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Looking Back on... Grand Theft Auto IV
by Chris Hawke

Grand Theft Auto.

It sends a small shiver down your spine, no? You can forget your Modern Warfare and your FIFA; if you want a game that encapsulates all that's great about gaming, you look straight to arguably the most popular, loved and revered series ever made. From the breathtaking and ground-breaking GTA III, to the hedonistic overkill of San Andreas, and Grand Theft Auto IV, the highest rated game ever made - Grand Theft Auto was all that gaming needed to be.

But was it worth it? Now that the hype has all but disintegrated into ashes, and days spent roaming the vicious streets of Liberty City are all but a distant memory to most, we can clad Niko Bellic in his trademark tracksuits and set out once more, beneath overcast skies, to cause some havoc. It's all so 'noughties'.

Nearly every detail is perfect. That's the first thing to hit you. You survey the typical Mohawk street, from the bin bags left out in the rain to the businessmen sprinting home, and absolutely nothing looks out of place. The cars queue, fumes rising from their dirty exhausts; the outdoor vendor expertly squirts condiments onto hotdogs; people run from the downpour, holding up newspapers to protect their receding hair or charging to the nearest awning with shopping bags in tow. The graphics might be a little blurry, but Rockstar have studied every detail of the city that never sleeps, and somehow crammed all the trappings and activities that happen into a single disc. The whole place just feels alive.

And let's not forget how important that is. Mafia II was criticised for feeling sterile and lifeless, and reviewers pointed to Liberty City, more than two years Mafia's predecessor, as an example of a city that feels teeming with life and energy. When you steal a car, people react. When you pull a gun, people run. Bags get dropped, screams ring out, the world explodes into panic. This gets taken for granted, but it's so vital for an enjoyable experience; remember how depressing it is when you shoot an enemy in a videogame, only for them to just stand there and soak it up like a slightly 'slow' superhero? Aiming a shotgun at a passer-by, only for them to glance up, look back down and keep walking? Doing something extraordinary only for the world around you to look on with indifference? It snatches that atmosphere, that feeling of realism and believability (yeah, it's a word), and crushes it with a sharp stamp of the lacklustre. In GTA IV, every action has a reaction, just like Newton's third law.

Which brings us neatly and smoothly onto GTA IV's best feature: its physics. The Euphoria physics engine, familiar to any gamer, allows for the most realistic movement and horrific ragdolls. Forget scripted animations when a cop gets shot; instead, he stumbles, clinging onto anything he can find, before collapsing in a crumpled heap on the cold pavement. Just as the AI has the intelligence to react to what the player is doing, the physics engine allows characters to react to bullets and objects. The effect is exactly the same: no two shots are ever the same, allowing for infinite replay value and endless fun. Watching a hapless bystander tumble and fall, or seeing - I hate to say - static civilians suddenly thrown into the air, cartwheeling several times before face-planing on the damp road as your stolen Infernus careers into the U.N. is unbelievably boisterous activity, despite the questionable morality.

For a minute, focus solely on the sound design. Forget about the glorious physics or the vibrant graphics, and just keep your ears open. The hustle and bustle is all there; car horns in the distance, constant chatter down cellphones, a police siren storming past as birds sing and water laps against the concrete barrier. It's goddamn perfect. The slightest details, even the most gruesome, are meticulously recreated: the sound of some poor soul's head smashing into the windscreen, or a gut-churning scream from a terrified passenger of the vehicle you've just jacked. The care and attention that Rockstar have put into something as small as sound design oozes out, clear for all to see (or hear). Each facet, each tiny detail; each seemingly unnecessary area of the game has been perfected and mastered.

Of course, you can focus on the tiny details until your face goes blue, but it's medically inadvisable and, frankly, a little creepy. Ask any player what the main - possibly only - fault was, and they'll simply say "it wasn't fun enough". Now, 'fun' is an incredibly odd and subjective word; it can mean a plethora of different things to different people. Prod a bit further, and eventually you'll get something like: "Well, couldn't that have put harrier jets in there too?".

Ah. There it is. After San Andreas spoiled gamers with harriers, jetpacks, tanks and all manner of improbable luxuries, it was a shock to some that Rockstar then created a game which was so... grounded. Literally. Helicopters were your only set of wings, and you didn't even go higher than the tallest building in the game. People will put this down to the game being 'too realistic', but without realism, we wouldn't have that beautiful physics engine or that perfection of detail. No: Grand Theft Auto IV suffered one crippling flaw. After the dark and engrossing plot had tied itself up, there was bugger all to do.

Roman wanted to go bowling. Brucie wanted to hit a strip club. Some random woman wants to do god-knows-what. You can scrape together half an hour's worth of enjoyment from slow-mo driving along vast stretches of sidewalk, clipping poor souls and watching them fly through the air; or even doing a good deed and finding some crimes to swiftly and gruesomely stop with your Police Cruiser (crime doesn't pay, kids), but they're shallow and meaningless. The excellent assassination missions were only 10 in number, and extra-story missions are non-existent. Can't we be a proper vigilante, stopping bank robberies and security van hijacks? Can't we have a near-endless supply of assassination missions from a random generator? Can't we have something to do, rather than aimlessly wandering the streets and jumping off high buildings? The lack of a proper lobby system meant the multiplayer died out quickly, and while there is certainly fun to be found even now, you'll find yourself longing for activities with more depth, more purpose.

But when a game's only misstep is the player simply wanting more, you know you've got a winner on your hands. Ever since that beautiful teaser trailer threatened to break the internet with the sheer volume of rabid gamers trying to view it, the world knew Grand Theft Auto IV would be special. Lo and behold, almost three years on, you can still slide the disc back in to your platform of choice, load up a save and find Liberty City as breathtaking, stunning, wondrous and alive as it was all those years ago.

It's like you never left.

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- Chris Hawke

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