Game review: Grand Theft Auto IV

6 May 2008

There aren’t many games that let you steal cars, get involved in a cop chase and punch passing pedestrians, all in between picking out a spiffy new shirt and bringing your date to the local bowling alley.

Game play in the latest of the Grand Theft Auto series can seem quite surreal.

What started out as a simple task to pick up a package or drive someone to a drop-off point can spiral out of control and before you know it, you’ve driven off a pier, swam half a mile, resurfaced and found a Molotov cocktail which you are now about to lob at a cop who’s been tailing you the entire time.

Or maybe it’s just me.

The game’s main character is Niko Bellic, a tough-as-nails eastern European who has been lured to the good old US of A by his slimy, no-good cousin Roman with tales of streets paved with gold, luxury condos and babes a-plenty.

When Niko arrives, the scene is already set with a drunken, slurring Roman stumbling to his banged-up car and bringing the pair to a dingy, one-room apartment in the bad part of town.

It becomes pretty clear that if you (Niko) are going to stay in the US, you will have to get your hands dirty because Roman is at the bottom of the rung as far as thugs go, and not very bright to boot.

The game play for GTA IV is just as real as the world Niko is exposed to, so there are no more hidden bonus objects like there were in GTA III or Vice City.

This is not a game for hijacking helicopters or wielding flamethrowers, you will find yourself using what you can to survive on the streets, hence my Molotov cocktail: I stole it from a homeless person who was using it to keep warm.

In fact the game play is so real that you need to keep your mobile phone handy throughout. It becomes a vital tool to keep in contact with people and know where to go and what to do next.

You can even customise the ringtone, not that this is a priority when you’re in the middle of a shoot-out.

Your first proper task centres on your phone. You get a text from Roman, panicking because he’s doing a deal and some vicious Russian loan sharks are on the way, loan sharks that Roman has failed to pay.

Using the ever-present, on-screen map, you make your way over to the house and keep a lookout for the loan sharks getting ready to ring Roman when they arrive.

The atmosphere in this game is fantastic. I felt on edge while I was constantly scouting the area, and when I saw the loan sharks coming I scrambled with my control to ring Roman, who hot-footed it into the car just as they arrived.

I had to speed off in a hail of bullets as I made for the nearest highway. It was a rush to outrun them and the game continues in this adrenalin-pumping fashion with increasingly violent and crazy options.

My favourite thing about GTA IV is the Ragdoll physics engine, which in combination with improved artificial intelligence, renders the surrounding characters and environment super-realistic.

At one point, I stole a taxi and the driver was not willing to let go easily. He literally hung on for dear life as I sped off, dragging him behind. I had to drive up against a barricade to scrape him off.

Also, if you shoot someone, say in the arm, the arm will jerk back and blood splatters everywhere, as opposed to older games where the character just falls down.

Both cop and crowd intelligence is improved on since the last GTA. It is much harder to shake off the cops on your trail and pedestrians are getting better at dodging your car as it speeds out of control down a path.

While this seems like good fun, it is worth noting the game is strictly over-18s and I found the dialogue pretty crude and misogynistic.

I know, I know, realism, but it is still a bit over the top in my opinion. While I haven’t reached the part of the game that involves hookers, I did see a clip from further on and it is fairly graphic. The easily offended will not be impressed.

Personally, I would have liked the option to have a female character like Gina Davis in the Long Kiss Goodnightbecause she wouldn’t have bothered with any of that sissy clothes shopping for a date or dodgy visits to hookers.

She would just take the brief, steal the car and deliver the goods. And maybe accidentally squash a few pedestrians along the way.

By Marie Boran