It all started with a ten minute demo back in 1997 and now people are so obsessed by the Grand Theft Auto series that every new sequel seems to cause a bigger stir than the election of a new prime minister. Indeed with the fourth GTA having recently exploded across all formats from PS to PC, it was obvious an entire generation were going to be glued to their TV sets for months. And they wonder why young people don’t vote anymore!
Because, lets be honest, if it’s a toss up between worrying about the woes of the world and listening to a PM who looks like a scrotum that’s had a sad face drawn on it, or tearing through Liberty City on a GSX 900 whilst being chased by the cops, it’s not hard to guess what we'd all prefer. And this could not be truer of GTA4, a game which, for the hardcore GTA nut, is like finding Jesus in the form of guns, cars, and enough murderous missions to rival Osama Bin Laden.
However, this is certainly what it feels like to begin with. When first getting into the game (after a really irritating installation if you played it on PC), it 's quite unlike anything you have ever seen. Gone is the quirky cartoon veneer, the cheeky flowery shirts, the cars which fall apart like cardboard, and in their place is a grimy, urban dystopia which is utterly divorced from any GTA game that’s gone before.
The story follows the character of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who, fresh from some war torn, poverty stricken hell – hole, has just stepped off the boat in Liberty City. Along with his degenerate cousin Roman, Niko hopes to get a taste of the good life in the land of opportunity. But with no money, GCSE’s or even a green card to his name; it isn’t long before Niko gets stuck into the kind of work that suits him better than those Michael Jackson style mittens.
This is of course as a hired gun. So the story follows the same old spaghetti western type format. But the real difference is that the narrative of GTA4 is even more brutal than usual. Niko is one stone cold killer who makes Tommy Vercetti look like something out of Jackanory.
For example, when it comes to people he really doesn't like, Niko has a new execution ability where he blasts victims at point blank range while covering his face from the fallout of bloody pulp. A feature which can not only be used on his most hated enemies but also on a job interview panel (such computer gaming catharsis could not have coincided better with the economic recession!)
But violence aside, in terms of visuals the game is really spectacular. The graphics engine has had a complete overhaul since the days of Vice City and San Andreas. The realism is staggering. So don’t think you walking away from a head on collision with a brick wall at 80mph, as now Niko will be hurled through the front windscreen in a scene even more graphic than a seat belt awareness advert.
The Liberty City of GTA4 also has a much greater feeling of consistency compared to its predecessors. San Andreas and Vice City really struggled when trying to reconcile the large scale of the city with the small. When Running through Mad Dog’s mansion in SA you couldn’t help noticing how boxy everything looked. But with GTA4 the designers deserve real credit for how well they have tailored the building interiors.
So the game really could not make a better first impression. However, after the novelty wears off and you near completion, a few cracks do start to appear. For a start having to wine and dine all of the contacts in your phone book until you unlock their special ability is fun at first, but soon becomes a major pain. It just takes far too long.
Also, the game completely lacks any elements which diverge from the main storyline. Admittedly you can do car races but there are no businesses to run, very few sub – games, and after completion, you’re stuck in a big city with nothing at all to do. There are also no tanks, choppers or f16s, and winding up the police quickly becomes boring.
So after completing GTA4 it’s difficult not be left with a sense of anti - climax. Suddenly you start feeling a bit homesick for the tongue in cheek style of the previous formats; the cool radio stations, the vigilante missions, the bright colours, the hilarious comments of passers by. Vice City and San Andreas had this really cheeky cartoon feel which made them endearing, but the dark, gritty Gomorrah style violence of GTA 4 does grate on you after a while. There is little disputing the fact that the game is a fantastic achievement, but even though it comes close, it's still not quite a masterpiece.