GTA, or at least the 3D version, has come full circle. While Vice City took you through a glitzy nightmare of 80’s excess in Miami, and San Andreas hurled you afro-first into hip-hop’s early-90’s LA heyday, GTA IV takes you back to the grimy present-day rain of Liberty City, as featured in the groundbreaking GTA III.
The free-roaming guns-and-driving formula is still there, but it’s come a long way. The first thing that strikes you about GTA IV is how many of the previous games’ shortcomings have been addressed. You no longer have to creep back to a safe house to save the game after each successful mission, as your progress is stored after every objective is reached. You no longer have to haul yourself across town to reach far-flung objectives, as you can sit back and let a cab take the strain.
The game also gives its all to make you feel like an independent character in a huge world. As in Vice City and San Andreas, you have a mobile phone, but this isn’t just a way for your associates to contact you out of the blue with mission offers. You gain contacts as the game progresses, and you can call them up to ask for missions or just to help out. Some contacts have a special ability, and if you’re stuck for a ride or need some heat to get the job done, you can get a friend to send a cab or turn up with a trunkful of shooters. It lends the people you meet and the world you inhabit a previously-missing sheen of authenticity. Relationships develop slowly over time instead of over a handful of cut-scenes, and as your standing with other characters increases new opportunities present themselves to you.
Many things have stayed the same, though, and that’s no bad thing. GTA IV follows the previous games’ fish-out-of water approach, with you turning up in an unfamiliar city with only the bare minimum of contacts to help you get started. You are Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe. You’ve come to see your cousin Roman, who has been spinning you tall tales of mansions, sports cars and three-in-a-bed romps. You’re quickly brought down to Earth with a bump, as you realise the sports car is an 80s sedan and the mansion has more cockroaches than Men in Black. Your cousin is also in trouble with loan sharks from Russia and Albania, and has been anxiously awaiting your arrival to dig him out of his hole and help him hit the big time.
As you’re thrown in with such a rough bunch, it’s no surprise that things quickly turn ugly. Fortunately, this gives you a chance to try out the slick combat system. You have several unarmed moves and can block attacks and disarm opponents, and the weapon aiming system works like a well-oiled Glock. You can pull the trigger fully to lock onto targets before refining your aim to individual body parts, or pull it half-way to aim wherever you wish. There’s a cover system reminiscent of Gears of War, where you can creep along walls and hide next to doorways, before reaching round to take a quick shot. It makes combat far more satisfying than the previous titles’ haphazard shooting.
Thanks to a far more advanced driving engine, ripping around the city is more fun than ever before. Your cars have a real feeling of weight, and handling feels fairly realistic, with some skill needed to keep control after a handbrake turn in the wet. There are some nods to realism that were previously lacking. Slam into a wall too fast and you’ll be thrown through the windscreen, and take out a motorbike at speed and the rider will soar through the air. The environment is also destructible; cower behind a thin wall too long under fire and it will gradually be shot away.
As you would expect, the game is vast, and when you’re not playing the main missions there are games to play, girls to date and clothes to buy. There’s too much to do to even begin to go into here, but the core gameplay is so solid that you have an awful lot of fun finding out what Liberty City has to offer. It’s slick, it’s immersive, it’s fun, and when you tire of your own freeform antics there’s always the online multiplayer.