Image: "Grand Theft Auto IV"
Rockstar Games
Niko Bellic, the anti-hero in "Grand Theft Auto IV," faces off against Liberty City police outside the Live Central club. Expect stiff opposition from the law when the Wanted Meter gets to five stars.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/28/2008 9:01:58 PM ET 2008-04-29T01:01:58
Review

Politicians ready your whips and gamers lay out your cash: “Grand Theft Auto IV” has arrived.

The “Grand Theft Auto” series of open-world action games drill deeper into mainstream culture with each installment. The violent, stylized portrayal of thug life has earned “GTA” poster child status among political watchdogs for all that’s evil in video games.

It will be a great shame if the inevitable hubbub overshadows the epic, revolutionary nature of “GTA IV.” The developers, Rockstar Games, have crafted a wildly ambitious game world complete with an engrossing story of an immigrant's rise to power, unforgettable characters and expertly honed gameplay. It will be weeks, if not months, before I get my fill of “GTA IV.”

Niko Bellic, a merchant mariner and Serbian vet of the Bosnian civil war, arrives in Liberty City aboard a freighter ship. His cousin Roman has invited him to share in his piece of the American dream; unfortunately Roman is living in a hovel and deep in debt to his Russian boss.

Niko and Roman, the underworld version of two wild and crazy guys, buck the trend of one-dimensional, cartoony video-game characters. While Niko commits atrocious acts to rise in the criminal ranks, he derives no pleasure from what he does. His motive, as it is revealed later in the game, is to avenge a deadly betrayal from his past — classic anti-hero stuff.

Roman is a loveable bumbler who is in way over his head. His drunken, womanizing antics offer welcome comic relief against Niko’s sober, disciplined ways. Their family bond is touching, even as Niko goes to extreme measures to honor it.

Like many of the gangster films “GTA IV” clearly takes cues from, the supporting characters are colorful and memorable. Early on we meet Brucie, a rich, fast-talking steroid freak Roman meets online, and Dimitri, a vicious Russian gangster who enlists Niko to assassinate his boss. Little Jacob, a Rasta arms dealer, rants in thick patois to a barely comprehending Niko and Francis McReary is the bent cop out for blackmail.

One of the game's greatest feats is getting us to care about the choices Niko makes in the game. Calls would come in on Niko’s cell phone (an ingenious gameplay device) and I'd feel genuinely bad about blowing off Roman’s invitation to go to a strip club. This is clearly no simple video game.

True to the open-world game concept that Rockstar pioneered in “Grand Theft Auto III,” you can accept or refuse any mission in whatever order you like. But here’s a hint: helping others has benefits for Niko. Assist Brucie and he’ll supply helicopter taxi service and dating a nurse will result in phone advice that remotely heals Niko’s injuries.

Every bit as impressive as the emotional bonds forged is the setting for “GTA IV.” Liberty City has been under construction since its previous appearances in “GTA III” and “GTA: Liberty City Stories,” and it looks more like its real-life inspiration than ever. Steam rises from manholes,  and the streets are coated with grime and the skyline is dotted with easily recognizable landmarks.

The graphics have received a massive boost, the first game in the series for PS3 and Xbox 360. The attention to the most minute level of environmental detail (no two buildings look the same) results in an authentic American city, warts and all. The cut-scenes are strikingly cinematic and the in-game characters all feature remarkably life-like expressions and spot-on lip synching.

The sheer size of Liberty City, divided up into four boroughs interconnected by bridges, can be intimidating at first. This overwhelming urban sprawl helped me bond with Niko, himself a newcomer to the same vast city.

The new GPS feature is indispensable for Niko’s frequent trips around Liberty City. Opening the game’s map and placing a waypoint at a destination spawns an easy-to-follow route that’s displayed on the  mini-map. Every one of the hundreds of different street names is displayed onscreen and I soon found my way around without constantly plotting GPS routes.

That’s not to say that driving or walking around aimlessly in “GTA IV” is a bad thing. In between missions, cruising down darkened streets in a jacked sports car, I felt like I was directing my own film noir vignette. It’s easy to pass an hour (or many) scanning the radio stations, which range from hilarious cultural commentary to booming Eastern European disco.

Hand-to-hand combat and an overhauled shooting system are two radical improvements in “GTA IV.” The punching and kicking feels solid and controlled. Niko can block, jab and knee opponents with precision.

Shooting, a stumbling point in past “GTA” games, has been refined with a quick lock-on and free-aiming modes. Niko can now use almost any object as cover and either blind fire or aim from relative safety.

In these times of over-priced, underwhelming games, “GTA IV”’s single-player campaign, clocking in at between 30 to 40 hours, is a huge, deliriously enjoyable epic.

The multi-player games, not included in this review due to pre-release timing, offer 16 player death-matches, team-based modes, online co-op and combat racing. The wide-open Free Mode should keep creative thinkers busy until the next “GTA.”

Speaking of busy, I've got a fictional city to explore.

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