Rockstar's vivid tale of Niko Bellic, an immigrant with convictions powerful enough to rocket him through the crumbling substructures of Liberty City's world of organized crime, is now out on PC. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games shipped this past April, and with this one you'll find a few alterations and additions those who waited are sure to appreciate. Despite what's been put in, if you've already played the console versions it's hard to recommend picking this one up, even though it now includes space for up to 32 players in its multiplayer matches and a robust, easy to use replay editor for recording and fashioning clips from your in-game actions.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise rocketed to mass popularity after Grand Theft Auto III's release and the ground rules were set for a different style of game. Since then we've seen slight alterations and tweaks to the core formula with Vice City and San Andreas, and Grand Theft Auto IV represents another step forward. This is a game that strips down a lot of the more zany challenges from games past. You won't be doing any remote control helicopter missions or lowrider matching challenges here. Instead, the focus is on realism, a more mature sensibility, and bringing GTA into the present day.
Starting from dealing with your cousin Roman, a small time operator prone to gross exaggeration, you'll move your way up through criminal rings until you get what you want. Unlike GTA characters of the past, though, Niko isn't trying to prove himself as some sort of badass for the ages, driven to rule the city no matter what. He's looking for something, and the missions he undertakes are really the only way for him to find it. He may perform a number of ruthless acts (which you, by the way, instruct him to), but there are points during the story where you can ease your finger off the trigger or make a choice as to how things proceed. Despite the kind of senselessly violent tendencies many may associate with GTA characters, Niko represents an exception in many respects, as he has a code by which he operates.
The game's infrastructure has been made more convenient, though there's still space to improve. If Niko fails a mission, a message asking to retry it pops up as soon as you respawn, and when you die you don't lose your entire arsenal. Getting across the gargantuan metropolis is made easier by hailing cabs that take you to waypoints on your map. Stealing a car and driving yourself is always an option, as is the more immersive element of actually riding in the cab's backseat the whole time, staring out the windows at the passing lights. For anyone who's short on time or would prefer to forego the random dangers of driving across a GTA world, the cabs are certainly welcome.
Still, you'll be doing quite a bit of mission restarts, and that often means repeating large chunks of the challenges. Many missions break down into an initial travel segment, some kind of escalation event, a conflict, and an escape. Getting through the on-foot shooting sequences, a real headache with the clunky control schemes of games past, has been made much better with the inclusion of a cover system and, as with all PC versions, mouse and keyboard support for aiming and shooting. From behind cover it's possible to blind fire, rapidly pop out to unload a few shots, or move cover to cover, a system that doesn't always work perfectly but is a definite step up for the series. It's possible to use a gamepad as well, which handles vehicles better than a mouse and keyboard. You can even switch freely between the control devices. Juggling the two input methods depending whether you're driving or shooting is pretty awkward, but it's great that Rockstar built it in without forcing you to fiddle with a control input menu toggle. And if you have to pick one, it's far easier to shoot from a moving car with the mouse and keyboard.
Some of the mission structures can be really impressive and work well in the context of the narrative's direction, but unfortunately the franchise's trial and error nature hasn't disappeared. You could be doing a mission perfectly until you accidentally tap a cop car, inadvertently shoot an item vital to the mission, or misinterpret a new set of directions that require precise timing upon a mission's phase change, and then it kicks you right back out to try again. Some may interpret that as part of the challenge, but it's a setup that's become a little familiar at this point and its continued existence will likely frustrate series veterans.
The strength of story and character along with the amazingly detailed world are undoubtedly going to make strong impressions on whoever dives into this version of Liberty City, but GTA has always been about moments. Remember that time you went off the stunt jump and landed on the pedestrian after slamming through the light post with the police chopper crashing to the ground in the background, setting off a string of explosions rocketing through the stalled traffic? With the PC version you'll be able to actually save that sort of thing using the replay feature. Hitting F2 will save a chunk of gameplay roughly 30 seconds long to your hard drive and make it available for use with the integrated replay editor. This suite of tools will let you drop in filters, splice together clips, add text, attach music, adjust camera angles and more so you can recreate your favorite scenes however you see fit. Want a string of shots of you firing at traffic jams from an attack chopper? Remember to hit F2 every time you're in that situation and splicing them all together should be no problem, giving you the opportunity to save and savor those quirky, seemingly impossible-to-repeat moments that pop up in GTA's unpredictable world.
To enter into the editor mode Niko utilizes his cell phone, which acts as a sort of hub for a wide range of activities. It comes into play during the course of missions for checking messages and talking with the game's vibrant, well-realized NPC population as well as serving as a tool built to allow players to live Niko's life as if it were a real one. NPCs will call to talk, for instance, with no purpose other than broadening your sense of their character. You can go on dates, organize a game of darts or pool, and manage relationships much like you might outside of Rockstar's world. Many of these diversions turn out to be fairly tedious after a while, but they're entirely optional so you can just leave them alone if you prefer.
Beyond that there's plenty to discover in Liberty City, a stunningly realized virtual version of New York City caked with all the dust, wear, and dents you'd expect to see while walking down an actual street. There you can engage in the missions, sure, but also immerse yourself in activities strictly frivolous, from heading to Internet shops and clicking through fictional junk mail to sitting back in a dimly lit apartment and absorbing the glut of programs and commercials that, in typical Rockstar style, wryly torpedo popular culture.
The series staple radio is very much intact in GTA IV. When set against the Internet and cell phones it seems like somewhat more of an anachronism, but it still delivers the game's fantastic soundtrack and a cavalcade of fake talk programs and sarcastic advertising. Perhaps in GTA V, the protagonist will finally get an iPod.
PC gamers will get more freedom when it comes to music selection, as Rockstar has included Independence FM with this version. Since you're bound to get tired of hearing about Dragon Brain and Pisswasser eventually, you can load in music files to a game directory that play when this station is switched to, giving you a better ability to find something you like should you decide to go on one of the adrenaline fueled cross-city cop chases GTA is known for.
Then there's the online play, a major addition for the series and a section of the game that's been expanded with a larger player limit in the PC version and better search functionality. Accessed through Niko's cell phone you'll find a wide range of options for play, from races to deathmatches to a number of team-based games with more specific rule sets. The real draw of the online portion here is to engage in 32 person chaos across the expanse of the metropolis in free mode, but the structured content's there for players looking for something more organized. It would have been nice to see a few extra cooperative modes instead of those already packaged in the console versions, but the multiplayer remains a strong component of this product for the freedom it gives those who venture online.
Online or off there's no doubt you'll be impressed with some of GTA IV's visuals. It's not so much the character models, but the sheer diversity of the city's sections, from the glitz of Liberty City's "Times Square" to the grime slathered over the industrial areas, Rockstar has produced one of the most authentic, believable settings ever seen in gaming. Yet with the PC version, you're going to need a particularly powerful machine to see it in all its splendor at a decent framerate, as even on our system (Core 2 Quad 2.40 GHz, 2 GB RAM, 768 MB GeForce 8800 GTX with Vista 32) we were having performance problems even after toning down a few of the settings, and some of the effects (the shadows in particular) didn't look so hot when displayed in high resolutions.
The sound is implemented even better. Stellar voice acting throughout an absolutely unbelievable amount of sharply written dialogue conveys and illuminates GTA IV's thrilling tale. As you're driving along the introductory sequence of a mission a second time you'll often be treated to an entirely different, cohesive dialogue thread between the passengers of the vehicle and then understand the lengths to which Rockstar has worked to fill this world with variety and personality. But it's also etched into every environment, from the snippets of pedestrians to the ambient horns, train track squeals, and general mechanical fuzz that suffuses big cities that Rockstar's managed to capture so very well here, and contributes heavily to Liberty City's authenticity.
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