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The Backlog: Grand Theft Auto IV

When Grand Theft Auto IV came out in 2008 New York City’s politicians were up in arms over the game being set in their hometown.  Gamers of course knew that GTA IV was set in “Liberty City”, a fictional metropolis based on New York.  Heedless of the facts, the police, and representatives from the Mayor’s Office expressed outrage, with Councilman Peter Vallone even offering the mock-ready quote “Setting Grand Theft Auto in the safest city in America would be like setting Halo in Disneyland”. Being a proud New Yorker (Who can take a joke at my town’s expense), I grabbed a copy of GTA IV shortly after it launched, but my massive backlog of un-played games prevented me from spending more than a few hours with Rockstar’s opus. With Grand Theft Auto V being newly announced, and Saints Row The Third on shelves, it’s time for me to revisit Liberty City and the two DLC packs.

There are reasons why the franchise is a long-lived classic, and GTA IV did more than just bring it to the current generation of consoles.  This time around it followed the lawless adventures of Russian immigrant Niko Bellic who engaged in all the same forms of mayhem that his predecessors did, but had some new moves up his sleeve, or at least they were new back in 2008.  This was the time when every action franchise had started to dabble in cover systems, and Niko jumped on that bandwagon – then took cover behind it.

Alas, a tactical cover system is contrary to the very nature of the GTA series.  While it was all the rage three and a half years ago, it conflicts with the “Run around on a rampage” sort of gameplay that defines Grand Theft Auto.

Players can also zoom in with their guns, slowing down movement in much the same way as modern shooters do when aiming down “Iron sights”. This lets players take carefully aimed shots at specific body parts, but it isn’t as theatrical as spraying bullets down a crowded street.  While adding new features is good for long-running series, this was a case of change being bad.  Fortunately, players don’t have to use the features.

A good change is the way that Niko is much more athletic than the stars of the previous games.  In GTA III the protagonist couldn’t even swim, but Niko can vault over obstacles and climb fences in a limited form of free-running.  This doesn’t rival the parkour from Mirror’s Edge, or Assassin’s Creed, but it’s a definite step up for the GTA games, and with GTA V on the way it fills me with hope that the new game will have a complete free-running experience, so that players can explore the city on foot more effectively.

Very few gamers will complain that Niko’s story had insufficient content, but players who want “More” can try the DLC packs.  I didn’t feel much kinship for Niko, but I was quickly drawn into the story of The Lost & The Damned, the first DLC pack, wherein players control a bad-ass biker. The designers created it for experienced GTA players; there’s no long-winded tutorial.  Players even start out with a sawed-off shotgun (This spared me the inconvenience of murdering the first cop who was unfortunate enough to walk past me).

The other DLC pack is The Ballad of Gay Tony, and it has some of the most entertaining characters and dialog in the whole franchise.  While it doesn’t take off as quickly as The Lost & The Damned, it does have a great sense of humor.  The two packs are bundled together in Episodes From Liberty City a stand-alone game that doesn’t need GTA IV to play.  This is strongly recommended for players who are looking for humor, or who want to get right into action.

There was a limited form of multiplayer in Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, but GTA IV added a drastically expanded set of online modes.  Multiplayer for Episodes From Liberty City is a ghost town and the few existing matches are sparsely populated (At least on PC).  However GTA IV does have a reasonably well-populated online community and deathmatch games are easy to find even three and a half years after launch

The game was cutting edge in terms of graphics for 2008, but PC gamers have the option of adding in some serious graphical mods that will make it cutting edge for 2012.  A recent Mod called ICEnhancer, will bump up the graphics to look on par with the footage from GTA V, if not even better.  These graphical enhancements do require a powerful computer to run and still maintain a decent frame rate, but anyone with the hardware to run it is urged to use ICEnhancer; it doesn’t alter the gameplay at all, it just changes the graphics.

Despite my gripes about the new combat features, GTA IV was fully worth the launch day prices of sixty dollars, and is an amazing deal now that it can be found for less than ten dollars.  I find myself much more to compelled to explore the DLC episodes before playing the main game, so GTA IV is heading back to my backlog while I enjoy The Lost & The Damned and Gay Tony.

With the new Alan Wake game on its way, next week on The Backlog I’ll try out another “Quirky” Twin Peaks-inspired game: Deadly Premonition.

Charles is a proud contributor to Default Prime, as well as the Xbox/ PC Department Lead at Player Affinity, a reviewer for The Indie Game Magazine, and a Special Agent at the U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment.

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