Grand Theft Auto needs no introduction to anyone remotely familiar with video games. But for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 entry in the series, Rockstar has upped the ante, creating a startlingly realistic reinterpretation of New York City as backdrop to a violent crime epic. In it, damaged goods Serbian war vet Niko Bellic ventures to Liberty City to in search of closure, while coming to terms with the harsh realities of The American Dream. People die, others find happiness, players join Niko on a journey through a world where everyone is flawed, where it seems everyone is consumed by their own obsessions.
It's a brutal ride for almost everyone in Niko's journey from off the boat yokel to mass murderer, but what is the Grand Theft Auto IV experience like for the player?
It's A Hell Of A Story: Niko's life in Liberty City is violent, tragic and enthralling. Rockstar North's ability to make the player emotionally invest in GTA IV's characters is a rare achievement—and this is one aspect of the game that the team came close to perfecting. Outside of a handful of either slightly annoying or forgettable cast members, GTA IV's supporting players are as much of a draw as firing RPGs at a car filled with Russian gangsters then fleeing from the LCPD at high speeds in a Turismo.
You Belong To The City: The level of detail packed in to every aspect of Liberty City's boroughs is simply astounding. On a micro level, seeing the neighbourhood change from industrial to residential, from posh to sketchy, is impressive. Taking a macro perspective of whole islands during a leisurely helicopter flight can be awe-inspiring.
Shooting The Shit: Combat works. With a free-look option for targeting whomever your want to be on the receiving end of a bullet and a lock-on reticule for quick, dirty, accurate gunplay, ventilating lowlifes is precise and almost entirely free of frustration. That Niko can pull off headshots with analogue precision is something I wish I'd learned to perfect earlier in the game. That said, trying to shoot out someone's tires with any accuracy while doing 90 MPH on a motorcycle isn't handed to you on a plate. Trying to shoot while driving can be frustrating—especially when the mechanism for switching weapons is remapped—but sensitivity options certainly help.
Friends With Benefits: You may occasionally grow weary of fending off friendly invitations to go for a drink or a trip to one of the cities fine gentleman's clubs while you're busy trying to recover someone's heroin, but cultivating friendships is more beneficial than not. The pay off—helpful nurses, gun running buddies, posses on demand—make your life in Liberty City much easier.
Driving Mr. Bellic: With two solid dedicated online racing modes and a slew of street dragging side missions, Rockstar had to get driving right. It did. Pulling off bad-arse parking brake U-turns is oh so satisfying. GTA Race—think Mario Kart with RPGs instead of koopa shells—is a better effort than many dedicated driving games. GPS directions are very, very welcome.
Multiplayer: GTA IV's fifteen multiplayer modes, each with a host of options, could have easily comprised a standalone release. Simple Deathmatch is fun, but playing it on Happiness Island with nothing but rocket launchers and knives makes it shine. Team-based modes, like Cops 'n' Crooks and Team Mafiya, elevate multiplayer from simple fragfest to strategic, frenetic car-jacking fun.
The Extras: Watch hours of television. Take on challenging assassination missions. Perfect your darts game. Shoot the flying rats—all 200 of them. Establish new friendships. Go on dates. Surf the Web. Stunt jump! When you're done with GTA IV's main story, you'll have plenty of fun just messing about. We were amazed to find how much there is to do.
Radio, Radio: So many guilty pleasures: Q Lazarus, Genesis, Godley & Creme. Some new favourites: The Boggs, Justice, Boys Noize. Talk radio is genuinely funny and ad spots provide hilarious social commentary.
Some Characters And Plot Threads Fall Flat: One of the characters, who is intended to have an impact on the later portion of the game, is hard to care about on the level that Rockstar asks of the player. Some of the end-game relationships simply don't carry the same weight of those established in the first half, making it hard to be invested in some of the drama and can ultimately make one of the final chapters feel forced.
Some Missions Are Maddening: Of the 155 missions I attempted, 64 ended in failure. That's fine, but some seem impossible on the first attempt and others come close to resulting in thrown controllers. Missions are quick to restart, but by your third or fourth attempt of The Snow Storm, you may be looking for a Rockstar dev online to kill. There's not much in the way of mission filler, but some jobs are definitely more memorable than others.
Grand Theft Auto IV is a powerful game. After blazing through the core story line, having made certain decisions that affected how the narrative played out, I longed to return to the world to experience what I had missed. I recall watching every one of the game's trailers after completing it, reminiscing about GTA IV's tragic, colourful yarn. It's a hell of an accomplishment on many levels. Graphically, it's not as pretty as some other PS3 or 360 offerings—to which it will be unfairly compared—but what it may lack in pixel pushing performance, it makes up for in visual design. Using the cell phone as an interface for maintaining relationships, seemingly a minor thing, is brilliant.
Sandbox-style, ultra-violent games like Grand Theft Auto aren't typically my thing, but GTA IV has made me a fan. A fanboy. Rockstar North has addressed virtually every single one of my personal hang ups about the series, crafting one of the most memorable experiences in gaming. We hate to gush, but it's just that good. Flawless? No. But it's about as close to a game can come to being perfect.
Grand Theft Auto IV was developed by Rockstar North, published by Rockstar Games and is due to be released on April 29. Retails for $59.99 to $89.99 USD. Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Played single player campaign to completion on PlayStation 3, played additional single player campaign portions on Xbox 360 and tested each online multi-player mode on Xbox 360. Total game progress on first completion was 65.67%, with 94 missions completed over the course of 35 hours.