GTA IV Preview – Hands-On Impressions

Yesterday, Rockstar invited a few tech journalists over to be among the first to play GTA IV. Want to know what it’s like?

Yesterday, Rockstar invited a few of tech journalists over to Microsoft to be among the first in Australia to take a look at the new much awaited Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV).

To be honest, I expected a new version of GTA. I wasn’t going in with the highest of expectations mostly because of how much the marketing machine was hammering the world with this one. It’s kind of like being told a big game is coming and hearing it again & again & again for years: eventually it wears off and you’re not really sure that you should be expecting something good or not.

But damn. Damn. I was wrong. And that’s brilliant.

It’s the little things that grabbed me. I’m one of those people who will notice little things before big things and as we watched the single player experience unfold before our eyes, details like the odd bit of paper or plastic bag that flew through the air took my attention. It would flutter in and out of focus as if your eyes were playing with your depth of field and made the world seem more real.

Airplanes continued on flying in the background, cars moved on by in a less-computerized fashion, and people walked like people. You can really see that Euphoria is doing something incredible here as the first thing you’ll notice when you see people moving is that they’re moving not like regular game characters but like people. There’s a different step to a walk or the swing of their arms changes. It’s all very cool. It’s all very human.

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Almost real, but I’m not sure if I’d say that. The graphics aren’t realistic and while they’re not bad, it seems that the focus is put squarely on the experience that the game brings you rather than the most realistic graphics on the planet. As a result, characters act out parts really well. Somewhere between the muscle movement on the faces, the excellent voice acting we heard, and the mannerisms with which they use their limbs, you find yourself watching a stand-out performance that rivals many of the movies I’ve seen of late.

Then there’s things like the taxis. You don’t expect taxis to be such a big thing but when your game world is big – and by big, I mean really big – you might find yourself needing those taxis to get around. Scenes can take place in the street or in a taxi, for instance. We saw one scene take place in a taxi while the taxi driver tried to weave his way into traffic… which he did badly, constantly crashing into cars and generally telling us that if we ever had a cab driver like this, getting the hell out of the cab would be the best option.

But the little things probably don’t interest you quite so much as the big things. So let’s talk big.

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Let’s talk shooting people. Headshots count but shooting people in limbs will yield a different reaction. A perfect example found some targets on the edge of a high-rise construction site. A quick sniper shot to the foot and one of them lost their footing and fell several stories below landing smack dab on the pavement, blood staining the crisp white pavement below where his yelling stopped.

What about the cars? Well, for the most part they’re still the same but there are a lot of cars to play through. There are still bikes, cars, trucks, what-have-you. But now you can actually grab a cop car and search in their computer. Also, from what we were told everyone in Liberty City has a GPS but some of the richer cars might have more expensive GPS’s than your regular stock standard variety.

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Oh and let’s talk getting drunk because you can do that too. Head to a pub with your friends and get drunk. The Euphoria engine will kick in around here and cause you to stumble while your camera bobs like a buoy on a stormy day. We hear that driving is especially hard and when I asked if you could fly a helicopter while drunk, I was met with a “you’ll just have to play to find out” response.

So that’s a yes.

When the public first got wind of the ability to get drunk in GTA IV, I made the observation on some pages around the web that it would be really cool if it also turned all the ugly women into ultra hot women but that doesn’t look to be in there. Maybe Rockstar will read this and add it into GTA V (I’ll take my credit then guys).

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Overall, single player looks to be very impressive. There’s a lot I’m not talking about which you’ll probably pick up on, from the radio to the use of the in-game phone, and some of it I’m not quite allowed to explain yet from what I gather. While I can’t confirm radio tracks, I will say that I quite enjoyed the jazz station while I was killing people (mmm… trumpets and death…) and at one point thought I heard some Russian hip-hop… but that might have been my imagination.

Yes, this game is looking to be something that you’ll be playing for a while. I don’t know how much game play in single player there’ll be but from what I saw, I’d go with “a lot” to “a bucket load”.

Then we got to play the mutliplayer. Now you have to remember that there are (I think) 15 different multiplayer modes… and we played 3 of them.

Yes, you’ll be playing this for a while.

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We took on your regular stock standard deathmatch which is pretty fun. Jump in a car or go on foot and kill people. You can be using weapons or vehicular manslaughter; it’s really up to you. You can turn the entire map on or just localise it. You can stick pedestrians or cops on. It’s all very customisable.

Then we played the GTA Race, a take on a car racing game except done in true GTA style because while you have laps to do, you can always get out of your car (and you’ll have to if yours decides to blow up) and car-jack someone else who’s driving, friend or NPC. You can also shoot from your car at your friends so as to help their cars to a nice buffet of fire, brimstone, and all that smoky jazz.

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Finally, we played a mode called Crooks & Cops. The idea of Crooks & Cops is simple enough: two teams, each with members out of something like Reservoir Dogs while the other team is filled with cops. The Crooks have to protect whichever player is the boss while the Cops are out to hunt them down. Crooks start with a pistol and no cars whereas Cops get sub machine guns and a cop car. Crooks protecting the boss will respawn but once the Boss dies, the game is over.

This mode gets pretty hectic fast and it’s a load of fun. It also gave me one of the most memorable and funny memories from the day.

It’s really quite a funny sight when you see a police car driving down a road with arms out of each window holding a machine gun as if the cop car became its very own gang of thugs.

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There’s also something else you should be told about as it really is the stuff of excellent programming: there’s one load screen at the beginning of the game and that’s it. That means if you’re in single player, it’s the one at the beginning and you’re in the game until you quit. It looks like multiplayer more or less has the same principle, but apply “each game” to “each round” so that every round, you’ll endure a load screen, albeit a very very short one.

With barely three weeks to go until GTA IV hits the shelves, I can already see this tearing records without shedding a tear.

I didn’t expect much and I will gladly say that I wasn’t just surprised, I was flat out wrong. I can’t wait to review GTA IV… I just don’t think I’ll be leaving the house much when I do.

Written by Leigh D. Stark