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Critical Reception: Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Rockstar's much-vaunted Grand Theft Auto IV, which debuts this week to a Metacritic-averaged score of 99 out of 100 and a wide variety of near-perfect scores - details within.
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV, which debuts this week to a Metacritic-averaged score of 99 out of 100. Grand Theft Auto III was a landmark release for the series, its genre, and the PlayStation 2 console, earning widespread critical acclaim and a devoted following among gamers worldwide. Its follow-ups, GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas, earned equal amounts of praise and retail success. With expectations running high given the quality of its previous entries, many wondered if Grand Theft Auto could measure up to series standards in its Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 debut. The end result appears to be a runaway hit with critics so far, earning a spate of perfect scores and a Metascore of 99 out of 100. Justin Calvert at GameSpot awards Grand Theft Auto IV a score of 10 out of 10. "Stepping off a boat in the shoes of illegal immigrant Niko Bellic as he arrives in Liberty City at the start of Grand Theft Auto IV, you can tell immediately that Rockstar North's latest offering is something quite special," he begins. "GTAIV is a game with a compelling and nonlinear storyline, a game with a great protagonist who you can't help but like, and a game that boasts a plethora of online multiplayer features in addition to its lengthy story mode." Calvert is impressed with GTAIV's decision points that affect narrative and gameplay branching. "On several occasions as you play through his story, you'll be presented with decisions that afford you the option of doing what you think is right rather than blindly following instructions," he describes. "Every decision you make has consequences, and you'll likely want to play through the game at least twice to see how the alternatives unfold." Controls also see an improvement over previous entries in the series. "New abilities in Niko's arsenal include scaling fences and walls anywhere he can get a foothold, shimmying along ledges, and, most importantly, taking cover behind objects," Calvert writes. "The ability to stick close to walls, parked cars, and the like at the touch of a button makes GTAIV's gunplay a huge improvement over that in previous games, and, in tandem with the new targeting system, it also makes it a lot easier." Calvert makes special note on GTAIV's newfound social focus. "You'll keep in touch with your dates, friends, and some of your enemies using another of GTAIV's great new features: a cell phone," he says. "There's no unwieldy conversation system to deal with; you simply choose which friend you want to call, what you want to talk about (it could be work, a fun activity, or asking for a favor) and then, assuming that he or she answers the phone, the conversation plays out." This results in appreciable gameplay benefits. "The rewards that you get when another character likes you enough vary depending on who it is," Calvert explains. "Without wishing to give away specifics, befriending a lawyer can prove useful if you're having trouble with the cops, for example, and having a nurse on your friends list can literally be a lifesaver." Calvert finds that GTAIV's multiplayer aspects are satisfying as well, and make for a well-rounded package. "Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that you simply have to play," he concludes. "The single-player game, which you can still play long after you complete the story, is the series' best by far, and the multiplayer features are good enough that you'll likely have no problem finding people to play with for many months to come." Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell also rates Grand Theft Auto IV at 10 out of 10. "GTA IV's big innovations aren't amazing physics, spectacular graphics and epic environments - although it has all those - but convenience and multi-tasking," he asserts. "There is no longer any wasted time." "The mobile phone is central to this, allowing you to make phone calls and text-message people one-handed while you walk or drive; networking, socialising, organising, and listening to that ringtone you downloaded for America's Next Top Hooker," Bramwell explains. "When you fail a mission, you can answer a text to teleport yourself back to wherever you spawn after the cut-scene briefing finishes." Bramwell notes GTAIV's evolution in other critical gameplay areas as well. "Besides the phone, the second-best thing GTA IV does is realign the combat to match the Hollywood driving," he says. "A Gears of War-style cover mechanic slams your back up against most surfaces, even cars, so that you can creep up to the edge, hop to adjacent cover points without exposing yourself, and fire on your enemies with a flexible targeting system." "There's also a sense of refinement in areas where GTA has always been strong, like driving and carnage," he continues. "Now you can lean out of the window and fire in any direction, providing you can direct the right analogue stick at the same time as steering and managing the throttle - slightly awkward, but then it would be - and technical advances improve basic acts of destruction." GTAIV's narrative is also described as being a step forward for the series. "Niko himself is quickly sympathetic - his moral latitude is rooted in horrible war stories, but he's warm-hearted - and imposing, and his influential relationships are with rounded individuals, albeit often in caricatures' clothing," Bramwell writes. "Situations and developments are rarely contrived, as the dialogue lays the foundation for dramatic events and betrayal subtly, in a way that you can appreciate more when you see them a second time." A few technical issues and control quirks occasionally mar the experience, however. "We've all read by now about the PS3 install time, but the frame-rate also takes punishment throughout, polluted by Rockstar's unashamed ambition, with noticeable pop-in in places," Bramwell warns. "It never once stopped me enjoying myself, though. The only things that did that were the occasional stickiness of cover points when trying to manoeuvre quickly, the continued absence of mid-mission checkpoints (itself only irritating when a mission begins with a long drive, which is rare), and some clunkiness in ladder-climbing and vaulting objects." "Otherwise, GTA IV is the 10/10 you were expecting," Bramwell assures. "Almost everything you do in Liberty City would be good enough to drive its own game, and the best parts would be good enough to outrun the competition, but the reason it works so well is that Rockstar has made a game that requires no patience to play." Andy Robinson at ComputerAndVideoGames.com scores GTAIV at 9.5 out of 10. "As an experience, especially a cinematic one, GTA IV is incredible," he says. "Story-wise, Rockstar's usual mix of crime, betrayal and truckloads of piss-taking is at full force in an event-filled plotline. It's easily our favourite narrative since Vice City." Robinson describes GTAIV's protagonist as a balance between the personality extremes of the series' past. "Unlike the silent anti-hero of III, or CJ's custom canvas, Niko Bellic has tons to say and a shady past to uncover," he writes. "Yes he's a cold hearted killer, but unlike the robots of previous offerings, there are points in the story where his conscience boils to the surface. Underneath he even shows real emotion." GTAIV's dialogue and storyline also benefit from years of tweaking and development. "Voice acting, as always, is fantastic. Non-player characters have plenty to say - especially on car rides to objectives. And they'll never say the same thing twice (unless you replay a mission)," Robinson praises. "As always, the piss-taking, politically incorrect side of Rockstar's script is alive, actually more so than ever. IV will have you chuckling more than any other game this year, I reckon." "But how does it play?" Robinson asks. "Compared to San Andreas, number IV's game systems have been improved in a lot of areas. Vehicle handling has been tweaked to feel more realistic (though don't get too rowdy - it's not PGR or GT) and the pure thrill of driving around town is more present than ever." "Combat is a massive improvement over San Andreas too," he continues. "The cover system is solid, injecting a level of strategy into gun fights not present in GTA III's messy lock-on system. You'll still die thanks to the odd lock-on screw up that has you looking at pedestrians instead of the policeman aiming up behind you, but for the most part it's a considerably tight system." Robinson describes GTAIV as a worthy product that lives up to expectations. "GTA IV has its flaws as a game, like the sometimes problematic auto-aim shooting or the massive difficulty jump when you get to the final ten missions," he admits. "But as an all-round experience it's truly, hype aside, a standout experience of gaming in 2008." Critics seem willing to forgive Grand Theft Auto IV's imperfections, awarding perfect scores in spite of noting a variety of minor problems. Many focus instead on praising the title's expansive, well-realized world and largely annoyance-free gameplay, and as a result, GTAIV is almost universally described as a worthwhile experience and a great value.

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