Grand Theft Auto IV
Admit it. Last September when all the talk was of Halo 3, sales records, and gaming finally hitting the big time, the actual big time, you thought your hobby had reached its zenith and would struggle to ever regain the same 'real world' impact, the same acceptability, the same clout. You were wrong. Master Chief may have a certain something, but when it comes to titillating the masses, en masse, there really is only one game that has it all. The launch of Grand Theft Auto IV isn't so much like celebrating the arrival of a major new videogame, as it is like welcoming an old friend into your home, probably your best friend, and realising that those other loafers you've been hanging-out with lately just aren't as quick, aren't as witty, and just aren't as outright entertaining.
Poor Niko. He's just off the boat from eastern Europe in Liberty City, and already the American Dreams that fueled his passage are collapsing around him. The cinematic introduction that also pays stylish credit to the game's makers, introduces us to the star of the show, his hopes of a better life in the States, and subsequently crushes these hopes on the mean streets of this virtual psuedo-Big Apple.
Niko's cousin Roman has a big mouth, and equally sizable American Dreams of his own: big money, big cars and, err, big breasts. Unfortunately, he's fed lies of his successes (non-existent ones) to Niko, who discovers the harsh varieties of real life in the metropolis from the off, stumbling across Roman's seedy apartment, gambling habits, financial problems and miserable job. Cleverly, Rockstar North use this introductory period to teach us the game's controls (key elements such as driving and the mobile phone, in particular), as well giving us a little insight into the world you'll be a part of, the characters you'll be interacting with.
Your first mission will be saving Roman's skin from some particularly irate loan-sharks, and responding to in-game calls and texts to your mobile phone, you'll engage in your first shaky car-chase, a few early fisticuffs, and start the process of making your mark on Liberty City.
Things have changed. The visuals have moved up the scale several notches, offering us a next-gen world more rich, immense and diverse than anything we've come across previously. A few key gameplay alterations have also been ushered in, the mobile phone being the most important. This serves as a hub to all the possibilities open to you at any given moment. Fancy a date with sexy office lady Michelle. Why not? Drinking with Roman? Again, just pick up the phone. This handy gadget will give you access to guns, help you make contacts, and more than a handful of times, will also see you saving Roman's bacon from an assortment of unfriendly types. As your standing increases, of course, bigger jobs involving bigger fish will make their way to you via this all important device.
Given this new organisational tool, you might have forgiven Rockstar for making GTA IV just a little more tightly scripted, in order to control and push those cinematic sequences that were so popular in past games. These story instances do still make it in, and are better realised than ever, but the core sandbox dynamic also remains untouched. Should you just prefer to ride around town wreaking merry hell with cars, cops and pedestrians, you most certainly still can. What's more, you'll find the big city more 'alive' than ever, the world and its inhabitants responding to your crimes realistically. Just driving around town, there's a wonderful sense of being part of a rich, living and breathing world, a feeling that everything is there for the taking and nothing is out of bounds. Eat a hot-dog to repair your health, mug a pedestrian, steal that Hummer-alike and cruise around listing to the radio's hilarious shock-jock parodies. Everything is at your finger-tips, nothing is wasted.
Having played GTA IV extensively, I can also now appreciate the time, resources and all-out blood, sweat and tears that must have gone into the game. The myriad of in-car radio stations are a perfect example. They were always a highlight, but now they're better than ever, offering more eclectic musical choices, some inspired audio accompaniment, and some occasionally laugh-out-load funny DJs. Thousands of man-hours must have gone into such a feature, and much of it could pass the less explorative player by, yet the developers bothered anyway, ensuring that that those that do take pleasure in this touch will never be let down. This is the breadth of GTA IV. Some of the entertainment venues around town are another example (go bowling and actually go bowling, watch a cabaret show, et al), or the television back at your seedy safehouse (more parodies galore). The level of thought and detail put into every feature is frankly obscene, deciding what to do with your time is perhaps now the biggest problem.