Publisher: Take-Two Interactive/Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
For: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
ESRB Rating: Intense Violence, Blood, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, Partial Nudity, Use of Drugs and Alcohol

(This review has been adapted to fit CCG's review standards from its original form as seen on Revolve21.)

In 2001, when Grand Theft Auto III launched, it was hailed far and wide as the first game truly exemplary of the then-next generation of video games. It hit among the first wave of games on the PS2, and sold millions of copies, as well as kick-starting a new genre: the sandbox game. There was a story, but that didn’t matter as much as the freedom to go anywhere and do anything within the constraints of the game, which was hailed by the gaming press and decried by parents and anti-violence groups everywhere, as well as seemingly ever-present attorney Jack Thompson, who began to sue Rockstar Games and Take-Two (who owns the former company) on behalf of anyone who would listen. Within a year, developer DMA Design became Rockstar North and quickly developed the follow-up to GTA3, Vice City. If GTA3 was the innovator, then Vice City was certainly the game that refined the formula and added atmosphere, with a slick, pastel look that was obviously inspired by Miami Vice, as well as a soundtrack that was very relevant to the time. This atmosphere was continued in 2004 with a successor to Vice City called San Andreas. That game proved that the developers could handle both social and cultural satire (which the series is not well-known for) as well as present a volatile time in history (Southern California in the early 1990s) in a mature fashion (in that they handled threads of plot including racism, sexism and drugs, as well as a corrupt police force, gang violence and themes of love and betrayal in a deft fashion). That latter game brought forth the ire of parental groups once again, when the so-called "Hot Coffee" mod was released; it was sexually explicit, a scrapped idea from Rockstar itself, and resulted in the first "Adults Only" rating for a retail game, which led to a recall and a subsequent removal of the offending code. In their defense, it was only accessible through hacks, but it led to the ESRB changing policy on the rating of games, as well as continued legislation against violent video games.

But if you\'re a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, you already knew all of that.

Grand Theft Auto IV was set to be the game that redefined the series once again. Running on Rockstar’s proprietary RAGE engine (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine), and featuring physics powered by NaturalMotion’s Euphoria (which essentially creates a virtual skeletal system for characters within the game world, making for characters that move and react realistically to in-game conditions), GTA4 is easily the best-looking game from Rockstar North to date. The amount of detail within the game environment is awe inspiring, and both the animation and the physics are astonishing. This is one of the first games I’ve played where it feels like your character has a physical weight and almost a presence within the game. He reacts to everything within the environment, from cars skidding to a stop in front of him to people shouting at him on the streets. It’s really amazing just how much personality was infused into the character simply because of the little details that occur when the player moves through the game world.

GTA4 is the story of Niko Bellic, a Bosnian war veteran and illegal Serbian immigrant who comes to Liberty City (a virtual parody of New York City that was also featured, albeit in much different form, in GTA3) to live the American dream, just like his cousin, Roman, says he’s been doing. Unfortunately, Roman’s a liar. Niko finds Roman living in a dumpy apartment on Hove Beach, an area of town that is largely populated by Eastern European immigrants (mirroring New York’s own Brighton Beach, a community on Coney Island), running a taxi service that is, by and large, failing, and, more importantly, in debt to the Russian mafia. To help his cousin out, Niko begins to take on jobs to earn money and pay off Roman’s debt, along the way running into some very unsavory characters.

That set up begins the story of Niko Bellic, by far the most compelling protagonist that Rockstar North has ever created. The story that occurs around Niko is not, however, the massive leap that many claimed. Yes, it’s an engaging story, and yes, it’s emotionally compelling. Yet those things have been done before. GTA4’s biggest downfall is that, while the story is successful in setting Niko up as a sympathetic character, it still allows the player to do what they’ve been doing for seven years with the GTA series, that is, go around and blow things up, which effectually eliminates any and all character progression through the player’s own actions. Still, this is necessarily the nature of Grand Theft Auto. Any progression into more artistic and emotional territory would result in a loss of the series’ core fanbase.

That being said, GTA4’s story is an amazing achievement, and one not ordinarily seen in action games. One of the reasons for this is that the major characters seemed to be more fully fleshed out than is the standard for games. Niko, in particular, has a past, a present, and a future; he has friends, he has loves, and he has enemies. It’s because of this, then, that Niko seems to be a more realized character than many seen in role-playing games or in action games of GTA4’s caliber.

Story aside, much of the game is very typical of the Grand Theft Auto series. Missions and story progression often devolve into a very typical formula. Often, players will go to a location, watch a cinematic, go to the next location, watch the next cinematic, and so on, until the mission strand is completed. While this could, plausibly, get old for some players, GTA4 varies things by allowing the player to turn off the story and do what they want for a while. Liberty City is big, and there are a ton of things to do and see, from going to a bar (you get drunk) to going to a restaurant, to hitting up a comedy club (comedians Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams provide their own form of inappropriate humor to the game’s proceedings) or a cabaret. Players preferring to stay on a more action-oriented side of things are more than welcome to go and blow up a car, igniting a car chase or shootout that can last for miles, literally.

One of the major improvements to the series is to the game’s interface. With a simple press of the “Up” button on the D-pad, players bring out Niko’s cell phone. The phone is a hub for a large number of story and side missions, as well as having the function to get players online.

Also changed is the map in the game. Yes, there is the typical GTA-style map in the game; that much hasn’t changed. However, the addition of a GPS-like feature in the game—one that is dynamic and changes based on position—nearly changes the dynamic of the game itself. For the most part, the guesswork in navigating is gone. Players need simply to look at their map to get to the next objective on the map. This vastly simplifies matters, but seems to take some of the exploration out of the formula for the game.

Targeting is a major area of improvement from previous games. The player simply needs to squeeze the left trigger completely for auto-aim (which, much like in the hit 2004 game Everything or Nothing, allows for minute adjusting of the aim when in auto-aim), or partway for free-aim. It sounds pretty obnoxious and convoluted, but the fact is that it works better than past games, and that makes it quite the improvement.

Players now also have the ability to take cover behind objects. A simple tap of the right bumper (on 360) places Niko behind cover. This opens up more strategic play for the player. Smarter tactics means fewer unnecessary deaths.

Couple with these the inclusion of the amazing graphics system, which, animation aside, details the smallest of details of Rockstar’s version of New York City, and GTA4 is a very smooth playing game.

Sound is of particular quality in GTA4. Liberty City is a big place, and a good part of the game is spent driving around. No modern GTA would be the same without an amazing soundtrack, and here, GTA4 absolutely doesn’t disappoint. The soundtrack is expansive and covers a myriad of genres, from rap to funk to rock to reggae to talk, and nearly all of the songs represented are good (though there are a few stinkers, but that comes down to personal taste).

Voice acting is equally amazing. Characters are brought to life through their animations and their voices, and all are distinct. Accents are all accurate; so much so that it’s recommended that you turn subtitles on because some characters aren’t exactly understandable.

One of the major appeals of the Grand Theft Auto series is just how free roaming the game play is. This is, for the most part, unchanged in GTA4. However, the story is much more linear. Players actually need to go and change an option, which turns off the story. With that done, players are more or less free to move about the map, without unwanted distractions. If the player decides to not turn off the story mode, they will be continually hounded by other characters, even when not in the middle of a mission.

This is because GTA4 introduces a sort of “relationship” element, which is part dating-sim, part friendship-sim. Throughout the game, the player meets different characters, some of which are added to the in-game cell phone. This opens up a variety of different activities for the player to participate in. Most of them are completely throw away, ranging from a middling pool game to a frustrating bowling game, to less appropriate venues. All of them, however, are either beneficial or detrimental to your in-game relationships. Nurture relationships, from girlfriends to just... friends, and you’ll earn in-game bonuses. Dating one girlfriend for a certain amount of time gives the player a limited ability to drop your wanted level. Another character sells guns out of his trunk, but only after a certain point in the game. Most characters offer some sort of reward for engaging in a relationship of some kind, which adds a very engaging game play element for those willing to explore it. If the player initiates a relationship with, say, a woman, it does have a downside. I experienced a woman stalking me after I made the choice to dump the character; the same sort of thing (not the creepy stalker thing, but other negatives) can definitely occur with regular friends, too, so there\'s always an incentive to keep people happy or entertained.

Apart from that, however, GTA4 is largely the same game that several million people have been playing and enjoying for years. The graphics are improved, the story far more relevant, and there’s a lot more to do in town, but GTA4 is not a game play revolution. It is more an evolution of established concepts, existing ones honed and refined, while new ones introduce new problems to the mix.

A multitude of problems exist for GTA4 morally, though this is true for every iteration of the franchise. Sex is a thread throughout, with the player having the ability to visit a prostitute or go to a strip club; these are, for the most part, avoidable, though a couple of missions require the player to go to strip clubs. Violence is a major element of game play. Players are thrust into violent and bloody shootouts often, though to their credit, these gunfights are not graphically violent. One mission has the main character pose as a gay man to meet another on a date; another has the player track down a gay basher for a homosexual friend. Profanity is consistently present in GTA4. Characters spew f-bombs, and one says the c-word frequently. Players can date, and have the option of sleeping with their date, though this is not required. If the player does do this, they gain bonuses (discussed above) that enhance game play (read: make it easier). It should be noted that these sections can be skipped with a simple press of a button. Several situations ask the player to choose to kill or spare a target, while the final act of the game offers revenge as an option, one that is encouraged by a major character. Prostitutes are again present in the game, though not as prominent this time around; they\'re stuck in the seedier parts of town, so players will have to go find them to procure their "services," which, while still not graphic, are shown with more, ahem, animation this time around. Basically, this means that you can see some movement from one of the two parties, and more if you move the camera around in an attempt to see.

GTA4 is the culmination of every game of the series up until now. It is violent, offensive, captivating and amusing in equal parts. The satire has not been lost, but has become more refined with each subsequent installment. In fact, one could say that the satire is more biting this time around simply because this is the first GTA in years to take place now, instead of sometime in the past. It is, in a word, relevant.

This is not the best game in years, nor is it the most inventive. It is, rather, an intriguing exploration of a poignant subject coupled with excellent mechanics and ideas. It is a game of ambition and daring. All of the innovative and rote elements come together here to make a spectacular whole, one that will dazzle all the more if you don’t go in expecting a typical Grand Theft Auto. If you do go in expecting that, however, you\'re in for a shock; GTA4 is not so much as sequel as a necessary evolution of the franchise, one that comes with a few warts, even as it has improved and innovated upon existing foundations of game play and game design. For those wary of the series as a whole, remember to treat it, essentially, as an R-rated film, albeit one that lasts for tens of hours and has a high level of interactivity, because through its excess and debauchery, GTA4 is no worse than a film by Martin Scorcese or Quentin Tarantino. While it has not even begun to touch upon the level of artistry seen from its influences, the game wears them proudly on its sleeve nonetheless.

Appropriateness 22/50
-Violence 2.5/10
-Language 3/10
-Sexual Content/Nudity 1.5/10
-Occult/Supernatural 10/10
-Cultural/Moral/Ethical 5/10
Game play 19/20
Graphics 10/10
Sound 10/10
Stability 5/5
Controls/Interface 4/5

Overall 70/100


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