My review of GTA IV

Grand Theft Auto IV does not cure cancer, make me see God or even radically alter the way I look at video games.

But what it DOES do is entertain me more than any other game has this year.

Rockstar’s grimy American Dream story is a realization of the series’ vision: A riveting crime odyssey laced with social commentary, brutal violence and small touches of innovation. Throw in some wonderfully chaotic multiplayer and a living, breathing depiction of New York City, and you’ve got one of the most multifaceted games of the year. It’s not without issues, but it shows that Rockstar isn’t ready to relinquish its open-world throne.

You play Niko Bellic, an off-the-boat European immigrant who comes to America after prodding from his flamboyant cousin, Roman. Niko arrives with visions of sweet cars, raining money and a mansion (thanks to Roman), but is greeted instead by Roman’s fledgling taxi service and a roach-caked apartment. As the story progresses, we see Niko and Roman get pulled into a criminal world of death and ruin, encountering a host of special characters and finding out the real reason Niko got off the boat in the first place.

The true stars of the game are the story and characters. Dan Houser, who wrote much of the dialogue, has made Niko the most interesting anti-hero to ever grace the GTA series. He’s got a beneath-the-surface, badass aura that’s balanced out with touches of sharp wit and sarcasm. The other characters you run into are just as entertaining, such as Little Jacob, the hard-to-understand Jamaican street soldier who hotboxes it in your car; then there’s Brucie, the roided-up meathead who has an affinity for cars. As you progress through the game, you’ll also run into a crooked cop, old-school gang-bangers, a Latino faux vigilante as well as Irish, Italian and Russian mobsters. It’s like a Rainbow Coalition of crime.

The more missions you do for these people, the more they like you, which can lead to special abilities. For instance, helping out Roman gives you access to his car service, which you can use to get free rides to any part of town, while partying with Brucie gives you the chance to take part in street races. The more you go through the game, the more “work” you can find. The tasks are as diverse as the characters. In the span of a couple of days, Niko can go from sniping guys off an unfinished skyscraper to setting himself up on a mock date with another guy – just to get the chance to smoke him.

Combat has undergone an overhaul, adding a bona-fide cover system to go along with auto-lock and flick targeting. It’s a welcome change of pace from the mindless run-and-gun style of the previous games, but it also turns Niko into the Serbian Jack Bauer, capable of wiping out 20 foes with just his pistol. In a way, that adds to his mythos – but it also makes many gunfights extremely easy. However, given the cover system’s Gears-like nature, you’ll also find yourself awkwardly sticking to walls and other kinds of cover, which can sometimes ruin the flow of battle and expose you to cheap shots as you try to move.

When you’re not busy depopulating the thug element of Liberty City, you can take the time to explore. The Liberty City Niko calls home is a special place. Unlike the previous cityscapes of past GTA chapters, Liberty City feels like it has a tangible soul, with boroughs each sporting their own kind of personality.

You’ll see everything from the bright lights of the city’s version of Times Square (Star Junction) to the gritty urban landscapes of places like Bohan and Broker (Bronx and Brooklyn). The visuals do an outstanding job of giving the city the kind of life that keeps the experience from getting monotonous on the eyes. I killed an hour or two just driving around the city like an actual tourist.

Helping you navigate around the city is a cool GPS map system that paints the route to your destination for you, much like the map system in Saint’s Row. You also have a cell phone that you can use to arrange everything from dates to odd jobs from your network of contacts. It has an organizer for appointments, customizable ringtones, and you can even use it to access multiplayer functions.

The game’s multiplayer is the epitome of controlled chaos. It turns Liberty City into the biggest kill-’em-all playground you can find, and the fun factor (especially with friends) is off the charts. Among the more popular game modes is “cops and crooks,” a team deathmatch that’s as simple as it sounds: The crooks are trying to get out of the city, and it’s up to the cops to stop them. There’s a host of other multiplayer modes, all with varying degrees of fun.

But as cool as the Liberty City experience can be, there are definitely some areas that need work. One is the in-game camera, which can’t decide if it wants to be fully automated or not. So we’re stuck with a pseudo-manual camera that gives you funky angles whenever you have to navigate tight spaces, and it makes driving around the city at high speeds more of a chore than it already is.

I’ve never been a great video game driver, but my lack of ability is augmented by the extremely loose-fitting driving controls. When you race, one slight nudge or one half-second too long on the handbrake sends you spinning into a pole or storefront. Of course, the people you have to follow and chase don’t have these issues, especially on bikes, where you watch them deftly weave in and out of traffic while you end up eventually sucking face with an oncoming subway train.

You eventually get used to it, but there are times where you just want to take a taxi – thankfully, you can “skip” the whole ride, which cuts down on the wait time.

Among the other issues I ran into: Odd glitches with non-player characters (follow me, Little Jacob … damn you!), the fact that I could slam through an armored police barricade but be stopped cold by a tiny tree, and the scripted elements in missions that demanded I chase down someone to a specific point, even though I can just blast his getaway vehicle with a rocket. The rocket blows up, but the target is unscathed. Why? Because I’m not supposed to kill him yet. No, that’s not irritating at all.

Overall, GTA IV is one of the best titles you’ll find on either the PS3 or 360. However, to me, it is not quite the transcendent, life-altering body of work it’s been made out to be by some. In a way, it’s the ultimate incarnation and evolution of everything we’ve already seen in the earlier games. In other words, you could call it the greatest update of all time – not the Holy Grail from which all game developers must sip.

I could easily write a lot more about the other stuff you can find in Liberty City, but I also think that would be spoiling some of the experience. It’s like a real city – I could tell you all about it, but you’d have to visit it for yourself. It’s definitely worth the trip.

Score: 8.5/10