In GTA 4 you step into the shoes of Niko Bellic, a man arriving in Liberty City on a personal quest for revenge. As you’d expect from a GTA game, this quest largely involves driving around a lot and shooting things. The first thing that strikes you about the game is how gloomy and grey it is. Colours are subdued, creating an oppressive and moody atmosphere that works well within the context of the setting and the story, although I can’t help but wish they’d injected a little more colour and life into the environments.
The City itself is large and highly detailed, but there’s not a
great deal of variety on offer in terms of locations. Liberty City
serves as the sandbox you can screw about in between missions, and
there’s a fair bit to keep you busy. You have a selection of side
jobs you can undertake for extra cash, plus a variety of recreational
activities such as bowling (NO, Roman) darts and pool. You can
watch television, surf the internet and even take in a show. The
problem with all these extra activities though, is that there’s
very little point to any of them.
The side jobs are generally a repetitive series of the same missions
– steal a certain car, deliver a package – but given that you
earn more than enough money through the main story missions, there’s
little reason to bother with them. The recreational stuff is fun a
few times, but not much more than that. And whilst there’s amusing
stuff to be found on the TV stations and on the internet, there’s
no real reason to bother with either. I really would have liked if
these activities were in some way tied to core missions, but that’s
something I’ll get into later.
The game has a great selection of in-game radio stations to listen to
as you drive about, and I liked that news reports (both on radio and
online) would touch upon the mayhem you’ve caused from the main
missions on occasion. There’s also a ton of nice little details and
features throughout the game, all of which add up to very well
constructed and enjoyable sandbox to play about in, at least for a
time. It’s just a shame that the aforementioned side stuff isn’t
all that interesting or worthwhile in the long-term.
In terms of how it plays, GTA 4 has what is initially an odd feeling
driving system, but once you get used to it, you soon appreciate how
each vehicle handles differently in terms of mass, acceleration,
speed, impact and turning, not to mention the fantastic damage model.
On foot, GTA 4 has a solid cover based shooting system. It can be a
little dodgy switching between targets at times, but it works well
enough. You have a selection of weapons to use, but not a great deal
of variety – a choice of a couple of handguns, a couple of rifles
etc. Nothing to get too excited about.
As for the story, it’s...well, fine. It has a cast of varied and
interesting characters, and it keeps you interested to the end. Niko,
the protagonist, is a little too casual and laid back at times about
the unpleasant things he’s doing, yet at other times he’s more
pro-active and opinionated about what is right or wrong. I do like
his character, but there are times it seems he acts more like a
misunderstood anti-hero just doing what he has to in order to
survive, and others where he just acts like a typical thug for hire.
He can’t really be both, and the inconsistency can be a little
jarring. But overall, it works well enough, and the story builds up
to an exciting run of final missions that see through his personal
Now, although his primary goal is to find someone and exact revenge,
Niko actually seems more concerned about getting paid. It makes sense
for him to be working for some unpleasant people doing unpleasant
things in order to bring him closer to his goal. But a lot of the
time he acts more like a mercenary, simply doing jobs for cash. This
wouldn’t be so bad if he actually needed the cash for something,
but he, well, doesn’t. It doesn’t bring him any closer to his
goal, and that money you accumulate is effectively worthless within
This is one big issue I have with the game. You earn a ton of money
yet you have practically nothing to spend or invest it in. It all
goes on stocking up weapons or purchasing new clothes from a
disappointingly small selection. By the end of the game I had over
half a million in the bank, and that was even after ignoring most of
the side jobs. But I had absolutely nothing to spend it on.
My other major issue with the game is the main missions. These really
are the core of the experience. The world, characters, gameplay,
story and extra activities are all good and fine. I have my
criticisms about each of them, but overall, they combine well into
creating a solid and entertaining framework. The problem is that the
main missions don’t really build upon that framework or take
advantage of it.
The main missions in GTA 4 are unfortunately just a little repetitive
and dull, very rarely varying from the standard ‘Drive to A, Shoot
Target’ objective. Some are slightly more elaborate, featuring a
car chase, or a lengthier set-up, but a lot are pretty short and
forgettable. There are, however, some far more elaborate missions
mixed in, and it’s these that are far more memorable and
interesting to play. These are the missions which do build upon the
sandbox framework, bringing the world and all it’s features into
the core story. I’ll give you an example -
One mission requires killing a lawyer. But in order to get access to
him, you have to go online in the game, visit the website of the firm
he works at and submit a fake CV for a job. You then wait for an
interview call which is set up at a specific time the next day. In
order to look the part you also need a smart suit. These minor
objectives, combining elements of the sandbox world (internet,
e-mail, your phone, clothing) all lead up to attending the interview
itself, meeting your target, at which point the shooting begins.
creates a far more ‘complete’ experience, than the standard
‘Drive to A, Shoot Target’ missions, and it’s a shame the game
doesn’t have more multi-stage missions like this. I hate to say it,
but towards the end I was losing my interest in the game itself due
to this lack of variety or complexity in the missions.
It’s also a damn shame, and also rather irritating, that these
missions can only really be completed in one way, as there’s very
little freedom for the player to deviate from the expected path or be
creative in how they approach certain objectives. I’ll give two
examples. In one mission I had to kill a particular guy who was on
the second floor of a building. I scoped the place out and spotted
him just in view from across the street.
Thinking I’d be smart
about it, I took up a position out of sight at range with a sniper
rifle, intending to take him out safely and discreetly. Only I
couldn’t. As soon as I raised my weapon, he (and the dozens of
goons protecting him) suddenly became psychically aware of my
presence and ran for it, and although I’m sure I pulled off the
perfect head shot, he wasn’t scripted to die yet. No, I had to play
out the mission the way the game intended, fight my way through a
horde of goons and then execute him on the rooftop. So much for a
Another thing that really bothered me across multiple missions were
the magically indestructible cars. GTA 4, as I’ve said, has a great
damage model. You can shoot out tyres, shoot through windows, kill
passengers or the driver etc...but not all the time. There are many
missions which involve an extended car chase to kill a target, but
they are sometimes scripted so you can’t actually take out the
target until you hit a certain point or reach a certain destination.
This means that you can burn through all the ammo you want, but it
won’t make a dent in your target or their vehicle, not until the
game allows it. It’s bloody annoying is what it is, especially in
one mission, when I thought I’d take out a guy with a rocket before
he could actually escape, only to see the damn thing bounce off
his car as he drove away.
Okay, so enough ranting. I just
really wanted a greater variety of missions, more elaborate
missions involving multiple stages, and more creative flexibility for
the player within the sandbox as to how they want to go about it.
Looking back at a lot of the games I’ve really enjoyed and scored
highly over the last few years, this is an element that has featured
in some way in nearly all of them – that the game allows and trusts
the player with a degree of creative freedom in order to complete an
objective. But the rigid mission structure of GTA 4 feels entirely at
odds with the intention of a sandbox environment.
Overall though, GTA 4 is a solid, enjoyable title with a lot of nice
little features. It’s just a shame the core story missions simply
aren’t very varied or more elaborate which means they can get a
little tedious. I hope GTA 5 addresses a lot of these concerns. The
developers certainly know how to build a great sandbox framework, but
what they need now is to really let the player have more creative
flexibility in how they approach their objectives within that
framework. I guess I’ll find out whenever they get around to
releasing the PC version. I could get the console version now, but I
think I’ll wait.