Grand Theft Auto IV Xbox 360 Review

May 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews & Features, Xbox 360, Xbox

Those expecting a radical overhaul will likely be let down by the latest game in the money making Grand Theft Auto series. Things have been changed for the better and others for the worse, although the misleadingly titled fourth game in the series is still the equivalent of a very familiar face in a massive crowd.

This time you take control of an Eastern European immigrant who sets his foot on American soil at the start of the game. Niko Bellic is the deepest and most likeable GTA lead yet and has come to Liberty City (GTA’s version of New York) after a web of lies from his charismatic cousin suggested a life spent in the lap of luxury. Being a GTA game Niko is obviously soon swept into a tsunami of crime, and he’ll be meeting up with various criminals that vary from the very likeable to the downright detestable. I would be dumbstruck if someone was to ask me which are the worst characters, as all are brilliantly voiced, have superb personalities and move and act like real people. Those worried about the initial trailer suggesting a lack of humour can now breathe a sigh of relief as GTA IV is as silly as ever, not to mention, just as horribly vulgar and juvenile.

You’ll probably know by now that you can’t go into GTA IV expecting to reacquaint yourself with the Liberty City that made its debut in the very first 3D GTA game. This new sandbox is Liberty City by name only and has much more in common with real life New York city and typically for a GTA game, it‘s more of a living city than the last one, with pleasing little touches that include people hanging on cars, cops hopping into civilian cars to pursue you and pedestrians erecting umbrellas when the heavens decide to open. To spoil the lot would be criminal (a criminal cliché, I know). Like earlier games in the series the entire map isn’t free to roam right from the off, with the excuse being that a lockdown is in place due to the threat of terrorism. The city itself is one of the series’ greatest environments, and those who took a dislike to being lost in the countryside of San Andreas will be glad to know that these quiet and rural locations are out. I certainly wasn’t amused whenever I lost my vehicle miles from any road and then having to walk around on foot for ages until coming across any signs of life (nope I never did spot the mythical yeti).

In fact getting around the city is now easier than ever thanks to a Saints Row style GPS navigation system. The familiar circular map that has served us well since GTA 3 is present, although placing waypoints now leads you directly to your destination by following a highlighted route. You can also be taxied around the city if you’d rather not be doing the driving, which is handy for those who used to moan about all the motoring about that was required.

The actual driving may come as quite a shock to those used to fishtailing around corners. Vehicles are now heavier in feel (you can now helpfully shoot forward from them), bounce around in a satisfying manner, and initially seem like they are stubbornly refusing to go around corners. You’ll soon realise that driving joy is just not as instantaneous as other games in the series, and you’ll need to work at it to make handbrake swings successful. Gran Turismo it’s not. Harsher and more satisfying it is.

Improvements are exactly the thing that Rockstar has concentrated on upon building a brand new engine. Employing the use of NaturalMotion’s Euphoria makes body movement all the more convincing: Niko’s head snaps forward when crashing in cars, his body shifts to the side when his vehicle corners, he stumbles around awkwardly when drunk, and his legs take into account what is actually underfoot (going up and down steps actually more resembles skiing than anything else though). Running down people with vehicles is now also more disturbing as they ride on top of your bonnet and bounce painfully across it. The manner in which enemies recoil when shot and tumble down stairs makes the shootouts much more impressive than previously and that’s without the major improvements to the actual shooting system.

Lightly pressing the lock-on button now leads to manual aim, whilst pressing it right down automatically locks on to your nearest target. Switching targets with auto aim is as easy as nudging the stick in the direction of your desired target, and there’s a cover system to avoid all that flying lead. The cover system is reliable and sophisticated, allowing you to easily slide into and move from cover to cover, as well as blindly fire at your enemies, an action which just so happens to be annoyingly accurate. It all certainly makes for a much tidier game, and just goes to show that whilst everyone else was spring cleaning their houses, Rockstar used their feather dusters and polish on GTA IV instead.

The actual missions are rather back to basics in the sense that they aren’t as long drawn out as, say, San Andreas. If you’ve played a GTA game before then the missions will surprise you as much as stealing cars and running people over in the game does, such is their familiar nature, although being a GTA game there’s detail in the smallest touch. Also, on some missions you are presented with a choice of who to kill or whether to let a particular character live or die, and as the characters are so well developed I found this to be a real struggle at times, although some of them definitely did deserve the bullet. Oh and not forgetting to mention that mission failure now results in a text message that allows you to instantly restart the botched mission or ignore it all together and head off and try something else instead. Indeed, Liberty City is never a boring place, it’s the city that never sleeps after all (well, that’s actually New York, but you know what I mean).

There’s plenty to do within this vast city, and if you’re not sticking to the mostly linear plot you’ll be socialising with your buddies, using the internet, attempting side missions and even putting your feet up and watching some TV. Buddy interaction is mostly optional, although the more you socialise with an individual (playing serviceable versions of darts, pool and bowling, getting badly drunk, as well as visiting cabaret, comedy and strip clubs) the more you’ll learn about the characters (Niko included) and the more he or she will like you, and often they also have handy perks (everything from backup to getting the police off your tail) which you can make use of when they like you enough. Socialising comes about by phoning or being phoned by your buddies, although it can be annoying to receive a call when you are just driving around, and even though you can refuse a social request, doing so makes your buddies like you less. Being a popular criminal can be hard work. The internet on the other hand doesn’t mean that you need a broadband connection to access it, rather it’s GTA’s own version of the World Wide Web which allows you to absorb all the useless and humorous information, read emails (those hoping for a break from spam in their fake inboxes won’t be too happy) and even involve Niko in a spot of dating.

GTA stumbles like a drunk Niko in a few areas. One, the new Scarface like police system works well enough, although the boys in blue are no longer as reckless, hilarious, and aggressive as they once were, and in the early to mid sections of the chase they prove too easy to escape from. Two, the visuals are pleasing to the eye in many areas, although the blurriness is a little off putting, particularly to begin with, and even fiddling with the display settings only seems to improve things slightly. Three, car chases are now very scripted, and emptying bullet after bullet into particular targets won’t do any damage at all, but frustratingly you’ll never be told about this. Four, must we hold a button to run? The last time I checked it was 2008 and my pads still have their wee sticks attached! Five, the online mode is excellent when it’s working and has a wealth of modes (team based Cops ‘N Crooks, and the chaotic GTA Races quickly became my firm favourites), it’s just a shame that many peoples experiences have been blighted by some nasty connection issues. A patch please Rockstar.

Grand Theft Auto IV is the best game in the series yet and Rockstar have really put some effort into improving some of the poorer mechanics of past instalments in the criminal franchise. It’s just a shame that they have taken a step backwards in another few areas. With that said, It may be pushing it to be giving it a perfect 10/10 or even a 9, but flaws aside, it’s one of the most engaging games of 2008. Perhaps some overly mature and wrinkly people would say that was a criminal statement, but the real criminal thing would be to listen to their attention seeking moaning. So don’t.