If there was a Russian “Scarface” his name would be Niko Bellic. And Liberty City would be Niko’s playground—and what a massive playground it is.
Niko is straight off the boat from Eastern Europe and he has one goal—to live the American Dream and make it big in Liberty City. Niko thinks it will be easy because he believes his cousin Roman is a hot shot rich guy who has already made it—but he soon finds out Roman is no better off than him.
Niko is the best character GTA has yet to offer. He is more like Michael from the Godfather than Scarface. Niko is a smart guy who realizes that he can have it all, but at a cost. There are times when Niko struggles with being little more than a killing machine which adds to the depth of his character.
But before you get caught up in the emotion of the game there is still the part where you steal cars, run from the police and murder people. An interesting twist is that there are moments in the game where Niko must make moral choices—often to kill or not to kill. And those moral choices have ramifications.
The brilliance of GTA IV is what seems to be hundreds, if not thousands of interactions happening. It’s as if you were driving your car in the real world while something is happening to others on every block throughout that city. This is what makes GTA IV feel so alive. It seems that even if you weren’t there something would still happen as other characters go through their simulated life. One moment you might be getting your car washed and watch a cop chase a criminal down the street. These people go on with their lives without worrying about you—that is unless you steal their car or run them down as you crash through an intersection.
Liberty City may not be the largest city, in terms of what you may have played in other games, but it’s amazingly functional. You may end up on a roof chasing someone or just buying clothes, playing pool or bowling.
A great feature in this version of GTA is the mobile phone. Niko call, receive voicemail or be texted. There is even a phonebook entry for calling a car from Roman’s place and every person you meet ends up in your quick dial phonebook. And, Niko doesn’t have to be standing still to make a call. He can be driving 100 mph through the city will asking someone out on a date.
You will also use your phone to call some of the cast of characters that fall into your lap. One of the more interesting characters is the Jamaican drug/gun dealer Little Jacob. It’s not necessary to befriend everyone but when you need something it doesn’t hurt. Even an enemy can come in handy when they are in need of your services. Sometimes it seems as though this is a brilliant way to create mini-games. You might take one of the characters out for pool or bowling—you can actually bowl and play pool. But it’s about bonding even when it doesn’t seem completely necessary, however it’s hard to know what helps and what may not. You can even go drinking—and when drunk you have a hard time driving your car and may find it really tough to run from the police. Drinking is also an interesting way to get some of the characters to tell the truth.
The combat system is better but there are occasions when it’s very hard to lock on to someone. It makes sense to be able to lock on when firing a weapon but why do you need to lock on when just throwing a punch? There was one occasion where Niko was out on a date and the owner of a restaurant started a fight and it was impossible to lock the target on him. Instead Niko locked on to his date and in a split second hit her. The whole time the owner was punching and kicking Niko all I could do was run out of the place to stay alive. Even with free aim it’s not as easy as it should be.
One of the other issues is the police. They aren’t really good at capturing crooks, particularly Niko. It’s also amazing that you can run red lights right in front of them without getting chased. The only time the police seem to show up is when shots are fired, you steal a car when they are within sight or when you run someone over. The radar system is great however. When the police are after you there is a parameter that details how you need to get in order to outrun the police. It’s nice to have a goal rather than just running aimlessly hoping to get away.
The single best feature of GTA IV is the waypoint feature. It allows you to hit pause and go to the map and set a GPS style direction to follow. This streamlines the game and makes up for frustrating and aimless navigating, especially when in pursuit of someone or while trying to run from the police.
Liberty City is as massive and alive as it is beautiful. It’s not beautiful in the sense of the perfect utopian city—it looks more like New York City—but it’s the rare video game city that actually looks and feels realistic. The next generation platforms couldn’t have come soon enough for this franchise.
The soundtrack is huge. I’ve read that there are over 200 songs, even though I prefer to drive without music. There is too much happening to try and follow along with the phone, people screaming and the radio on. The constant environmental noise is far more interesting than the radio.
As amazing as the soundtrack is, the characters are even better. Each character has a unique voice, and like a good movie they are immediately identifiable. There is so much dialogue that GTA IV could easily be a movie—and maybe one day it will be.
I’m not really a fan of this genre, but Grand Theft Auto IV has me addicted. I can’t go to bed without at least an hour of Niko’s adventures. This is easily one of the best games I’ve ever played. Grand Theft Auto IV is epic.