The latest addition to the GTA series centres upon the character of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has fled his war - torn and poverty stricken homeland to seek his fortune in the land of opportunity. Like previous narratives of GTA, certain gangster films - particularly Scarface - are a strong point of reference. Like Tony Montana, the story begins with Niko literally stepping off the boat in search of the American dream with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and beginning a life of crime in America, where like Scarface; capitalism is turned on its head.
On first impressions, players used to the GTA format and who have played GTA3, Vice City and San Andreas practically to death, will be pleased to see IV departing from the similar styles of the previous platforms. The designers have shed much of the 'tongue in cheek', slightly cartoony feel of the old additions, and created a much more realistic urban environment for the player to navigate. Gone are the days of simply bombing round the city in a flowery shirt and never having to worry about head on collisions at 80mph, as now car crashes are disturbingly realistic ,with Niko occasionally being hurled through the front windscreen and landing in a screaming crumpled heap on the concrete.
The designers are certainly living up to the games reputation for controversy, and in terms of gratuitous violence, GTA 4 reaches new heights. Unlike Vice City, where the eighties music and light hearted, comic strip characters, made it playable in front of girlfriends and parents, GTA 4 is so merciless even the hardiest of gamers may be slightly taken aback by the brutality. There is even a new execution ability where Niko can blast unarmed victims at point blank range while shielding his face from the fallout of bloody pulp – a feature which can not only be used on the nastiest of criminals, but even on a job interview panel. Such gaming catharsises could not have coincided better with the world wide recession.
So what’s bad about it? Certainly nothing in terms of graphics. Cars realistically take damage with dents, blown out tires, and if they take too much gunfire, flames gently lick their way across the under carriage and onto the wheels before the whole thing erupts in a hugely satisfying explosion - which has come along way since the boring yellow fire balls of the previous additions. Most of all however, the designers have to be congratulated for how well they have reconciled the large scale of Liberty City with the small scale. While seeing it from the air looks stunning, when the player walks inside a block of flats or a pub they are confronted with such incredible detail and realism, it surpasses the interiors of even something like Max Payne 2.
The entire game has a wealth of tiny details and touches which are – even compared to its predecessors – astounding. Perhaps the only weakness is with regard to the storyline. The script can be witty in places but it is not exactly Scorsese and some of the cut scenes are frustratingly long. However GTA IV has to stand up as one of the greatest ever gaming achievements. Even though some accuse it of lacking the variety of San Andreas - no tanks or f16s to tear around the city in – this sacrifice actually makes the game even better. As it stands, the designers have heightened the realism and plausibility by cutting back on a few dead end features, which is a definite bargain, and helps make GTA IV the firm and resounding success that it is. 9.5/10