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GTA 4 - First Impressions

I've been waiting to play this game for ages. It didn't work on either one of my old computers. Not the loyal Compay Presario, bought 2003, which managed the entire third generation of GTA games as they came out, from Liberty City to San Andreas, nor did it work my newer office computer, with only a basic integrated video card, but on my new computer... it works! I tried running the game even before the computer had a DVD drive, by installing it on my current computer and then transferring the files via an external drive, but since that didn't work I had to wait one more day, fetch and install the drive I ordered, install the game again and... it lagged. Not hellishly, but rather annoyingly, the graphics hacking every time I turned around or ventured a distance. I had a great first impression of the graphics though, both cut-scenes and in-game graphics (similar to previous GTA games, in-game and cut-scene graphics are the same, so you really get what you see) but... it seemed like my new computer still couldn't properly handle such intense eye-candy. Really? 8-core 3,1Ghz processor, 2GB GPU memory, 8GB RAM... not enough? It turns out the problem had a simple fix: turning off the Windows Event Log & Collector services. I read a quick tutorial, did that, aaaand... it still hacked! Oh wait, forgot to reboot the computer. So, computer rebooted and...

No lag. I tested upping the graphical quality a little bit at a time, to see if it would affect the gameplay. Eventually I had it set to highest, the resolution at the highest possible, the draw distance/shadow/vehicle/render quality/density at 100. It looks awesome... but I'm starting to think some of these settings affect gameplay more than they affect performance, like the vehicle density... suddenly there are just way too many cars everywhere! They're all waiting in line by the red lights. It appears these settings might require some fine-tuning. The game still occasionally crashes, after a couple hours of gameplay, giving me a RES10 error, which appears to mean it runs out of memory. It's apparently a common error, and mostly due to a memory leak in the game that I'll be fixing eventually, when I'm not too busy playing. At times like this I am happy for the new auto-save feature! I am also glad my video card supports 2GB instead of just the one, because apparently the game uses up 1,4GB when every thing's set to max. Or could that be regular RAM? The loading screen still takes a while, around 20-40 seconds, and loading screens between cut scenes a few seconds at least, but that's tolerable. I put my new box to the test, and it passed. :)

The dynamics and physics of the game were both impressive and a bit annoying. I'm slowly getting used to the steering, but overall it feels like there is too much realism. It might be something you get used to over time, but compared to the older games... vehicles are so slow! It takes ages to speed up, and the most annoying part is that you have to slow down a bit too much to cut corners. Is it really this hard to drive in real life? I don't think so. My initial impression is that they took realism a bit too far, but at the same time the cars do feel heavy and perceptible. When you crash into another car the glass shatters, when the car starts burning the fire isn't rising straight through the hood, you can brush past burning objects and tires may catch fire, rotating the copter rotates your view at the same time (this took some getting used to, it's a small detail but still so very different from the older games); there are lots of small details like this that add to the experience. The explosions are really on a whole other level than previous games as well, they're amazing, they're flashy and smokey and fiery. I'm looking forward to seeing how they'll manage to top this off in GTA 5, though I can't imagine it'll be as big an improvement as between this game and the previous one.

The atmosphere in the city reminds of old Liberty City, but there's also direct sunlight, the whether shifts so it's not always that dull, gray atmosphere as in the old game. The overall architecture is incredibly detailed in comparison to any of the third generation games, and I like the fact that you can pretty much push around everything in the game. Trashcans fall down, roll around, the lids fall off, people (even in-game characters) fall down if you run into them, etc. The physics have received an incredible overhaul. Even when they're sitting in the vehicle, they are much more aware of their surroundings, crashes, etc. You can see the characters looking around as they drive/travel, you can interact with people around you in an entirely different way, and people will respond to events that happen with both action and exclamation. If you point a gun at the driver, he gets out of the car. If you lower your gun, he runs away, sometimes he'll try to make a run/drive for it. In shops, you walk around to view different items instead of just toggling through them. The food aspect of the game is a bit basic. You eat a hotdog/etc and your health is fully replenished, I'd rather it didn't have such an immediate effect. Also, I'd rather you didn't lose health so easily, crashing off bikes, falling down, flying through a windshield, etc. The realism is both good and bad, and in gunfights especially it's much easier to be killed than it used to be. I feel it's taking away a bit of the enjoyment in everyday mayhem that the previous games had, and you can't easily blow up vehicles just by firing at them. Good in the long run, maybe, but after playing the older games where the carnage was constant, it's a bit of a letdown at the same time.

The loading screens are built up of two layers that slowly move in different directions. Simple, but awesome. The cars have all received a both graphical and physical overhaul. You can switch headlights on or off. You can shoot in all directions rather than just sideways when in a vehicle. You pay toll when passing over the bridges, or get chased by cops, you can go through car washes, spray your vehicle only if the cops don't see you, and to get rid of your wanted level you need to avoid detection rather than find a bribe. Or are the bribes still there? And what about hidden packages? I haven't played that much yet, but so far, I haven't seen a single one. It'd be a shame if they've all been removed from the game.

One thing I noticed that was rather disappointing initially,is how weapon pickups lie flat on the ground. Realism for sure, but I liked the dimensional pickups. They were easy to spot, they were fun to walk into, and they were colorful (now all weapons are surrounded by orange/red). Money is surrounded by green. The location makers aren't very obvious either, they're yellow arrows that feel a bit too easy to miss. Buying weapons is like buying clothes, a walk-around and select experience. Oh, one more thing, dating. Killing someone while your with a girlfriend is no longer a good idea. Mybe it depends on who you date, but it seems everybody is much more aware of what you do than it was in the previous games. In difference to previous games there are also a vast amount of activities. You can play pool, bowl, throw darts, drink (and get drunk, making it harder to steer your vehicle), etc. I guess they tried bringing the game back to basics in some ways, removing the RPG-like aspects of GTA SA, but at the same time they've expanded on other RPG-like areas, such as activities and hanging out with your friends to keep them happy.

I feel they've removed some of the greater aspects of the game, like being able to increase your health, build up your physique, stamina, and skill in activities such as driving, swimming, etc. It also doesn't seem possible to dive in the water, which is a shame, since you don't see what's under the surface. Would be cool if there was another world down under. Maybe they're keeping it true to the original Liberty City game, maybe they want to save some features for the next release, maybe they just... didn't have the time/will/idea. Either way, it's a shame so much is left out. Honestly, the only real improvement is the graphical part. The physics are both good and bad, they're good in that they're so elaborate, and bad in that they're so... clumsy. I'm sure I'll get used to it eventually, but I'll still always miss the freedom of movement I had in the previous games, especially GTA SA.

The main character, Nico Bellic, is also somehow a character I can't relate to as easily as the previous ones, maybe because he really is an ice cold killer, a human being, sure, but also a flawed individual in so many other aspects. He insults people unjustly, he doesn't seem to care that much for others... I don't know, overall he doesn't seem as sympathetic as the characters of the past. Claude never said anything, which made it easier to relate to him, but I imagine Nico is a form of a modern interpretation of Claude. They both have similarities. The leather jacket, the overall build, they're 'attitude' to life, work and money... I imagine Claude might not have been so sympathetic if he said things. Also, another nice perk of this game is how you get different dialogs on attempting missions a second time. There seem to be two separate sets of speech for each missions, which definitely adds some re playability, not to mention that it doesn't make it seem so important to pass each task the first time around. There's also, overall, much more dialog. Phonecalls, messages, emails, and regular dialog. When you go on dates or hang out, the characters often have new things to say to you, and you to them. It's a much more dynamic world in character interaction.

Also, there's Internet. You can sit down by a computer and access the net, a fake net, full of fake sites, full of entertainment. I haven't had time to explore them all yet, but there really is a surplus of them. I haven't plowed through most of the radio stations and music either, but as with the dialog, the radio seems more dynamic as well. The news is relevant to what you do in the game, and when they speak of the 'serial killer on the loose'... it's probably you. :)

Maybe I should end this post here before I write an entire book. Conclusively, the new game engine is great, but it could've been tweaked better for vehicle controls, among other things. The features leave some to be desired, but do pack a punch compared to previous games, and the overall game world is much more dynamic than it used to be. It's an honorable reinterpretation of Liberty City, and compared only to that game, it's much better in all aspects. The game features and functions evolved during the Vice City and San Andreas releases, and not all of the evolution has followed into this one, but compared only to the initial third-generation game, there's nothing to complain about. Well, except for the weapon pick-ups, potential lacks of bribes and hidden packages, rampages... hmm, either way, it seems like a good game. I can't wait to see what the next one will have to offer in addition, and once I've played through this one, maybe my views will have changed.

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