It's about high time I write this review, since I've clocked up so many hours playing the game since just before Christmas! In fact, GTAIV is still the ONLY game I've played on my less-than-one-month-old Xbox360! I'm literally two missions away from completing the game, and I know I really SHOULD complete the game so I can move on to another game...but I don't WANT to complete the game because it is so much fun to play!
Let's get some of the obvious stuff out of the way first. The graphics for GTAIV are far superior to those of previous GTA games...that one's an obvious one, simply because GTAIV was made for the next gen consoles and therefore if the graphics hadn't improved, something was very very wrong somewhere!
And how beautiful the graphics are. This time around, Rockstar created a breathing and living city...Liberty City is based on the real-life New York and it shows. Even though the names of the famous NYC landmarks are changed, there's no way you're not going to recognise the State of Liberty...erm...Happiness, and you'll marvel at the Empire State Building, or whatever it's called in GTAIV.
The city is magnificent to explore and I've found myself often catching a cab during the game and not just jumping straight to the endpoint, but looking around, catching a glimpse of the skyscrapers and buildings in Algonquin, looking at someone getting mugged on the Liberty City streets...everything is so realistic and you really feel as if you're fully immersed in the GTA world!
You play the role of Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from Eastern Europe, where you saw and experienced some bad things in the war and want a fresh start in the US of A. Niko has heard some amazing things about America from his cousin, Roman, who has boasted that he lives a life of luxury, has a swanky place and has women hanging off each arm.
Of course, Roman is anything BUT the ladykiller he makes himself out to be. He lives in a roach-infested apartment with sleazy posters falling off the wall. Roman runs a taxi service and, just like every other GTA game in existence, you start off doing really small missions like driving people around, doing chores and favours for others while you heathily build up relationships and respect and then move on to the bigger missions.
The one fundamental change in the way GTAIV is played compared to other GTAs before it is that Niko has a cellphone. This cellphone is his portal to his life in Liberty City...he can call up a buddy to go out to eat, drink, catch a show, play pool or some assorted activity. This builds up relationships with his friends and while he only starts off with Roman as a contact, as Niko meets more people, he adds more contacts to his cellphone.
Although it may seem like a waste of time doing mundane stuff like going bowling or playing darts with a non-playable character (NPC), as the saying goes, it's "friends with benefits". Build up a relationship with Roman and instead of driving anywhere, you can call him to send a taxi to ferry you to wherever you want to go instead. Build up strong friendships with other buddies in the game and you can get a car bomb, buy weapons at a much cheaper price than from a gun store and even get a posse to join you on a mission where they will shoot, kill, steal, etc for you.
You also get to arrange dates with various women throughout the game via the cellphone! Once again, it may seem mundane going out on dates, but if you build up a strong relationship, it's "friends with benefits" again...and I'm not referring to THOSE sort of benefits in the bedroom (though that certainly applies too). You can buy clothes cheaper (big whoop dee doo), get an instant health boost or get your wanted level reduced big-time. And yes, if you manage to impress your date when you take her out, you can go up to her apartment for a bit of rumpy pumpy that restores your health to the max too.
Consequently, you will get people calling up your cellphone to organise the next mission. Your cellphone can sometimes be more of a bane than a boon...you could be in the middle of a really important mission when a buddy calls you out to visit a strip club. Do you endanger the completion of your mission or do you shun your friend? Once a friend has been shunned, it's difficult to repair the relationship and you have to work twice as hard to get them to like you as much as before.
There are a staggering number of missions in the game...even if you don't do any of the side quests and choose to ignore your buddies and going out on dates, it could still take you a long while to finish the main storyline! If you totally immerse yourself in the game, you could be playing the game for a long long while. I've spent so much time on the game building relationships and doing most of the side missions...and this is without looking for the unique jumps and hidden packages! I don't need 100% completion to enjoy the game after all!
Speaking of hidden packages, GTAIV's version of hidden packages is an absolute hoot. Hidden packages in previous GTA games in the past have included 99 red balloons (yes, it was seriously meant as a joke) but this one really takes the cake!
You can do absolutely whatever you want to in GTAIV. Feel like stealing a cop car and catching some perps? Go for it. Wanna stir up trouble by randomly beating up gang members on the street and have them all attack you en masse so you can practise your shooting accuracy? If you wanna. Grab a worker of the night and after she's "restored your health", attack her and get back the money you paid her? Errr...that was an option already available in all previous GTAs, wasn't it?
GTAIV is a worthy game in the series. As much as I've loved GTA: Vice City, I feel that GTAIV is definitely the best game in the series I have ever played. Just the scope of the game itself is mind-shattering! I've spent many hours just grabbing an RPG and blowing myself up, just to see how far Niko can fly and how realistic his limp body can crash into buildings and cars. The physics of the game is just unbelievably realistic.
GTAIV has been such an awesome gaming experience. The next GTA game, Chinatown Wars, will be released on the Nintendo DS and of course, I'm going to get it. But what I'm REALLY looking forward to is for Rockstar to start working on GTAV or GTA: Vice City 2 or whatever the hell they want to call it.
A real life Vice City full of the pastel colours and a brilliant 80s soundtrack? Hurry up and finish it and release it already, Rockstar!