Early Impressions: Grand Theft Auto IV

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News about the just-released Grand Theft Auto IV has been inescapable this week. I got my copy (PS3 edition) on Thursday and have been able to spend a few hours with it so far. It's far too early for me to have a solid opinion about the game - for a game this large, that could take weeks or more, and after five hours, my character hasn't even held a gun yet. But I've played enough to know I'll want to spend a lot more time exploring this world and its stories. So, some early thoughts:

Things I Love

- The new Liberty City is phenomenal. I don't remember GTA III too well, so it's difficult to make a comparison, but I'm continually amazed by the care that has gone into creating a realistic, sprawling city. The early portions of the game mainly take place in Broker, Liberty City's version of Brooklyn, and as a Brooklyn resident, I'm often distracted by my the dreamlike familiarity of my surroundings. Specific areas are instantly recognizable; while speeding away from police pursuit on two separate occasions, I found myself careening down a fictional version of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (I used to live right across from the real one) and Park Slope's landmark Grand Army Plaza. I still can't access the Manhattan-inspired part of the city, and I can't wait until those police barricades come down. (For more on the game's setting detail, check out this New York interview with Rockstar's Dan Houser.)

- Protagonist Niko Bellic is a badass, but in an instantly likable way. He's cynical and funny, but he seems to have a heart (and a past he's rather forget, of course). At the beginning of the game, Niko is literally fresh off the boat, lured to America by his idiot cousin Roman with promises of the high life. Niko soon realizes his cousin's stories are based more in misguided optimism and fantasy than anything resembling fact.

- All the incidental, optional things that flesh out the game world are remarkably well-executed. The various radio stations are always a highlight of GTA games, and that tradition continues here. I've also spent a lot of time watching TV in Roman's crappy apartment - the channels parody everything that's wrong with American popular culture, and they're almost all hilarious. (I won't spoil them here, although I'm sure there's plenty of material on YouTube by now.) I can't wait to play around with the game's fake internet. Oh, and the live shows at the Russian cabaret are absurd and amazing.

Nitpicks

- Functionally, the camera is still problematic. I'm surprised Rockstar doesn't allow players to customize camera controls. I'm not the only person who prefers inverted controls on both the vertical and horizontal axes, but only the vertical is customizable here. It's not a deal breaker, but it does make for a disorienting first couple hours. Also, as with most third-person action games with a free camera, GTA IV can be downright nausea-inducing. The POV tends to swing back and forth wildly at times. I'm not one to complain about the need to "babysit the camera," but my stomach is turning more often than usual for this sort of game. (That said, I still prefer a free camera to a God of War-style fixed perspective for my action games - the trade-off is almost always worth it.)

- Driving still feels floaty and imprecise, and the camera could be a little higher off the ground. Again, it's not a huge problem, but inferior games have handled driving with more skill (Saints Row, ahem).

So far, the positives far outweigh the negatives, but the nitpicky things may bother some more than others. The early gameplay isn't much different from previous games in the series, but I don't know if that will hold true or if this is the game's way of easing you into its clutches. If you live in New York or you've spent a lot of time here (and if you own a PS3 or Xbox 360), I'd almost recommend buying the game just to cruise around and sightsee.

More impressions coming soon!