So, I'm finally finished with the story..
As usual, with the completion of something great comes that despair, that sort of sinking feeling that it's all come to an end. Of course, this is a game of almost endless potential, so that feeling is even more pronounced..but I'm nowhere near done.
In fact, I'm turning it on right now..my home away from home.
(The game's multiplayer unfortunately won't be part of this entry, as it stands, I hold the belief that GTA is first and foremost a single-player game.)
Grand Theft Auto IV is a monster of a game, with a wealth of expectations heaped upon it. One one end, it has to live up to the multi-million dollar franchise that's it's namesake. On another, it has to raise the bar significantly because a) It's of a genre that Rockstar themselves have created, and b) It's the first "next-gen" entry in the series. Much in the way GTA3 redefined the franchise and gaming in general since it's release, many are expecting this title to carry itself out in a similar fashion. But does it live up to these expectations? Yes, and no. No, in that it doesn't completely overhaul the gamer landscape like GTA3 did 7 years ago. Yes in that it is, in my opinion the richest, most fully featured, superbly written, awe-inspiring, and downright complete game realeased this year, or in general for this generation. Keep in mind that I am making these statements, and I have yet to see how Ninja Gaiden 2, Metal Gear Solid 4, or Gears of War 2 will turn out.
Simply put..Yes, it's that
Part of the reason it took so long for this writeup to come to pass is that I didn't play this like a game. I treated it like an experience, and as such, I literally lived Niko Bellic. A great deal of my time in Liberty City was spent walking the streets, sightseeing, exploring every inch, hanging out with friends, running errands, perfecting my bowling arm, or simply taking a leisurely drive. I literally experienced a world that hit so close to home, that was so familiar and simultaneously so new, that doing actual story missions felt restrictve because of the sudden imposition of rules and structure. As I write this, I realize that the missions weren't just a vehicle to drive the story forward, they were actually work. Dirty work, but work that had to be done in order to get where I needed to be. Not to say that the missions themselves aren't enjoyable, they're actually varied, and very well put together, but for a game to evoke that kind of feeling, it's truly doing something special.
The story is as follows: You are placed into the shoes of Niko Bellic, a middle-eastern man is drawn to Liberty City through letters from his cousin Roman optimistically promising wealth, riches, and opportunity in spades. Upon arriving, he discovers that perhaps his relative has been reading a bit too deeply into the travel brochures, and this hailed land of freedom is really anything but. Not too long afterward, and partially due to Roman and his gambling habits, they're swept up into the bottom feeding half of Liberty City's crime underworld, and the story takes off from there. While it sounds like the usual "rags to riches" story GTA's been telling for a while, it's anything but, due to a superbly written cast of characters who make you care. One of the things I enjoyed about the game was despite the fact that you may not agree with each character or their motivations, they'll evoke true emotions from you ranging from like, hate, and even disgust, something that factors heavily into the actual story of the game, where you'll have to make choices about who you want to side with. It's all very dynamic, mature, and focused, down to it's decisive and satisfying conclusion.
I would however, be remiss if I didn't mention that Niko himself, as the main character, is the glue that holds this complex tale together. Previously, when playing a GTA game, it was the supporting characters who stole the spotlight and provided a reason to push forward. Niko is a character with so much depth and personality compared to the main characters in previous games, that the formers, amusing as they were, seem two-dimensional and paltry in comparison. He's deep, sympathetic, introspective, and while he initially comes off as the grounded yin to Roman's wildly optimistic yang early on, the many layers of his personality pile on the longer you play. He's not a criminal, not an asshole or wiseguy, and despite his military history, is not a heartless killer. In fact, the killing sprees GTA players are so famous for going on actually feel out of place, and even out of character the more you get to know Niko on a whole. He's truly a likeable, multifaceted character that drives the game just based on how real he feels. Many people have complained about having to do things like hang out with friends regularly, but I found the conversations he has with the other characters in the game to be just as fascinating as the well directed cutscenes.
GTA is also a game that hasn't been famous for it's visuals, but clearly Rockstar set out to change that with this installment. From a technical standpoint, the game itself is wrapped in aesthetics that truthfully aren't the best on the system on a technical level, but are so cohesive and impressive enough that it produces a look that is visually consistent. This is not an excuse for it being a visual slouch, it's actually one that is constantly threatening to kick the uncanny valley right in the face while somewhat retaining that stylized GTA look we've come to know and love. The city looks spectacular up close, from a distance, and to this minute still impresses me whether it's day or night. Whether you approach Liberty City from land, air or sea, it's visual depth is sound. Driving a boat for the first time reveals impressive water effects, the sun reflecting off the water, and the intimidating scope of the Algonquin skyline from a low viewing angle. Taking to the sky in a helicopter for the first time is also equally impressive, as the entire game world is laid out before you with an impressive amount of detail. It's something that has to be seen in motion in order to truly appreciate the subtleties like sunlight reflecting off the sidewalk, or the rain slick tint of neon when you drive through Star Junction (Times Square) at night during a storm. This is not a game that hits you with a visual avalance upon first sight like Gears of War, but rather, one that visually becomes more and more rich as time goes on.
Control is also a breeze, and while the wealth of the genres mixed into the game mean you'll be spending quite a bit of time learning how to move, it's all spot on and fluid when it finally comes together. Every movement, every action seems to tie into this new physics system Rockstar implemented for the game, and as a result, Niko feels appropriately heavy, having subtle nuances in his animations and interactions with the environment like leaning into his turns while running or knocking into people as you run through a dense crowd. The driving has also taken a turn for the realistic, with no two cars feeling the same as a result, exhibiting real world occurrences like understeer and wheelspin. The shooting mechanics, usually the bane of every GTA title, have been overhauled as well with over the shoulder aiming, and a cover system that is surprisingly robust, but finicky. It isn't perfect on a whole, but it's the kind of control system that makes you forget you have a controller in your hands. The first time I swerved sideways into a gunfight with my car, leapt out of it, and smoothly slid behind it, using it as a shield as I switched to my SMG and blindfired over the hood without missing a beat, I smiled to myself.
Of course, all of this would be moot if Liberty City weren't such an interesting place to live. Rockstar has created a city where no two blocks look the same, no two storefronts share the same logo, and yet, each area has subtle landmarks and nuances that accurately reflect the area they're meant to represent. While people from other states playing the game will just see a well made playground to explore, it's those of us from NYC who will truly appreciate what they've done here. You'll see shades of Grand Army Plaza and Fulton Street in Broker, the not too obvious pieces of Midtown and City Hall in Algonquin, The shopping district of Newark in Alderney, it's all so well represented, you'll wonder how much of the three development years it took to conceptualize and design every street, every corner, every sign, every building of a city like this from the ground up. It doesn't seem like nearly enough time, and while the area isn't physically as large as say, San Andreas (which was actually uninteresting to me because of the miles of dead space), what is on display here is dense, tight, and still manages to feel massive in it's own right.
The area is quite active as well. People go about their daily routines, stop and talk to each other, answer their cellphones, get into trouble, get into car accidents, take the bus, take the train, it's all so dynamic and well alive/ that you can spend a great deal of time just watching them interact with each other. Case in point, one day, I witnessed a cab driver sideswipe another in the interest of making a fare, and they both got out of their cars and started fighting each other in the street (much to the chagrin of the other drivers on the street honking in annoyance). Being the good citizen I am, I pulled out my cellphone, dialed 911, and watched as the police came to arrest the both of them. This wasn't scripted, nor was this a part of the story, it was just an event in many where the city gives off a genuine vibe of marching to the beat of it's own drum, rather than waiting for some sort of interaction from the player to move forward. Your options are completely open. Take a long cab ride or one of the helicopter tours through the city, you'll be glad you did.
Audio wise, I'm comletely blown away. The game's soundtrack is another strong point. Far from being a randomly assembled collection of music however, it seems that each track was picked for how well it carries over the modern New York City theme of the game, and in that it succeeds admirably. From Jazz, to Progressive, to R&B, and even some public radio spread across the game's 19(!) stations, there's something for everyone. The detail paid to each of them is impressive as well. Each station well fleshed out, with it's own unique DJs, commercials, and shows to balance out the relative weath of music you'll encounter. Radio stations like The Beat 102.7, the game's rap station, sound so close to obvious real life-counterparts like Hot 97 (even going as far to feature the same DJ's!) that it's uncanny. Listening to DJ Mr. Cee passionately declare his allegience to Broker (Brooklyn) to his audience sounds incredibly authentic and shows that everyone involved took the project as serious as they possibly could.
I cannot conclude this without stating that Rockstar has also set several landmarks in technology, the most notable being the fact that all of this fits on a DVD. In one fell swoop, Rockstar not only spat in the face of every other 360 developer using multi-disc games, but also in the face of Sony, who swore up and down that gaming would show that it sorely needed the 50 GB space of a Blu-Ray disc to advance the medium in a necessary direction. If this game isn't the single greatest feat of compression and data management in gaming history, then I don't know what is. It even makes Hideo Kojima look ridiculous, who has been quoted in saying that his team was having trouble fitting Metal Gear Solid 4 on a Blu-Ray. How? I can guarantee you, MGS4 doesn't have nearly as much content that this game contains on a whole, and it's certainly not on an open platter like it is here. The bar has certainly been raised going forward.
All this having been said, there are many complaints to be had, like the somewhat repetitve nature of the story missions, the way the cover doesn't always work as it should, the way the driving has drastically changed (I think for the better, most think worse), and yes, your friends can come off as incredibly needy at times, lending itself well to the repetition issue. But in my opinion, when so many other parts of a massive game like this come together as they should, it's just nitpicking. What has been accomplished here is nothing short of amazing.
Not only is this a game that everyone should play, but if you enjoy games on any level, be it entertainment or art, then this is something you definitely need to experience.
And experience it you must. This game is fantastic. Rarely do I ever use those words.