Grand Theft Auto IV exists as a heavily character-driven title, abounding in figures both compelling and vile, each uniquely memorable. The protagonist, Niko Bellic, hailing from an undisclosed Eastern European nation, is instantly likable, much of his endearing powers stemming from superb voice-acting, which communicates much about his past and the land he departed from; he can distance himself from that world, can learn and employ the English language, but his heritage and experiences will persist always within, indestructible. Indeed, much of the narrative is related to this grappling with the past, futile efforts at fleeing. Niko’s intentions in Liberty City are twofold: firstly, there is the desire for a stabler, happier existence, a seeming rarity in his mother nation, characterized by violence, oppression, and outright war; America, the cliched land of opportunity, affords ample opportunities for that cherished, invaluable escapism. But Niko’s duality fast shows itself, as his second motivator is gradually developed, a development which conveys Niko’s darkness – and indefatigable endurance in righting a terrible wrong: locate and execute the traitor from the motherland who sabotaged his men, bringing death and doom, leaving Niko as sole survivor. With this second core objective, Niko is marked as a rather unique protagonist: not only is he in search of a peaceful, prosperous existence, but revenge and vengeance have settled themselves firmly within his breast. Here is originality, and with this inclusion of a revenge tale, the narrative adopts intrigue and an overall mysterious, investigative tone, as Niko persists ever onward, acting for the benefit of those companions long betrayed and deceased. Niko cannot dwell in that city of towers and lights while this antagonist exists, the end result being inevitable destruction for one or all parties involved. This facet of the narrative is far more compelling the mere quest for commodities and financial gains, and is very rich for further exploration.
There are a slew of secondary characters, each decidedly different from the last. Principally is Roman, Niko’s cousin long-settled in Liberty City. While bumbling and cowardly, something inherently likable about his character is present – while often making poor decisions, these failings only illustrate his humanity, and the overall hostile environment of Liberty City, having made him into a victim, exacerbating his character failings. Niko, wise and unafraid of violence, acts in his cousin’s stead, wielding a power of confidence which Roman lacks. The nature of their struggles culminates in the destruction of the first key antagonist, Vlad, who harasses and belittles Roman at every opportunity, even for the pettiest of reasons; while a cliched figure and villain, his Russian inflection is expectantly well-done, and his eventual destruction is made very satisfying, liberating Roman from an imminent, oppressive threat and challenge to the heart of Mallorie, greatest source of value and affection in Roman’s frantic life, his guiding light in the darkness.
A handful of other memorable characters exists, like the excessively comedic, delusional Brucie, always bombastic and even idiotic, a blunt parody who is exaggerated beyond believability, serving as comedic relief in a game already abounding in comedy – he is a bizarre character in this manner, though innocent and well-intentioned, even as he acts similarly despicable, casually orchestrating assassination missions for Niko, showing the darkness present within all of these central figures, who think of killing as but a trivial act. Other memorable figures are Little Jacob, whose Jamaican accent makes him nearly incomprehensible, while his marijuana usage is similarly parodic; and Mannie, a poser in the literal sense of the word, projecting a façade of strength in front of the camera, showing cowardice when outside of the frame. Also, there is Mikhail Faustin, a Russian of some prominence in Liberty City, who brashly abuses drugs despite the powers and responsibilities present within his hands. He exists as a flawed figure, and I gravitated towards him, which only makes his death – a death enacted by Niko’s bloodied hands – all the more tragic, particularly when considering it was his greatest companion who betrayed him, and who would in turn betray Niko. Shortly after the mission is finalized, a possible lead in Niko’s vendetta emerges – then, just as swiftly he disappears, greatly inspiring my curiosity and excitement for the future of the narrative.
Brief mention must be made of Liberty City, which morphs into its own character. Given the game’s advanced age, some of the technical failings are excusable, though these failings are tempered by some creativity. Texture work is overall poor, and while foliage is understandably slight in a sprawling urban environment, the few trees which are present are also poorly modeled, even as they adopt a beautiful orangeness, ripe in the height of Autumn. The draw distance is high, though with certain of the weather effects, distant objects are blurred out, the draw distance dropping considerably, elevating atmosphere though destroying aesthetic pleasantness. Despite these disappointments, a perfect griminess of tone is conveyed: the city seems oppressive and almost hostile, a muted color palette of browns and oranges conveying this sense of oppression. At nighttime, though, is a complete reversal. The shining blues of distant lights are dazzling, the beautiful majesty of the sprawling bridge systems only amplified. Towering skyscrapers are illuminated, with windows lit and unlit believably, suggesting perpetual motion and flux.
In a wise design decision, these explorable environments in Liberty City are gated. From the first, two smaller boroughs are accessible, while another two are locked, opening up at predetermined narrative thresholds. Seeing the towers of the central island, stretching endlessly up to the heavens, while forbidden from exploring them – sheer excitement emerges. Naturally, this restrictiveness will elicit frustration in many players, clamoring for total and instant openness. I hold a contrary opinion, and this barring of a considerable portion of landmass has only increased my curiosity, just as much as Niko’s winding quest for revenge. Also, when considering the number of NPCs on the street, the game again shows its age, with a few sparse models populating the streets at any one time, with frequent repetition of those models. During the night, the streets are almost totally devoid of vehicle and foot traffic, believable to an extent, but which betrays the lived-in atmosphere the game repeatedly seeks to evoke. The weather effects remain remarkable, rain being impactful as it hits the ground violently, gradually bouncing upwards, while rain droplets themselves slant sideways when descending; thunder effects contribute to this ambiance. NPCs naturally employ umbrellas when weather conditions are dreary and there is constant flux here, rain one moment, blinding sunshine the next, the game benefitting greatly by a dynamic day/night cycle.
Much of the time spent exploring the world will be in vehicles, abounding in diversity – some are of an antiquated, abused sort, others characterized by exoticism, style, and power. This latter class of vehicles, though, has thus far been difficult to acquire, perhaps attributable to the comparatively poverty-stricken status of these initial boroughs. When these flashy vehicles are acquired, the game truly excels, offering an exhilarating experience, with swift speeds and tight turnings. The majority of vehicles, though, are clunky, unintuitive and difficult to control, fish-tailing a constant plague and struggle. Bikes, when ridden, offer a similar rush to the more flashy cars, though the degree of maneuverability is far greater, allowing deft weaving in and out of traffic, all while an eclectic, diverse system of radio stations is at hand, oftentimes bolstering the tension, or simply contributing to the game’s atmosphere. Beyond vehicles, there is basic exploration on foot, though here the game’s aged clunkiness resurfaces – Niko is difficult to control accurately. A jump button is present, which permits basic climbing, and there is some degree of verticality here, with the navigation of rooftops and the clearing of small gaps. Poor animation quality lowers the enjoyment of locomotion. After roughly twelve or so hours, I expect roughly fifty percent of that playtime was spent within a vehicle, for better or for worse.
The missions themselves have thus far been fairly mundane, many involving formulaic chases, assassinations, and gunfights – ample diversity is on offer here, preserving freshness in gameplay, though no objective has yet to be totally engrossing. Cutscenes are abundant, stretching on for minutes at a time, bolstering the strength of the narrative, while further dialogue is communicated during travel, developing the characters and the doomed city they inhabit. The writing is of usually very high quality, even as the facial modeling is poor, destroying immersion. In these cutscenes, though, and in the narrative proper, a peculiar splitting of tone is evident. There are figures like the mentioned Brucie, addled on steroids and ever loud, making exaggerated utterances all for comedic effect; enjoyable to an extent, his presence destroys the game’s tightness and focus, contributing little beyond the occasional chuckle. On the radio stations and in the very actions of the games lesser NPCs, overwhelming efforts at satire are present, and those efforts are let down by the boldness with which they are conveyed and thrust upon the player; effective satire is subtle satire, and here is crassness and explicitness. Just as the comedic abounds, efforts at telling a darker story are communicated in the same confused breath, Niko musing about the presence or absence of a soul, the ethics of murder and torture, posing often very poignant questions, which are promptly undercut by outlandish displays of humor. It is in these darker themes where the game excels. Rather than gradually vacillating from protracted lightness through to protracted darkness, the game often times to capture both tones simultaneously, one mission briefing opening with a few forced jokes, while shortly thereafter death and murder are touched apathetically and almost philosophically. It is all very uneven and divided, though the game skirts disaster by nature of its effective writing, obnoxious and heavy-handed though it may be.
Despite some narrative peaks, the game remains unremarkable, though there is the massive achievement attached to the cityscape proper – Liberty City, even while crippled by technical limitations, remains impressive by nature of the atmosphere it evokes, alternately grimy and inviting, sometimes brown and grey, sometimes bright, beautiful, and blue, with a multitude of sweet glimmering lights. Navigating that world – whether it be dark or bright – is traditionally frustrating, many vehicles controlling poorly and unintuitively, dampening somewhat the enjoyment factor in moving from location to location, though more refined vehicles rectify this failing and elevate locomotion to a very high, enthralling standard. Gunplay thus far has been infrequent, and when such engagements have broken out, the systems are competent, affording a fair degree of freedom, as enemies can be targeted and directly, for more reliable damage output, while a free-aiming mode is also present for more precise shots. Weapon variety has been slight, though I expect this arsenal to open up significantly as the narrative progresses. Police officers already mark an early frustration – when called to the scene for some offense, they exercise swiftness and aggressiveness, doggedly pursuing Niko, relentless in their search. Very unfun engagements, they shall surely become more commonplace, not a comforting prospect. It is in the quieter moments where the game shines – driving around leisurely, exploring the gameworld, watching cinematic, well-scripted cutscenes; these events are excellent. The cutscenes and narrative, then, are of high caliber, and even if gameplay frustrations mount to dangerous heights, the progression through that narrative – and the gradual opening of the expansive gameworld – will ensure my continued playing.