Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Review

I snagged a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV for the XBox 360 on release day (last Tuesday) from the local Blockbuster. The last game I picked up the first week of release was Halo 3, and that was hugely disappointing. GTA4 has been hyped as potentially breaking Halo 3's sales record, so I wondered if I was setting myself up for another gaming disappointment.

I won't bore people with the background of the game and the gratuitous vulgar language, sex, and violence in the game (hence the M for Mature rating... although my wife claims that disqualifies me due to my immaturity).

GTA4 does a good job providing a plot that eases the player into learning the controls of the game. This makes the plot a little slow in the beginning, but the plot is real and doesn't feel manufactured (like most shoot-em-ups). You play the role of Niko, an eastern european who has just arrived in New York, er, Liberty City with only one contact, his cousin Roman. From there, you have to help Niko make his way in the world's largest city.

The map of New York, er, Liberty City is huge, detailed, and realistic. Simply amazing job by Rockstar to pull a map of this size off, and to do so without any caching interruption.

The driving controls and feel are excellent. The shooting leaves a little to be desired. Gun choices are aplenty, and cycling through your weapons are easy, but free-fire is really poor - almost impossible to get a bead on your opponent. Luckily, GTA4 has an auto-lock feature. It works very well, but for me it takes the fun out of shoot-em-ups. This applies to hand-to-hand combat as well.

The selection of cars is impression. From GTOs and 60s Mustangs to Corvettes to soccer mom minivans to pimped-out SUVs to garbage trucks to buses to motorcycles, you have quite a selection of vehicles to get around Liberty City.

GTA4 has a main plot, of which I am 26% through. The plot is well done, understandable, and believable. Along the way you meet friends, and if you earn their respect they will give you jobs for which you can earn money. Some as clean as driving a taxi, others, well, not so clean. If you do well enough, you become friends with them and you can hang out together in Liberty City's many places of entertainment - pool, strip clubs, dining, drinking, darts, shows, you name it.

The user interface is really impressive. You use your cell phone to call friends, receive calls, get text messages, manage appointments, and even access multiplayer mode. Very easy to use, and feels seamless with the gameplay.

While you're cruising around in your ride-of-the-minute, you can tune into one of 16 radio stations, each with a deep variety of tunes. All music in the game is available via Amazon's GTA IV MP3 Store.

Throughout the map there are side surprises, although they are few and far between. Most of the map and objects in it (including people) are not-interactive. You can drive just about anywhere, and you can run/jump/climb just about anywhere (I got myself stuck on top of some buildings once).

The multiplayer mode is surprisingly good. When I was playing single-player, I just couldn't see how multiplayer mode would be any good. How wrong I was. Free for all is awesome. You against other players, with whatever weapon and vehicle you can muster, duking it out all over Liberty City. Hit a non-player, fire a weapon, etc and you will attract the attention of the cops. In which case you can escape, or fight them and attract even more police. You can also play co-op, but the AI of the computer players is pretty weak. Some will argue that makes it fun :) There are also other good modes like carjacking, where everyone competes against each other to steal the most cars and return them in good condition (the more damage the less money you get for each car).

One note for those with kids: don't play it with kids in the house. Plenty of language to make Bobby Knight cringe with disgust.

So far the most fun thing I've done is escape from the cops when I had "4 stars" (tops out at 6 stars), which is quite a feat. Took me 10 minutes of scheming and focus and fine-tuned reflexes to pull it off, but I did.

At this point I'm addicted to it. Definitely have to see single-player through to completion, and definitely this is now my favorite multi-player game for Friday night game night. This game lives up to its hype.

Game on!

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