Grand Theft Auto IV
Is it really worth this much hype?
Xbox 360, PS3
By Adam Doree
I knew that for this review I needed to see the end credits roll before making a final judgement. Simply playing halfway through the story of Grand Theft Auto IV would not suffice, because this game is all about the story and its characters. You wouldn't review a movie based on just the first half. Moreover, GTA IV has several apparent plot branches and also two significantly different endings, based on choices the player makes. We wanted to check out every eventuality; I feel it's relevant to forming a proper conclusion. Don't worry, though - this review is completely spoiler-free.
- Announcement HD Trailer (March 29, 2007)
- Living the American Dream (April 11, 2007)
- Preview 1: Welcome to GTA IV (May 25, 2007)
- Preview 2: Gameplay, Missions & More (July 25, 2007)
- Preview 3: Big characters, big deals (January 23, 2008)
- Preview 4: Hands-on Impressions (February 28, 2008)
- Preview 5: Multiplayer and more (April 8, 2008)
- The GTA IV Review (May 1, 2008)
All First-Hand GTA IV coverage:
Without a doubt, the heart of GTA IV is its writing. Dan Houser's work penning GTA offers not just a phenomenal story, with characters you love and care about, but it is also mechanically astounding in the way that it allows the game to unfold - not just as a story, but as a traditional video game. Every aspect of game detail is credibly explained within a storyline element - right down to the type of cellphone you are using and why only one island of Liberty City is accessible to begin with. (Just try swimming to an island before access is allowed and see what happens - there's no invisible wall bullshit here.)
Far more complex, interesting and likable than any of the series' previous protagonists, Niko arrives in Liberty City to be picked up by cousin Roman. After their celebratory drink, his reaction to the unglamorous reality of Roman's world that he's now a part of sets the scene for the rest of the game. "The mansion is coming", he's told - but is it? What happens in Niko's future in Liberty City is largely determined by his past. We soon learn about Niko's back story of betrayal, anguish and escape. We learn that he has a conscience and a soul, and we find out about his motive - about the "special someone" - which provides real motive to everything players will do in the game until the story finishes.
The relationship between the two cousins is central to the story, but it's far from the only relationship that matters. Players will discover a number of major characters you would never expect in a GTA game (and even real world celebrities). Relationships really start to matter - and more than anything else, it's the relationships in the story that glue GTA IV together so precisely. Relationships develop in ways we would not have expected based on what we'd learnt about the game over the last year; there are some fantastic story twists - way more than I expected, and often completely, genuinely unexpected. I also love how the Stats section gives some tantalising insight into how the game's internal 'relationship AI' works.
Of course, most of these relationships and plot points unfold in the game's cut-scenes, presented flawlessly by the in-game graphics engine. Some cut scenes are so good, you can't help but laugh in astonishment that this is actually a game. It's probably the best acting in a game ever and is often hilarious; as expected, Brucie has to be one of the most amusing characters to grace the medium. He's pumped up, and "ready for FUCKING anything". And he really is.
However, just because the story unfolds in cut-scenes and dialogue, that's not to say that you have no control over the outcome of this pre-penned tale. How much interaction do you actually have? You may have read about key 'decisions' the player has to make, and some have claimed these make no real difference to the way the game progresses. But closer examination reveals this is absolutely not the case.
It starts off with minor consequences to actions. I failed my first date in the game, for example, because violence scared her off - and there was a minor consequence that, fair enough, eventually became insignificant in terms of how things unfolded, as things needed to get to a certain stage with her for a plot point. But the choices that the player is presented with are not an illusion. We counted three major 'explicit' choices that needed to be made during the story - choices more significant than to 'execute or spare' someone; decisions you know are a big deal when they are presented to you. There are decisions that can offer additional functionality within the game (or not), while the final decision point affects the story's conclusion in a major (and unforeseen) way.
For this reason among many others, I would heartily recommend playing through campaign more than once to see what else you could have done, or if you want to be a bit more systematic about it, use game save slots to backtrack and see how else things could have panned out. What is a 'right' or 'wrong' decision is deliberately ambiguous, and often the decisions are genuinely hard to make - if the game forced you to only make one and stick to it, and somehow forbade you from sneaking back to a save point to see both outcomes, it would genuinely be quite traumatic! Other, smaller choices also impact in later side missions, even after completion of the story. So let it not be said that choice is an illusion in GTA IV. Things matter. Having said that, there are limits of course; if I could have chosen ANY girl to be mine (or rather, Niko's) in GTA IV, well, let's say it would have put further strain on my relationship with Roman...