Grand Theft Auto IV is, without question, one of the most highly anticipated games of 2008. Rockstar Games has shown us pieces of GTA IV on three different occasions. With each visit we saw the incredible potential for GTA IV, but not having the chance to play it, we could only assume these things would prove true. We knew there was a new dimension of verticality to the city, that our anti-hero Niko would be a down-to-earth anti-hero rather than an over-the-top movie spoof, that the new level of physics would bring greater realism to driving cars, and that it would be fun going bat$#!@ crazy running through the streets with a gun in hand (Martin Lawrence style).
It wasn't until Rockstar turned over the controller and let us play GTA IV that we could finally confirm that, yes indeed, these statements are all true. The next iteration in the Grand Theft Auto series isn't just a prettier version of San Andreas or Vice City. It's more cinematic, more realistic, and yeah, more fun. It's a whole new ballgame in Liberty City.
For the first time, Rockstar gave us hands-on access to both the PS3 and 360 versions of GTA IV. The good news is that no matter which system you prefer, you're going to have a great-looking game to play. There are only some minor visual differences noticeable between the two preview versions. The 360 build is brighter and has slightly more vibrant color while the PS3 build has less aliasing issues. Both display a solid, consistent framerate even during scenes with heavy pedestrian traffic and wild explosions. While graphics whores will find subtle differences to nitpick, the average Joe is going to be happy with either version.
And just to prove it, we have takes on GTA IV from PS3 fanboy Greg Miller and the distinguished gentleman from Xbox 360, Hilary Goldstein.
After getting run down by a car we were trying to steal, getting thrown through a windshield when we hit a barricade and gawking at the plume of black exhaust that poured out of a beater we fired up, it was time to get into some of the missions that make up Grand Theft Auto IV.
And because everything's new and we suck again, we started from the beginning.
First up was "Bleed Out," which acts as a hands-on tutorial for the brand new fighting engine. Niko's doing his thing and ascending the ranks of the criminal underbelly when a call from Roman -- owner and proprietor of the cab company Roman Bellic Enterprises -- comes in and the cousin rants and raves about some guys who are coming to beat him senseless. We jumped behind the wheel of a passing car and the HUD sprung to life with a GPS line directing us to our panicked cousin. After slamming into some mailboxes (Mail shoots into the air!), newspaper stands (Papers shoot into the air!) and people (Their lifeless corpses roll over the top of the car!), we arrived at a fenced-in basketball court and saw a handful of bad guys surrounding our kin.
Once on top of the perps, we were treated to a cutscene explaining the ass kicking and then thrown into GTA's hand-to-hand combat system. Whereas in the old games it was all about pounding a button and watching your character swing, specific actions are now mapped to specific buttons. Niko can punch, kick, head butt and block and you can choose in what order he does what moves. As one of the goons wailing on Roman stepped up to challenge us, we began swinging and kicking with style. If we timed our button presses correctly when the goon swung, we could reverse the punch and do some damage.
Niko dispatched the two fools, helped Roman to his feet and spotted Dardan, a local loan shark, hopping into a car and heading out. Our dynamic duo gave chase -- making use of GTA IV's new chase camera that centers the screen on the fleeing foe -- and eventually caught up with Dardan at a Liberty City warehouse. Niko prepared to throw 'bows with the shark, but the opposing jerkstore pulled a knife.
Now, normally we're against getting stabbed, but the "squish" sound of the blade entering our chest was so satisfying that it almost justified watching the health and armor meters around the radar deplete. When we got sick of dying, we tapped a button as Dardan attempted to shank us and disarmed him.
Then, we killed him with his own blade.
In between exploring the missions of GTA IV (FYI, the game autosaves after each mission.), we took in a few of the sights and sounds of Liberty City. Now, we could've tried to obey the rules as we took in the towering buildings, snazzy cars and intricate details, but most of our tour involved driving on the sidewalk and kicking people in the head. However, not everyone was ready to take Niko's crap. Not everyone is heartless in Liberty City. For instance, we ran our car into the back of some dude's ride, and this guy gets out like he wants to start something. We'll be damned if someone's going to disrespect Niko, so we climb out and start punching the guy in the face. Suddenly, a passerby runs into the fray and starts beating on us. Outnumbered and out-skilled, we took off in another direction with the pissed off pair in hot pursuit. We ran for awhile, and when it was clear we couldn't lose'em, we fought, lost and ended up outside the hospital with a little less money.
A similar running and beating escapade ended with the cops chasing us down. However, when all looked lost and Niko raised his hands in defeat, we were presented with a unique option in the GTA universe -- for the first time, we could run. Yes, when the cops catch up to you on foot, Niko will initially play along with the arrest but can take off before the cuffs are put on. Not a bad move if you need to catch your breath (Niko gets winded from running) or a car crawls across the screen to provide an easy escape.
The next chunk of Niko's adventure involved an incredibly hard to understand Rastafarian named Little Jacob. "Jamaican Heat" seemed like your typical GTA gun tutorial but it ended with a breathtaking view of the city and its lit-up buildings reaching into the night sky. Running a cab from Roman's company, you pick up Little Jacob, he hot boxes the car, mumbles for a while in an accent so thick neither the captions nor Niko can keep up, and hands you a piece. We proceeded to learn all about the new gunplay system -- you can lock-on, free aim and take out specific body parts if you like -- and take out a thorn in Little Jacob's side.
That's awesome and all, but "Concrete Jungle" was the mission that solidified Little Jacob as having some kick-ass tasks. Again, you pick up Little J. and take him to shakedown some thugs. Niko waits in the car while watching the back alley, things go wrong, and three bad guys burst through the emergency exit. We hit the gas, killed one guy with the car, nicked another and completely missed the third.
Knowing he was screwed, the guy we missed ran back from the direction we had come from and out onto a crowded street. We ditched the ride, got him in our sights and took him out … along with a handful of other people on the sidewalk. Then, we doubled back and found that the guy we nicked had headed out into the open as well. We opened fire and hit him in the arm, but after gripping the wound and mugging for the camera, the thug fired back. Turns out you can strike folks in the leg and arm, and they'll react to the damage but keep coming at you.
Of course, in the end, we killed the guy, picked up Little Jacob and headed to the next shakedown -- a rundown house. Here, we were introduced to the fine art of cover. Little Jacob headed into the home, and Niko straightened up against the home's exterior with the press of the button. We could pop out from behind the wall and shoot the evildoers in the head or just blind fire if things got heated.
Now, the one-button cover system is nice, but it didn't seem to afford much room for improvisation. With the first wave of bad guys down, Little Jacob stormed the inside, and we decided to fiddle with cover a bit. We went back to the door, walked into the room but couldn't get a shot, went back outside, and finally settled on a spot next to an open window.
We looked inside just in time to see Little Jacob get iced.
We were sad to see our partner in crime go, but we ran into the room, grabbed a shotgun and went out to unleash hell on Liberty City. We blew people away in the streets and marveled at the blood getting kicked back on the screen before shooting out some tires and putting a round into an incoming ambulance.
The rig caught fire, exploded and killed us -- which made the screen turn black and white and track our airborne body in slow motion.
What a way to go.
There are three things we should warn you about before you choose to get excited for GTA IV. Consider all three items carefully, because if none of them appeal to you, then GTA IV will likely be a major disappointment.
1. GTA IV fixes the questionable targeting system from past iterations
2. Relationships are now dynamic, so ignoring calls from cousin Roman when he is being pursued by violent loan sharks will irrevocably alter your relationship for the rest of your stay in Liberty City
3. There's lots of stuff to blow up and thousands of people to kill
If none of that sounds appealing to you, then walk away now. GTA IV will be your worst nightmare. For the few remaining who actually enjoy causing pandemonium on city streets, blowing up cop cars and rampaging with shotgun in hand, this is pretty much your dream come true.
When Greg finished showing off how terrible he was at playing Grand Theft Auto it was time to leave the training missions and delve a little deeper into the belly of Liberty City. "Final Destination" begins in a seedy Russian club where would-be thespians dressed as cowboys pantomime a Wild West showdown. The ever-quiet Niko sits at a table with some Russian mobsters who are worried that a cat named Lenny might have ratted to the cops about some pot that was stolen. It's Niko's job to take Lenny out -- rat or not.
While cruising town, we received a phone call tipping us that Lenny was seen looking to catch a train up on Guantanemo Avenue. Sure enough, when we got there we saw Lenny and a bodyguard waiting to hop a train. Taking the motto "shoot first, ask questions later" to heart, we popped the brain of the bodyguard without saying a word. Lenny hopped across the tracks, just as a train passed, giving him a bit of a head start. That didn't last long.
Once the train passed, we jumped across the tracks, hurried down the steps to street level and gave chase. Unfortunately, Niko isn't a track star and ol' Lenny managed to hop into a car to speed away. We kicked in the passenger window of a nearby parked car and hopped in for a quick hotwire, which can be made even faster by tapping a face button. And that's when we experienced a game-changing moment for Grand Theft Auto.
Tap the Right Bumper/R1 and Niko -- too impatient to roll down a window -- smashes out the driver-side window so he can fire freely out the car. This isn't the same drive-by controls of GTA's past. You have full range of movement while driving, allowing you to target a car you're chasing and try to shoot out its tires (Rubber explodes!) or cause enough damage to set it on fire (The car explodes!).
It was an extremely cool element that felt natural and worked well. It also ruined any hopes of completing another mission in GTA IV. Though we'd certainly try our best, once we realized what could be accomplished from the seat of a car, it was tough to focus on anything but total anarchy.
A cop spotted us exploding poor Lenny and gave chase. GTA IV uses the six-star wanted system once again, where the level of police pursuit increases as your wanted level rises. The change, however, is that cops now work on a line-of-sight pursuit. Our mini-map on the HUD showed a flashing red and blue radius of police interest in finding us. So long as we were in that radius, our wanted rating could only go up. The trouble with getting out of that small radius of pursuit was that any time an officer attained line of sight on us, the radius readjusted. This created a frantic race scenario as we weaved through city streets hoping to shake the cop cars behind us, while also trying to avoid incoming police cars that were being given eyes on our location by the cops already trailing us. And things only got tougher when the police brought in their whirlybird.
With cops in hot pursuit and the spotlight of a chopper locked onto our car, we made a wrong turn, drove over a cliff and crashed onto a beach. As we ran from our burning car, we narrowly avoided being squashed by a squad car that -- in true CHiPs fashion -- followed us over the cliff. We did our best to stave off an arrest, firing a few rocket-propelled grenades to take down one of the choppers overhead. The curling smoke trail is a gorgeous thing. The little scuffle soon turned into a standoff on the beach as we laid down suppressing machinegun fire on a group of cops attempting to approach from the beach. We were saved by a miracle -- a second police car drove over the cliff and crashed into the group of pursuing officers.
Once we'd stifled our gleeful giggles and collected ourselves, it was time to attempt the final mission of the demo. "Harboring a Grudge" proved a culmination of everything we had learned and experience in the first hour of playing GTA IV. Patrick (or Packie to those who might accidentally shoot him in the back of the head with an RPG) asked Niko for help ripping off a Triad shipment of meds down by the pier. We headed across the Algonquin Bridge and towards Liberty City's version of Manhattan.
The first time we tried this mission, we drove like idiots, weaving through traffic, smashing into everyone and every thing. At one point we t-boned someone's car and our own started smoking. So we leaped out and backed away. Funny thing is, the woman we t-boned hopped out and started cursing up a storm. Packie pulled out his piece and popped her. That's right -- no one talks $#!@ about Niko's driving! Then our car exploded and we died.
The second time around, we made it to the pier ahead of the Triad shipment. Using the new climbing mechanics (a simple tap of the action button near a scaleable surface) we made our way to the roof of a warehouse. There was a bit of a glitch with climbing, as we had to do a little dance of backing away and then inching forward before we could convince Niko to grab hold of a ledge and climb up. Good thing Rockstar still has two months to polish this off. And the fact that this was the only issue we came across during our hour-and-a-half play session is a good sign that GTA IV should be fairly bug-free.
Once on the roof we pulled out our sniper rifle and stood behind some cover. We waited for the Triad to begin unloading their cargo before we started taking headshots. The enemy AI wasn't dumb. They didn't all stand out in the open waiting to die. Once the first shot was fired, the AI scrambled, looking for cover. But our crack aim was more than they could handle and in short order we picked them off. We hopped down off the roof, switched to the shotgun, and kneecapped the remaining three thugs in the warehouse. As they writhed in pain, we slowly walked from one to the next, executing each one with a coolness not seen at IGN since we last accidentally hired a terminator (we miss you, Doug!).
With the sound of police sirens in the background, we hopped into the truck and accidentally backed over Packie. "Muh bad!" With a wounded Packie in the passenger seat, it was time to make a run for it. That run lasted about 10 seconds.
The first cop we came across managed a crack shot at our tire. With a first and then a second tire down, the truck moved at a snail's pace. And then we hit rush hour traffic. We were doomed. That's when we decided Niko would never be taken alive. Not only can you shoot out of windows, you can also drop grenades. We dropped a handful, hearing cars exploding behind us as we attempted to push through traffic. But we moved so slowly that we never made it past the last two grenades dropped and, once again, we blew ourselves back to God.
We ended things by going on one of the great rampages in GTA history. At least, we'd like to think that was the case. Determined to have a final spot of fun, we started a ruckus with some cops and then car-jacked a bus to make our escape. We tore through Liberty City, crashing through cars at intersections and tossing Molotov cocktails out the window as we went. At one point we saw an ambulance heading towards us, clearly on the way to care for the wounded left in the wake of our incendiary killing spree. One well-placed toss of a Molotov and the paramedics were forced to stop, drop, and roll.
It should be noted that every car we drove handled differently. Not only was each car unique in how it drove, but each its own suspension -- which you could see while making sharp turns. Some of our chase scene moments felt like they were ripped straight from Bullitt. Except instead of Steve McQueen, you had Hilary and Greg behind the wheel smashing in to every parked car on the street.
Our first chance to put our hands on GTA IV proved more satisfying than we'd expected. And there are many aspects we still haven't explored. At the start of the game, Liberty City is on lockdown due to a recent terrorist threat. All bridges are closed except for those who have documentation proving their citizenship. Niko doesn't have such documents. But you can still cross the bridges anyway -- you just earn an automatic 5-star wanted level. We call that Threat Level Orange. We also verified that there are vigilante missions in the game. Just hop in a cop car and access the computer to find wanted criminals. We know it exists; we just didn't have the opportunity to try it out.
As with any Grand Theft Auto title, there's a very large city to explore with a seemingly endless amount of distractions. What we experienced was only a taste of what gamers can expect on April 29, when GTA IV hits store shelves. It's only two months away, but it's going to be a long wait.
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