Grand Theft Auto IV & Episodes from Liberty City for PC Review

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Ah, yes, 2008 was a memorable year. I turned nineteen that year but more importantly that was the year Grand Theft Auto IV would hit store shelves. Naturally, I was at the store day one to pick my special edition copy and I raced home after school to play it. I’m actually in the minority that acquiredadc the Key to the City collector’s item which was awarded to players that completed the game to one hundred percent within a certain amount of days after the the game released. It’s one of my most prized gaming possessions. I recently saw a key being sold on eBay for three thousand dollars. This was the first game to utilize Rockstar’s Social Club, an online platform which tracks your progress, among other things, for any Rockstar games you’ve played starting with GTA IV. I actually made it a point to be home the day the Social Club opened which occurred about a week or so before the game released. I had the page up all day and I would frequently check and refresh it, waiting to see the register button. Before the release of GTA IV, I can remember downloading every pre-release screen shot, every wallpaper, and watching every trailer daily. I was ready. This was the first GTA with a real cover system, an actual physics system, and it was the first HD game in the series. I also want to mention that this is the first GTA game in the HD universe. It’s actually separate from the 3D universe which consists of GTA III all the way to Vice City Stories. Some location names and radio content may be shared between the two but the characters and storylines are not connected. Developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto IV was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in April, 2008. It was released for PC in December of that same year. In February, 2009, the first DLC for GTA IV released and was titled The Lost and Damned. It was released for 360 first and a year later came out for PlayStation 3. It contains an all new storyline, new weapons, and several new features and mechanics. I remember the day it came out. I stayed up all night, waiting for the DLC to be available which I think finally happened around 2AM. The second DLC, The Ballad of Gay Tony, released in October, 2009 for 360 and was released for PlayStation 3 a year later, the same time The Lost and Damned did. This DLC, too, contained a new storyline, weapons, and features. These were eventually combined into a standalone disc titled Grand Theft Auto: Episodes from Liberty City which does not require the original GTA IV to play. For this review I played the PC versions of both GTA IV and the Episodes. I played version 1.0.8.0 of GTA IV which is the latest patch as of this review. I played through The Lost and Damned using the Episodes latest patch, version 1.1.3.0 but downgraded to 1.1.2.0 after completing the story because I absolutely wanted to use a Trainer to teleport to the seagulls. I should also mention I played the Steam versions of these games. Apparently the game will be patched again, possibly before this review is up, which is going to remove some of the music because the license agreements have expired. From what I hear, Rockstar will replace the music with a new set. Because the PC versions contain the awful Games for Windows Live, I downloaded and installed the Xliveless patch which removes that. I also played through each game using a controller because I learned a long time ago it’s just easier to drive and fly with a controller in this series. Grand Theft Auto IV may be the most controversial game in the series history. While many reviewers praised the game, giving it perfect or almost perfect scores, many players felt differently.

In Grand Theft Auto IV you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European war veteran who arrives in Liberty City aboard a cargo ship and reunites with his cousin Roman. Evidently, Roman had told Niko tales of riches, luxury, and beautiful women but Niko quickly learns that’s all bullshit. Roman lives in a roach infested apartment, is in debt to loan sharks, and runs his own taxi company. In addition to pursuing the “American dream”, Niko is also looking for someone who betrayed him and his unit during a war years prior. On his quest for revenge and to save his and Roman’s asses, Niko gets involved with Russian, Irish, and Italian gangsters, drug dealers, a government agent, and corrupt police. Grand Theft Auto IV is much darker in tone than previous entries and takes a more realistic approach rather than the cinematic style the series is known for. This is not your normal GTA tale of a low-level criminal working his way up to kingpin. Instead of going from rags to riches, Niko goes from rags to better rags. Him and Roman need money so Niko will do whatever it takes to earn money and find who he is looking for. The Lost and Damned is probably the most gritty of all three storylines. Here you play as Johnny Klebitz, Vice President of the Lost motorcycle club. The story opens with Johnny and his crew picking up Billy Grey, president of the club, who was just released from Alderney prison. Billy’s a hothead and disrupts the truce between the Lost and their rival gang the Angel’s of Death. Johnny and Billy are frequently going at it over club decisions. Johnny gets involved with drug dealers, a corrupt politician, and even the Italian mob, all in an effort to keep the club’s business operations running smoothly. The Ballad of Gay Tony’s storyline focuses on the high life of Liberty City and in some ways and feels more like a traditional GTA game. You play as Luis Lopez, a friend and business partner to Tony Prince, otherwise known as “Gay Tony”. Tony is the owner of two clubs, Maisonette 9 and Hercules, and while Luis has a stake in the businesses, he acts more like the muscle and guardian of Tony. Tony ends up in debt to the Italian mob so Luis tries to help him get out. He ends up working with an eccentric real-estate developer, Russian crime lord, and even his two childhood friends who also happen to be drug dealers. What makes GTA IV interesting as a whole, especially for its time, is that all three storylines take place around the same time and intertwine with each other. While the three protagonists aren’t friends, there are several missions where they meet up and interact. One of the sub-plots of the game is about a diamond heist, and contains a mission where all three characters appear together. You’ll get to see the different perspectives in each storyline and essentially play through the same mission three times, albeit from the different perspectives. Thinking back, this was a really neat concept and I believe this was the inspiration for the three-protagonist concept of Grand Theft Auto V. Now I have always been a fan of Houser writing and I did enjoy the storylines overall. The story, setting, and atmosphere are all satire of American culture and no, it’s usually not subtle, but I enjoy it. The more realistic approach and darker tone definitely made them feel different and I do prefer the previous storylines, mainly due to the more memorable characters. That’s not to say there aren’t any memorable characters in these three storylines. There are a few standouts like Patrick McReary, otherwise known as “Packie”, the youngest brother in the McReary crime family, primarily seen in the base game. The unnamed government agent with an aura of mystery surrounding him and his motives. Thomas Stubbs, the corrupt congressman seen in The Lost and Damned. And one of my favorite characters, Yusuf Amir, the over-the-top real-estate developer seen in The Ballad of Gay Tony. I would also like to point out that The Lost and Damned contains full-frontal male nudity during one cut scene and I bring it up because I remember it being controversial for about five minutes. It’s actually quite ridiculous. Rockstar went a different way with the voice cast for GTA IV. While the previous games employed primarily Hollywood voice talent, Grand Theft Auto IV employs lesser known voice actors but in my opinion, the voice acting is just as good as its ever been. The performances are believable which does help to make the characters feel real. While the story characters are voiced by primarily unknowns, the comedy club contains real comedians like Ricky Gervais, Katt Williams, and Frankie Boyle and the radio stations do contain some celebrity voice talent including Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, Juliette Lewis, Chad Coleman, and even popular musicians like Iggy Pop and Max Cavalera, among others.

Like every other GTA game, GTA IV is a third-person shooter set in an open world sandbox and the storylines play out through missions. In Niko’s story, parts of the city like major islands are blocked off at the start of the game but they open up as you progress through the story. While you basically have complete freedom to roam around the world and do whatever you please, the missions are quite linear. You activate missions by interacting with NPC’s, calling them or receiving calls, or even by receiving texts. Completing missions will usually reward you with money. Mission objectives are nothing new if you’ve played any GTA game ever. You’ll have to kill people, follow people, blow stuff up, etc. However, in Niko’s story specifically, the actual missions are a bit repetitive, more so than any other GTA game. Most missions have you killing or chasing someone. I don’t really mind, myself, but there’s definitely not a lot of variety in the mission design. Although, I do have a problem with many of the chase sequences. In these scenarios, you have to chase someone, usually in a vehicle, and then kill them. But the chases are extremely scripted and you’ll soon realize that you can’t actually kill the person until the chase reaches a certain point which is never made clear. It becomes noticeable because you’ll always remain at a certain distance until eventually, you’re right up their ass which is the indication that your bullets will start doing real damage. There are several standout missions like when Niko and Packie kidnap a prisoner from a transport vehicle, the famous diamond heist mission where everything goes wrong and Niko has to shoot his way out of the museum, and then there’s Three Leaf Clover, one of the best missions in the history of Grand Theft Auto. In this mission, Niko, Packie, and Packie’s crew rob the Bank of Liberty and have to escape police. You’ll run through alleyways and a subway station shooting at police while carrying money trying not to get busted or killed. It’s a very action-packed and exciting mission and is probably the most memorable mission in the whole game. The two episodes contain significantly less missions than the base game but most of them are pretty action-oriented. Johnny and his crew will raid a rival gang’s hideout, he’ll have to exterminate waves of mob thugs, even break into the Alderney prison. The Ballad of Gay Tony includes the most varied missions of the bunch and the real cool thing here is that once all the missions have been completed, you can replay them at any time. Furthermore, you’re scored in each mission based on time and if you managed to complete specific requirements. Some standout missions include stealing a N.O.O.S.E. tank and subway car and another has you sneaking onto a yacht and stealing a choppter equipped with machine guns and rocket launchers only to use it to destroy the yacht and escaping arms dealers. Throughout the storylines are decisions you can make. Niko’s story contains the most and are the most important since they will affect the storyline. Usually you have to decide if you want to kill someone or who to kill. In these kill scenarios, you’re usually offered the opportunity to execute the target. To do so, you must use a pistol and it just results in a scripted kill. My biggest problem with this whole decision-making thing is that there are consequences, if you want to call it that, for making the wrong decision and you can’t revert the decision unless you have multiple saves or restart the entire game. The first time I ever played this, I killed who I’ll call the wrong person. Without spoiling anything, if you kill the other guy, you can befriend the person who ordered the hit and his special ability is providing you with two guys as backup. That is a feature of the game you could miss out on by making the wrong decision. It may be best to use a guide or utilize multiple saves so when making decisions, you can change your mind if you don’t like the outcome. If you make a decision to not kill a specific character, you may run into them later as one of the random encounters. As you progress through the storylines, you will encounter random NPC’s that usually ask you to help them out. For example, you’ll accompany a man whose meeting with his loan shark, drive a junkie to her dealer, or simply help someone kill gang members.

In each game are side missions you can do and completion of the missions rewards you with money and also counts towards one hundred percent completion. In the base game, Niko can drive a taxi for Roman but only during a specific period during the story. It’s not required for one hundred percent and similar missions like ambulance and firetruck are not present. Vigilante missions return and have been changed for the better. Whenever you’re in a police vehicle, if you stop, you can access the police computer. From here you can choose to go after a most wanted criminal and each major island has their own list and you can also choose to respond to the nearest crime like a stolen vehicle, gang activity, or a suspect on foot. The police computer also allows you to call for police backup but not during vigilante missions which seems odd. It’s also disappointing to see that the most wanted lists don’t repopulate with new criminals. One you’ve killed them all, you can only respond to recent crimes. Late in the game Niko can participate in assassination missions. You go to a phone booth and a contact gives you the details and also provides you a weapon and armor nearby. These are your basic go here and kill this person type of missions. Unfortunately, these are not infinite so you can only do a set amount. Niko can call his friend Jacob to complete drug deals which have you driving to a specific area in a certain amount of time and sometimes you’re ambushed by rival gang members. In The Lost and Damned, you have to complete five side missions for congressman Stubbs to help him keep his position of power. You’ll take incriminating photos of people, kill people, rig a car with surveillance, and things like that. You’ll also have to steal bikes scattered throughout the city. This episode also contains Gang Wars where you and your gang members need to take out a rival gang whether they’re just cruising around, hanging out, or transporting a vehicle. But what makes this side mission and the episode as a whole interesting is that your gang members will become more hardened as they assist you during missions. The more hardened they are, the more efficient they become in combat. Two of Johnny’s friends will actually carry better weapons the more hardened they become and they won’t permanently die. The unimportant gang members can die and will be replaced by new gang members. The Gang Wars side mission is infinite and is one of the best aspects of the entire package as a whole, as is the vigilante missions in the base game and Drug Wars in The Ballad of Gay Tony. For every ten gang wars completed up to fifty, a weapon spawns at Johnny’s safehouse. Drug Wars centers around Luis and his friends stealing drugs from rival gangs. You’ll have to steal a stash, hijack a vehicle loaded with drugs, or intercept a convoy and steal the drug vehicle, and bring it to the drop off. You will have to fight your way through enemies to get to the drugs and enemies will even chase you down as you try to get away. Just like the Gang Wars, for every ten drug wars completed up to fifty, a weapon spawns at your safehouse. The Ballad of Gay Tony includes other side missions, too, like Base Jumping. Parachuting makes a return in this episode and Luis needs to jump off buildings or from helicopters and land in specific spots successfully. He can also partake in Club Management which honestly becomes boring. You walk around the club, look for suspicious activity, throw unruly people out, and eventually you’ll get a call to assist a celebrity in some way. You’ll have to drive an NPC away from the paparazzi, drive a wasted woman back to her house, and even pick up a food order for a supermodel. These celebrity parts are what make the club management interesting but you have to wait for the call before you can do it. And the club is only open from 9 PM to 5 AM so you only have a specific window of time. This episode also includes The Underground Fight Club where Luis needs to win six rounds. Each round consists of three opponents. The first several rounds involve you using only your fists but the later rounds include opponents wielding melee weapons. Of course, racing makes a return. The races in GTA IV are absurdly easy, making them all extremely boring. The Lost and Damned includes combat races of sorts. You race on bikes and can smack other opponents with a bat. But once you take the lead, it’s just like the races in the base game, incredibly easy. In The Ballad of Gay Tony, Luis can participate in triathlons which are nowhere near as long or as bad as the ones seen in San Andreas or GTA V. You parachute onto a boat, drive the boat to a specific area and then transfer into a vehicle, and race the vehicle to the finish line. The vehicles in these triathlons are equipped with nitro which is cool but you can’t use nitro once the race is over. I can’t really complain that the races are too easy since I’m not a fan of racing anyway but winning a certain amount is required for one hundred percent completion in each game and they just become ridiculously boring. Many of the side missions are okay at best with vigilante, gang wars, and drug wars being the most enjoyable but after completing the game to one hundred percent, there’s not much to do. Besides running around and causing chaos, there’s not a lot of action-oriented activities which is kind of a bummer. Sadly, the lack of end-game content in the single player portion would carry over into GTA V as well.

Grand Theft Auto IV runs on RAGE which stands for Rockstar Advanced Game Engine. It was first seen in Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis which I’ve actually never played but right off the bat you can tell things look and feel different compared to previous GTA titles. From what I’ve researched, RAGE integrates third-party middleware components Euphoria and Bullet for character animations and physics, respectively. I’ll be the first to admit many aspects of GTA IV feel clunky and dated but back in 2008, many of the new features would make any GTA fan squirt their pants, at least me. This was the first GTA game with a realistic physics system among other details. Bodies ragdoll and react to bullet impacts more realistically than ever before, some objects can be destroyed by gunfire, cars will dent accurately based on speed, how the vehicles are damaged, how they crash, what they crash into, and vehicles no longer automatically catch fire and explode upon flipping upside down. They will catch fire if they take enough damage but vehicles can be utilized as cover and can take a good beating before blowing up. The amount of damage a vehicle takes will also affect its performance. GTA IV contains an overhaul to the vehicle handling which I think many dedicated GTA fans really enjoy. Honestly, I thought San Andreas perfected the handling and GTA IV went a little overboard. No matter what vehicle I’m in, I always feel like I’m driving on ice. Spinning out of control can happen way too easily and trying to slide around sharp turns and corners is more work than it should be. While I understand the realistic approach the game is going for, I prefer the more arcade-style vehicle handling seen in San Andreas and even GTA V, for that matter. I basically avoid riding a motorcycle in the base game because if you don’t have the handling down, you can easily crash, which usually sends Niko flying through the air to his death. I believe The Lost and Damned is a little more lenient with motorcycle handling for obvious reasons, or at least it feels that way.

All three characters play exactly the same. You can walk, run, sprint, swim, crouch, jump and now you can mantle over obstacles, climb ladders, and shimmy along ledges. A major new development was the implementation of an actual cover system. Gears of War had already popularized the cover mechanic and whether Rockstar was inspired by Gears is unknown to me but Rockstar’s own Manhunt, released in 2003, had a cover mechanic as well, even though it’s pretty clunky by today’s standards. I was very excited about this and I considered it a pretty big deal at the time because a cover system can really change how you approach gun battles and it felt like a natural evolution for the series. You couldn’t even crouch in GTA III, you could in Vice City but couldn’t move while crouching, and San Andreas allowed you to crouch walk, so you could actually crouch behind objects but that’s not really a full blown cover system. GTA IV finally allows you to actually snap to cover. Whether you’re taking cover behind vehicles, walls, structures, or objects, cover can be a necessity for staying alive during combat. The enemy AI was significantly improved and they no longer run straight at you single file. They, too, take cover, shoot at you, blind fire, and throw grenades. I do have a gripe with the grenades and that is you don’t always know when they’re thrown. Unless you see it coming, you may not hear the noise it makes when it hits the ground due to all the gunfire and the next thing you know, you’re blown to hell. And, of course, enemies will  throw grenades right at your feet. Fallen enemies will drop weapons, ammo, and money. While in cover you can lean out to shoot at enemies, blind fire, and quickly move from cover to cover, if there are objects nearby that can be used as such. This was all very cool to me at the time and I had no real issues with the cover system back in 2008. Over time, it’s very easy to notice it’s flaws which I believe is due to the animations. The cover system is actually quite clunky. Getting in and out of cover can be chore and it’s not always a quick process. Sometimes, it doesn’t even work when you press the button. I think it has to do with the character animations needing to finish before another action can be taken. Don’t quote me on that but that’s what it seems. There’s also the problem of snapping to where you don’t want and this can become a big problem in the middle of a gunfight. When shooting, you can zoom in and you have the option to aim freely or lock onto enemies, otherwise known as auto-aim. This auto-aim mechanic also applies to melee combat which has seen some significant changes. You can punch, kick, block and even counter attack. You can also disarm enemies. Niko can visit various clothing shops to purchase different clothing items but there’s not as many options as seen in San Andreas. You can also acquire outfits, some of which are available only after completing specific missions. All purchased and acquired clothing can be accessed from your wardrobe at any of Niko’s safehouses. When deciding on what to wear, cycling through the clothes is a bit of a tedious process which was also a problem in San Andreas. Luis can’t shop for clothes but does have access to different outfits and cycling through them is much quicker than in the base game. Johnny can’t change clothes which is kind of a bummer but also makes sense given the storyline and motorcycle club.

Whenever you take damage you lose health or armor. When you die, you respawn at the nearest hospital and lose some money. You can purchase armor or acquire it from specific spots in the environment and armor basically adds an extra layer of health. You can also find medical kits, eat food at restaurants or from vendors on the street that will fully restore your health. Sleeping or calling for paramedics are other ways to restore health. Evidently, the mayor of Liberty City banned guns but you can still buy them from gun stores hidden throughout the city. In each game, you can contact a specific friend who will sell you weapons at a discount. The base game includes a decent array of weapons which are also available in both episodes. You can punch people with your fists, pick up and throw small objects, stab people to death with a knife, or beat them with a bat. The actual firearms include a pistol, combat pistol which resembles a desert eagle, a micro SMG, standard SMG, two types of shotguns, a sniper rifle, rocket launcher, assault and carbine rifles, grenades, and molotov cocktails. The Lost and Damned adds in a sawed-off shotgun which can be fired while riding a motorcycle, an automatic pistol, grenade launcher, assault shotgun, and pipe bombs. The Ballad of Gay Tony includes an assault SMG, golden SMG, advanced MG, advanced sniper rifle, an automatic shotgun which can fire standard or explosive shells, the pistol 44, and sticky bombs which can be detonated manually. When driving you can shoot at enemies using any pistol, submachine gun, or throw explosives like grenades, molotovs, pipe bombs, and sticky bombs. Firing weapons does feel satisfying, head shots are normally instant kills, and watching debris fly through the air and objects crumble from gunfire makes gun battles quite the spectacle. But gun fights and committing crimes will attract police attention and the wanted system does make a return, albeit with several changes. Instead of police magically knowing where you are at all times, when you acquire a wanted star, a police radius can be seen on the minimap. The radius shows you where police are searching. You want to leave the radius and stay out for a specific amount of time so they stop searching, essentially clearing your wanted level. If you stay on the main roads, there’s a good chance the police will spot you, and even when leaving the radius, you don’t want police outside of it to spot you, or a new search radius is formed. It’s best to drive through alleys and off the main roads. If you’re having a difficult time leaving the radius, you can visit Pay ‘n’ Spray shops to respray your vehicle which will clear your wanted level. But you have to be sure the police don’t see you enter the shop. If you befriend the right people, you can call them to have your wanted level cleared which is actually really nice. You can acquire up to six wanted stars total and the radius becomes larger with each star and the police become more aggressive. I actually like the changes to the wanted system. The radius concept makes it feel a bit more realistic and losing the heat is all about evasion. If you do get arrested, you’ll re-spawn at the nearest police station. The military are not present in GTA IV and specific police units and government agencies have been rebranded, I guess to fit in with Rockstar’s world building. For example, instead of S.W.A.T., you’ll be pursued by N.O.O.S.E. which is an acronym for National Office of Security Enforcement. The F.B.I. equivalent is now the F.I.B. which stands for Federal Investigation Bureau, and throughout the storylines you’ll hear about the I.A.A. which is an acronym for the Internal Affairs Agency and I think it’s supposed to be a reflection of the C.I.A. or some other real-life government agency. I understand Rockstar is trying to create their own world and universe but the GTA titles have always been parodies American culture and the little elements of realism were always appreciated and also relatable. I’ve always thought the changes to the police unit and government agencies like N.O.O.S.E. and F.I.B. were just dumb re-brandings and also very unnecessary. I suppose it doesn’t really mean anything unless you’re a dedicated fan of the series but I’ve never liked the changes.

2008 was right around the time smartphones started to take off. But before that, almost everybody had a standard cell phone and that is reflected in the game. All three characters have access to a cell phone which is not only for making and receiving calls but also receiving texts, taking pictures, and it doubles as a menu of sorts. You can silent your phone which will halt story progression and stop people from calling you, you can change your phone’s theme, ringtone, even change the text size. Fun fact; if you activate the ring tone titled “Pager”, it’s the Vice City tune. Furthermore, you can use it to place calls like dialing 911 which gives you the option to ask for police, paramedics, or a firetruck. The phone is also where you enter and activate in-game cheats. As you progress through the base game, Niko is granted access to numerous safehouses where you can watch TV, one includes a laptop allowing you to access the internet, and even save your game by sleeping in the bed. In front of every safehouse is a parking space which enables you to save vehicles. The Lost MC club house acts as Johnny’s safehouse but he acquires another towards the end of the storyline and Luis only has his apartment. Throughout the city are internet cafes where you can access a computer to check emails, visit websites, and even buy things like ring tones and themes for your phone. The in-game internet includes various websites, some useless and comical, and others more useful like the dating website. Niko can participate in online dating, meet women, and take them out. While the girlfriends in San Andreas were annoying as hell with the constant calls, dating them to one hundred percent was a tedious but necessary process to acquire specific outfits. In GTA IV, the women are less annoying, dating them isn’t as bad, and they offer more useful rewards if they like you enough. For example, one can clear your wanted level, another gives you a health boost, and another will grant you discounts when shopping. If the women like Niko enough, he has the option to sleep with them. Luis can also acquire girlfriends, usually by dancing, and sometimes they’ll contact him for a booty call. In addition to girlfriends are the standard friends each character has. You can call a buddy to hang out, or even a girlfriend, and participate in activities that increase how much they like you. Friends also offer benefits, or what the game calls special abilities, when they like the protagonist enough. In Niko’s case, he can call Roman for a free cab ride, Packie can prepare a car bomb for Niko, and Jacob will sell weapons at a discount. Johnny can call Clay to have a bike delivered to his locations or call Terry to buy weapons at a discount. Johnny can also call Clay and Terry for backup in almost any mission and they’re actually good to have at your side during firefights. They may even set up ambushes for you to lure enemies to. Luis can call Henrique to have vehicles delivered or Armando to buy weapons at a discount. In the episodes, buying weapons from your friends is the best way to acquire ammunition for the new weapons introduced.

The Liberty City depicted here is completely different than the Liberty City depicted in GTA III, Advance, or Liberty City Stories. The city here, while not as big as San Andreas, is pretty large and, naturally, you can navigate the city by foot, vehicle, helicopter, boat, or even take a taxi or train which basically act as fast travel systems. There’s technically two main areas in the game – Liberty City and Alderney, both of which are Rockstar’s condensed versions of New York City and parts of New Jersey, and the world is broken up into islands. Broker and Dukes make up one island and are based on Brooklyn and Queens, respectively. Bohan is the smallest island and is based on the Bronx. Algonquin is based on Manhattan and Alderney is it’s own island and actually a separate state, based on New Jersey. Many landmarks and famous locations in New York are reflected in-game, albeit with different names. For instance, Middle Park resembles Central Park, the Statue of Happiness obviously resembles the Statue of Liberty, Star Junction resembles Times Square, and there’s plenty more. Rockstar has proven time and time again that they are masters of detail. Like other GTA titles, the world here is extremely well detailed. If you leave the radio on in your vehicle and get out, you can still hear the radio playing, albeit faintly. Traffic vehicles will use their turn signals before turning. You’ll see people exercising in Middle Park. Homeless people will warm themselves over trash can fires. Trash and garbage are littered all over streets and you’ll see debris floating through the air. NPCs will walk and talk on the phone, browse their phone, and even call the police if they see you commit a crime. If you steal a vehicle, the protagonist may pull the driver out, punch them first, or force them out at gun point. When stealing a vehicle, if the door is locked, the protagonist may break the window in order to get in, which risks setting off the car alarm, alerting any nearby police. You’ll come across construction crews, people rifling through the trunks of their vehicles, even people on the side of the road looking under the hood of their car. Every now and then you may come across police chasing a criminal or in a firefight with bad guys. You’ll hear news reports of major events you took part in on the radio and can read about them on the in-game internet. In The Ballad of Gay Tony you can hear people fucking in the stalls in the club bathrooms. If you come across a toll booth, you have to stop and pay a small fee to avoid police attention. However, driving through the toll without paying or alerting police is possible if you’re driving a police vehicle. You can, of course, get the attention of prostitutes who will provide different sexual services at various prices. And like any good GTA player, you can kill her when its over and collect the money she drops. If you kill an NPC while their driving, their head will lean forward into the steering wheel, blaring the horn and I guess their foot lands on the gas pedal so the vehicle speeds straight forward, usually crashing into something. It’s actually really cool to see. It’s these types of little things that make the world feel alive and somewhat realistic. And I could go on and on all day about the details. You can follow the GPS on your minimap to get to your objectives and some vehicles actually contain GPS speech but you can set all vehicles to have this through the options menu. While you can’t enter every single building, several missions do allow you to enter some and even these are extremely well detailed. You’ll enter warehouses, condemned buildings, rundown apartment buildings, office buildings, and more. In the less affluent areas, the interiors contain graffiti on the walls, garbage on the ground, sometimes even junkies and thugs populate rooms and hallways. Apparently, Rockstar conducted field research around New York during development. A full-time research team gathered information ranging from the ethnic groups of neighborhoods to videos of traffic patterns. As detailed as Liberty City is, it won’t distract you from noticing some issues that have plagued even past titles. Sometimes you’ll spawn and there’s no cars on the roads or pedestrians walking the streets which can pull you out of the immersion. This doesn’t happen often, but I do notice it when spawning at a hospital after death and sometimes right after a mission ends. On the flip side, sometimes there’s way too much traffic on a specific section of road and there’s even times when it feels like every vehicle in traffic just gets in your way on purpose. There’s also the issue of driving a vehicle and then that vehicle is spawning all over the place.

Now I have completed every GTA game since GTA III to one hundred percent completion and have only done this once before with GTA IV. There are plenty of things to do in the game but not all of them are exciting. There are various activities you can participate in and to achieve one hundred percent in the base game, you have to win at specific activities and partake in them with all of your friends. It’s just a chore. In the base game you can go bowling, play darts, play pool, go boating, take a helicopter tour around the city, eat at restaurants, watch shows, and visit strip clubs. There’s this arcade game you can play called QUB3D. You have to match up the colored blocks before they fill up the box. It’s actually similar to Puyo Puyo. I hate this game simply because achieving the high score is required for one hundred percent completion. The Episodes add in new activities like air hockey and The Lost and Damned, specifically, includes a hi-lo card game where you bet and try to acquire the highest card, and you can also participate in arm wrestling. In The Ballad of Gay Tony, in addition to most of the other activities already mentioned, you can visit clubs, take shots at the bar, participate in a drinking game, and dance which is not as tedious as the dancing in San Andreas. Luis can also play what the game calls Golf but in reality it’s a driving range where the objective is to hit the ball and try to get it to land close to a target for points. Whenever you drink at a bar, you’ll come out drunk. The game’s attempt at reflecting what it’s like to be drunk is to make your character stumble around, the screen is all wobbly, and driving is a bitch since you have little control over how the vehicle handles. Furthermore, if a cop spots you driving drunk, you obtain a wanted level. It’s best to take a taxi. When visiting a strip club, you can get a private dance and if you keep paying for dances, eventually two women will dance for you. When it comes to shows, you have two options, you can visit the cabaret or comedy club in Algonquin. Honestly, I find bowling to be the most enjoyable activity. Darts, air hockey, and golf are also kind of addictive and while these are all fine and good, they do add a sense of realism, all of these activities are not why I would play a Grand Theft Auto game.

Every GTA game since GTA III has had their own forms of hidden packages because Rockstar hasn’t learned that finding and collecting small hidden items scattered around a massive world is not fun. I let it go in GTA III because that was the first game of its kind but after that, the entire hidden package concept should have been abandoned in my opinion. I’m sorry but collecting them is a boring task and is just downright not enjoyable. I don’t know who would try to collect them all without a guide but whatever. GTA IV’s collectibles are in the form of shooting two hundred pigeons and one hundred seagulls in the episodes. Fifty seagulls in The Lost and Damned and another fifty in The Ballad of Gay Tony. I’ve only completed these games to one hundred percent once before on 360 years ago and it was legit without cheats. My attempts at completing the games again on PS3 and PC have always been halted until now, mainly because of these fucking birds. Whoever at Rockstar thought this was a good idea needs a serious reality check because out of all the GTA games, the birds have to be the worst form of collectibles in any game ever. You have to kill them by shooting them or blowing them up and that also risks alerting police so you can only imagine what it’s like doing this without cheats. I remember shooting birds, only to be forced to evade police, and then hunt for the next bird, rinse and repeat. Even if the police aren’t up you’re ass, it’s still a tedious task and extremely time consuming. There’s two hundred pigeons. Why there has to be so many, I don’t know, but it honestly seems like sadism on Rockstar’s part. I think when I first did it years ago, finding and shooting them all took somewhere between six to eight hours. I just remember the process eating up a huge chunk of my day. And that’s with the help of a guide. Having to shoot only fifty seagulls in each episode is less of a nuisance but still not enjoyable. Then there’s the stunt jumps. In the base game you need to find and jump off the fifty what I’ll call “ramps” and land successfully. I hate these. I hate these because they’re required for one hundred percent. I don’t mind driving around on my own and jumping off ramps, doing stunts, and having a good time, but the required stunt jumps are way too specific. It’s easy to over jump, under jump, you have to land in a specific area, and it just becomes repetitive. And why fifty? Why does there have to be so many? My advice, find and use a fast motorcycle since you have no real control over cars in the air. GTA IV also includes a side mission that requires you to collect numerous cars throughout the city and bring them back to a garage. Niko receives a text message from Stevie, an unseen character, and it contains a picture of the vehicle and description of where it is. This is another questionable design choice but nowhere near as bad as the birds or stunt jumps. If you don’t use a guide, it can be hassle trying to find all the vehicles. This feels more like a test to see how well you know the city. I completed all missions, side missions, and activities in each game legit without cheats but I am absolutely not ashamed to admit I used a trainer for the pigeons, seagulls, and stunt jumps. The trainer allows you to teleport to each bird and jump. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. You can easily kill all the pigeons within a half hour. I would absolutely recommend using the trainer to anyone going for one hundred percent. With or without the trainer, I found absolutely no satisfaction in shooting every bird or landing every jump, just a sense of relief that it was all over. Then I quickly backed up my save files so I never have to do this again.

The PC versions of all three games do come with a video editor, accessed through the in-game phone. How this works is, you press a button at any time during gameplay to save a clip of the last thirty seconds to a minute of gameplay. You can then take all your clips, edit them, and put them together to make a video which can be exported and even uploaded to Rockstar’s Social Club. When editing a clip you can set the speed and adjust the audio, change the camera angles and even how the camera moves, set the field of view, apply different display filters, overlay music and text, and even apply different transitions. I remember when this game was in its prime and some of the fan-made videos were truly incredible. The editor itself is actually quite robust. My biggest issue with it is the long load times when loading clips for editing in the base game. In the Episodes, the load times seem to be a bit better. Making a quality video is going to be a time consuming process and the long load times don’t help. Still, it’s an extremely powerful tool that does have a bit of a learning curve but on the plus side, the interface is very user-friendly and you should be able to get the hang of things pretty quickly. GTA V’s video editor is much more refined but this is where it all started and you can create some really cool videos.

Grand Theft Auto IV was released in 2008 and it’s starting to show its age. At the time, it was the best looking game in the series, no doubt, but you can see some textures are blurry up close, character animations can appear stiff especially when transitioning from idle to movement and vice versa, and pop-in is very noticeable. I’ve always had a problem with the color palette in this game or the lack thereof. The games are going for this realistic and gritty tone and I guess that means a lot of washed out colors. When I first got the game years ago, I would play with the contrast, brightness, and saturation settings constantly until I realized the problem was the lack of color. I always keep the saturation all the way up which helps a little but the washed out colors just makes things look and feel boring at times. But on the plus side, this was the first GTA in HD and there were a lot of things I absolutely loved and welcomed with open arms. While ragdolls and animations can appear wonky at times, they look a hell of a lot better than the scripted death animations in prior games. Bullet decals are well detailed. Explosions result in fiery debris raining down from the skies and heaps of smoke rising up into the sky. If you or an NPC is shot while driving, you can see blood appear on the crack in the windshield. There are so many little things that add a sense of realism and compliment the gameplay that it was like no other shooter out at the time. On the audio side, things like footsteps, the ways vehicle sound, the NPC dialogue heard as you navigate the city, explosions, and things like that all sound excellent. However, some of the weapons fire sound effects could be better. Most weapons, especially the shotguns and carbine rifle, sound great but the worst sounding weapon is easily the SMG. Whenever it’s fired, it just sounds like someone crumpling tin foil. I’ve never liked this sound effect and it bothers me whenever I hear it. GTA games are also known for their radio stations and, honestly, I usually only care for the talk and rock stations. That’s especially true for this game. I like the talk stations because I enjoy GTA lore and Rockstar’s world building. Lazlow Jones, a real-life individual, co-writes many of the stations in each GTA game as well as acts as a host of some sort in every game and he does make a return here. I love Lazlow and his content but none of his segments have been as memorable as his hosting days on Chatterbox FM in GTA III. Here, he is the host of Integrity 2.0 and he just walks around the streets of Liberty City harassing people. Some of it is humorous and he even gets a sidekick in the Episodes. Other than that I primarily listen to Liberty Rock Radio and LCHC which are the classic rock and metal stations, respectively. The base game includes some decent to excellent songs by Queen, ZZ Top, The Who, and even Black Sabbath. The Episodes include new stations and several existing ones were revised with new music and in terms of rock and metal, the track selection here is easily the second best in the series, only topped by V-Rock from Vice City. There’s no Slayer but you can listen to songs by Iron Maiden, Sepultura, Nazareth, Deep Purple, AC/DC, Deicide, The Doors, Bathory, Styx, Motley Crue, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kreator, Foghat, and even the Doobie Brothers. It really is a fantastic selection of songs between the two stations. I don’t know what songs will be removed from the game but if you have the retail versions and don’t update the game, you’re in for a decent selection of rock music in GTA IV and an even better selection in the Episodes. The PC version also includes the Independence FM station which allows you to stream your own music. Performance-wise, both the base game and episodes run okay but not great. With everything maxed out, the frame rate will noticeably dip in a few areas, there’s a lot of flickering, the base game crashed on me a few times, and at one point an enemy was shooting me through a wall. I also want to point out that every time I would restart the game, the auto-aim function would turn itself off. I just had to turn it back on but I never did find the cause or a solution.

As big a GTA fan as I am, after I first got this and the fanboy phase subsided, I started to see through the game and many of its issues. The lack of color, clunky cover system, repetitive missions in the base game, and a serious lack of end-game content started to get to me. I still played the games religiously, causing chaos like I normally do anyway, but it wasn’t the same as my experiences with prior games. Something was missing. The world felt devoid of things to do. I did play the multiplayer way back when and had a good time with friends but that’s not why I play these games. I play them to get immersed in the worlds, to enjoy the storylines, and to take advantage of the freedom given to the player. I’ve always seen these games as action movies in video game form with a hint of crime drama, and those are also my favorite movie genres as well. I love getting into shootouts, car chases, blowing things up, and even recruiting NPC’s to help me out on my quest to cause chaos. To say I didn’t have fun with GTA IV and the Episodes is a downright lie but I will say that Grand Theft Auto IV may be my least favorite main game in the series. Even though I’m a fan of the game and series, even I wouldn’t give GTA IV a perfect score because it’s far from perfect. How other reviewers came to that conclusion is beyond me but this is still a great game, nonetheless. Several years back I overhauled my entire game with mods. I installed new textures, the iCEnhancer visual mod, I think I replaced every weapon and their sound effects, and I installed some gameplay mods but I can’t remember what they were. I can remember having a great time and, honestly, the PC version is easily the best way to play just thanks to mods, alone, which can rectify some of the problems experienced in the vanilla game. Some of the visual mods are really a sight to behold. I remember when I was in school, Jeremy told me he was looking at screen shots of GTA IV with the iCEnhancer mod and thought they were actual pictures of New York City. There’s all kinds of script mods, sound mods, texture mods, weapon mods, cheat mods, and even custom missions. I decided to play through the entire thing vanilla for the purpose of the review and so I can finally have a one hundred percent save file backed up for each game.

Ultimately, I would recommend Grand Theft Auto IV and Episodes from Liberty City without hesitation. Despite their issues, they’re still great games and I had a lot of fun. It was fun revisiting the storylines and seeing how the HD universe got started. The Episodes include some truly welcome additions to the GTA formula. The scoring system and especially the ability to replay missions introduced in The Ballad of Gay Tony has to be one of the biggest and most welcome new features of the bunch, at least for a mainline GTA title, since this feature was first introduced in Chinatown Wars. Before GTA IV released, that was something I was hoping would be implemented for years. Playing through these games was a nostalgic trip for me, especially since I haven’t really played them since GTA V released. It’s also been a while since I checked out what the GTA community has been up to. I was extremely saddened to see some of my favorite GTA fan sites like GTAGaming, GTA Warehouse, and Gouranga! are shut down. I think this is old news at this point and the site I would mostly frequent was GTA Network which is still up and running. But I would bounce between that and the other sites frequently, especially GTA Gaming which I think now only houses an archive. Many of the popular GTA fan sites receive exclusive pre-release screen shots from Rockstar, among other things, as a thank you for supporting their games and to obviously help advertise. When I was in high school, I would visit many of these sites almost on a daily basis, I even tried starting my own a few times, back when the 3D universe games were in their heyday, so to see them shut down was truly heartbreaking. With that said, I am dedicating this review to all of the fallen GTA fan sites. Like any other GTA game, the hype and excitement that built up before GTA IV released reached and maybe even exceeded child-levels of excitement before Christmas day. There is no hype like GTA hype and any dedicated GTA fan will know exactly what I’m talking about. When I first started to play this, I couldn’t see any issues. I was blinded by the typical fanboy bullshit. But over time, especially after I completed the game to one hundred percent and my excitement settled down, I really started to notice the problems, and I ended up being slightly disappointed with the game as a whole. Grand Theft Auto IV is a flawed but still great game and much of the core gameplay was refined in GTA V, although that game does have it’s own problems. If you haven’t played this, definitely check it out.

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