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Grand Theft Auto IV

Certainly the video game series to attract the most attention from parental groups and politicians, the aggressive protesting of games like "Grand Theft Auto" is - in a way - dismaying. It's also a matter of choice - parents neither have to buy the games for their child, nor do they have to allow them to play it.

Is the series violent? Certainly, but I was taught right and wrong as a child and, as an adult, I can appreciate the "Grand Theft Auto" series for its ability to create an impressively detailed (down to the radio channels that deliver various tunes and oddball rants) world. The groundbreaking open structure (I can drive around, I can go on a mission, I can drive a taxi to earn some cash or just stand in the middle of the virtual street for an hour if I wanted to) of the series has been often imitated but never really equaled.

The previous games ("III", "Vice City", "San Andreas") all built upon the prior edition, but the first next-gen title in the series truly needed to not just be a stepping stone from the title before it, but a grand leap forward. The game delivers on that promise and beyond, as not only does it expand upon the core gameplay, but makes the game feel considerably more cinematic than the prior releases. The humor of the prior games is still there (check out a few of the billboards), but one of the game's most significant changes in the storytelling and tone. Despite some wisecracks from some characters, this is a more operatic crime drama than the prior games and there is significantly more dialogue than the prior games. The story takes on a greater level of importance this time around and the game is all the better for it.

As for the story, it involves Bosnian immigrant Niko Bellic, who is on the boat to Liberty City (think New York City) during a stylish opening credits sequence. As you drive through the more industrial part of the city with chatty cousin Roman, you can instantly appreciate the kind of upgrades that Liberty City has seen in the years since we've last seen it. The city's industrial sector is an impressive portrayal of urban decay, but different areas of the city are more upscale, with brownstones and a somewhat brighter look. At the opening of the game, a terrorist alert is in place and the bridges to other areas of the city are blocked off by police barriers, but they do open up later in the game. Along the same lines, it's also a good idea not to drive out onto the runway at the airport - the police don't take that lightly.

Niko was told by his cousin Roman of the kind of success that one can achieve in Liberty City. However, when Niko arrives, he finds that Roman wasn't exactly telling the truth. This becomes particularly obvious when the two pull up to Roman's apartment in a slum building. From humble beginnings, Niko starts to learn his way around the people and places of Liberty City. However, it's not long before Niko learns that Roman has some serious gambling debts, which end up putting Niko in contact with other members of the Liberty City underworld. One of the many elements of the game I enjoyed was how new characters are woven into the fabric of the game and others are taken out of the picture - sometimes surprisingly.

In terms of characters, where "Grand Theft Auto IV" shines is the script. The game's script isn't Scorsese, but it is a leap from previous games in the series and really stands as a solid example of how games have become more cinematic. Not only is Niko a well-developed character, but the dialogue is actually well-written and we get more about Niko's past as the game goes on. Not only is the game itself an involving expansion upon the games in the series before it, but I also kept playing because I genuinely was interested in how the story would unfold next. This also extends to the supporting players, who are mostly pretty well-developed characters. There's still a lot of the usual "GTA" humor present, but overall, this is a more serious game.

As for the gameplay, it takes the elements of the previous games and builds upon them nicely. While very different in ways, anyone who has played one of the games in the series previously will be able to pick this game up and play quickly. Early on, Niko gets a cell phone from his cousin and it's through the phone that the player can communicate with the world of Liberty City. Meet a criminal and win his respect and you'll add his phone number, which allows you to call him for jobs or to even do things like play pool, go bowling, go to see a show, eat or go to a bar (or, a bar of the strip variety).

As for the bar part, it's the game's most horrendous element. Go drinking with a friend and you'll see Niko barely able to walk down the street. Oh yeah, and the screen will spin and roll like it's in the wash. It's a truly nauseating effect that makes it difficult to do just about anything - especially driving, as Niko is often the one asked to drive the other person home.

The kind of missions - give chase, kill, threaten, deliver, steal, etc. - you'll find in the game are pretty familiar to those who've played the prior games. The missions occasionally feel a tad repetitive, but generally are well-constructed. Again, the quality of the writing is good enough that I actually looked forward to completing the missions to see what would happen to Niko next. One difference here is that there will be some missions where the player is given the chance to let the target go, and what they choose will have consequences later in the game.

Liberty City is really pretty massive, and players will be impressed at the detail that has gone into the city. Not only do the areas feel distinctly different, but block-to-block feels different. One can also appreciate the kind of work that has gone into the specific details - signs, store names, etc. You still can't go into the great majority of buildings in Liberty City, but there's definitely some interior sections, such as the internet cafes. The internet cafes (called TW@ - get it?) allow Niko to browse websites, read the local news, check email and go onto dating websites to try to find new women to go out with.

I was a little dismayed at the amount of things that you can buy in the game - maybe the next game could have stores all together in one or more main mall areas. You can buy things like clothes, guns and even hot dogs from local street vendors (if you shoot the fuel tank attached to most of the hotdog carts, the cart will go airborne.)

Money can also be used on dates or when meeting pals. On the GPS map, you'll see a series of different destinations - everything from restaurants to pool halls - and it's up to you to decide what activity would be the best choice for who you're with. As for dates, you'll have the chance to date a number of different girls in Liberty City (there are also the chance to have "paid" dates, if you get my drift) and they all have different personalities. Some will be displeased if you show up wearing the same outfit, some won't. Some like bowling, some don't. Winning over the woman you're with will not only lead to intimiate benefits, but additional abilities, as well. Winning over your criminal friends will also lead to additional benefits, too.

The "friends" element of the game is a "love it or hate it" aspect and players may find their feelings about it change depending on the day. While there were times when I found it amusing to go play pool or drive over to the club, there were also stretches where the calls from friends to go hang out became annoying. The games (such as pool or bowling) are all well done, and the control scheme for these moments (as well as the rest of the game) is intuitive. Rockstar has once again made a game that most gamers will be easily able to pick up and play with no fuss.

Thankfully, while meeting up with friends does have benefits, you don't have to and can even just hang up on them when they call. One upgrade in this version is not hearing the same dialogue from familiar characters over-and-over again. While you will hear the same lines at times, they're shuffled enough to not have the lines start to feel too irritatingly repetitive. The other issue with dialogue is that the pedestrian dialogue is better - there's less wacky nonsense (although there's still funny lines) and a bit more in the way of things you may actually hear people say.

The other main element of the game - shooting things - has been tweaked for this game. In a move that will surely have PETA joining the ranks of those upset with the series, one of the minor/"hidden" tasks is to wipe out the city's pigeon population. The biggest difference to the gunfights is the fact that Niko can take cover behind objects and shoot. While I didn't think this system was without flaw, it did add another element to the game's cinematic fights. The trigger locks on and using the thumbsticks allows one to either aim at someone else or tweak the aim on the person or thing you're already aimed at. A little health bar shows how much damage the person you're currently aiming at has taken. Additionally, the shootout animations have been upgraded and characters will limp away or fall a certain way if they get hit. Cars will also show more specific damage if hit.

For those who aren't in the mood to steal a car and drive over to their next destination, one can easily hail a cab. The cost of cab fare is pretty reasonable, and for an extra fee, one doesn't even have to wait out the entire trip. Players can certainly either yank people out of their car or steal one (Niko breaks a window and then hotwires the car), but watch out for the police, who are certainly very aggressive, but a little easier to lose this time around, as you'll see their search area (a larger search area for a higher star rating) on your GPS.

Get out of the search area and keep from being seen again and the wanted rating will go away. If the cops see you again right after getting out of the search area, you'll have to get out of that area. While there are some Pay N' Spray type repair shops, they're few-and-far between and the primary method of escaping the cops is getting out of the search area. Driving seemed somewhat tougher this time around, as driving control seemed a little loose to me, although all of the cars handle noticably differently. In terms of going on the run, a big difference this time around is the ability to hop fences or have Niko literally pull himself up and over taller fences or walls. Now the character is backed into a literal corner less often.

Graphically, the game keeps the same general look as the prior games, but offers a solid upgrade. The game certainly doesn't offer the finest graphics you're going to ever see on a console, but considering the sheer size and detail of the in-game world, what's seen is satisfactory. I appreciated the smaller touches, such as the flies that circle the garbage cans or the greater detail to the store signage on many stores. Many citizens of the city walking through the streets are carrying something, which they'll drop if you bump into them. Characters have moderately more detail to them and the environment in general has more detail and texture. The framerate does get a little rough during some of the most intense moments, but the framerate holds up well the majority of the time.

The game's 5.1 audio is incredibly intense during the gunfights and some of the more aggressive driving moments (such as the intense police chases.) Otherwise, the audio has a lot to offer, including some marvelous voice acting, fantastic musical choices and some hysterical radio talk shows and ads. Some of the sound effects from previous games are brought back here.

Playing the game on XBOX Live adds a whole new dimension to the series and may prove more fun for some gamers than the main game itself. There are more than a dozen different variations (everything from racing to objective games and more), although I particularly liked the free mode, which set players loose on a free-for-all throughout the city. While running around the city in one free-for-all match, I was amused to see a pair of players work together and hijack a bus - one drove, one was in the passenger seat, ready to attack. Some players would leave and others would come along. One of the best aspects of the whole thing is the sheer size of the areas, which - combined with the radar - allows players to either choose to go brute force or be more strategic with their approach. The issue with online play that I encountered was that the framerate could be choppy - not enough to ruin things, but certainly noticable - at times.

Final Thoughts: "Grand Theft Auto IV" is a remarkable title, boasting not only exceptional online play, but a terrific main story that contains much finer dialogue and character development than previous games in the series. The game also takes things to another level in terms of core gameplay and presentation.