I was not that interested in the latest instalment in Rockstar’s controversial, generation-defining series. You see, I never got along with GTA III or its sequels. Based on some ten hours with the newcomer, they’ve not only corrected all the stuff that has bothered me in the series before, they have set themselves a bar nobody could have dreamed and cleared it triumphantly.
In a word, GTA IV delivers. You get a living, breathing city, filled with characters you care about and a storyline you want to follow, no matter the amount of distractions the game throws at you. As a fun idea, you can “pause” the storyline and concentrate on all the extracurricular stuff there is, picking up on the storyline when you feel like it.
The game’s single best idea is the cellphone. You use it to receive missions, manage your social relationships – inviting people for drinks, or pool, or a show, or bowling, or eating, or… – initiate multiplayer, and just call people. It eliminates quite a bit of aimless driving around and ties the game neatly into the 21st century. It’s great to hear your cellphone ring (the ringtone is customizable, naturally) during a car chase, and it’s your girlfriend, and you just know that whatever you do, you’re going to be the bad guy here. It’s something new, especially since taking care of the numerous relationships is entirely optional. If you take care of them well, you’ll gain perks, as the taxi-driving cousin gives you free lifts, the drug-dealer supplies you discounted weapons and so on.
I was very surprsied by the protagonist, the Serbian tough guy Niko, straight off a ship. I like him. He cracks skulls, but seems reluctant to use violence, he’s a little awkward around women, he speaks with a distinct eastern European accent. He doesn’t dress well. He’s animated very well, giving an aura of a more or less regular guy, not a videogame gangster. The excellent sound acting plays a part here.
The game controls a lot better than it used to. I have still driven numerous car crashes accidentally and ran over a couple of pedestrians, but considerably less so than in the previous games. I have not shot anyone accidentally and I have survived every gunfight I’ve ended up in. Even the fistfights are pretty fun!
There’s a scene early on, which really brings it all together. You’re chasing a guy and end up running after him, up a construction yard. When you finally confront him, you’re standing on top of a scaffolding, with the skyline in front of you and the whole city sprawling in every direction beneath you. You’re unarmed, he’s unarmed, there’s a human drama playing out. It’s really very dramatic, very cinematic to use a horribly inflated term. When you’re done, and you realise that this is no accident, that the game designers wanted you to run up to this amazing place, far above the streets, to experience the city, all the while doubting your motives, but not really given enough time to contemplate before acting… you understand that GTA IV is worthy of all the attention it’s getting. They understand their medium completely, telling the story via you playing the game, not pouring cutscenes upon you.