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Grand Theft Auto IV

Hey, have you heard about Rockstar's latest title? It's something of an underground release and not many people know about it just yet. Grant Theft Auto IV has snuck onto store shelves without a lot of hype or critical attention. All joking aside the moment you've all been waiting for has arrived and chances are good that by now you've already delved into Liberty City's depths and explored your darker digital side.

The game has garnered mainstream attention by all manner of persons and groups who desire nothing more than censoring video games because they make children evil. I promised myself that I wouldn't grandstand and I don't want to climb aboard the soap box because if you're reading this review then I'm sure it'd be like preaching to the choir. With that being said I just want to say that the game has a Mature ESRB rating for a reason. Retailers are not supposed to sell this to any person under the age of 17 much like R rated movies aren't supposed to be shown to children. The fact is that if parents actually parented their children instead of letting groups, lawyers, and the government raise them controversy surrounding the likes of GTA would be a non-issue. I could go on for hours but I'll leave it at that because, hey, we've got a game to review!

Unlike some of the unnamed personas of GTA's past, IV's character roster is incredible, deep, and compelling in so many ways. Sure Tommy Vercetti tore up Vice City after the third installment of the franchise but Niko Bellic is on a whole other level.

Fresh off the boat, Niko has come to America, the land of opportunity at the behest of his cousin Roman. A Serbian veteran of the Bosnian War, Niko finds himself smack dab in the middle of Liberty City; a fictional recreation of New York right down to some iconic landmarks and locations. Prior to his journey here Niko heard much from Roman about America being great and how life has never been better. Imagine his surprise when he sees Roman working for a jackass as a cab driver and an apartment full of cockroaches, porn, and filth. Welcome to America Niko, life's about to get a lot more interesting.

In order to pursue his American Dream Niko has to take on some odd jobs for a few people that Roman puts him in contact with. Almost immediately it's apparent that Niko is a no-nonsense kind of guy as he postures and asserts himself in many situations as the tough guy. Despite what the naysayers of this franchise would have you believe though, Niko is actually a very strong character. Sure he's violent and kills people but he is actually likable and he's an underdog that you'll find yourself rooting for throughout the game's many cut scenes.

As the story unfolds it's revealed that Niko isn't just in America looking for big-breasted women and buckets of money (though those things are just dandy). On the side and through various means he's also trying to find someone from the old country who betrayed his unit during the Bosnian War. There are plenty of twists and turns in GTA IV's plot and it stays unpredictable right up to the end. As far as video game narratives are concerned, this one stands out as one of the best in my opinion. It certainly shines within its own genre and is arguably one of the fleshiest GTA games to be released.

While the story will keep you moving from cut scene to cut scene, in the end it's the gameplay that makes GTA IV. If you have been trolling forums or checking updates about this game then you have undoubtedly heard about the control scheme being somewhat un-user friendly. You've probably read that cars drive like crap, the fighting is terrible, and aiming is obnoxious. To those who would bash this title for those faults I ask this; has GTA ever been about ingenious controls?

My experience with the franchise has been very positive but I'm not going to lie and say that GTA titles are the best controlled games ever. Strangely enough despite the abundance of negative comments I found the controls in GTA IV surprisingly good; for a GTA game.

The important thing to keep in mind when approaching this game is that it doesn't control like other titles. The cars Niko "borrows" can't turn on a dime while going 70 MPH unlike in other games. Sure you can drive like a bat out of hell if you want to but chances are good that you're going to crash because the vehicles simply don't handle that well at high speeds. This stays true right up until you get past the first quarter of the game and you find yourself in the midst of much better handling cars. It's kind of the difference between taking a KIA into a turn at 60 MPH and a BMW at the same speed. You'll notice the better cars ride superior to the crappier ones though I can see how many would associate this with crappy driving mechanics early on.

While the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game handle practically identical there is something in this department that separates the two. The PS3 edition comes complete with SIXAXIS supported controls for the helicopter and bike. These take some additional time to get used to but once you master them you'll find that they actually handle quite well. The PS3 has had a difficult time using motion controls properly but it's nice to see a worthy effort being shown here.

Once you've got a sweet ride and you've adjusted to the driving controls you'll be cruising around Liberty City and loving it. Sure it takes a long time to follow your GPS from one contact to the next but it’s the trip that makes the destination worth it, right? Navigating the claustrophobic streets is made simple with an easy to use map and GPS system. This will be your main source of mobility early on in the game until you develop some finances. At that point I suggest you hop in a cab to go from point A to B. It's not that expensive and it saves you a lot of time if you don't feel like dealing with cops, traffic, and aren't in the mood to pick up hookers.

On foot the game handles a bit differently but I didn't find the control scheme that outlandish. You still have the typical analog control and the ability to pull out a gun at a moments notice, punch some passerby, or look around your vicinity. It all handles smoothly and there are some nice transitions that add a grand amount of scope to the game. When you can drive to a location, walk into a building, climb ten flights of stairs, get to the roof with a sniper rifle, and jump off to end your life you'll realize just how open this game is. Driving around is one way to experience that but walking is probably the best way to do so in my opinion. This game is simply massive (though not quite as big as San Andreas it seems).

With controls still being the subject combat is a tad different this time around for the franchise. Hand to hand fighting is a nice inclusion though until you get used to the mechanics it's going to feel clumsy. Niko will flail his arms about and often take hits while you're pressing the button to dodge. If you can avoid it don't bother fighting people unless you use the environment and surprise to your benefit. Sucker punch people in a dark alley when they're oblivious to you rather than call them out in the street. Gunplay is a different story altogether.

For better or worse GTA IV's lock-on feature is predominant when employed. This allows some quick gunfights to occur and it's very easy to become accustomed to the auto-lock. Luckily you can just as easily use manual aiming simply by changing the amount of pressure you're using to press a button. Another big element to shootouts is the cover mechanic that works kind of like Gears of War. By pressing the corresponding button Niko will attach to a nearby object for protection and to get a better vantage point. This is one of those things that when it works you'll be thankful for it but just as often you'll be cursing it. I personally found it a tad on the clumsy side and it was only useful in certain situations.

Once you've got the controls down the rest of the game falls into place. GTA IV is just about as open-ended as you'd expect it would be with a go anywhere, do anything kind of mentality. You're rarely given a timetable and almost always able to explore to your heart's content.

The best addition to the franchise in GTA IV has to be the cell phone. It seems like such a simple thing but once you get used to it being there it will be indispensable. Okay, so it can be obnoxious getting calls from your friends to go to a strip club while you have a dead body in the trunk but it's still a great inclusion. Call friends and new contacts to set up meetings, find jobs, check messages, and get online for multiplayer (I'll get into that bit in just a second). You're going to be walking the streets of Liberty City with that cell constantly in hand and to further GTA's connection to the digital age you can even go into an internet café and check emails, get dates, or take on more jobs.

There are so many things to do in Liberty City and they mostly all come with monetary rewards. As Niko builds his fortune the hours will tick away and before you know it about 40 hours have been invested in the game. GTA IV is the kind of title that can be beaten as quickly or as slowly as you desire. The fact remains that it's a very compelling single player campaign with a great amount of quality.

When you're done goofing around by yourself it is possible to get online with other players and tear up the city in a variety of modes. At first I didn't find the multiplayer very interesting but after some time with the mode I was hooked. There are so many options and such a wide open area that GTA will never be the same again. Deathmatches, turf wars, and cops & robbers are just a few modes to play with but like the single player it's the openness of the experience that is the most rewarding. Getting together with a bunch of friends and goof around for hours is frankly about as good as it gets.

Fortunately with regards to the online experience there isn't much in the way of lag. The online component is very stable though naturally depending who your connected with your mileage may vary. With that being said the single player element runs at a very smooth clip with virtually no frame rate issues apart from some snags during transitional moments. This definitely helps bring Liberty City to life but it's the amount of detail that Rockstar implemented that pushes the envelope further.

You can literally walk every inch of every mile of this game and see something new around each corner. Whether it's nighttime or day, raining or clear, there was so much care put into designing this city that it's daunting to take in. Advertisements litter walls, each building is unique, passersby animate realistically, and once everything is brought together it's like a graphical symphony.

With that being said GTA IV doesn't look as nice as games you'll find in other genres. Due to the open-ended nature of its gameplay the developers had to focus their attention on a whole city rather than a single room. That makes this title glorious in its own genre but only "good" when compared to other current generation titles. The same can be said for character models which are nice in some instances but mediocre in others.

With an impressive amount of time being devoted to the presentation of the game you can bet that the sound quality is rock solid as well. GTA IV is such an immersive experience and Liberty City will come to life. Walking the streets reveals an orchestra of sounds of the city and the people that reside there. It's so realistic at times that you'd swear you were standing on a street corner in New York.

Not only is the city lifelike thanks to the sound direction but the sheer amount of dialogue recorded for this title is unfathomable. Hour upon hour of voiceovers is packed into this game and you'll hear them through simply playing, watching cut scenes, or even listening to talk radio while driving. Even that aspect (the car radio) is impressive with a plethora of music and different stations to sort through. You're never going to get bored thanks to the amount of fresh material here and I haven't even begun to bring up the shows and TV stations that you can watch. It's kind of eerie just how much GTA IV is like a slice of life packed onto a single disc.

All in all GTA IV is a great experience. The core gameplay remains addictive and Niko's adventure through America's streets is enthralling in many ways. Your mileage with this title will depend solely on you as a gamer. If you loved other GTA titles or have developed an affinity for sandbox style games then this will stay in your PS3 for months to come. There's so much to do here that it's daunting and I have to applaud Rockstar for producing such a fine title. This isn't a perfect entry into the franchise but it's definitely the best and there's so much going for this game that it deserves props. If you own a PlayStation 3 this is an absolute must own title (if you're over 17 that is).