GTA4 Hands-On: The World is Yours

I'm sitting in the back of a Yellow Cab cutting through Manhattan at a crawl. The cabbie lets loose with a torrent of vulgarities directed at the truck in front of us.

"Yeah, just stay there, because you're not going anywhere and now I'm not fucking going anywhere. Park right there."

He lays on the horn.

A map pops up on the video screen showing our exact location, easy to pinpoint because now we're not moving at all.

Outside the passenger window people walk by, each, seemingly, in their own world. The level of detail is amazing, the buildings, piled almost on top of one another, are all alive with activity. Wind whips down the street tossing scraps of paper in the air, it almost looks like the real thing, like Grand Theft Auto IV.

But it's just Manhattan on a crisp weekday morning, me trapped in a cab, staring at the taxi's video screen built into the seat in front of me, headed to see and play around with Rockstar's latest.

Later, inside Rockstar's nondescript offices, located next to a Best Buy in Greenwich Village, I experience Manhattan again, though now it's called Algonquin.

There's no confusing the two, reality and game. Reality is boring and drab, Algonquin is shot from spectacular cinematic angles. I suspect there's a filter involved, something that gives the world a touch of artistry.

Later, over beers at a nearby pub, Rockstar's Jeronimo Barrera tells me that Rockstar loves its filters. It helps, he says, fool the eye, masks some of the imperfections that games, no matter how next-gen, will always have.

I ask about the game's camera angles, which fascinate me. The game makes extensive use of them—and not just during cut-scenes. They seem to pop up at times during play, making you feel like you're part of a cut-scene of your own creation.

Barrerra says one of their team members has a lot of film experience and brought that to the new game.

It works. Not because it makes the game feel like you're watching a movie, but because it makes the player feel like they're making one. There are times when playing Grand Theft Auto IV that it felt less like a video game and more like an engine for experiences. Like the game was, at times, transcending what I had always thought was important about video games, having fun, and opening my eye to a new way to enjoy gaming, by creating.

It helps that the controls have been, or at least feel like they've been, totally revamped for this latest GTA. To any adept of the franchise the controls will still feel very familiar, but gone is that mushy feeling that made me struggle with previous versions of the game.

Movement is tight, backed up by Rockstar's use of the Euphoria, a game animation engine that anatomically animates character movement by simulating not just the body, but the muscles, bones and, it is said, the central nervous system. The result, the thing that matters to gamers, is a layer of movement minutia that help brings the world to life with moments like accidentally tripping a side kick, or watching someone flail as they plummet from a high rise.

What's important though is that these things don't happen as much by accident or because of bad control mechanics. GTA IV's controls do what the best control designs are meant to do, not get in the way of the experience.

Driving, too, is much improved. The times you are behind the wheel feel almost like you are playing a racer, with tight turns and the ability to really manoeuvre in a city that's all about making split-second decisions. Designers even added a slow-mo mode which allows you to slow time down as the camera drifts up and away to top down perspective, making it much easier to cut between cars, slip past barricades and perform bootlegger 180s.

I found myself wasting inordinate amounts of time playing keep away from the cops, just because I enjoyed the driving so much.

The biggest change in the game's controls, though, come with shooting. I'm a huge first-person shooter fan and I absolutely hated the shooting controls for previous GTAs. The problem was I always wanted to play what was essentially an action game like a shooter.

The new system allows you to do just that. Aiming has been tightened up and now includes a reticule that shows your targets current health. There's also a two stage lock-on system, allowing you to lock-on to a target, but still aim at particular body parts to perform things like headshots. Instant kill headshots. A cover system lets you pop up and fire or fire blindly at targets.

I played through a few missions during my hands-on, but it was "Harboring A Grudge" that felt most like a classic shooter. In the mission, you make your way to a warehouse rooftop near the dock of Algonquin. Down below is a sea of bad guys talking over the finer points of a prescription drug deal.

I start by sniping a guy, marveling at how much it feels like sniping in some of my favourite shooters. I toss down a few Molotov cocktails, mostly missing because, as with grenades in just about every shooter I play, I throw like a grade schooler.

Deciding to take advantage of my ridiculously robust arsenal, I switch to a rocket launcher and send a couple of rockets toward the bad guys. The first glances off the sheet metal roof in front of me, sending the rocket spiraling out of control. The second skips off a container. Finally I manage to plant one in the cement next to a cluster of bad guys. I'm rewarded with a glorious explosion and a few less enemies.

Moving down the roof, not so gracefully, I scramble to some cover and switch over to an assault rifle. The game plays fast, letting you pop off shots quickly and precisely. I take out a couple of people with the simple lock-on. Emptying bullets into the bad guys until they drop, and then I slow down and take my time with the loose lock-on, shifting my aim to focus on headshots.

Taking out the last few guys, I realise that I've just played through an entire mission of Grand Theft Auto IV as if I was in Call of Duty and it felt nice.

And the game has a lot of nice touches an awful lot of nice touches that really have nothing to do with game play. When you snag a car, sometimes the door is left unlocked and you can just hop in. Other times you have to smash in the window with an elbow.

To shoot while driving you have to smash out your window. Once, while driving around a guy who was smoking pot, I smashed out the window and within seconds billowing clouds of smoke were pouring through the busted glass.

There's almost no HUD—instead your entire communication with the game and its many options is through your cell phone. You use it to get missions, find people, even do things like play (and buy) music or take pictures in game.

One of the more memorable moments for me was almost an accidental aside. Standing near the docks one in-game evening, I noticed little white lights lifting and drifting down. Nice touch, I thought, they've included distant airplanes. As we moved toward the lights, talking about some mission or maybe the mechanics of play, I looked up and saw that those lights were now fully formed airplanes. I could actually make them out in detail.

"Oh wow, those are actually airplanes?" I said, a little surprised.

My demo team seemed just as surprised.

There is an entire airport of them, they tell me, taxiing, landing, taking off. And it's all part of the game.

It's no wonder then that when a team of game guide writers descended on Rockstar to work through Grand Theft Auto IV and write their books, they were surprised at the level of depth they found both in game and story, likening it to a Final Fantasy.

GTA IV, I'm told, is a game measured not in hours of play, but weeks. But its greatest potential, I suspect, won't be found in the traditional measures of game—graphics, sound design, mechanic—but in how these things manage to stay transparent and elusive, allowing the gamer to be the centre of an experience they create.


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