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David Low
14 Mar, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV Preview

360 Preview | Hands-on impressions, detail on the controls.
Its only been a few weeks since we brought your our last preview of possibly the year's biggest game, but Rockstar had us back for another session, this time for some hands-on time with a more recent build of Grand Theft Auto IV. Rather than go through the demo blow by blow, we have decided to focus on what we think most people will be most interested in – the way the game plays, particularly the controls. If you want to get the 'vibe' of the game, check out our last preview linked above - none of our opinions have changed on what was covered in it.

But first, we'll briefly go over the story stuff we were shown. The demonstration began with a hands-off section, picking up soon after our last preview story-wise. It seems the heroin from the heist had been tracked by the cops, who have now surrounded the building. Niko, Frank and the the drug guy must escape from the sting in two cars, now under a nice three star wanted level. It was quite an action-packed mission, and demonstrated the way the new wanted system worked quite well. The on-screen GPS map shows the wanted radius, which you must escape, and in this instance Niko and pals actually had to change car to avoid the law.

The first mission we actually played was apparently an early one which involved ferrying around a Caribbean ganja dealer, including a shootout at a deal gone bad, and a run-down of some unsavory types in an alleyway. We also played a scene that involved storming a warehouse at the docks with full guns blazing. Between the missions and some random street fights we picked, we were exposed to all the basics of controlling Niko and how the game will be played throughout.

We didn't see as much of his personality this time, but Niko was still a great character.

We didn't see as much of his personality this time, but Niko was still a great character.
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What most people will be interested to hear is exactly how well the new controls work. We previously described the shooting controls as somewhat akin to Uncharted or Gears of War, and while that remains true in a general sense, the feel is looser, particularly with auto-aiming enabled (as it was in our demo).

Generally, as previously described, when holding the left trigger down with nothing to aim at, you are able to aim freely with the right stick. The aiming actually reminded us of Lost Planet, as it had a smoother, looser feel then the super tight aiming of your average first person shooter, but once you're used to it works just as well as you'd hope. However, once you have something to aim at, holding the button down all the way (which we've been trained to do by pretty much every shooter ever) sets the game into a slightly more traditional GTA lock-on mode where flicks of the right stick switch between targets. Even though you could simply hold the trigger down halfway to stay in free-look mode, when there were only one or two enemies around we found the transition between aiming modes to be slightly jarring, with the lock-on mode feeling particularly limiting and old fashioned. But when we got into a large firefight in the warehouse set-piece, the lock-on was indispensable when combined with the cover system. Popping out from behind cover to fire and taking down three targets in-turn with a simple flick of the right stick makes a grand scene play quite cinematically.

A bit of sniping to thin out enemy numbers never goes astray.

A bit of sniping to thin out enemy numbers never goes astray.
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Speaking of the cover system, it bears more resemblance to the Rainbow Six: Vegas system then any game released since. Pushing up against a wall and holding the right shoulder button allows you to enter cover mode, and you can leave by simply pulling away from the wall or hitting the button again. In this mode, we found Niko could roll left or right or jump over a barrier with the appropriate direction and the X button, and he can automatically blind fire from cover if you fire without locking on to anything. It's quite flexible, combining the 'sticky cover' idea of Gears of War with the more accessible cover button of Vegas, and the lock-on system which is somewhat similar to many PSP shooters. We'll probably end up sounding like a broken record in this preview, but like most of the game's control systems, it is initially unwieldy but eventually clicks.

Even though it is technically optional all the time, we can certainly see an argument for turning off the auto-aim (which will apparently be an option in the final build), which would make the game play even more like Vegas and will no doubt be the choice for those thoroughly versed in the shooter (so... about 70% of the Xbox userbase?). But the hybrid lock-on system definitely works, and will be a good choice for casual GTA fans and those who don't want to make the game too much of a shooter. It's certainly a more comprehensive system then that featured in, say, Saints Row. We actually enjoyed the on-foot controls a lot, and in fact getting into a car and driving around felt a bit cumbersome after it – we pretty much just wanted to run everywhere.

The docks shootout was the biggest set piece yet

The docks shootout was the biggest set piece yet
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Another interesting thing was the way movement worked. Niko's more realistic animations meant that small movements were actually significantly slower than in older games, a similar phenomenon to the highly animated characters in a few other next-gen games, Heavenly Sword from example. To begin with it almost feels like you're 'instructing' Niko rather than having full control of him, as your inputs are slightly delayed as the smooth animations catch up with them. After a while your brain compensates for this and it all feels natural. It's just one of these trade offs next-gen games have to have to look more realistic, and the result is definitely worth it

The drug deal mission required shooting from a car, and you can hit the left shoulder button to smash the window with Niko's elbow, then aim with the right stick and fire. We found it pretty damn hard to begin with, as managing aiming and firing as well as steering, acceleration and braking was just too much too soon. The first few times we tried we lost control and crashed into various light poles, buildings and even off an overpass. We can't say we got the handle of it completely by the end of our time with the game, but we did improve, and could certainly see that it would be a masterable skill.

While there is more emphasis on shooting, car chases are still a big part of it all

While there is more emphasis on shooting, car chases are still a big part of it all
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As you'd expect for a game this close to release, we didn't notice any major differences in the engine or presentation from our last preview, apart from perhaps slightly tidied up scripted sequences. It's still an amazing looking game with a few slightly rough edges (such as some blurry textures indoors) which are mostly the result of trade-offs for success in other areas. The focus filter used to create realistically distorted horizons is still one of the most impressive features. And the voice acting and camera work in cinemas remains as good as anything seen in a game. The main difference this time was that we can say for sure there weren't any large flaws being hidden by the deft playing skills of the tester at our hands-off look. Everything worked as it should, and the perhaps too-smooth camera control prevents anything from looking too jittery for a spectator. One thing worth noting is that the 'cinematic' camera angle while driving takes some getting used to, and while it looks great it was the cause of many a crash as our grapple with already unfamiliar controls was exasperated by the necessity to adjust for relative movements.

It was great to finally have a chance to play Grand Theft Auto IV, and while Rockstar have a tough balancing act to manage between accessibility and responsiveness, they seem to be pulling it off so far. We have a feeling that over the course of the game much of what seems so complicated at first will become second nature. But with nothing fundamentally broken and the actual game looking as beautiful and entertaining as ever, April 29 can't come soon enough.
Overall:
Still looking great, and now confirmed to be playing great. Just try and miss the hype as release draws near.

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?
14 Comments
6 years ago
Hey there,

Thanx 4 the preview. Just wondering if you noticed if GTA IV allowed controls to be configured as southpaw?
6 years ago
Quote
The drug deal mission required shooting from a car, and you can hit the left shoulder button to smash the window with Niko's elbow, then aim with the right stick and fire.
Love the little details like that! Although it'd also be kinda neat to be able to re-create that in-car gun firing scene from Snatch icon_razz.gif
6 years ago
Great preview. I have a post-it note GTA4 countdown on my desk at work. One thing that I haven't heard a peep about though is what songs will be on the soundtrack and what radio stations there will be.
6 years ago
Karai Pantsu wrote
Love the little details like that! Although it'd also be kinda neat to be able to re-create that in-car gun firing scene from Snatch icon_razz.gif
Yeah, i'm sick of going through the motions myself of holding down the power window button, FALCON ELBOW!

I probably should get around to preordering this, it would mark the first game i've preordered, ever.
6 years ago
More people need to yell FALCON! inappropriately loudly before making a swift and/or exaggerated physical movement.
6 years ago
Toastfarmer wrote
Great preview. I have a post-it note GTA4 countdown on my desk at work. One thing that I haven't heard a peep about though is what songs will be on the soundtrack and what radio stations there will be.
Listen to some Grand Theft Auto 4 radio right here.

http://au.ps3.ign.com/articles/857/857795p1.html

"Vladivostok FM: Post-Communist Russian Music To Rock The Eastern Bloc"

This game is going to be so damn awesome.
6 years ago
This looks really good.
And with the idea of shooting out of a car window while driving, it would quite hard IRL, so it makes sense to be hard in-game.
6 years ago
i dont want to buy it on x360


i want it on PC icon_cry.gif
6 years ago
Annihilation wrote
i dont want to buy it on x360


i want it on PC icon_cry.gif
Then you will have to wait.
6 years ago
i could drive and shoot good in saints row so from the preview it sounds like i should have no problem with GTA4s car shooting
6 years ago
I don't suppose theres any chance that there'll be an option to turn the lock-on off?
6 years ago
The Preview said their should be an option in the final game to turn off the lock on.

the gunplay sounds sort like "The Godfather" to me, anyone else think this?
6 years ago
I thought the option mentioned was to turn auto-aim off, which is (commonly) a different beast entirely?
6 years ago
Great Preview.
I will continue to salivate until release. icon_drool.gif
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  Pre-order or buy:
    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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