Enjoyable, detailed, engaging, beautiful: Grand Theft Auto IV retains and improves the best of the old while brilliantly introducing the captivating new.
Simply put, Grand Theft Auto IV is one of the best and most immersive games to come out in recent memory. A tall order, but one that the game easily fills.
A big chunk of this comes from the experience the game offers. Grand Theft Auto as a series has been leaning towards a more cinematic story since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City at the least, but GTAIV takes the cinematic experience to the next level. It delivers a complex and engaging story that manages to keep universal human emotions at its core. You play as Niko Bellic: an Eastern European immigrant who has just arrived in Liberty City to escape a purportedly troubled past. He has been led there by his cousin Roman's ramblings about America being "the land of opportunity," and also by Roman's claims about his massive wealth and affluence.
Naturally, when Niko arrives he learns that it's all a lie, and that the extent of Roman's wealth lies in his cab driving business and shabby apartment. Faced with the task of earning money and finding someone he's looking for, Niko goes out to do work for various local criminal bosses in exchange for funds and information. It's through this that you access the game's plethora of story missions, each one of which advances the story and offers activities ranging from killing a rival drug dealer to making sure a coffin doesn't fall out of the back of a hearse.
The missions provide story progression, character development, and enjoyable tasks to complete. In the context of the GTA series it's all pretty much standard fare, but where GTAIV excels is in the options it gives to players. At certain intervals throughout the story you're given choices which usually boil down to you killing either one story character or another, and your decisions here can have an affect on the story or the gameplay bonuses you receive. But the true reward for such a decision is the mere fact that it's present, the fact that the game illustrates Niko's inner conflict so strongly and reinforces it by letting you shape his character through key decisions, a major one of which decides which of the story's endings you get to witness.
Overall, the story is one to be experienced, and should you invest in getting to know each of the characters you will most likely find yourself immersed and engaged, waiting for the next plot point or key decision.
But regardless of the quality of GTAIV's story, it doesn't garner all of its praise on narrative alone. The gameplay has been reworked and revamped for the series' transition to the PS3 and Xbox 360. Whereas the previous 3D GTA games suffered from wonky controls (which could often compromise your performance in a mission), GTAIV provides a fresher and more intuitive control scheme. The new aiming and shooting controls should be noted. While San Andreas took a step in the right direction by allowing you to finally lock-on to targets, GTAIV takes it a step further and tightens the mechanics, delivering controls reminiscent of a third person shooter. Also present is the ability to take cover behind objects and fire without exposing yourself. It's all fairly standard fare for anyone who's played a third person shooting game, but it's a huge leap forward for the GTA series. A series which has historically focused on firing weapons should have a good aiming and shooting system, and GTAIV finally gets the controls almost perfect.
I say almost perfect because it still has its issues. One issue players might have is the way you switch between free aim and lock-on mode. To aim freely you must hold the L2 button halfway, and press it fully to lock-on. This may be a bit difficult to do when you're in a tense situation and your finger instinctively mashes the L2 button. There is an option in the menu to turn off lock-on mode entirely, but if you play with a mix of free aiming and lock-on (as I'm sure many people do) this doesn't exactly solve the problem. Another small issue is the movement, namely when you're on foot. The driving controls have been redone completely and will most likely throw off even vets of the series, but you can eventually get the hang of it and drive normally. The on-foot movement, however, is a bit tricky. Niko has a very wide turn radius, like a semi-truck in human form, and sometimes something as simple as turning into a doorway can result in multiple spins and attempts before getting it perfect. This isn't a huge issue, but it can become frustrating, especially during indoor missions when you have to navigate narrow corridors and other confined spaces.
Thankfully, Liberty City is quite wide and open, so the movement is not that big of an issue. While not quite as large as San Andreas, GTAIV's rendition of Liberty City (previously seen in GTAIII) is still quite large. It consists of four main islands which you unlock as you complete story missions and progress through the game, and each one has its own attractions and style, from dirty and rundown to expensive and glamorous. The design of the city itself is remarkable. Every block of Liberty City is packed with details, Easter eggs, and various other elements worth noting. It truly feels like a living, breathing city, and the beautiful design makes for some amazing sights. This is one area where GTAIV truly excels over nearly every other open-world game. It manages to create a strikingly beautiful yet stubbornly unique world that you get to know and love, and eventually you'll feel like you really know Liberty City and its identity (even though it's not the most well-mannered of identities).
But it's not all about the look and atmosphere. Liberty City is also packed with things to do. You can spend countless hours racing, playing mini-games like pool or darts, going places with your in-game friends, doing story missions or missions for complete strangers you meet on the street, eating, watching TV, browsing the internet, locating cars and other hidden packages, and just generally playing around or causing chaos. There are so many elements at your disposal that you can almost always find something to do, even when there aren't strict missions or requirements to complete. Nabbing a motorcycle and trying to see how far you can send Niko flying by crashing into an oncoming car alone can provide hours of entertainment, if only for the hilarious screams and gasp-inducing crashes you can create.
And that brings us to the game's shining element: its physics engine. Utilizing RAGE and Euphoria physics, GTAIV allows you to create unique crashes, falls, kills, and general mishaps that allow for hours upon hours of playful experimentation. While horrifying in real life, watching Niko dive out of a helicopter and slam into the pavement with a shot of blood or driving a car at top speed into a railing to send Niko through the windshield soaring across the city streets is sickeningly satisfying, and you'll most likely find yourself setting up mind-blowing and outlandish situations so that you can experience the bloody aftermath.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a rarity in gaming. It's not often that a game comes together in a way that's so detailed, beautiful, and downright enjoyable. From its captivating and dramatic story to its well-crafted gameplay and sheer volume, Grand Theft Auto IV is a must-play for anyone who even remotely enjoys action, adventure, or open-world games. It takes the joy of being a carefree criminal set in place by the older games and puts its own spin on it, retaining and improving the best of the old while introducing plenty of the enjoyable new. The game is a worthy addition to the Grand Theft Auto series, and if this is only a taste of what we can expect in the future then we are in for a great ride indeed.