Version tested: PC
I love Halo 3, you understand. But when it came out, and people asked me to describe it, my one-liner was, "Imagine if you had all the money in the world to spend on a game but couldn't change anything." Halo, conceptually, was as complete a thing as Mario Kart. To alter it too much, to push it in another direction, would be to destroy it. So we got flashes of user-generated content, multiplayer transparency, whatever. And, in the middle, Halo sitting there unchanged.
It's not a problem Rockstar ever has to face. The joy of GTA is that it isn't a complete thing. It's endless. If the devs had all the money in the world to spend it wouldn't be enough. There's always something else which could fit in there without changing its core values. But with GTA IV, with as much money as it's about possible for a videogame company to have, we saw what they could do. While it's a step away from certain features of San Andreas, this is as maximalist as a game's ever been, in terms of production values at least. The moment when you're replaying a mission and you realise it's got a completely different, brilliantly voiced conversation between the characters in the car is when you realise you're a long way from most games' occasional barks from whoever was passing through the studio at the time.
It's quite the thing. It's now on the PC. And it's fundamentally the same as the console versions. I'd go and read our console-version review to catch up on the basics, and return here to see how things have changed.
Go! Seriously, we won't steal your stuff while you're away.
As conversions go, it's an odd one. On some levels, it's genuinely exemplary. Take the controls. Plug in an Xbox 360 pad and it works fine. Play with keyboard and mouse, and it's great too - with the possible exception of going bowling, which seemed a little over-tricky. More so, have both plugged in at the same time, and you can skip between them as you feel like it.
When I've previously played PC GTAs, I've used a dual set-up to skip between the joypad's analogue controls for driving and revelling in the increased precision of the mouse for gunplay. I didn't really use it this time around, but the option was nice to have. In practice, I found the heavy-steering model of the game meant that I did far better on keyboard, with the mouse-look allowing me to take in as much of the views as possible. Point being, however you want to play it, you can. And they want you to - I was especially impressed by how the tutorial instructions change automatically to the last control device you touched, so if you change your mind, it changes with you. Which is so basic it seems odd to single it out for special praise - but it's a basic which isn't actually basic for most devs yet. So well done, guys.
But on other levels, it hasn't a clue. Like the vast majority of PC games, it auto-calculates its graphic settings. Unlike the vast majority of PC games, which generally underestimate what your PC can manage for the logical reason that a less-attractive game is less annoying than a less-playable one, its auto-calculation is more than a little optimistic. I had to knock down the default graphic options quite a bit on my PC (dual-core 2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 640MB GeForce 8800) until I got an acceptable rate, and even then there was the occasional really nasty drop. While my experience was more pronounced than most, speaking to other reviewers via the secret review-grapevine lead to confirmation that fiddling to get it playable was universal.
That said, it's worth noting that even turned down, Liberty City remains one of the most visually stunning places yet seen in videogames. And, in terms of future-proofing, there's a lot of sliders that can be turned wayyyy up. In five years' time, the PC version will be the definitive visual incarnation of Liberty City - playing with a draw-distance set around to 20 and traffic-density way low makes the prospect of those hitting the 100 exciting. But now... well, it probably still is the most attractive version, but it's annoyingly fiddly to get there.
That's the conversion aspects, but there's more to GTA IV PC than just making it work on the beautiful beige box. What's interesting is how it's expanded to the new format. The one which will be impossible to ignore for everyone - even the people who don't play the game - is the replay editor. It'll be impossible to ignore, as YouTube will soon be full of people lobbing up their machinma of simulated pixelated-anal-entry.
It's a powerful and flexible system, integrated like all of GTA's options into the in-game mobile-phone browser. Press F2 at any time and the last thirty-or-so seconds are stored to your hard-drive. Call up the replay editor, and you get to cut it, re-arrange angles on the action, caption it, soundtrack it and generally mess around. I especially like the ability to lob in filters over the action. And the word SEXY!!!! in capitals. That may just be me. The only real problem with it is the F2 aspect isn't as simple as "the last 30 seconds". It depends on how much your PC is having a little think right then. This unpredictability does lead to a little frustration when you think you've saved an action sequence which makes the end of John Woo's The Killer look like the Bridges of Madison County and you've only got half of it.
Also, there's the option of your own music in game. By lobbing music files into a set folder, you can play them on the new radio station, Independence FM. This can be used as a simple track player or - if you give the chance for the game to have a little think before playing - turned into a full radio station, complete with news bulletins and DJs insulting your choice in music. This is a not insignificant improvement to GTA IV. While the radio banter was all very well in the original and its use to forward the plot far more interesting than its traditional cut-scenes, if you just wanted to actually listen to a tune while you drove - which is always a sublime experience - you had to spin the dial far too often. Now, just load up a cross-genre selection of stuff you dig and you're away.
And immediately the delicious moments of game/music irony amp up. Yeah, the the first time LCD Soundsystem Get "Innocuous" dropped on the normal radio stations I had to drive around for its whole length to get my I-am-in-the-GTA-IV-advert-f***-yeah! thrill... but a moment of music/world immersion hit me pretty much every time I skipped to Independence FM. Accelerating away from a desperate cop fight as Iggy Pop's final scream in Death in Vegas' "Aisha" rocketed out of the speakers... Crystal Castle's remix of "Atlantis to Interzone" as I dodged traffic tearing over the bridges... Shellac's slaying-anthem "Prayer To God" or Miss Kittin's purring about taking a life as I'm on the way to a hit... Robyn's "Who's That Girl?" after a certain betrayal early in the plot. All magical. And hell, everything in GTA is always better when you've got Shampoo's "Trouble" yelping sarcastically in the background.
On a less surface level, the changes in multiplayer are inspired. And while the custom-game support to allow you to find appropriate games easier is a functional boon, its real appeal is as simple as crossing out one number and replacing it with another. That is, "16" swapped for "32". The possibility for mayhem of the best GTA game modes increases pretty much exponentially as you amp up the number of players. Until you've had 32 bikers line up on a starting line for a race around the centre of a city, you haven't really seen GTA IV at its most insane. That is, best. One of the general criticisms of GTA IV is that it's abandoned the dumb-but-fun ground to the dizzily stooopid Saint's Row while chasing other priorities. If you consider that true, 32-player chaos totally puts that idiocy back in. Any time I played, I honestly didn't care whether I won or lost. By playing, I'd totally won.
Any untotalling of the win happens outside the system. There's quite a lot of hoops you need to jump through outside the game. To play multiplayer, you have to have a (free, I stress) Games for Windows account plus another one for the Rockstar Social Club. You can skip the login of the latter (if you don't want multiplayer or uploading videos), but it does have to be running in the background. For Steam users, it's three processes in the background. It's not a lot of hassle, certainly, but it is a bit of hassle, and worth knowing if you're the sort who get angry when talking about DRM. While we're talking about that, there's online activation too.
Personally, that sort of transitory problem is the least of my reservations, and the reason that I'm gravitating towards a nine is elsewhere. It's not even the frame-rate issues. It's because, while the game's a genuine ground-breaking blockbuster in videogame history, there's a few more annoyances than I'd like for a ten. Primarily, a lack of mid-mission checkpoints is frustrating, especially in a game where failure is more often from a momentary high-speed crash accident on the way back from the actual bank raid rather than an actual failing of skill during a shoot out.
But seriously: a genuinely ground-breaking blockbuster in videogame history. There were moments playing GTA IV that I thought back to my initial experiences with games, and realised exactly how far we've come. There's never been anything quite like GTA IV in the world. That there makes me genuinely happy to be a gamer.
Also, beating up people and taking their money and stuff.
9 / 10
Grand Theft Auto IV is due out for PC on 3rd December.