• Some 10 years ago, DMA Designs were already a well-established developer, putting out some fantastic titles (anyone remember Body Harvest on the N64?). The Scottish software house went on to produce one of the most widely known game IPs in history with a rather involving top-down driving game called Grand Theft Auto. Released on PC and Playstation 1 (as well as eventually finding its way to the Gameboy) the game sowed the seeds of virtually every sandbox game we know and love today.

    DMA eventually split, transformed into Rockstar North and the rest, as they say, is History. Now Rockstar are a mighty behemoth amongst developers with studios spread across the globe, and Grand Theft Auto has leeched into our culture to such an extent that the latest game in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, even made the BBC 6 o’clock news on release day.

    You don’t need me to tell you that Grand Theft Auto IV is special but bear with me while I recount the tale of my time in Liberty City, and why the game deserves the mark I bestow upon it at the end.

    Grand Theft Auto IV

    From the very first immersive cinematic moments of Grand Theft Auto IV, you feel instantly like you’re in the shoes of its central character, the affable but slightly psychotic Eastern European ex-soldier Niko Bellic. Niko has been lured to Liberty City by his cousin, Roman, with the promise of riches, girls and fast cars.

    Without blowing too much of the plot, Niko obviously finds that Roman has been putting a little bit of a spin on things. In fact more than a little bit, Roman is a mere Taxi Controller with a finger in way too many dodgy pies and a serious need of someone who doesn’t mind using a few strong-arm tactics to get the job done.

    Liberty City feels like home, but a home that’s been subtly rearranged in your absence. Certain elements of this massive sprawling metropolis feel instantly familiar while others may cause you to just stand and stare, gaping at the wonder of it all.

    Being a virtual tourist in Liberty City is actually almost as much fun as the game, but let’s not get too carried away with sightseeing just yet – what have Rockstar done in the 4 years or so since we last played a “big console” Grand Theft Auto game?

    The simple answer is “They’ve kept their eyes on the prize”. On virtually every platform and transgressing every genre you can find sandbox games that attempt to recreate the grandeur and scope of Grand Theft Auto but seldom few succeed, forgetting that the key to a massive free-roaming environment of any kind is to make sure that you don’t forget to drop a game in there during development. Lacklustre side missions and shonky attention to detail don’t cut it, and now Grand Theft Auto has arrived the bar has been raised even higher, ensuring that several development studios pushing out “Grand Theft Also” games this year might as well pack up and go home.

    Alternatively they could just spend a bit of time polishing their CVs and applying for jobs with Rockstar of course, because you can’t beat them so you might as well try and join ‘em.

    Without doubt, the first thing you’ll notice with Grand Theft Auto IV on the Xbox 360, is just how detailed Liberty City has become and how much work has gone into even the tiniest of graphical flourishes. This means that you are instantly drawn into the game world, spending as much time marvelling at what is going on around you as you’d normally spend actually playing the thing. For instance, Niko Bellic himself feels like a properly fleshed out character in his own right, somehow keeping that trademark GTA “Realistic but not too realistic” graphical look and feel, but meshing it with a set of incidental physical movements that make serious inroads into uncanny valley.

    This detailing extends into virtually every single element in the city from the way newsstands explode in a flurry of paper if you drive over them, to the way Rockstar have honed the physics and kinetics of the game’s core driving models ensuring that no two vehicles behave in the same way.

    In fact your first few moments behind the wheel of a car as Niko will feel weird, and it may take you a long while to fight with the new “feel” of vehicles. But it’s as intuitive as it is realistic, and you’ll soon realise that the early cars you encounter, with their floaty suspension and whale-like handling are nothing compared to the sports cars, the motorbikes and eventually even the helicopters you can later control.

    Soon though you’ll master the art of handbraking around corners just as you did with previous iterations of the game. Something strange might happen though when you first start to play (at least, it happened to me). Because of the level of immersion and the fact that doing anything slightly naughty has an immediate knock-on effect, you may find that you try to play Niko as cleanly as possible at first, driving responsibly and trying not to knock any of Liberty City’s pedestrians down. Needless to say as the core game missions progress, this all goes out of the window and you’ll soon be racing like a madman across the city, pursued by the game’s uncannily realistic AI police force intent on stopping your crime spree in its tracks. Your first proper police chase will be breathtaking and nerve-racking, I can guarantee it.

    As with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, GTA IV makes inroads into fleshing out your character even more by offering a whole plethora of ordinary everyday side missions and “life choices” that Niko can do in between running errands for Roman (and getting his pudgy ass out of trouble more often than not). Niko can slob around in his apartment watching TV (I’d actually recommend this, Liberty City’s TV stations are absolutely ridiculously funny – as funny as the previous games’ various radio stations were, and then some). He can nip round to the local burger shot for a bite to eat. He can cruise around the city listening to music on the car radio, or later on his mobile phone. He can spend hours mindlessly trawling through Liberty City’s rather seedy Internet sites.

    He can even date, and take his girl out bowling or down to the local pub for a game of pool or darts. In fact anyone who finds the game initially dull and repetitive obviously must be playing the game with some serious blinkers on, because at times it feels like there’s virtually no limit to the things you can distract yourself with if you don’t fancy tackling another mission and just want to spend some quality time mucking around.

    As the game progresses, and you start to unlock the larger areas of Liberty City (there are three massive sprawling jam-packed islands to explore in total plus quite a few extra little islands dotted around these) you start to realise that despite its dark satanic humour, Grand Theft Auto has a serious message to relay too, and it’s as much a commentary on society today as it is a mere “game”. Again without branching out into spoiler territory, it’s difficult to tell you so you’re just going to have to play the game yourself and sooner rather than later you’ll see what I mean.

    Rockstar’s story scripting is as tight as their coding, and in some ways Grand Theft Auto IV crosses the boundary between game and cinema more than ever before (in fact if someone just made a movie of someone playing the game’s core mission structure you wouldn’t feel particularly ripped off if you watched it your local fleapit). At the end of it all you’ll feel like you’ve finished an epic journey – but don’t tuck your copy away back on its shelf just yet, because there’s more to GTA IV than just the single player stuff.

    When Rockstar Games first announced that Grand Theft Auto IV would feature multiplayer for the first time on a “big console” GTA game, I imagined that we’d be treated to a similar experience that PSP owners have enjoyed with both Liberty City and Vice City Stories. I don’t think I could’ve been further from the mark if I’d tried. What they’ve actually done with the Multiplayer is give you so many options AND also given you a seriously fun free-roaming mode, that if you can’t find something to suit your tastes then you might as well give up gaming and take up kite-flying.

    There are 14 modes in total as we detailed back in our news story.

    So far I’ve managed to play at least three of them (Car Jack City, Team Mafia Work and the sublime Cops ‘n’ Crooks) as well as just hanging out in Free Mode and I can wholeheartedly say without doubt that when Rockstar said they were going to do multiplayer properly, they weren’t kidding. On Xbox Live the multiplayer stuff works ridiculously well, pulling up a quick game via your in-game mobile phone, setting up a room and inviting your friends in is as easy as pie and utterly rewarding in every respect. Though you may find you’ll need a ninja broadband connection to get 16 player games going smoothly, the sweet spot with 8 players seems to work beautifully with very little lag or glitching.

    One of the best moments I’ve had in the entire game was in free mode, flying two choppers packed to the gills with friends, streaking the thing under a railway bridge to scare the living daylights out of my passengers, and performing G-stalls against the sides of skyscrapers before landing the thing with a crunch, stealing a nearby scooter and whizzing off into the night with an entourage of friends in various vehicles following behind. Even if you get tired of the proper multiplayer modes you can make up your own, for instance get everyone kitted out with a car or bike, find one of the game’s stunt challenges and all take turns in trying to out-do each other.

    Of course if you have slightly questionable morals you could just stand with a group of friends at a nearby traffic junction and see how much mayhem you can wreak before the police turn up and take you down. Free mode feels so deliciously open ended and deviant that it’s easy to see why Grand Theft Auto is the bane of the red-top journalists and ill-informed daytime chat-show hosts.

    To that end, I’d like to take the opportunity to point out that any parent purchasing this game for their child should wake up and smell the coffee. Grand Theft Auto IV is unapologetically mature and well deserves its 18 Rating. The game is as dark and nefarious as the person playing it, so buying it and then faking moral outrage when your child ploughs a car through a queue of pedestrians (or worse) is pretty much tantamount to slamming the stable door after the horse has bolted so for goodness sake leave stuff like this to adults (or at least those of us who can discern the difference between a virtual world and the real one). If you’re worried about them playing the game illicitly, open your 360’s manual, read about the parental control settings and use them because that’s what they’re there for. As a new dad myself, I’d make damned sure that I kept this out of the hands of my child and didn’t play it in front of them so you should too.

    Now that bit of moral crusading is out of the way, I can get back to the game and though I’m sure I don’t really have to work too hard to convince you that if you own a 360 you should own this title, there’s still more ground to cover.

    Technically Grand Theft Auto IV is one hell of an achievement, and as I’ve already said, I feel incredibly sorry for the developers of games like Saints Row 2, Prototype and all the other GTA-like games headed for shelves this year because from what I’ve seen of them, they’ve got a long way to go before they can match the scope, scale and breadth of GTA IV. Sure enough there are glitches, and there have been various reports of bugs and annoyances bordering on game-breaking, but in my considerable hours of play so far I haven’t once felt that GTA IV has been poorly put together – in fact quite the opposite, I’m astounded at the level of polish that’s been applied to it.

    The only drawback is, of course, how the hell can the industry possibly follow GTA’s release this year? Looking at the schedules for the rest of 2008 it’s probably a good job that GTA IV is such a slow burner with a gentle easing in of the various game elements, spread across many missions before the game starts to really kick things into top gear, ensuring that you’ll be playing it way beyond the average lifespan of the rest of the year’s releases so far put end to end.

    It’s not merely the fact that Rockstar have taken an already engaging gameworld and rebuilt it from the ground up, it’s the fact that they’ve done that, and shoehorned in realistic weather systems, day to night transitions, realtime lighting, realistic character movement and animation, realistic physics and kinetics, incidental details, solid and well written dialogue, convincing AI and non-player characters and a multiplayer system that puts other games to shame. Without meaning to stray too far into hyperbole territory, “The next generation” I personally hoped we’d be seeing with the new powerful console hardware has finally and thankfully arrived. The highest accolades are reserved for games at the top of their genre, so Grand Theft Auto IV is wholeheartedly recommended and easily snags a well-deserved 10 out of 10.

    Score: 10/10

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