super crisp, they still look good enough that you may at times just want to stand at a busy corner and admire the scenery. The graphics are great, but it’s the dynamic lighting that most people will talk about. The natural lighting changes as time goes by. Play at noon in game, and it’s extremely bright; play at 2 am, and it will be awfully difficult to do anything in any dark environments. This can be frustrating at times, especially with some levels where you need to see where you’re going, but it is extremely realistic. It actually ended up hurting my enjoyment of the finale as I finished it late in the evening (in game time).

The sound is also really good. While being of Serbian Decent and fluent in the language, I was disappointed with the accents of the actors who spoke in Serbo-Croatian, both their Slavic speeches and even the attempt at the English accents of a foreigner. It wasn’t bad enough that it dampened the story but sometimes I wish foreign actors were used instead of American based ones. Other than that, the characters deliver their lines well and you really feel like you’re watching a Gangster Movie. The sounds of the cars, the street noise and everything else that adds to the ambiance of the game are extremely top-notch and make all the environments extremely believable. The music in the game continues the great tradition of the previous series with dozens of great tunes and something for everyone; Jazz, Russian, Rock, Hip-Hop and Reggae just to mention a few. Also, the great talk-radio stations are there as well.

GTA IV is absolutely Stunning and I loved it. Yes, it is frustrating at times, but games are supposed to be challenging, it is why we play them. The main storyline should take the average gamer 30-40 hours to complete, but the amount of extra content available at your finger tips doubles the playtime. Because of what the game has to offer, no one can fault you at wanting to take some time away from the story to watch some TV (in game), clean up the streets (helping the police to rid the city of its other criminals), dating a potential future wife (or ex-wife) or playing the absolutely enjoyable multiplayer mode, there is something for everyone.

We might not have gotten double the size of San Andreas, but we did get a Grand Theft Auto game that does satisfy the fan of the series. There are problems in the lighting and some glitches will appear here and there, but it is never to the point that you give up. If you’re not a fan of the series, I really feel that this could change that since Niko and the supporting staff is really well-done with not a bad or out of place character in the bunch. The game does take some time before you hit the really juicy parts, but once you start to have fun, you won’t want to stop. Like GTA III before it, this will force other game companies to copy its success and will change the face of gaming in the future.

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