As much as I’d like to sit in my ivory tower and blame GTA IV for effectively shutting down the release schedule until June, I’m afraid I can’t. Unlike when I talk about Metal Gear, Smash Bros, and the like, where I’m objectively right (it’s true), anyone who says that GTA IV is anything less than a brilliant game is just being a cynical twat. Besides, if anything can stop this generation’s Nintendomination, it’s this. It won’t win, but at least the HD consoles can now say that they tried.
My first thought when I got to run around and actually play GTA IV was actually quite underwhelming. It was dark (turning up the brightness in the options definitely helps), the controls feel slightly old-fashioned in these days of twin-stick control, the cars felt heavy, and in which century do we hold a button to run? You do know what analogue control does, right?
But while some of those are minor niggles, they really are minor. Taken as an overall game, GTA IV is a phenomenal technical achievement and an improvement on the other games in almost every way. Significantly, the elephant in the room of the previous generation’s GTAs, the gunplay, is finally workable and even enjoyable. It’s not quite Gears or Uncharted because the cover system isn’t quite as intuitive, but given the significant improvements between GTA III and San Andreas (seriously, try GTA III’s shooting now and see just how bad it is), I’m hoping that by the time we reach this generation’s equivalent of Vice City, GTA’s biggest flaw could be a thing of the past.
Technically, it’s simply an astounding accomplishment. Having only just reached the second main island after over 13 hours of play, I’ve only scratched the surface of what they’ve miraculously fitted onto a DVD with room to spare. I know only a couple of neighbourhoods, and I’ve only been in one shop. I’ve already visited three different bars and there are bar games that are as in-depth as some dedicated games. I’ve been to the cabaret show three times and seen six acts, but I know for a fact that there are others, including a stand-up show from Ricky Gervais. There are 19 radio stations, and I’m still hearing new stuff on my favourites. Not to mention that the game reckons I’m only 31% of the way through. It’s unbelievable.
As with the aiming, the characterisation in the GTA games got better as the series went on and, again, it takes a massive leap forward with Niko. He’s an actual character, unlike GTA III’s Claude. He’s more sympathetic than Tommy Vercetti, who was a good character but about as likeable as Tony Montana (deliberately, I assume). And while CJ was streets ahead of his predecessors, I just didn’t enjoy the whole Boyz n the Hood thing. I suppose the fact that I liked a lot of the characters – all of whom are mass murderers to various extents – was testament to what a good job they did with that material.
Anyway, we’re talking about Niko. I’m not going to spoil anything, so I’ll just say that he’s likeable, funny, sympathetic, and by far the best GTA protagonist so far. Likewise, although some of the supporting cast fall into the usual mobster archetypes, they’re all exceptionally written. Little Jacob, the Rastafarian dealer, is just flat out hilarious. Think this scene from Airplane if you haven’t played it yet.
One other thing that deserves plaudits is the animation provided by the Euphoria engine. Wow. Gone is the canned animation of previous games as your character tried to make an epic leap over a knee-high wall, in favour of procedural animations, so Niko might steady himself after a short fall and roll to take the impact of a higher one. It’s seamless as he goes from vaulting a wall or fence to dropping into one of those animations, but it’s car crashes that provide the most impressive showpiece. When you hit someone who realistically crumples from the force, their head bouncing off the bonnet as they’re sent backwards, it’s the closest thing that I could describe as ‘sickening’ (in the nicest possible way) in a game as violent as this. Whereas in older GTAs I’d happily mow through the faceless pedestrians, here the fact that they don’t all look quite as identical and get taken out with such force makes sticking to the road during high speed pursuits something to do where possible.
I think it’s been made clear quite how good GTA IV is: it’s the only game I can remember that got perfect scores from all three major gaming sites and Edge. It’s one of the few next-gen ‘event’ games that won’t fob you off with a seven-hour campaign. Production values are through the roof, and rumours that it’s usurped Shenmue as the most expensive video game ever produced ($100m, up from $70m) are wholly believable. It’s a stunning game, and the first time in ages that turning on the 360 has become my first action on getting home, ahead of turning on the computer or going to the toilet.
Even if you’ve had misgivings about the series in the past, don’t miss out on this one. If something beats it to my game of the year, I’ll be very surprised.