It’s safe to say Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV) was the most anticipated game of the past five years, if not all time. Sure, Halo 3 and Super Mario Galaxy had huge followings, but those were each console exclusives. GTA IV — for the first time in franchise history — released on the same day for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, giving it access to two consoles’ install bases. Consequently, GTA IV smashed all sales records not just for games, but for electronic entertainment on the whole.
Yet after spending considerable time loitering, driving, causing crime (and fighting it) in Liberty City, we’re left wondering whether GTA IV is really worth it. What Rockstar North has accomplished with GTA IV from a technical and production-value standpoint is beyond compare. In that regard, the game deserves an 11 out of 10. But in terms of the gameplay diversity and fun, GTA IV seems caught up in its own massive scale, ironically watering down its impact and quality in the process.
Before you get up in arms over that statement, look at our review score below: nine out of 10. Editor’s Choice. Definitely worth a purchase. But we’re awarding GTA IV a 9/10 in large part because its multiplayer components tip the scale. The Grand Theft Auto series had previously been a single-player-only affair, so incorporating the fun co-op and versus online multiplayer modes is a serious boon to the game’s longevity and appeal. As a single-player experience, though GTA IV is a bit disappointing.
The plot, character development and characters themselves are second to none, as Rockstar North has gone above and beyond when it comes to narrative, script and voice acting. The addition of a fleshed-out main character was a nice enough addition, but to see Niko Bellic have actual depth is great, and to see Roman, Brucie and the numerous other characters all hold their own like Hollywood’s best supporting actors is remarkable. GTA IV tackles the age-old questions of “what exactly is the American Dream, and is it truly attainable?” and “can we really ever escape from our past?” We’ll leave it to you to judge the irony of a European studio tackling that first question, but regardless of your finding, there’s no denying the excellence and presentation of the story.
But while the plot may be excellent, Rockstar relies heavily on the tried-and-true GTA formula to carry the now-heavyweight narrative, with a few tweaks (much-improved gunplay and a serviceable cover system). The open-world GTA formula has never failed, and in fact it’s responsible for the pre-release fever over GTA IV, so we can’t really fault Rockstar for that. But, considering how much the plot and overall depth of the game world have evolved, the “same old” gameplay leaves a little something to be desired.
The biggest stumbling block is the length of the game. Clocking in at 36-plus hours is seldom something we complain about, because it seems like more and more gamers clamor for long games. But the way in which Rockstar achieved this length is troubling, as the gameplay feels recycled about one-third of the way in. One can only do so many driving, drug-dealing and assassination missions before they start to feel like the same event with differently skinned characters. The characters themselves are all compelling and add to the plot, but the actual gameplay, the thing that makes games stand out from movies, gets to feel a little — dare I say it? — boring.
The game’s structure and checkpoint system don’t exactly help in that regard, as each mission involves driving (or taking a cab) from just about one corner of Liberty City to another. Considering the city’s massive scale, this is no small feat, and it gives players plenty of time to listen to the well-done in-game radio. The problem is, if you happen to fail a mission, you have the option to retry it using Niko’s cell phone — but you have to begin at the last autosave…which is almost always on the other side of Liberty City. As you get deeper into the game and want to see how the plot unfolds, the inability to start right back where you left off, even just outside the building, gets incredibly annoying. Considering the floaty handling of most cars, driving eventually becomes a serious chore that not even the radio can overcome.
Maybe you want to skip the missions, then, and putter around in the so-called open world. Well, you have optional side missions with Roman’s taxi company, or you can hijack a police car and wrangle down perps, but you can only do these things in the areas of town you’ve unlocked. We understand to a point why Rockstar did this, but if GTA IV is to really be an open-world game, the developer needed to provide even more optional side activities other than eavesdropping on pedestrians, and they needed to provide access to “locked” areas of town much earlier in the game.
It’s about this point, though, when you’ll venture online, a new aspect that saves GTA IV in several respects, at least in our mind. The social aspects of GTA IV cannot be overlooked, as the co-op and versus modes are flat-out fun, largely because they include minimal attention on the traditional deathmatch modes and instead focus on unique modes that fit the open-world GTA mold. Dinking around online with friends can be a great way to get familiar with Liberty City, and jumping from one mode to the next keeps the online play consistently fresh — something the single-player game seems to lack in the later hours.
Amazingly, the graphical pop-up doesn’t seem any worse online than it is offline, which is a backhanded compliment to a certain degree. On the one hand, GTA IV looks great online, but on the other, there are still plenty of instances of texture and full-city-block popup from time to time when playing solo offline. Considering the scale of GTA IV’s world, though, you won’t find us lodging any official complaints about the pop-in. The audio is even better, particularly in terms of voice acting and the in-game TV and radio, although we did find ourselves occasionally hoping for more use of the surround-sound channels.
Those are all nitpicky things, though, and certainly nothing to drag the score down. Where we find fault with GTA IV is in the gameplay itself, which feels recycled after about 14 hours and feels artificially lengthened just for the sake of introducing a few fringe but entertaining characters. If GTA IV were just a single-player game, we would score in the mid-8s, because no matter how excellent its technical merits, we don’t play technical accomplishments, we play games.
But GTA IV is not just a single-player game, as it introduces some fun multiplayer components and incorporates them well into the rest of the game. As a whole package, then, GTA IV is a must-play game regardless of the platform you own (PS3 or Xbox 360). Just make sure to temper your expectations for “the best thing since sliced bread.” GTA IV is a true accomplishment for the interactive entertainment industry, but Rockstar still has room to improve with GTA V. And we’ll be first in line to see what they can do with a bit more focused gameplay and some belt-tightening on the plot.
- Score: 9
- Rockstar has outdone itself yet again, with the multiplayer portions lifting the overall game, but there’s still room to improve the single-player elements, which feel recycled and drag on at times.
— Jonas Allen