Grand Theft Auto IV impressions: A stranger in Liberty City


The PlayStation 3 has forced us to become accustomed to having to endure lengthy installations prior to being able to sit down and play a game, a fact made all the more aggravating for Grand Theft Auto IV, both because of the already overflowing anticipation as well as the aftertaste of having been up for multiple hours elbow to elbow with fellow players waiting for the opportunity to play the game.

But there's little use in complaining at this point, so I took the opportunity to make me some tea and a sandwich as I prepared for what was to be a memorable evening that would mark my first visit to Liberty City ... ever.
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As someone who has always experienced Rockstar's open-world franchise vicariously through the ramblings of others, I was unsure of exactly what to expect once I rolled up my sleeves and slipped behind the wheel. Honestly, in the short time I managed to stay awake and play Grand Theft Auto IV on the morning of its release, the game inspired a sense of nostalgia -- an odd realization of course given that I had never before played a game in the series. However, the the sensation persisted, chiefly I think because of the game's sense of exploration from the onset, reminding me of playing an adventure game on crack, something it probably scored off some shady dealer in a back alley.

"What immediately struck me about [GTAIV] is that, more than anything else, it's built from the intro out to be a cinematic experience."

What immediately struck me about Grand Theft Auto IV is that, more than anything else, it's built from the intro out to be a cinematic experience, and despite the occasional glitch and visuals that come in well below the established bar, this feeling of living a movie persists. The game successfully weaves the illusion that anything is possible, and while that mystique may break down once the limits of Liberty City are truly tested, for now I'm enjoying basking in a game that exemplifies the sandbox meme.

Boasting a plot with an obvious black streak, I was prepared for GTA IV's colorful language and abundance of violence, though to be fair these are not trappings exclusive to Rockstar's magnum opus. Even so, the game's embrace of bending or breaking real world laws is perhaps a bit overzealous, as I was taken aback briefly when trying to get into a taxi, only to have the game's gruff Russian lead Niko take the opportunity to forcibly eject the driver and take the cab for a spin on his own when all I really wanted was a quick ride uptown.

Living on the periphery of the series, talk of the game had prepared me for what I was convinced would be a hooker on every corner, with in-game sex offered up and drunk down like flavored water. However, I was surprised to find the game's first so-called date between Niko and a recent acquaintance to be much tamer than expected. She was a bit annoying, and her small talk left much to be desired, but the real crime of the encounter was having to sit through an arduous minigame of bowling -- a crime against gameplay made all the more criminal by Sixaxis controls that waffled between being broken and unusable.
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Thankfully the game's love affair with tilt functionality, like the date itself, was only fleeting, and could be quickly turned off. While I'm sure things will get hot and heavy eventually between Niko and the ladies of Liberty City, it was refreshing to find that the man still had standards.

Much of the rest of my time with the game before succumbing to lack of sleep was spent simply driving up and down the coastline, and while Grand Theft Auto IV is hardly a racing game, it's easy to wish for more games to take a page from what Rockstar has done here. This is particularly true in how the game delivers real, often dramatic repercussions on the gameplay itself based on how you drive. While the damage modeling is of course not up to visceral standards set by titles like Burnout, the feel of knowing that crashing into an obstacle or another car, and how that will affect your ability to drive, lifts the game's driving model above the lion's share of titles with driving at their core.

After less than two hours with the game, it's easy to see that Grand Theft Auto IV is a wellspring of potential, like a chest of forgotten toys found in the attic, just begging to be played with. I'm still not convinced that the game is the alpha and omega than many reviews are painting it to be, but there's no denying that even in my sleep-deprived stupor it was difficult to put down. It will be interesting to see where Rockstar takes me in the days and weeks ahead, but for now it's time to put Niko to bed. Even in Liberty City, tomorrow, as they say, is another day.
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This article was originally published on Joystiq.