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Hands-Off GTA IV Impressions
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 12:21pm 24/01/08 | Comments
AusGamers gets some serious hands-off time with GTA IV as Rockstar Australia runs us through a demo of the latest build. Grenade Launchers, Sniper Rifles and hanging from moving vehicles is all in a day's work when you live in Liberty City

Grand Theft Auto 4
I’ve actually been busting at the seams to tell any and all who’ll listen about how GTA IV is shaping up. Thankfully, this week Rockstar Australia gave us an in-depth look at the latest build direct from Rockstar North, and boy, is this shaping up to be one massive game. For those unaware, GTA IV is set in the fictional Liberty City (which is essentially New York), where you play the role of recently arrived European immigrant, Niko Bellic. Niko has come to Liberty at the bequest of his cousin Roman who has sold his lifestyle here as one of money, girls and opportunity. Unfortunately for Niko, when he arrives he finds Roman’s lifestyle is barely befitting a junkie, let alone a king, and so finds himself having to draw on his criminal past in order to get ahead.

While I wasn’t privy to the game’s ultimate intro or start-point, I was taken through a number of missions and shown some of the improvements to the game overall. The most impressive thing from the get-go with this title though, is its attention to detail. Don’t go thinking GTA IV is going to look as good as say Gears of War, but from where I was sitting, this still not complete code was impressing me more and more.

The city itself is littered with realistic design inconsistencies in that, there is almost no place within the massive game-world you can look and say, ‘hey they just cut and pasted that from there to here’. Tiny things like the oddly bent light pole or dodgely covered pot hole go so far toward making Liberty a real-life, living, breathing city it’s scary. I can honestly say I have never seen a game-world this robust.

Grand Theft Auto 4
It’s this robustness that screams at you though, and as a result GTA IV is more enticing than anything Rockstar have presented to us before. Sitting on the Rockstar couch, I was constantly planning some way in which I could take out my hosts just so I could grab the controller off them and play the game unabated, but alas, then they’d probably take me off the mailing list and I’d never get my hands on the final version – so I bade my time.

At any rate, the demo went on and I was being shown how some of the life in Liberty City conducts itself. For one, throughout the game you’ll actually make friends. Now, while that might sound mundane or arbitrary, the fact is maintaining these friendships (so we’re told) is going to be key to getting the most out of the game-world. At any point you can call up your friends or answer a call from them, after which you can perform a number of friend-building activities that include the likes of bowling, darts, or my new personal favourite, drinking. If you make a friend-date and can’t keep it, I was even told calling ahead to cancel (you have an hour to make your date) was the right thing to do because you can really piss off your buddies. Neat.

This point of the demo was to really show off just how creative Rockstar North are being with the Euphoria tech they’re using for characters in the game. The instance demoed saw Niko and Roman heading out for drinks and while you don’t actually see the physical act of drinking, the two emerged from their watering hole completely drunk. The camera is hazy and shaky, while the characters stagger too and fro; fighting this ill-balance with the controls is what actually makes the drunk sensation even more appealing. Everything blurs and the two trip up over everything – amidst all this, hilariously, they’re having an incredibly drunk conversation and arguing about the “titties” they just saw in the bar. Pure gold.

Grand Theft Auto 4
Euphoria isn’t strictly used to show off drunken action though, and as you watch Niko walk about the city, you’ll notice little nuances related to the physical reactions of his body from the environment. A good example is watching him walk down a set of stairs where his body jars and bounces based on each step and where his feet are hitting. Couple this with some of the animations he’s been given, such as crossing hands and arms as he steers in cars, and you get an equally realistic main character to play with in the aforementioned unbelievably realistic game-world.

As you would expect, Liberty City is huge. Getting around can take you a while, so as usual you can steal cars, bikes, trucks and whatnot, however, this time around a lot of the vehicles are either locked or alarmed. In these situations, Niko usually busts the window, jumps in and then hotwires it, all completely (and naturally) animated, breathing even more life into the main character. You can also break into cop cars, and a cool feature here is the use of the Police Database Computer which, once accessed, can allow you to look up the details of any character in the game. Once located, you can then use the details in conjunction with the police car’s GPS system and head directly towards your mark.

Most vehicles in the game have a GPS system, but depending on the model and make of the car, some will even have voice navigation – just another example of Rockstar North going above and beyond in elements of realism in their fictional world.

Grand Theft Auto 4
The variety of vehicles this time around – as you’d expect – is far more varied, and the physics around each one, like everything else I’ve touched on here, bounces around the realms of uber realism. It’s empowering to see an old, heavy-ass Cadillac-like car bouncing around the imperfect roads of certain areas of Liberty City, while more modern vehicles drive far smoother. When in a vehicle, a new addition also sees you being able to switch to a cinematic camera view where you’ll watch the car drive from an aerial view, front-tyre view and so on. In these moments you’re still controlling the car in real-time, but from a taxi (where you can choose to just sit back and enjoy the ride), it’s completely AI controlled, making it a great way to take in all the sights.

The in-vehicle radio programs are back, and in my hour long presentation of the game, I never heard the same song repeated twice. All styles and genres seem accounted for, from punk, hardcore and metal to hip hop, rnb, dance and trance – each station replete with cheesy ads, tongue-in-cheek talk-back segments and plenty of humour. This might be Rockstar’s biggest undertaking yet, but they haven’t forgotten their roots, that much is sure.

One of the biggest and most welcome changes to the GTA style of gameplay is the newly redesigned combat. This was best demonstrated to me through two missions. The first, Deconstruction For Beginners, showcased a few varying combat elements, beginning first and foremost with sniping. Without giving the pretext away, Niko basically has to make his way to a target working on a construction site. The site isn’t all that legit, so to speak, and so before approaching, Niko has to take out a number of guards, err… guarding the site. From a building across the street, Niko jumps on a window cleaning elevator and makes his way to the top of the roof, once there, pulls out his sniper rifle and aims to take out the guards.

Grand Theft Auto 4
In terms of sniper mechanics, for the most part, all of this was business as usual, but his targets were perched at the top-end of massive cranes. The first one just died and slumped down where he was standing, the second one, however, plummeted from his nest to the rooftop of a car below; shattering the windows and caving in the roof. Very cool.

Once clear, Niko then made his way across the street and pulled out his AK-47. The new duck and cover system is actually pretty cool and the game’s action sequences seem to have been designed to give you as much recourse to utilise it at every possible point. You can also blind-fire and throw grenades (the explosions in the game are looking unbelievable, by the way), giving our anti-hero far more action experience than any of his GTA counterparts. Headshots are immediate death, while a round target floating over your enemy also has a number of health bars that deplete as you wail lead into him (or her). I’m told there’s also a hand-to-hand combat system, though this wasn’t yet demonstrated. From the sniping to the eventual death of the main target though, the action was intense, intuitive and easy to digest, which given the amount of flack Rockstar have copped over the years for lacking in this department, is great news for all and sundry.

The final mission shown, Truck Hustle, saw Niko having to nab a truck full of drugs from the Triads for the Mafia. Initially we wait for the truck to arrive at a particular destination. Once there, my demonstrators suggested we have a little fun with the mission and so pulled out a rocket launcher, blowing up a nearby car and taking out a number of triad gangsters in the process. Again, I can’t reiterate enough how amazing the game’s explosions look at this point. After a fire-fight and some grenade lobbing, the targeted truck makes a break for it where you need to sprint after it. Once the truck is caught, we get to see the Euphoria tech in play again as Niko must fight the constant turns the truck is making while hanging on for dear life. Eventually he makes it to the roof where he slowly crawls his way to the front, then Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark style, he kicks the window in and caps the driver, taking over the truck to deliver it to the waiting Mafia. Demo over.

All in all, everything I saw over the hour-odd long demo was incredibly impressive, and I know we didn’t even scratch the surface, we just saw it glinting in the sunlight off in the distance. There’s going to be so much to this game, it’s crazy to even think Rockstar have yet to reveal anything about downloadable content on top of what we’re already anticipating with the final release. But I can honestly say so far, so good. Already this is a no-brainer for biggest release of the year, just what it has in store for us beyond what we’ve already seen is the main question on everyone’s lips. I know I can’t wait for the answer though.