GTA IV's sense of timing is impeccable: perhaps somewhat ironic for a game which arrived six months overdue. Liberty City is an apt venue to exorcise Rockstar's creative ghosts, as this certainly feels like the game they wanted to ship back in 2001 - bringing to bear myriad ideas previously left on the cutting room floor due to timing and technological constraint. This pastiche of criminal life in New York City has greater subtlety, richness of content and self-assuredness; leaving an impact which grows incrementally with each playing session.
This incarnation takes the delivery of its scripting in more engaging and inventive directions. Eastern-European immigrant Niko Belic arrives with a charismatic edge which rather embarrassingly hacks the two-dimensional Tommy Vercetti and CJ Parker into confetti. It's hardly Dostoyevsky, but Belic the brooding Balkan is a believable and solidly researched character, complete with a sardonic wit and aloof disposition which betrays a skewed sense of morality. It's a refreshing if not revolutionary change to the monosyllabic macho copouts action game fans usually have to endure.
In Niko, Rockstar have managed to strike a surprisingly subtle balance between latent menace and vulnerability. Escaping from his war torn nation, weary from years fighting for his life both as soldier and reluctant criminal, he has more than one agenda - starting afresh in the land of the free, evading the vicious crime lords from his shattered homeland, and settling a mysterious score.
Despite the heightened production values GTA's debauched DNA remains largely intact, with missions rarely deviating from anything more complicated than the drive/shoot/escape staple of the series. I've seen this decried in other reviews, but to throw disapproving arms in the air at this would be to miss the point of where Rockstar are trying to take the series. The inclusion of technologies such as mobile phones and a fully working mock-internet enable the story and the contacts you'll accumulate to bind more fluently with the action sequences, which adds to the atmosphere and hence the enjoyment of the missions you'll undertake.
An example: I'm leaving Cluckin' Bell Chicken when one of my contacts calls me for a favour, instructing me to meet his brother in a park across town. I make my way there and learn that a local hoodlum is causing him trouble - I agree to help. I find a parked Police car, break in through the window and hot-wire it quickly to avoid the attention of another oncoming Police unit in the gloom ahead. I drive around the corner, park up and tap into the Liberty City Police Department's criminal database to gain my target's likely location. I drive to the hang-out and chase my startled quarry through back yards and fences across the neighbourhood, until I reach a heavily defended safe house. I deal with the assorted gang members and my assassination target by sticking to cover points adjacent to the front door, popping grenades into the lounge. My wanted level is up owing to the mayhem I've caused, and I can hear the sirens of LCPD approaching. Worse still I'm wounded, and my stolen Police vehicle is too damaged by the crossfire to attempt an escape. I run for cover, crouch behind a wall and use my mobile to call a love interest I met through an online dating portal, and she agrees to use her high level influence to convince the authorities to turn a blind eye. I hang up and drive away from the crime scene unscathed, back toward the bright lights of the inner city. Mission complete. I am both a badass and a smartass.
How much you appreciate these additional layers Rockstar have added will dictate how far you perceive the series to have advanced. The unwieldy and cluttered San Andreas gave rise to many new gameplay elements, some of which were inspired - others intrusive and pedestrian. It's telling that Rockstar have either scaled back or removed completely most of the novelties introduced in 2004. The incongruous presence of jetpacks, parachutes and fighter planes has run its course, and you have to wonder if that's because the physical space of Liberty City can't accommodate them, or whether hindsight has taught the developer that less is more. Hopefully it's the latter.
The basic RPG experiments foisted upon CJ Parker in San Andreas have also bitten the dust, and this tops the list of elements I didn't miss. Niko comes as a fully developed man out of the box, who can sprint, climb and swim from the get-go. You don't need to grind your abilities like a beardy Dungeons & Dragons fetishist to get more than cardiac patient yardage out of him, and things are all the better for it. Similarly, the need to eat rather than the choice to has been adjusted to serve a more traditional energy boosting purpose as opposed to an irritating necessity, and this all assists in focussing you on enjoying the rules of the game world rather than resenting them.
Social networking does survive the transition however, and has been afforded far greater significance. Your group of potential buddies is as eclectic as you'd expect from GTA, and you'll be expected to invest some time with them enjoying the new sights and sounds Liberty City has to offer. You'll consistently receive calls from friends eager to break the violence with some recreation, so expect to enjoy cameo appearances from a digital Ricky Gervais in the comedy club, spend seedy evenings at the strip joint with the option of a private dance, or endure drunken attempts to navigate the route home after a heavy drinking session. Similarly, you can instigate any social activity by making an outgoing call from your mobile.
I have to be honest, this was great the first few times I hit the town with friends, yet the ongoing need to manage your friendships became rote in nature before long. Maintaining good relations with certain people does present its rewards in the long run, with unlockable abilities emerging after you become good enough 'buddies', yet there are only so many times you can stomach the rather simple mini-games or visits to the strip club before you wonder if it's worth the trade off.
So what of the city then? On a micro level it's graphically competent, yet on a macro level the consistency and volume of detail is staggering. It's not just the convincing lighting and weather effects or higher quality textures and animations - the city feels alive because there's detail where you'd least expect it - in the darkest alleys, in downtown backyards, under every bridge, flyover and in places most players won't even see let alone explore. It's an ethos of going further which enabled this title to emerge as a cultural phenomenon and is taken to unprecedented levels here.
Liberty City MKII has largely shed the idiosyncrasies which dogged GTA's of yore in favour of a generally less robotic dynamic and more credible citizen AI, lessening greatly the time you'll invest suspending disbelief. Liberty City now has a sense of purpose outside of being a venue for the players enjoyment: it's a home, a place of work, a place where people live and die. Chance encounters are all the richer for it, as (finally) the populace seem to be sentient beings aware of your presence and actions rather than randomly spawned zombies with a severe case of tourettes.
Moreover, their reactions as you break their urban stupor with sporadic acts of malevolence are far more realistic. A carefully trained weapon through a windshield will cause the driver to cower behind the dashboard before making a run for it - an explosion or volley of gunfire will send the surrounding pedestrians scattering for cover. None of this impacts upon the gameplay to any great extent, yet as a whole creates a burgeoning sense of atmosphere which only increases the more time you invest observing the minutiae. This in particular is a benchmark for the series, as previously even rudimentary testing of the city's mechanics would lead to disappointment, as the realisation dawned that you were, in reality, completely alone.
Life appears to be happening around you; people unpack their car boots, answer their phones and clean their shop fronts. Musicians carry their instruments, joggers sport their I-Pods, and workmen� work. Its still not entirely convincing; the spawning algorithms frequently turn up oddities in terms of mix and volume of citizens and their vehicles relative to location and time of day, often resulting in a farce of confused AI struggling to resolve the illogical scenario. Such inconsistencies are especially marked when emerging from an indoor environment or after a cut-scene, where the city attempts to repopulate after a period of inertia.
Predictably, Liberty City retains GTA's acerbic and oft-hilarious social satire. From the tongue in cheek slapstick of its fictional eateries and other assorted businesses, to the savage derision of life's banalities and immorality which flows through the airwaves, everything you loved about previous games is present and correct here. The new fictional internet also provides a treasure trove of opportunities for the writers to riff on modern living and they don't disappoint - everything from second-world spam emails peddling Viagra to desperate singles advertising for sex on 'Love Meet' get the full comedy treatment. Again, the line between juvenility and inspiration is traversed frequently, but isn't that what we love about these games?
GTA isn't without its problems though. The on foot controls, whilst a vast improvement, are still clumsy in places and can prove frustrating. Sticking to cover points is erratic and counter-intuitive at times, as is the auto aim function which is best turned off if you want to glean the best from the action. Driving draws the usual cow-in-a-shopping-trolley comparisons with sketchy suspension and sluggish steering even in the sporty models, and the motorbikes are unrealistic and uninspiring to use. These problems never smite your enjoyment, yet it would have been nice to see some evidence of those four years development being invested in such rudimentary areas.
The minor control issues are easily forgotten; the biggest issue I had with GTA IV was with the progression. As the game shifts focus further away from the empire-building and razzmatazz of Vice City toward the realism and dramatic grit of Niko's story, I expected the script and pacing to be stellar. It isn't. A promising start earned my interest, only to stall badly about two-thirds through, with a jarring and rather absurd twist which was genuinely disappointing. It's almost as if Rockstar set out to write a great gaming drama then lost faith and played the traditional humour card for fear of taking themselves too seriously. It's not a game breaker, but without the promise of aforementioned jetpacks and penthouse apartments to maintain interest I expected more from the plot to keep me driving/shooting/escaping for the final few hours.
In summary, GTA is precisely the game you were anticipating. It's brilliantly conceived, endlessly entertaining, full of inspired touches and bursting with detail. Liberty City is worthy of a review of its own - an achievement of depth in design we will not witness again until the franchise is stirred into action once more. Admittedly, not everyone will appreciate the more understated tale of Niko Belic over the shoulder padded glitz of Tommy Vercetti or the streetwise bling of CJ Parker, yet I believe this mooring in more realistic waters has set the tone nicely for future GTA's.
9 / 10