When Rockstar North (then DMA Design) created a game called Grand Theft Auto all the way back in 1997, it could never have predicted that its top-down cops and robbers game would, over the course of the next ten years, evolve into one of the biggest video game franchises of all time. Now after eight stand alone games and two expansion packs, Grand Theft Auto goes next generation with Grand Theft Auto IV on PlayStation 3.
This time around you play Niko Bellic, a European immigrant who has been lured to Liberty City, USA by his cousin Roman's tales of fast cars, fast women and a luxurious lifestyle in his very own mansion. What Niko finds however, is that Roman has been a little economical with the truth, and in fact lives in a cockroach infested apartment and works as a cab driver.
So, it's up to you to pull Niko out of the gutter by any means necessary. Unlike the previous games rags to riches storylines, Rockstar has described the story as "rags to slightly better rags", and you'll achieve this through the series' trademark missions, doing less than legal deeds for less than respectable characters. As involving and enjoyable as the gameplay was in the previous GTA games, GTA IV improves on it in every way, offering up missions that are more complex, clever and fun than ever before.
One mission shows off the functionality of the new mobile phone accessory by having Niko tasked with tracking down and assassinating a crucial witness in a court case. Using his phone Niko dials the emergency services to call out a police squad car, steals it, and then uses the onboard police computer to find out the location of his target. What follows is a high speed car chase across the city straight out of a Hollywood action movie, followed by a tense, climactic shoot-out. And that's just one mission. Out of hundreds. This is one game that certainly doesn't skimp on the content.
So good they named it twice
The setting this time around is Liberty City. Scaling things back from the entire state that Rockstar created in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, GTA IV instead presents a giant, working city packed with detail. New York in everything but name, Liberty City consists of five boroughs, each with their own personality and feel. You start out in Broker, the game's equivalent of Brooklyn, where the bridge to the other boroughs is closed due to an unspecified terrorist threat. This is soon lifted however, and you get to explore the other boroughs, meeting new contacts, undertaking new jobs and generally exploring to your heart's content.
The people you meet along the way get added to your phone's address book, which allows you to create and maintain friendships. Bringing up a contact in your phone lets you choose from a variety of options for activities to do with them, such as bowling, drinking and darts, all of which help you bond with another character. Get your friendship level high enough and that character will give you perks, such as free cab rides from Roman, or free guns from the arms dealer Little Jacob.
The game also comes complete with a working in-game Internet that lets you change your mobile phone ringtone, surf online dating websites or check your email. It's a nice touch and just another example of the lengths Rockstar has gone to to make Liberty City feel like a living, breathing world.
This feeling is helped no end by the new graphics and animation that feature throughout the game, powered by Rockstar's new game engine. The Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (or R.A.G.E. for short) allows for realistic faces, movements and interactions between characters, not just for Niko and other people necessary to the story, but all the game's thousands of pedestrians as well. A quick drive around any of the games neighbourhoods will reveal streets teeming with people chatting, bumping into each other and generally living their lives, while realistic weather covers the sidewalk in a vision-obscuring fog or causes rain to splash around Niko's feet as he crosses the street. Incredibly, none of this impacts on the loading times encountered in the game. According to Rockstar, once you've started the game up it is possible to play the game from beginning to end without encountering a single loading screen.
Pedestrians aren't the only ones who've increased in Artifical Intelligence either. This time around, the police are no pushover - bring down the full force of the LCPD on your head and there's little chance you'll survive. Luckily, there's a new wanted system in place whereby police establish a radius around your last seen location. If you can escape this radius, you're in the clear, but get spotted by another cop and the radius will re-centre on you. The higher your wanted level, the bigger the radius, so it pays to be cautious when breaking the law.
Grand theft awesome
Previous GTA games have included multiplayer, but never to the extent of GTA IV. There are now 15 multiplayer modes for up to 16 players, ranging from Team Deathmatch and capture-the-base modes to GTA-style races (weapons and explosives allowed). There are also co-operative mission modes, as well as co-op versus games such as Cops n' Crooks, where one team plays as Cops and the other team as Crooks. The Crooks' job is to escort their leader to safety, or get to a getaway vehicle, while the Cops are out to kill the leader or destroy the escape vehicle. Getting the chance to play on the other side of the law is a rare occurrence in the GTA universe, and makes for brilliantly fun multiplayer as you and your friends battle to come out on top.
So was it worth the wait? The answer is a resounding yes. There simply isn't room to go into every new innovation and gameplay feature that Grand Theft Auto IV has managed to cram onto a single Blu-ray Disc. All you need to know is that it is not an overstatement to call GTA IV one of the best games of all time.