Grand Theft Auto IV

So here’s how it goes: Rockstar are gods, and Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest game we’ve played for years. It’s that simple – this is a defining moment in time that we’ll be talking about for the rest of the PS3’s life. This is videogaming’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or The Godfather Trilogy. This is essential, unmissable gaming so good that it makes us proud just to be able to talk about it.

We’re not going to get bogged down in which version of GTA IV is the best, we’ve covered that in detail last week, but it’s just worth mentioning that for once us PS3 owners get the superior version. Initial installation aside it’s plain sailing all the way: load times are minimal, there’s no texture pop-in or things appearing ten feet in front of you, and the framerate holds up just fine unless you’ve caused World War III in which case it drops to the mid 20s for the briefest of moments, and never affects the gameplay.

Modeled on New York, present day, Grand Theft Auto has come full circle since the last visit to Liberty City. It’s now much bigger than it was in III, and although the area isn’t nearly as massive as San Andreas it’s more densely packed, with much more to see and do in and around its busy streets. Some areas will be familiar to NY residents, and some will be familiar to players used to previous iterations of Liberty City, with some subtle nods to roads and areas you’ll have driven along many times before.

Except this time everything is rendered in a breathtaking high level of detail bringing the whole map to life: pedestrians go about their business, interacting with one another and seemingly blessed with some degree of intelligence; other road users are smarter and drive more convincingly and the structures all around you are more solid and convincing. It’s as if you’ve entered a movie set, the lighting, draw distance and hugely impressive modeling is on par with games that only need to deal with tiny areas at a time, not a sprawling 3 island world.

Animation has been kicked up a notch too, using the Euphoria engine has lead to natural running, climbing and falling, with everything in-between: Can’t open a car door? The lead character, Niko Bellic will use his elbow to break the glass. Hit a barrier at high speed whilst driving? You’ll end up through the windscreen. Shoot someone in the kneecap? They’ll clutch the affected area in a different way every single time. It’s a far cry from the canned animations we’re used to and really does help breathe life into the game.

Niko’s story is one we’ll not spoil here, but it’s reasonably safe to assume our readers will know he’s an immigrant to the States, collected by his cousin Roman who offers his initial batch of missions. As with previous GTAs the storyline branches out like a fractal tree with new characters coming and going (in the most grisly of ways) fast and frequently. There are double crossings, traps and a knawing sense that you’re only ever scratching the surface of who Niko is, with some major plot twists towards the end of the game. It’s probably the best storyline yet seen from Rockstar, and deserves to be played through without prior knowledge of what’s to come.

Diversions are plentiful as ever, with the blank map filling in with icons as you find subplots and minigames, with dating, bowling, pool and drinking your first mini-missions. All are handled well, with clear signposting and great use of the in-game mobile phone, which is how you’ll get most of the plot development. You can receive calls, make calls, get text messages and even start up multiplayer mode all from the phone, which is activated with a quick tap of the d-pad. You can even change the ring tone or switch to silent when you don’t want to be disturbed, and the phone’s vibrate function is a cool use of the Dual Shock 3 pad for those of us that have upgraded already from the SixAxis.

Successfully completing a series of missions and becoming good friends with characters can activate that person’s special ability, and again we’re keen to let the reader find these out for themselves but we’re not ruining anyone’s day by saying the first ability you’ll get is Roman’s, who can offer you a free taxi ride whenever you’re in need of transport. Regular taxis can be hailed via the L1 button as they drive past (assuming they’re not already carrying passengers) and offer a relaxing ride to any of your bookmarked locations or the current GPS target marked on your map. Subways also feature, and the pull-out map in the game case is invaluable in marking out the relevant locations.

Of course, most GTA gamers will want to make use of the many vehicles driving around the streets, and it’s the usual triangle button to steal a car, of which there are huge numbers, with the more exotic modes of transport appearing in specific locations or later in the storyline. As ever, you’ll be able to store your favourites in designated parking lots which are saved when you save the game, which is now automatic after the completion of any mission. You do also have the ability to manually save from your current safehouse, which also features the ability to change clothes and watch TV, which consists of brilliantly funny shows devised by the Rockstar team. We watched at least an hour of TV, flicking between channels, with no repetition – and special mention to the gay space marines who star in their own wickedly clever cartoon.

Players also now have access to the internet using the ‘tw@’ internet cafes dotted around Liberty City, which is used for email and a few missions. It’s just as clever as the in-game TV, with spoof emails and websites for v1agR4 as regular as our own emails, as well as providing important plot exposition when required. Walking in and out of most locations is instant, with no load time – Niko simply pushes open the door and you’re inside, and the same is true for leaving each interior. The sense of continuity is unmatched in this genre.

Gunplay and driving is much the same as previous games, mostly San Andreas, although the car handling is heavier (think Driver) and the shooting fine tuned a little – you can hold L2 for a lock on, or squeeze it half way to enable free look so you can pick targets yourself. A tap of the right stick lets you adjust your target once locked on and you can even use this to frighten enemies into submission if you aim at their head. Liberty City is a great place to stage GTA IV, and you’ll get out of it as much as you put in – embrace the feel of the game and it will wrap around you until you release you’ve just spent nearly 48 hours without sleep.

And then you remember the multiplayer. Far from a mere afterthought, this is the icing on the cake and although we’ve only managed to get a few hours of multiplayer in, we’ve had an absolute blast. There are stacks of game modes and the host can configure just about everything, even opening up the entire game map if required. Framerate is just as solid as single player, there’s no lag and the controls work perfectly. Progression is via cash (awarded for kills and collection) and as you scale the ranks new clothing and parts become available – it’s really, really solid and great fun. Players can also form gangs and battle against others, and if you really want to go wild jump into a freeroam game and cause havoc with your mates. Voice chat is supported, and recommended highly for team games – it’s not necessary for standard deathmatch at all but the screams and laughs from running folk over or sniping from afar really make the game.

So this is Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s a landmark game, unmatched and unrivalled and absolutely unmissable. We’ve not talked about the belly achingly funny radio shows, great licensed music, fantastic voice acting, the cabaret shows, the strip clubs, the restaurants, the zeitgeist tapping plot or even the guest appearances and cameos. All that you can find out for yourself tomorrow.
< br />Don’t miss this. Rockstar are gods, and Grand Theft Auto IV is the greatest game we’ve played for years.