Meet Niko Bellic; he’s rude, he’s ugly, but by god he’s a lovable piece of east-block-euro-trash. Fresh off the boat and onto the shores of Liberty City, Niko is going to live the American dream, or kill and maim trying.
At the heart of GTA: 4 is an immensely compelling single player story mode. Again, as in previous entries to the franchise, completing ‘missions’ for various seedy criminal types propels the game forward; big difference here is the quality of the story telling. The writing is absolutely top notch and the voice acting beautifully judged and executed. Personally I was pleased to see no big name actors attached – something I always found more of a distraction than anything in the earlier games. “Oh, isn’t that Samuel L. Jackson? Cool!”
The gameplay has also been ramped up thanks in no small part to the Euphoria physics engine. Characters and vehicles now respond much more realistically to the environment. Driving in particular does take some getting used too but as such, once mastered, is a much more rewarding experience. On foot, Niko ‘aint exactly Altair’ but I was surprised by how much of Liberty City I could clamber through, vault over or hang from.
The new combat and cover system is definitely worth a mention, there’s no more standing around like some bullet attracting magnet anymore. If something looks like it’ll provide cover, chances are it will. Then from relative safety you can lock onto your foes and take some precision shots or shoot blind if that’s how you roll. Either way enemies are not as tricky or intimidating this time around.
Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the best and this is true of the addition of a mobile phone that acts as a kind of in-game organiser and… phone. At any point behind a wheel or on foot you can access the cell to contact friends for kicks, work associates for jobs, keep track of various mission objectives or dial up GTA: 4’s multiplayer mode for a bit of nasty online mayhem.
Another useful addition to gameplay is the GPS, which is great for quickly finding places of interest or navigating those darn spaghetti junctions that proved such a pain in San Andreas. As well as the route highlighted on your map some cars actually have your destination narrated to you ‘Tom Tom’ style. Depending on your car model you’ll either get an American cheese-ball or a posh English rose with plums in her mouth. Like the new mobile phone feature, the GPS adds much to the gaming experience by keeping confusion to a minimum. In an environment as vast as Liberty City, it pays to be organised.
Socialising is now a much more important component to the GTA experience. You can take any number of friends out for a drink, meal, darts, cabaret or pool… but where’s the table tennis? — Little Rockstar joke there. Making friends and keeping them happy gives access to various privileges you might otherwise be denied. But then again this is GTA so do whatever you want.
Enough superlatives can’t be said about lead protagonist Niko Bellic. Light years from the Tommy Vercetti’s or CJ Johnson’s of the past, Niko is witty, sardonic but also flawed and sad. Clearly damaged from experiences had during a nameless war this goes someway to explain a character that at turns is both cold-blooded and thoroughly likable. Rockstar have created a character that you’ll care about, a claim that’s so often made but rarely delivered.
Finally let’s talk multiplayer action. Now not wanting to be at a disadvantage in the days and months to come I leapt online the night I got my game… and promptly got a whupping. 15 modes and supporting up to 16 players GTA: 4’s multiplayer is massive — clearly not a mere after thought. Sure you’ve got the usual stock and trade death matches but also mixing it up is racing challenges and more esoteric team based objective matches. Hosting allows you to fully customise your games to any shape or form you wish and all players are able to alter the appearance of their characters.
Grand Theft Auto IV, if you haven’t got it yet — buy it. If you have — get back in there your console’s getting cold!