April 2008. A revolutionary month. A month when Grand Theft Auto IV was released and broke all possible sales records. It was the most profitable launch in the history of, not only games, but entertainment industry as a whole. It makes you wonder what unbelievable hype its successor, which we will be able to play in about half a year, will create, as it should be bigger than GTA IV in almost every possible way.
Grand Theft Auto IV unavoidably draws comparison with its older brother, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. While it surely looks better, advanced character customization and RPG-like progression are gone, and so are the ability to drive tanks, planes and bicycles and to dive underwater. But how much does that affect the overall package? Not too much.
After the adventures in Vice City and San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV is returns the player to Liberty City, a wonderfully detailed fictional version of New York, which serves as a new beginning for the most interesting GTA protagonist to date: Niko Bellic, a Serbian war veteran. His cousin Roman made him move to Liberty City with stories about cash, limos, luxury condos. As those stories turn out to be all but true, Niko and Roman get in all kinds of trouble.
The structure of the game is similar to other games in the series. Niko Bellic is an interesting personality, but also a criminal, so you can expect maniac driving, using guns, running away from cops and every possible type of violence. Most aspects of the game are at least a slight improvement from previous GTAs, but the environment is the real star of the show. Liberty City is, by far, the most realistic virtual city enviroment to date. The city feels alive and has uncountable tiny details. People talk on the phone and to each other, dress differently based on weather conditions and time of day. The famous radio stations make a return and this time you have the ability to watch in-game TV too. While watching TV is a nice feature, there is something annoying about it - if you cycle through channels and see an interesting channel, but accidentally switch to another channel, you can't easily get back to the channel you wanted to see but must search for it all over again. The game also features its own Internet with downloadable ringtones and themes for your in-game phone, fictional dating websites etc.
Perhaps the most notable innovations of GTA IV are the cover system and the mobile phone. The phone can be used to start missions, talk to allies or replay failed missions. The combat system has been greatly improved. Niko can throw himself behind almost any object that can serves as a protection from bullets and then blind-fire from the cover or stand up for one second to get a clean shot.
Vehicle driving system has been modified to suit the new realistic style of the game. Cars are now slightly more sensitive to braking and turning, which takes some getting used to. On the other hand, cop chases are now easier, and escaping the pursuit zone (which is marked by a yellow circle around the player icon on the map). The police vehicles are also visible on the map, which makes escaping them even easier. If you ever get bored of driving, you can hail a taxi whenever you see one, get in as a passenger and wait until you get to your destination (or skip the whole road by pressing a key).
Just like GTA San Andreas, GTA IV takes a long time to complete. Only completing the main story missions will take you at least 30 hours, and choosing to complete all side missions as well can easily triple that number. This is one of the rare games whose cut-scenes I enjoyed watching, because they really deserve an Academy Award.
Like every other game, Grand Theft Auto IV is not without its flaws either. As I mentioned above, you can no longer go cycling, drive a tank or fly a plane. Gyms have been removed, and so is the whole RPG-like character upgrade system. Also, while swimming, you can't dive. Most importantly, the game is horribly optimized for PC and has framerate issues (especially on AMD graphics) even on powerful PCs.
Also, as a person who natively speaks Serbian, I must say that I'm rather disappointed by Niko's Serbian accent, which is very poor and unrealistic. Niko's cousin Roman also has a poor accent, but that can be understood because he lived in Liberty City for 10 years; Niko, however, just moved there and should still speak Serbian perfectly. Knowing how rich Rockstar is, they could have hired a Serbian actor to say Niko's Serbian lines instead of forcing American actors imitate the accent.
Despite these flaws, Grand Theft Auto IV is still one of the best games you can play on your PC, PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. While I can't call it better than San Andreas, it definitely is a worthy successor.