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Reviewed by Jason Thompson
elcome back to Liberty City. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? After taking a couple of detours into Vice City and San Andreas, you’ll be happy to know that nothing has changed. The crime rate’s still up, and although the Italian Cosa Nostra has been taken down, the Russian mob has moved in, and is planting deep roots in the sewers. There are a few new radio stations to listen to, and some new places to visit. But deep down, this is still the Liberty City you know and love. In fact, it’s any city you know and love, and this time around Niko Bellic is going to show you around the place through his eyes and stories. Welcome to the greatest “Grand Theft Auto” game yet.
Yes, everyone’s favorite controversial game is back, this time with not only a new coat of paint, but a storyline rich with drama, humor and plenty of action. Personally, I’ve really enjoyed most of the games in this series since “Grand Theft Auto III” took off way back when, but I never really felt close to the characters, probably due to the games being somewhat of a wiseguy sim at heart. But all that’s changed with “IV.” The character of Niko Bellic is so well presented -- with his own ideas about life, respect and love itself -- that it’s hard not to see a little of ourselves in him from time to time. Bellic is a character with real depth, not like the mute Claude from “GTA III” or any of the other main characters from past games. Players get a real sense of Bellic’s struggle through his journey throughout Liberty City, looking to right his own wrongs, while at the same time trying to grasp the rusty American Dream.
That dream is promised by Bellic’s cousin Roman, who has kept in contact with Nico since landing in Liberty City himself some time ago. He boasts of living in a mansion, driving fast cars, and having lots of sex with “American women with big titties.” Of course, the reality of the situation is that Roman is living in a dump, trying to make ends meet by running his own cab company while a lecherous boss breathes down his neck, as well as that of his girlfriend. Understandably, Niko is pissed when he realizes Roman has lied to him, and thus begins his own story in Liberty City. Soon enough, Bellic is finding himself doing “favors” for those with the supposed power. But as players quickly find out, Niko is the one pulling the strings, keeping a cool head, and doing whatever it takes to make his own dreams a reality.
But unlike past “GTA” main characters, Niko really does have a heart of gold underneath all the thuggery. Above all else, he values respect, and this he extends in every relationship, even those with females, which is a first for this series. Sure, players can still have Bellic ride around and pick up prostitutes and kill them for “kicks.” But during the main story, he often shows a sensitive side toward women that has not been seen in previous games. Still, there are plenty of hard-ass babes in this game who are tough as nails. It wouldn’t be Liberty City if there weren’t.
All the characters are amazingly developed this time out, though. There’s Brucie, the steroid-fueled freak who thinks he’s God’s gift to women (and who seems to have been taken from a page of Ben Stiller’s notebook); there’s the hilarious East Indian cab driver who must always give Niko free rides, and who insults Bellic with every nasty and outrageous thought he can spew; there’s Michelle, Niko’s main love interest who wants to know more about Niko’s past, while keeping her own secrets to herself; there’s Little Jacob, a Rastafarian pot dealer whose mumbo-jumbo confuses the hell out of Niko to great effect; and there’s Manny, a reformed junkie who is currently shooting a local access show featuring him “cleaning up the streets” to boost his own ego, while he has Nico do all the actual dirty work. The list goes on and on. Playing “GTA IV” and interacting with its many citizens is like watching a great movie play out.
But then there are also just random people walking along the streets of Liberty City. Even they’ve been given more to do, say, and “think” than ever before. Thrill as cars bump into each other on the streets, only to have both drivers get out and start beating the hell out of each other. Watch in amazement as the local nutjob stands on the sidewalk and preaches about all the crazy shit going on is his head. Dig it as people stroll down the street, get cell phone calls, and have full conversations when they stop to take them. It’s truly like a real city this time around.
The game itself is deeper than ever. This time out, players are treated to not only the familiar stuff they’ve come to love from this series, but a hell of a lot more. Taking a cab ride is always an experience, as players actually get to sit in the cab and take the trip to their destinations in real time, chatting with the cabbie if they choose to do so. Then there are the great mini-games. Niko can call up a date or a friend to go bowling, shoot pool, throw darts, go to the strip club, see an actual show at a cabaret club, visit a comedy club – the list goes on. The best thing is these activities don’t feel tacked on at all. Hell, Niko can even sit in his apartment and watch TV. And not some “simulated” crap as featured in other games, but actual shows. Yes, friends, these activities will take as much time to perform as if you were really there. And yes, you can also get drunk in the game and try your best to drive, though it’s not recommended no matter how damn funny it may be.
On top of that, there’s the usual cache of high powered weapons to play with. The police-issued SMG is one of the best, though the mini Uzi is good fun as well. This time out, players can actually lock on to their targets, with each of those targets having its own amount of health that is visibly taken away as they incur damage. This is something the series has needed for a long time, and at long last takes the sloppiness out of the combat. However, the same cannot be said about driving vehicles. If anything, this aspect of the game takes getting used to all over again, as the cars have a tendency to fishtail like crazy around corners at high speeds, or they just want to turn at 90 degree angles, depending on what you’re driving. But once the driving is re-learned, it’s pretty much a breeze, though the motorcycles can still be a bitch – a definite holdover from “San Andreas.”
But unlike that previous game, this version has dropped such dull micromanagement as pumping up your character in the gym and having to watch what he eats, lest he get too out of shape. This is a welcome change. For a moment there, “GTA” was turning a bit too much into “The Sims.” In “IV” however, players will just need to refuel Niko at either a local restaurant or hotdog stand to get his health back up, and that’s it. If anything, the micromanagement has shifted to clothes and accessories Nico can buy. Everything from low rent track outfits to fine suits, hats, sunglasses, boots and shoes, and more is thrown in. Oh, and did I mention the cybercafés where Niko can try online dating, email, and pick up extra jobs? Well, that’s all in there, too.
As far as the multiplayer mode goes in “GTA IV,” it’s a blast. The first time I tried it, I just checked out a random deathmatch game and it felt a little haphazard. However, later I jumped in with some friends in free roam mode and we got the feel of everything (and laughed our asses off at the sheer depth of what we could do). One person could be clear across the map blowing shit up while three or four more of us could all hop in the same car and joyride around, shooting things from inside the car. Or we could fly the chopper around, or ride the boats, or even piggyback on a motorcycle. It was just really mind boggling how much could actually be done here. And with a bevy of online games, from street races to “Cops and Crooks” and everything in between, there’s almost as much here to choose from as there is in the single player game. Amazing.
All of these aspects make it difficult to boil them down into a short review. “Grand Theft Auto IV” is the crown jewel in Rockstar’s repertoire. It took years to develop, a ton of money to create, and it all paid off. “IV” is to the series what “III” was to the series. It’s the definite next step forward, feeling familiar while being completely different and amazing all at the same time. This has “Game of the Year” written all over it, and it’s going to be damned hard to find another title released in 2008 that has the depth and all-around playability as this game. “Metal Gear Solid 4,” you are officially on notice. What’s more, this is the game that actually broke me away from “Call of Duty 4,” and that’s saying something. You just can’t get too much of Liberty City this time out.