Grand Theft Auto IV marks the beginning of Rockstar's HD era, where a vastly different approach was taken when compared to most previous titles.
The GTA series has mostly been about entertainment value, absurdness & well constructed missions, but GTA IV is a lot more complex and morally ambiguous. Truly, it is the only entry in the franchise that challenges the player to think about what is right and what is wrong in the world that is displayed, and poses a very subtle message about what leads man to commit violent and murderous acts. This is for the most part thanks to the fantastic addition of the protagonist Niko Bellic, who is without a doubt the greatest protagonist in the series. He is ofcourse outstandingly voice acted by Michael Hollick, who captures the Serbian accent and the many tones of Niko perfectly. His character is also an example of perfect writing, as his tragic wartime backstory in the Yugoslavian wars makes Niko a character with loads of depth and moral ambiguity. This is not a monster, but a man that has been made into what he is today due to a childhood consisting of murder and violence. He is forced to kill to survive, because it is the only thing he knows how. In a couple of conversations with his cousin Roman ( Also excellent voice acting by Jasom Zumwalt ) these morals are really put to the test, as he tries to admit that there is good in Niko. As Niko struggles with his morals and himself, he finds out that he cannot escape his past, which in the end results in quite possibly the greatest single character arc in videogame history.
There has been some criticism on GTA IV's bleak color palette, but one has to keep in mind that these visuals have to add to Niko's story and mood. This game is bleak, because the story is bleak. There is admittedly less use of varying color than the previous GTA's, but there is a feeling of social isolation and disconnection, a feeling of impending doom and desparity in these grey visuals. There are very few locations in videogames that feel as vibrant and alive as Liberty City does in GTA IV. The sinister visuals combined with the fantastic dynamics of rain, ambient noises or people talking really provide this incredibly immersive experience with an extra layer of genius. The sound effects are superb. The art design is top notch.
Generally, every GTA has had excellent voice acting, but GTA IV's voice acting is even more impressive than any other entry in the series. Largely carried by the fantastic performances of Michael Hollick & Jason Zumwalt, there is a lot of genuine emotion & poignancy in these voices. But the real difference maker here is obviously the depth and variety in which these characters have their conversations. This is ofcourse also thanks to brilliant writing. There is ofcourse still a lot of humor in GTA IV, as is standard in these series, but these moments all hide something sinister and serious, and the humor is never as absurd as it was in previous GTA's. It still, however, manages to still be a satire on everyday city life while maintaining its dark and complex plot.
The storytelling is superb. Characterization is fully fleshed out and the writing of plot events or sub plots such as the whole 'Diamond' affair result in a lot of fascinating goose chases and twists. As stated before, the narrative is far more complex and immersive than in other GTA's, which thus results in one of the greatest plots ever seen in a videogame. The character arcs, the twists, the substances of the missions.. everything is connected.
The gameplay lacks a bit of customization which therefore puts more of an emphasis on the already excellent storytelling abilities of Rockstar, and therefore this can never be seen as a con. The gameplay itself is quite simple but yet so extremely effective and gritty. The physics of cars in GTA IV are a stand out in its gameplay expertise. The cars are hard to control and do not turn as inhumanly quick as they would in other GTA's, which results in a game that is not very easy for the casual gamer to get a hold of, but all the more rewarding for the seasoned among us.
Cutscenes often times feature many complex variaties in momentum, meaning that mood changes are very frequent. This makes the cutscenes fascinating, and creates a cinematic experience that is also one of the greatest ever seen. One of the greatest examples of this is the incredible cutscene exchange between Ray Boccino & Niko during the intro of the mission 'Museum Piece'.
Niko's past, except from adding tons of depth to his character, also adds some poignancy to later events in the film. Near the end of the game there is an event where his past will come back to haunt him, and a choice is given that is probably as morally difficult for the player as it is for Niko himself, and this changes his character significantly. There is also possibly a phone call to Roman near the end where Niko will admit to 'Not knowing how much more of the killing he can take', as to say it really affects his character. Without spoiling anything, the ending ( Primarily where the ending takes place ) is really symbolic for the satirical look that Rockstar wants to convey about the 'American dream'.
Grand Theft Auto IV is loaded with superb voice acting, intelligent writing, a fantastic plot and storytelling, a lot of characterization, excellent cinematics & physics, great gameplay while also creating a fantastic study on moral ambiguity and what makes an innocent child into a murderous killing machine.
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