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David Low
26 Jan, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Preview

360 Preview | Rockstar gives us a look at the latest build. We say wow.
Grand Theft Auto III was without doubt one of the defining titles of last generation. The game's sprawling city, open mission structure, and tight presentation showed what that generation of consoles were capable of, word of mouth made the title a smash hit, and the open-world design went on to be one of the dominant game types of the generation. Scottish developer DMA Design (soon re-named Rockstar North) expanded and refined the formula over the two PS2 sequels, Vice City and San Andreas, developing more involved stories and sense of place, upping the feature list, and further smashing sales records. Rockstar North repeatedly showed they had what it took to stay ahead of the pack.

Which brings us to the story of Grand Theft Auto IV. Almost seven years since the last numbered GTA, the gaming environment is now crowded with open-world games, with many other developers having nailed a version of the formula. After the two solid but unimaginative PSP/PS2 GTA Stories releases, the questions had to be asked – did Rockstar still have what it took to stay ahead in terms of ideas and designs? Another concern was that all the PS2 (and PSP) games were built on a middleware engine foundation, and many were wondering exactly how Rockstar would go with the first major game in the series developed from scratch on their own in-house tech. Rockstar San Diego's next-gen RAGE engine held promise but was unproven, with the only game having been released using the tech so far being Rockstar Presents Table Tennis. It was a nice little game, but hardly a showcase of grand design. When the bombshell dropped last year that Grand Theft Auto IV would miss its October release date, it seemed many of these fears may have had a basis in reality.

With the recent announcement that Grand Theft Auto IV would be released worldwide on April 29, only three months away, at least it's not going to be a long wait to find out the answers to these questions. We recently had an opportunity to take a look at the latest build of Grand Theft Auto IV at Rockstar's offices, and we definitely left reassured. Grand Theft Auto IV is shaping up remarkably well, and Rockstar North look to still have everything it takes to stay ahead of the pretenders.

The scale of the city really comes across when you're travelling by foot.

The scale of the city really comes across when you're travelling by foot.
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Our demo began with a quick walk around the city. Main character Niko, a Russian immigrant with a criminal history, was at the docks on Liberty City harbour during sunrise, and his task was to meet a mechanic who had a job for him. After stealing a car (by breaking the window with his elbow and hot wiring it), Niko was off, and we got our first look at the city as he took a drive. The game didn't immediately jump out at us as better looking then your average next-gen game, as up-close textures and geometry looked good, but nothing mind-blowing. But soon we realised that this engine was very impressive. The draw distance was simply stunning, and there appeared to be some kind of focus filter so things don't have that 'unrealistically crystal clear at any distance' look of many high definition games. Add to this great art design, a strong lighting engine (highlighted by the rising sun over the harbour), fluid animation and physics for pedestrians and cars respectively, and a generally stable framerate, and it all came together to be one of the best, if not the best looking game we've yet seen on the HD consoles. But more about the graphics later.

Niko arrived at the mechanics, and after leaving the car, we noticed another thing – the game seamlessly transitioned to the indoor environment without load time. Indoors didn't look quite as impressive, with some (relatively) blurry textures and polygon edges visible, but all this was worth the trade-off for interiors so well integrated into the game. A cut scene began, the mechanic (a try-hard underworld figure named 'Brucie') was working under a car, and after failing to respond to Niko's call he received a quick kick in the ribs. Here we realised three things. First, this game is as adult as they come, with plenty of swearing, realistic violence and references to everything unwholesome. Second, the voice acting, animation and direction of the cut scene was absolutely top-of-the-line for the industry. Dialogue matched the mouths of the characters better then we've seen before, the character movements were natural without the exaggeration usually present in videogame (and for that matter CG movie) body language, and the script was tight and amusing, very Goodfellas or Sopranos.

The third thing we noticed was that Niko is quite an entertaining main character. Older, daggier, and more flawed then your average videogame 'hero', he's possibly one of the most original in years. He's a classic rough European gangster without being too much of a cliché, he's not cool in a clean-cut commercial sense, but still completely confident and bad-ass in his own way. He's also pretty hilarious, and over the period of the demo we watched him make verbal mincemeat out of many other characters, all in a delightful Russian accent. Rockstar promises he has some sort of 'dark secret', and that the main story thread of the game will be about him tracking down somebody from his past, but for everything else the game has to offer, watching Niko's reactions to events is one of the things we will be most looking forward to in the final game.

The weather effects are fantastic.

The weather effects are fantastic.
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The job Brucie gave Niko was to 'take out' a certain individual, but in order to do this he must first be located by accessing the Police Database. And the easiest way to do this is to steal a cop car. This task achieved 'the easy way' (stealing the car from the front of the station), Niko was able to search for his hit and then follow on on-board GPS to the now helpfully marked destination. During the drive we witnessed yet more stunning views of the city, from various camera angles available, including a very cinematic ¾ overhead view. Niko also received a few mobile phone calls. These calls went unanswered as part of this demo, but will apparently need to be dealt with in the final game, or your friends and contacts will get annoyed at you for not answering, but will help you out in the future if you are a good contact.

Arriving at the destination, no sooner had Niko knocked on the door then the target did a runner, jumping out a back window, and after jacking the nearest car the chase was on. While driving, you are able to smash a window and freely aim any weapon with the right stick, allowing you to take out the other car or anything else in your way. A head-on collision and dramatic fuel truck explosion later, Niko got out of the car and walked over to finish off the now-limping target, execution style. A short theme-tune signalled the mission was complete and the game had auto-saved.

The next mission we were shown was given to Niko by a small-time African-American Gangster who called himself Playboy X. After another amusing cut scene, we were off to take out some troublesome union workers on a bay-side construction site on behalf of the Mafia. 'PX' comes along for the ride, giving Niko some weapons and details, and the first task was to climb an adjacent building and snipe the lookouts. After this was complete, Niko went in alone to finish off the workers, and this was when we first saw the new combat system at work. Playing very much like Gears of War or Uncharterd, the basic set-up in this mission involved moving between cover while aiming with the right stick. A context sensitive button allowed Niko to slide to cover, pop out to take aim, and even blind fire. Auto-aiming remains an option and was turned on in this demo, but controls will apparently be quite customisable in the final build. It all seemed very modern and fluid, and best of all was once again seamlessly integrated - pull out the gun and you're on. This level also allowed us to see the city and building site at night – cheat options in the build allowed us to see several weather types and times of day, and they all looked very atmospheric.

Aiming weapons is much improved.

Aiming weapons is much improved.
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The final mission we saw involved stealing a truck full of heroin from some suburban triads. Beginning by ambushing the well guarded truck in a delightfully authentic 'Sopranos New Jersey'-like setting, we watched the physics engine at work as Niko's grenades sent bodies flying. But the truck took off, signaling the start of an action set-piece where you must grab the back of the truck (by hitting a context sensitive button) and then climb over the top to take out the driver, Indiana Jones style. It was all very dramatic and highlighted a potential variety of gameplay in the final game.

We mentioned we'd come back to the graphics, and it has to be said that while there are still a few issues with the build we saw, Grand Theft Auto IV is a huge achievement technically. The scale of the city is truly impressive, as you really can see for miles with over a realistic looking horizon. It's not aiming for complete realism, more like a stylistically shot movie, and the art direction and lighting really bring this home. Several areas of New York have been re-created amazingly faithfully (in fictional 'Liberty City' form, of course) and a quick run around the harbour by speedboat allowed us quite a good look at a large chunk of the game area - and it was a sight to behold. In this build there was still a bit of texture pop-in, some framerate hiccups particularly when turning a corner quickly, and some background shimmering, seemingly due to incomplete anti-aliasing. But even if the game were released in current form it would still be a great looking game, albeit buggy.

We have to admit that while we enjoyed last generation's GTA games and understood their significance, we were never quite won over by the dated engine and clumsy aiming mechanics. Based on this demo, Grand Theft Auto IV looks likely to win us over. The seamless integration of modern shooting and driving gameplay, a seemingly complex mission structure, interesting characters and narrative, and an expansive, great looking city make this the most 'next-gen' game we've yet seen. If the whole game is this good, and the remaining kinks have been worked out by release, Rockstar North may have set the standard yet again.
Overall:
If the demo we saw was representative of the final game, Grand Theft Auto IV will be something special indeed. RockStar North defined the open-world genre, can they now re-define it?

Related Grand Theft Auto IV Content

GTA IV receives multiplayer focused patch
24 Jun, 2008 Exploits and connectivity issues targeted.
GTA IV sells 8.5 million
06 Jun, 2008 That's a lot of copies in about six weeks.
GTA IV cut details emerge
24 May, 2008 So, what's missing from our version?
18 Comments
6 years ago
Looking forward to this more and more. Great article! Good job Dave. icon_y1.gif
6 years ago
I'm as hyped for this game as the next guy, but it's things like:
Quote
After stealing a car (by breaking the window with his elbow and hot wiring it)
that make me worry that the engine's gonna feel like Saints Row. Nothing particularly wrong with that, it's just not GTA...
6 years ago
Don't see how breaking the window and hot wiring the car will make it feel like Saints Row as SR was more just grab the door and hop in. I welcome this change as it'll make it more challenging in the game, especially if you need to get a car for a quick getaway.
6 years ago
Well if have indeed fixed up the clumsy shooting mechanics I think I'll give it a go.
6 years ago
I'm not worried.
This was always on my list.
6 years ago
LeonJ wrote
Well if have indeed fixed up the clumsy shooting mechanics I think I'll give it a go.
Seconded. As long as the actual shooting mechanics work and don't feel completely retarded, this game may appeal to me after all.
6 years ago
Did you hear any of the radio?!?

I think we all know how awesome GTA's radio is, hopefully it lives up to 3 and its sequels.
6 years ago
^yeah, but the track hasn't been finalised so we can't comment too much
6 years ago
The more I read about this the harder it is to wait, great read David! Just a few questions you may or may not be able to answer,

most importantly, does the game still feel like Grand Theft Auto? obviously you didn't actually have a go at the game but what did you gather.

any word on the multiplayer aspects of the game?

and lastly, please tell me there is a talk show station
6 years ago
I know this is nothing major but you've got a PS3 box shot for a 360 preview. Did you get to play both versions?
6 years ago
LeonJ wrote
Well if have indeed fixed up the clumsy shooting mechanics I think I'll give it a go.
Yeah, it's a revolution, the shooting mechanics are very modern.
bradc1988 wrote
Did you hear any of the radio?!?

I think we all know how awesome GTA's radio is, hopefully it lives up to 3 and its sequels.
Didn't hear too much, and what we heard we can't talk about right now. But I can confirm there was a talkback station.
pizzashapes wrote
most importantly, does the game still feel like Grand Theft Auto? obviously you didn't actually have a go at the game but what did you gather.
Well it's just so much better in every way it's hard to say. It's got the GTA humour, story, open city and basic gameplay, and to some extent atmosphere, but the game mechanics and graphics are just improved so much.
pizzashapes wrote
any word on the multiplayer aspects of the game?
No details except that there will be multiplayer of some sort.
pizzashapes wrote
and lastly, please tell me there is a talk show station
Yes there is.
killjoy83 wrote
I know this is nothing major but you've got a PS3 box shot for a 360 preview. Did you get to play both versions?
Well it's a multi-platform game, so I thought that was fair. The demo was a 360 build, but we were assured that the versions would be 'functionally identical.'
6 years ago
this really isn't a preview, this is everything we've known for over 6 months.

this preview is just a repeat of everything we know
6 years ago
This preview is a direct look into some of the missions and interactions present in the game, which is more concrete info than we've had in a long time. Up until now there have only been a few previews around different sites, all based on very carefully selected areas that didn't show much of the peripheral gameplay.

If this preview seems similar to others out at the moment, well thats because it is - as I understand it many gaming journalists were shown a hands-off demo of the same sequence of play. That aside, this one is one of the better that I've read. Well written, with a focus on some details that other places (Hello 1up) glossed over in favour of a more story like read.

Top work, David icon_smile.gif
6 years ago
accessdenied wrote
this really isn't a preview, this is everything we've known for over 6 months.

this preview is just a repeat of everything we know
this isn't a post, this is spam and flamebait.

this post is a request to be banned.
6 years ago
Could you please let me know if they made ANY mention of the Playstation3 version. It's the version I am buying, and I don't care if the info is as small as the filesize or whatever, just anything on the PS3 version is better than nothing. I know they are premiering the PS3 version at GDC, just wondering if they slipped any info at this event PALGN went to.
6 years ago
ObsoletE wrote
accessdenied wrote
this really isn't a preview, this is everything we've known for over 6 months.

this preview is just a repeat of everything we know
this isn't a post, this is spam and flamebait.

this post is a request to be banned.
i think you should've used "that" instead of "this" icon_wink.gif

anyway great preview icon_biggrin.gif
6 years ago
Being the graphics whore that i am i have always been wary of the graphical glitches that plagued the other GTA games on the PS2.

Now that we have moved up a generation in consoles, my nit-picky attitude is in full flight and the graphical powerhouses of last eyar, namely COD 4 and Uncharted, have raised the bar to a very high level.

My question relates to comparisons between Ubisoft's gem Assassins Creed, with the GTA game you have played. I suppose Assassins is somewhat of a sandbox game, with open ended environments and a realistic living / breathing city.

So how does a game like GTA, obviously different in everyway except for that smallish sandbox bond they share stack up in comparison?
6 years ago
I guess GTAIV will use data streaming as its predecessors did. Flakey disc readers seem to be the norm these days, so any news whether the game can be played from the hard drive, and if not, it's a feature I'd love to see more new games supporting.
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    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  29/04/2008 (Confirmed)
Standard Retail Price:
  $119.95 AU
Publisher:
  Rockstar Games
Genre:
  Action
Year Made:
  2007

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