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The One Crime Epic To Rule Them All

I know I've written a lot about Grand Theft Auto in the last couple days and weeks, but to be honest it's kind of a huge game. There's a lot to write about. That and I just finished the entire campaign mode (good god it's long) and wrote up an official review. For I have seen the entirety of GTA IV, and have officially judged it. Unfortunately, GI doesn't have a review section for Grand Theft Auto IV for PC, so I figured I'd just post it here. Feel free to chime in with comments below.

Grand Theft Auto IV

The one crime epic to rule them all

Style 1-Player Open World (32-Player Online) Publisher Take Two Developer Rockstar Release December 2, 2008 ESRB M

In gaming, few franchises command the same level of respect as Grand Theft Auto. Feared by parents everywhere and lauded by players across the globe, Rockstar's flagship series has been innovating and setting the high bar for the video game industry for years. So, how does Grand Theft Auto IV compare to its mighty predecessors? Quite well.

First, the environment. GTA IV is set in Liberty City, a massive urban center that sprawls across miles and miles of virtual roads and buildings. You don't get three separate cities like in GTA: San Andreas, but Liberty City is so diverse and well-crafted that it feels like several different worlds connected by bridge and called a single city. Although new parts of the city open up slowly, by the end of the game you realize just how much territory there is to explore. The scale of the game is frankly amazing.

However, you're not just exploring empty space. Liberty City, in typical Rockstar fashion, holds an absurd amount of detail. Pedestrians walk by having their own conversations, drivers get in accidents and shout at each other, and ambulances even come for injured people (usually victims of my poor driving). Bump into someone and they'll shout profanities at you. Knock them over enough times and they'll start a fistfight with you.

The extra content is astounding. Hop into a car and you can flip through a dozen different radio stations, all with their own unique programming and music. The stations are hilarious spoofs of different forms of music (the alternative station DJ makes fun of hipsters and the metal DJ sounds like he's been juicing steroids), complete with fake versions of NPR and Rush Limbaugh. Oftentimes I would just sit in the car, listening to the insanity blasting out of the speakers.

Well, it's not entirely fair to call GTA radio (and its television, for that matter) insane. When you look closely at the actual content, all of it is actually an elaborate satire of American life and consumerism. The ads are obviously fake and completely overblown, but the underlying humor dies a little when you realize that the spoof ad isn't too far away from reality.

That's one thing for which GTA doesn't get enough credit: its message. The radio, television, internet, and people inhabiting the city are all part of the largest mockery of American culture I've ever seen. Rockstar has actually managed to spoof America itself. The fruits of their labor are simultaneously funny and uncomfortable. It may be done in an ironic manner, but GTA IV is still a massive testament to the failures inherent to modern America.

Nowhere are these failures more evident than in the people met by the protagonist, Niko Bellic. He arrives in Liberty, fresh off the boat and expecting a better life. However, the people he meets quickly put that idea to rest. The various citizens of Liberty City with which Niko becomes acquainted are some of the most irritating, hypocritical failures I've ever seen. All of them are chasing some form of the American Dream but don't realize that they'll never get what they want.

Grand Theft Auto isn't too subtle about its message here. From the first missions to the final moments, the game makes sure you understand that the American Dream is a lie. Niko comes to America under the expectation that America will be different, that success and money and women will somehow be within reach. The widespread crime, government corruption, and general hypocrisy of everyone he meets quickly debunk that dream.

Then again, the success and riches aren't the only things that motivated Niko Bellic to come to America and Liberty City in particular. Several forces from his past converge within the city and quickly force him onto a quest for revenge and redemption. Sounds cheesy, but Rockstar pulls the story and the character off with gravitas.

Niko is the only character in the entire game who earned my respect, if only for his honesty. He's a criminal and a hired killer, but he alone is able to acknowledge his true nature. That and his perpetual cynicism constantly set him at odds with the dreamers and idealists he meets in Liberty City. Niko Bellic is a man who knows a thousand causes but believes in none of them. Other games, take notes. This is how you do an interesting protagonist.

The only hang-up I have about the story is that it doesn't connect with the player. The game almost seems content to exist within itself, not caring whether the player is actually emotionally invested it its results. GTA IV spent a lot of time setting up certain characters as antagonists or friends, but I never felt attached to anyone. They were all mildly irritating, but nobody inspired genuine admiration/hatred in me. The only exception was Brucie, but that's a different story.

I liked Niko, but I never really sympathized with him. The player is told to care about an event that transpired in Niko's past before the start of the game and to dislike characters for reasons they never see on screen. Thus, choices like whether or not to execute a character don't really resonate because they don't mean anything to the player. Choice-centric franchises like Mass Effect work because the player is invested in his/her teammates. GTA never inspires that investment, so the choices feel bland.

Still, I can't really complain about the game too much. On a gameplay level, there's a lot to enjoy. Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the longest games I've ever played. My playthrough clocked in at about 32 hours to complete all 94 of the main story missions. There's a wealth of employers, and they all have several missions for you to complete. The best part, though? After the credits rolled, I was still only 62% done. There is a lot of side missions and extra content to do.

Don't think that it'll be repetitive stuff either. Perhaps Rockstar's greatest feat is producing 94 missions that all play differently enough to not feel repetitive. GTA IV is a very long game, and thankfully repeated content is minimal. Some will be put off by the beginning, but stick through it. The missions start slow but they quickly snowball in scale and intensity. Struggling through shakedown jobs at the start of the game is worth it when you get to awesome moments like an insane bank robbery.

However, it's the missions that are the source of my single greatest frustration with Grand Theft Auto IV. There are approximately zero checkpoints in any mission. If you fail for any reason (and there are lots of ways to fail), you have to restart the entire thing. For multi-part missions that involve lots of driving across Liberty City, this is agony. Worst of all was the final mission, a massive affair involving a huge shootout, vehicles, and a spectacularly amazing helicopter sequence. The problem was the floaty helicopter controls caused me to crash several times. Guess what? Time to restart the entire shootout from the very beginning. I got incredibly frustrated with the lack of checkpoints.

The good part is that if you fail, it won't be the game's fault. GTA IV features acceptable vehicle controls and solid gunplay. Aiming is done via an odd system where you lock onto the enemy, no aiming necessary. It's a different approach to shooting, but I liked it. Purists can turn off the lock-on and free aim if they'd like, so again no complaints.

Rockstar also bucks several trends in recent shooters. It thankfully avoids humping the leg of Call of Duty and omits features like recharging health and a two-weapon loadout. At first I was unsure about no recharging health, but I grew to really enjoy it. My increased mortality added a certain weight to every battle and forced me to fight tactically. And of course, being able to carry an arsenal of pistols, knives, baseball bats, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, and sniper rifles is just awesome.

If you've got the creativity, you can put that arsenal to good use. There are plenty of opportunities to create your own fun in GTA... just be sure to turn off the autosave. Dropping a hand grenade into rush hour traffic is a good way to kill time and other drivers. Throw in some cheats for unlimited rocket launcher ammo (definitely turn off the autosave, cheats disable achievements) and you have a recipe for unlimited explosive fun.

Granted, that fun won't last forever. Sooner or later (probably sooner, depending on your body count) you'll get noticed by the cops. That's when the real fun starts. Avoiding the Liberty City PD is a game in and of itself. Police chases often start small but can escalate quickly into massive run-and-gun affairs that involve hurtling across the city. You'll learn quickly that LCPD plays hardball- they bring in SWAT teams, armored vans, assault helicopters, police boats, and the most aggressive assault drivers ever. I had a lot of fun starting the biggest cop chase possible and then trying to escape.

One thing you can't escape, though, is the shoddy technical work. My PC is a fully capable game rig, but Grand Theft Auto IV still struggles to run properly. Chalk it up to the game being a rather poor PC port, but there's no excuse for the amount of lag I encountered. I had to turn the graphics and textures down in order to stop the game from lagging when driving at high speeds. Considering this is GTA, you have to drive fast quite often. That and remarkably stiff facial animations were the two annoyances of my Steam copy.

However, I really want to emphasize that all the things that don't work are microscopically small compared to the sheer gargantuan pile of things that do work. Grand Theft Auto IV is a success on so many levels that its minor failures stand out all the more. It's a genuinely enjoyable game that I honestly had a blast playing. Just hearing its familiar theme music puts a smile on my face. All of the frustrations just don't compare to the amount of fun I had playing Grand Theft Auto. GTA IV might start slow or be occasionally frustrating, but stick with it and you won't regret it. You owe it to yourself to experience the greatest crime epic in gaming.

Fun With Friends

For one thing, the maps are huge. Each game mode takes place within a set section of Liberty City chosen by the host. All that amazing design that marks Liberty City is in the multiplayer too. The layout and complex topography of Liberty City makes GTA multiplayer levels infinitely more interesting. Hell, if you're feeling ambitious you can even play team deathmatch across the entire city.

The lobby system takes some adjusting in order to actually understand what you're doing and how to join a session, but once you do it's super easy to find a game and play. The menu lets you sort potential matches by a huge number of factors, so finding an ideal match shouldn't be too hard. How ideal that match is depends on the host. Hosts decide everything from the map to weapons to whether auto-aim is enabled. I highly recommend you get some practice with free aiming because most of my games didn't use lock-on.

The multiplayer gameplay itself is simultaneously innovative and a bit dated. On the plus side, the gunplay works and the addition of vehicles really helps differentiate GTA from its vehicle-less multiplayer rivals like Call of Duty and Rainbow Six Vegas. There's nothing quite like loading up a posse into a single car and hunting down the other team in one awesome drive-by shooting. On the minus side, don't expect to just get handed kills. GTA multiplayer is difficult and very much skill-driven. I'm not great at multiplayer in general, and I got my ass handed to me in almost every round. Be prepared to put in some serious playtime in order to get good.

Thankfully, if you're like me and not really the competitive type, there's Free Mode. You and up to 31 of your closest friends can all roam Liberty City together. There aren't any story missions, but everything else (e.g. minigames, cop chases, killing pedestrians) is still there. Starting a huge cop chase is even more fun with a friend.

The final verdict for multiplayer is mixed. I don't really see the competitive portion suddenly overthrowing Call of Duty and becoming the new industry standard. Free Roam mode, on the other hand, is an absolute blast. Liberty City is even more amazing when you get to explore it in groups. If you've got a lot of friends on Steam/Xbox Live/ PSN, I highly recommend rounding up a group of them for a nice co-op session. That's easily where GTA shines brightest outside of its stellar single player.

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