Thanks to my mom, a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV for the Xbox 360 was already waiting for me on my desk chair when Apple and I returned from Thailand. Although I’ve ramped up my side work to near epic proportions since coming home, I’ve carved out some spare hours during evenings and weekends to get a taste of this game. Well, okay, more than a taste. I’m fully engrossed.
In short, GTA IV tells the story of Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant with a troubled past who arrives fresh off the boat (literally) in Liberty City Harbor. He’s come to America looking for something — or someone — very specific, but he finds that his demons are already waiting for him here. Things don’t look very positive for Niko or his naive cousin Roman as they constantly run afoul of Russian mobsters and other enemies from the old country.
GTA IV changes little about the “sandbox”-style gameplay of its predecessors. And as usual, the voice acting, plot and level design are all AAA-quality, almost transcending the “game” realm and entering the “film” realm. But old hats like myself were expecting all of this. What I came in looking for were the details, the little things the game developers have added to make this game really special. Those little things that make you go “Oh, COOL AS HELL” and cackle like Dennis Nedry from Jurassic Park’s Dodgson scene.
I wasn’t disappointed — GTA IV is absolutely brimming with little details, many of which are made possible by the current generation of console and computer hardware that didn’t yet exist when the last GTA game was made. Here are some of my favorite “little things” that I noticed…
The cars. Clearly, somebody at Rockstar Games likes GM cars from the ’70s and ’80s. While GTA does not use authentic licensed automobiles, opting instead for made-up creations of the developers’ own design, the last few GTA games have all had their share of GM lookalikes. In GTA IV, the graphic detail has improved so markedly that you can now quite clearly see resemblance — cars are packing so much detail that you can actually read the badging on the deck lid and grille.
There are approximations of tons of classic GM iron, including lookalikes of a 1970 Buick GNX (the Sabre GT), a mid-’80s Camaro/Firebird amalgamation (the Ruiner), a mid-’80s Monte Carlo (the Sabre), a sixth-generation Pontiac Bonneville (the Esperanto, which Roman uses for his cab service), and an ’85 Buick Grand National (the Faction). There are also hints of other mid-’80s GM fleet in the random vehicles on the road, with cars reminding you of a Buick Century, a seventh-generation Bonneville and a ’73 Buick Centurion. In fact, somebody at Rockstar must have an absolute Buick fetish.
What’s even more funny is that several of the real-world cars these things resemble are actually cars my friends have owned — the Esperanto looks like Pooch’s old Bonneville, and the Sabre resembles Doug’s Monte Carlo. Supposedly there’s an Subaru Impreza / Nissan Skyline lookalike in the game too, although I haven’t seen it yet. Even the vehicle makes are parodies — there are at least two cars made by a company called “Imponte,” which even uses the mid-’80s Pontiac font for its name and accompanies it with an inverted arrowhead logo!
Of course, whoever designed these things, his or her taste in cars is almost exactly equal to mine, so I’m finding the vehicle selection especially delectable.
The car details. There are just all manner of these, and I seem to discover a new one every day that makes me go “squee!” with delight. Here are a few:
- Shut off your car and step out of the driver’s seat, and you’ll hear the engine ticking as it cools down. Or, get out without turning the engine off, and listen to the radio keep blaring on as you stand nearby. The radio even sounds tinny and muffled, as it would if you were standing on the outside of the car.
- Open the car door, and the dome light will illuminate.
- When you make a sharp turn, Niko manipulates the steering wheel hand-over-hand.
- Many cars are available with different variations of optional equipment, much like in real life. Some Ruiners come equipped with T-tops. Some sport the distinctly-Firebird “power bulge” cowl scoop, while others have flat hoods.
- Every car has badging indicating the make and model, as well as other features. The Blista Compact (a Honda CRX lookalike) has some unintelligible Engrish like “Hyper Dynamic Sports” emblazoned on each side, and an “Invariable Valve Timing” badge on the back. The GM-esque muscle machines proudly sport badges for their 450 and 550ci turbo V8 engines (I guess gas is cheap in the GTA universe!).
- I swear I once heard a “door ajar” courtesy chime when I got out of a convertible Manana and left the door open with the engine running. Since then I haven’t been able to reproduce the effect, but that would be another completely awesome detail. Anyone else heard this?
- Steal a police car and roll it over. If you damage the light bar on top, the next time you turn the siren on, it will start making random wailing noises because you damaged the electronics! Check out the video demo.
The vehicle damage. Admittedly, thanks to the analog triggers on the Xbox controller, I’ve been driving in a fairly sane fashion for the most part. But I once got into a harried chase while on a mission, stole some guy’s Lexus and completely trashed it while trying to escape. The vehicle damage model is amazing. Car models deform exactly as you would expect, depending on where and how you run into things. Paint comes off, bumpers hang loose and lights go out. I once struck a curb with such force that it shattered the left front suspension, and the collapsed wheel started dragging, leaving a molten streak of rubber as I tried to force the car down the street.
Damage a car enough and you’ll kill the engine. Keep tugging on the accelerator, though, and Niko will fruitlessly turn the ignition over and over, muttering things like “Come on, start!” while black smoke curls up from beneath the hood. It adds an amazing dose of realism (and keeps your adrenaline up) when you’re in the heat of a chase.
The smoke effects. It’s a really minor point, but I have never seen an idling car’s exhaust look so good. At night, the exhaust cloud even glows red as it’s illuminated by your taillamps. And while we’re talking about smoke, the other night I took my friend Little Jacob out for drinks, and on the way home he was smoking a joint in my Ruiner. The whole time, there was a plume of smoke wafting out of his window — the window that I broke earlier in the day when I stole the car in the first place. Nice touch.
The cinematic feel. This isn’t such a little thing, but the cinematic way in which the game moves the story along is simply breathtaking.
When I first started playing the game, I picked up a Willard Faction — a near-perfect replica of an ’85 Buick Grand National, black paint and everything — and parked it in the reserved space outside my flat. The game lets you hang onto your favorite vehicle by “saving” whatever car is parked in that space. All throughout the game’s early missions, I kept my Grand National parked there, only taking it out once in a while to run it through the car wash and keep it looking nice.
Spoiler Alert: The next paragraph references pivotal events that take place in the mission “Roman’s Sorrow,” after which you get your second safehouse.
Eventually, I was forced out of my safehouse when an old enemy learned I was staying there and burnt the place to the ground. With Niko and his cousin Roman having lost everything to their names, the only hope was to skip town and hope we weren’t followed. The apartment was engulfed in flames, but I realized we could still save my prized Grand National. Abandoning Roman’s cab, we piled into the Buick, quickly making our way across the bridge and out of the borough. In the passenger seat, Roman was having a complete breakdown. The game does such a good job of pulling you in, I felt strangely sentimental over losing everything and ruining Roman’s life. Now I had only my Grand National left, but it was like a beacon of hope that everything would turn out okay.
At our new safehouse, there was a reserved parking space waiting for me, and my Grand National went right into it. Seriously, I’m going to see if I can keep that car throughout the whole rest of the game without putting a scratch on it.
The radio stations. The GTA games have had a history of featuring some really choice music on their fictional in-game radio stations, and GTA IV is certainly no exception. Tune into Liberty Rock Radio and catch classic hits from ZZ Top, Heart and even Genesis. Hear emo kids being lambasted in between their favorite moody numbers on Radio Broker. Give Niko a taste of the old country on Vladivostok FM. Or listen to one of the talk radio stations and hear hilarious parodies of both liberal and conservative talk show mainstays, including a Sean Hannity-like blowhard who is such a caricature that he’s an absolute riot. As icing on the cake, each channel is peppered with farcical commercials for fictional products like “Sprunk” soda and some ridiculous company selling mail-order babies. This is one game where I rarely feel the need to use the Xbox’s built-in MP3 streaming feature and listen to my own music — the canned stuff does a better job of completing the total immersion!
The TV and Internet. Amazingly, there are entire TV shows you can sit and watch, and an entire fake Internet you can browse, all within the game. Absolutely unreal. For a laugh, check out the Burger Shot website and actually read the text!
I’ve got plenty more to see and do in Liberty City, but clearly, Grand Theft Auto IV is the next milestone in the franchise, and sets the bar to new heights. I can’t wait to dive back in.