Saturday, 3 May 2008

Niko Bellic: Legend.

Never have I found making conversation, in certain circumstances, so easy as I have the last week. On Tuesday, the ice-breakers were the same all day: 'do you have any PS3 copies?' or 'Do you know where has any PS3 copies?' were frequently used. Zavvi did, thankfully - 4 left when I paid my money.

Come the end of the week, though, and the statements and questions have changed. This morning, as well as hearing people talking about Grand Theft Auto 4 in the street, in a cinema foyer and on the tube, I ended up striking random conversations as I hunted for a few PS2 games. Discussions broke out about the nature of SIXAXIS control in the tutorial. Conclusion: bikes and boats are easy, but helicopters are near-on impossible.

I also talked with another happy gamer about the other residents of Liberty City, as we swapped stories of car-jacking. I told him that someone had tried to steal their car back and ended up being dragged along by the handle, ending up underneath my wheels. His brilliantly entertaining tale involved an NPC literally getting a cab to chase - and successfully reclaim - his sports car. Now that's AI.

A couple of people on the Digital Spy Forums also caught my attention, claiming that they were glad to not be Rockstar's 'sheep' and that they wouldn't just buy any old game because it had the company's famous logo on it. I guess they're just missing out on one of the most important cultural events of the year - and one of the games of the decade. Once the hype has calmed down then some more reasoned evaluations will no doubt appear but, at the moment, it seems that GTA4 is a landmark title in several areas.

Graphically, there's been a mere handful of better looking next-gen games but none have done so when they're recreating the entirety of New York City. The storytelling is, again, astounding. Couple this with the brilliant cut-scene direction and it's one of the most cinematic games there is - right up there with the epic Final Fantasy titles and recent PS3 exclusive Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in terms of plot and stylish execution. Pun intended.

The characters are also fantastic. Niko is a complicated individual who has a hidden past, and his cousin Roman is a relentlessly enthusiastic - and neurotic - comic foil, and they're both voice acted to perfection. The supporting cast is just as absorbing and intriguing.

Gameplay is, as you'd expect, spot on: the Eurogamer review mentioned that each of the disciplines - the driving, missions, gunplay, minigames, and more - are so good that they could hold their own in individual games. And they're right. The driving would be a stand-out game on any platform, and the action is as good as the aforementioned Uncharted, and stands up against Call of Duty 4. Fantastic.

What keeps hitting me, though, are the numerous little details scattered throughout that really bring flesh to the bones of Liberty City. Your mobile phone ringing in the car makes your radio beep with interference. Dust-carts have a couple of workers hanging on the back of them, like they do in the movies. People will fight for their cars. You can arrange social activities with plenty of the characters, and playing pool and darts is brilliant fun. Car handling drastically changes with the weather conditions. The water is gorgeous, real. Zoom right to the bumper of your car and you can read the stickers. There's the 'Tw@' chain of Internet cafes. And a whole Internet, with hundreds of pages. Your virtual inbox gets virtual spam for virtual penis pills. Digs at the war on terror. REM, The Smashing Pumpkins and Queen on the radio, with Iggy Pop as the DJ. Juliette Lewis hosting another station. America's Next Top Hooker being advertised. Water shooting up out of a destroyed hydrant like a Yellowstone geyser.

Having a particularly nasty crash and watching, in awe, as Niko is flung through the windscreen, before landing in a pile of shattered glass and a pool of his own blood.

Then he gets back in his car, and drives on. And I'm sitting on the sofa, laughing at the lunacy - and amazing, stunning, generation-defining quality of it all.

GTA4 is a bit special. I went out and bought Just Cause and the first two God of War games, all on PS2, today - saw them in a shop and have wanted them for ages - as well as still having plenty of exploring left to do in Oblivion. I don't think they'll get much of a look-in, though. Not while there's windscreens to smash, hookers to run over and caps to pop in asses, anyway.

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