Grand Theft Auto 4 (GTA 4) Discussion
I don't know what to say . . .
This sounds AMAZING. Everything about this game is finally more like I always wished it would be. I think this might just be the first time I play a Grand Theft Auto game and not find it incredibly easy. Man, I can't wait for this.
APRIL 29, 2008
I just got an email from Rockstar propaganda with the release date.
A lot can happen in six months. Just look back over the last half a year: England were knocked out of Euro 2008, the Spice Girls got back together and Dumbledore came out of the closet. So with that in mind we were anxious and excited in equal measure when we got the call from Rockstar to check out the latest version of Grand Theft Auto IV. After all, it's been six months since we last walked the streets of Liberty City, so could all of the little niggles we'd noticed in previous versions – the stuttering frame-rate, restricted freedom of the city and overall lack of GTA's signature humour – have all be ironed out in a few months?
Yes. There, we said it. Yes, the frame-rate has been smoothed out; yes, the city is now fully populated meaning you're able to explore however you see fit; and yes, the trademark satirical dialogue and larger-than-life characters are very much back. Grand Theft Auto IV looks and feels like a GTA game, but one that's been punted into the next generation. And while the build we saw wasn't final – the music was still placeholder and there are a couple of visual tweaks to be done over the next couple of months – everything else is in the game. Better still, any worry we had that Rockstar wouldn't deliver on a proper next-gen GTA experience was instantly dispelled within the first few moments of our latest 90-minute tour of Liberty City.
Starting off in Broker in the full light of day, the first of three missions we saw took place in a setting familiar to anyone who's salivated over every tidbit that has leaked from the Rockstar offices. Basking in the glorious midday sun, we join Niko who is on the phone to Brucie, a previously unseeen character in the GTA universe in charge of a nearby garage. A short-haired beefcake, he reminded us more than a little of the Biff character from the Back to the Future series, his mannerisms and flamboyant stupidity infused with characteristic Rockstar wit and pop-culture savvy. Indeed, not only is the humour of previous GTAs present and correct, it is also given an extra lease of life by the new game engine, with characters indulging in little Howard Hawks-esque bits of business during dialogue, be it Niko nonchalantly thumbing his nose as he listens or in some of the wilder gesticulations of the steroid-pumped Brucie as he tells us he wants Rivas, a police informant, silenced in time honoured GTA style – with the business end of a pistol.
Having received our task from Brucie it was out onto the road, where we got to witness the game's free-form driving for the first time. Any fears that may have been raised by previous builds of GTA IV that suffered from inconsistent frame-rates are largely assuaged – they've clearly been burning the midnight oil over at Rockstar these past six months, as the environments of Liberty City manage to zip along at an agreeable pace. There are the occasional lighting glitches and texture pop-ups, but there's still time for these minor problems to be ironed out. Plus, bearing in mind the sheer scale of the city – it's far greater in reality than we ever imagined – we didn't really notice after a short while, instead wallowing in the vastness of it all.
Back to cruising the streets, one interesting feature is every road in the game has been given a name. This adds an enhanced sense of location, plus Rockstar aren't one to miss an opportunity at a little pop-culture reference – Jim Jones and Hubbard Avenue were just two examples we noticed on our travels.
The mission at hand required the acquisition of a police car, and there were a number of ways to achieve this. Firstly, you can use the tried and tested method of stirring up a little mischief to attract attention from the law enforcement agencies, but the method we saw utilised one of the new features to GTA IV – the mobile phone. We'll go into more of the abilities of Niko's cell phone a little later, but for this mission it was simply a case of bringing it up via the D-pad and putting in a call to 911. After a little interaction with a hilariously adroit automated emergency service switchboard, and a few little white lies later, the police were on the scene, with Niko waiting with his gun by his side. Again, the open-ended world of GTA meant there were numerous ways to get access to the police car – the approach we saw involved enticing the police away from the car and then hot-footing it in.
Having got behind the wheel we were able to see the new wanted meter in full effect. A circle appears on the map around your car and if the cops are outside that circle the wanted status will decrease. However, stray into the path of another cop and the wanted meter will remain and the police will stay glued to your tail. Indeed, each time you're spotted the search area re-centres on your location and the wanted status will go up again. Switching cars will help lose any attention, as will disguising yourself among your surroundings, whether that's hiding behind a bin or escaping into a nearby building.
Once Niko has the car away from the attention of the cops he can access the police database, via the onboard police computer. By tapping in the name of the informant Niko is able to pinpoint his home address – Long Street in Broker, which would be our next stop. Interestingly, Rockstar mentioned it would also be possible to upload photos of people from your phone's camera into the database to attain details as well.
Some of the explosions and particle effects that ensued from the chase had a cartoon-like dynamism to them, and it seemed that when the car made contact with a wall a mark of the encounter appeared on the concrete. After a couple of minutes of white-knuckle driving the mission finally drew to a close when Niko smashed side-on into Rivas's car, shunting it off the road and sending the snitch to a fiery death. At this point we noted a much-welcomed feature - the inclusion of auto-saves. Unlike the oft-infuriating save system of previous GTA games, GTA IV will now auto-save progress after important mission way-points, which should go some way to relieving some of the frustration experienced in the past. Rockstar also mentioned that if you fail a mission you'll be given the option to jump straight back in and have another attempt, using text messages on Niko's mobile.
With the mission successfully completed, we were then shown some more of the attributes of the seemingly integral phone. Managing friendship levels will play a key part to the new GTA experience and to maximise the potential of your relationships within the game it's vital to keep people sweet. We were re-introduced to Roman, Niko's cousin, by simply calling him up, at which point we had the option to take him bowling, play pool, take him to a cabaret or just for a simple tipple. Given the time constraints of our demonstration we decided to meet Roman for a drink. What followed, however, was one of the most down-right funny scenes we've ever witnessed in gaming.
Having activated the friendship side mission, we had a few minutes to pick up Roman and drive him to the bar. It's worth noting that you don't actually have to complete these missions once they've been started, but if you decide you can't be bothered to socialise it's best to call and let them know, otherwise they'll be noticeably off towards you next time you hook up.
Eventually we reached a nearby watering hole, Bar Perestroika, which was highlighted on the map by a ****tail glass icon. Choose to go bowling or play pool and you actually compete in a mini-game, but head to a bar and the scene cuts straight to the chase of the after-effects of a skinful, with Niko and Roman falling out of the bar, barely able to walk. Here the full implications of the new Euphoria physics engine and skeletal models could be witnessed in the most humourous way possible, as the pair stumbled over themselves, falling over each other and putting out a steadying hand on nearby objects. At one point Niko attempted to upright himself on a parked car, misjudged and fell flat on his back in the gutter, while muttering drunkenly to himself. The characters all react accordingly to each other, and this extends beyond the main cast. While driving about Liberty City we noticed non-playable characters had been blessed with astounding little flourishes – at one point a car collided with a pedestrian at low speed, and they extended an arm and steadied themselves before moving on.
But back to the gutter… Niko soon realised that Roman would be needing a ride home and had little time to sober up. It'll take a strong stomach to endure a drunken car-ride in GTA IV, with the screen swaying merrily and the control system itself inebriated. The effects are said to wear off after a couple of minutes, but after being subjected to 30 seconds of the drunken experience on Rockstar's 60-inch behemoth of a screen we were all feeling a little queasy and could have done with a couple of Alka Seltzers ourselves.
Maintaining good relationships, while not essential to the main narrative thrust of the game, will certainly make passage a lot easier, as well as providing an enjoyable peripheral activity. For example, keep Roman onside and he'll be able to provide you with free taxi rides around the city, while staying buddies with Brucie will give you access to helicopter rides. Stay in touch with weapons dealer Little Jacob he will garnish you with an arsenal of the finest firepower.
After the drunken antics we observed some late night driving around Liberty City. The heavy mist that shrouded the city at night was at first a concern to us – could it have been disguising some build quality issues? However, our Rockstar rep turned to the debug controls and, in an example of the dynamic weather utilised in the game, the mist dissipated to reveal a breathtaking vista of Liberty City by night. It certainly was a bewitching sleight of hand; we went from doubters to believers in one deft switch of a debug control, the view from Broker Bridge setting our hearts aflutter and showing what the next generation of GTA can offer.
We weren't able to ascertain how much of the city would be open upon first play, though Rockstar were kind enough to further highlight the dynamic lighting system by speeding through a day via the debug controls. The effects of the sun's rise and fall were spectacular, enough for us to hope that a feature to speed up the time frame will be un-lockable in the full game. Currently two minutes equates to one hour of game-time, although that is subject to change.
Playboy X was the next character we were introduced to, a familiar figure from the Looking for That Special Someone trailer. The mission, Destruction for Beginners, takes you to his Penthouse apartment, where you'll also meet the just released convict Dwayne, a dour foil to some of Playboy X's more outlandish character traits. The task is to take out the Russian Mafia involved in union dealings on a nearby construction site. After a shirt drive you park up in a back street, grab a sniper rifle from the boot and, with Playboy X in tow, take a window-cleaner's lift that scales a nearby skyscraper which overlooks the building site.
Using the sniper rifle to take out some of the lookouts on the site, the enhanced physics engine again comes into play. The downed Mafia goons fall from their perches and make quite an impact when hit the ground – one victim fell onto the roof of a parked SUV, and it was hard not to wince at the ferocity of the collision.
Heading down from the rooftop, we were given a first glimpse of the overhauled combat system that looks to dramatically enhance the GTA experience. Taking its cues from games such as Gears of War, it focuses on the effective use of cover – though unlike examples such as Kane & Lynch, GTA IV looks to have hit a fine balance. With Playboy X communicating to Niko over the headset, our protagonist runs from cover to cover, whether it be a parked car or an overturned barrel, with the sort of grace seen in Hollywood blockbusters such as Heat. Indeed, Rockstar has gone out of its way to ensure that the cover system doesn't become a source of frustration during combat, and you can go into cover against any object in the game with a single button press. Cower behind a car, however, and you could soon find yourself exposed as the vehicle drives off. Niko is also a fairly acrobatic lead, sliding and diving into cover with ease, and in another nod to Gears of War he can also blind fire around corners.
Rockstar was unwilling to discuss how the health system works, though we can report that the enemies have easily-targeted hit points. There's the obligatory headshots, plus the ability to shoot enemies in the legs, merely disabling them – perhaps we'll be seeing some more humane approaches to some of GTA IV's missions? The weapons we saw were nothing new to the series, with an AK-47, M4 carbine and shotgun being put through their paces, although the implementation of grenades has been vastly improved, with the ability to lock-on-and-throw enabling increased accuracy. Another nice touch was that when a locked-on adversary was blown into the sky by an explosive, the camera followed their flailing corpse trial through the air. Maybe GTA isn't the place for humane approaches to missions after all.
The end of the Destruction for Beginners mission saw Niko take down a helicopter with a bazooka, which left an arcing smoke trail as it streaked through the sky. The mafia boss scooted away from the chopper before we nuked it though, meaning we had to chase him on foot and fire the killer blow while he tried to escape up a ladder. It's pretty brutal stuff, and it all managed to display the new dynamic to the combat system that means GTA IV should be straying away from the anemic and oft-frustrating gunplay offered by its forebears, and may well hold its own against the current generation's batch of shooters.
Truck Hustle was the last mission we saw and kicked off in GTA IV's equivalent of New Jersey. There's a distinct Sopranos lilt to the conversation of the two Italian gangsters you meet, who urge you on to keep an eye on a bunch of Triads looking to offload a 'cursed' batch of heroin. The drive to the mission start was in a more luxurious car than we had previously seen, replete with talking sat-nav that dished out audible directions as we drove. We also got a chance to hear some of GTA's acclaimed voiceovers on the radio channels, and rest assured it's as smirk-inducing as ever.
Getting out of the car and walking to the destination, we noticed another aspect of Niko's phone – its built-in radio. Sound quality is, as you'd expect from a mobile, realistically tinny and having the soundtrack accompanying you on foot is a welcome addition. Although all the tracks we heard in game were merely place-holders while the myriad licensing issues are being attended to, we're sure GTA IV will be no different to its predecessors with their supreme soundtracks. The radio also seemingly responded to Niko's previous antics – our destruction of the helicopter on the building site was being reported on the radio news bulletin.
We were then treated to another demonstration of the improved combat model of GTA IV, although this time somewhat more fiery as grenades were used with abandon, resulting in some quite spectacular explosions. It seemed that when targeting an enemy, their health would appear on the aiming reticule, and the Triads being taken out appeared to be a sturdy bunch – although a well-placed grenade soon took care of them.
Our tour of Liberty City Rockstar drew to a close with a scenic jaunt around the coast. Beginning with a ride through the dunes on off-road bike, we made our way to the shore-line before climbing into an inflatable speed boat. Taking in all the sights of Liberty City, we got an impression of the vast scale of the play-area. By holding down the B button, you'll be able to switch to a cinematic viewpoint of the proceedings – not a new feature to the series, but implemented with more flair than ever before. The water effects looked fantastic, reflecting the skyline of the city and even mirroring the planes and clouds in the sky. The camera was flecked with water being spat from the back of the boat, and again there were a few of the deft Rockstar touches – one boat we passed had more than a superficial resemblance to the Orca ship from Jaws, and a restaurant on the shore had the fantastic moniker 'Poop Deck'. Finally we took in the Statue of Happiness (nee Liberty), before ending back on the docks of Broker, right back to where our journey had began.
We were surprised by the amount we saw in the demo, and of course it's only a small percentage of the final game. Overall the experience was heartening, with the build at worst sturdy, and at times downright dazzling. There's still a whole world of questions about the game to be answered, and Rockstar were reticent about revealing anything about the online and multiplayer elements of GTA IV – that will come in the next month or so - other than the fact that they exist. We've been promised a hands-on within the next couple of weeks, as well as a look at the PS3 build, when more will no doubt become clear. But till then, rest assured the last six months have been well spent and that GTA IV is shaping up to be well worthy of the hype bestowed upon it.
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