Grand Theft Auto IV

Brian Merlos
(Courtesy of Rockstar Games)

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars

Rockstar Games

I find myself unconsciously slipping into a Russian accent sometimes. Every time I see a taxi on the street I want to get in and teleport to my destination; whenever I see a police car, I want to turn tail and run. That’s how much I’ve become invested in “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Twenty, 30 hours in, the game is so consuming that it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. It’s just that damn good.

The original “Grand Theft Auto” (and by that I mean “Grand Theft Auto III”) changed everything in the video game industry. Not only did it push the boundaries of gameplay with open-world exploration and well-thought-out storytelling, it also drew more controversy than all the violent slasher films released in the last 10 years combined. You could kill police officers, you could bang hookers, you could back over old ladies with your car – you could do absolutely everything you’d never do in real life. And that’s why we loved it.

Two installments later (“Vice City” and “San Andreas” being worthy intermediaries), we’ve finally arrived at “IV,” which even before its release was being heralded as the greatest game of the year and perhaps one of the best ever. After month after month of delays, it’s here, and, amazingly, it lives up to the hype.

You are Niko Bellic, an immigrant fresh off the boat from an unspecified country in the Balkans. He’s arrived in Liberty City to see his cousin Roman, who writes him letters boasting of mansions, sports cars and “American titties.” When Niko shows up, rather than finding his cousin living the American dream, he’s confronted with a rat-infested apartment and loan sharks knocking on the door for debt collection.

Soon Niko finds himself in deep with a bevy of shady characters ranging from inner-city gangsters to the Irish mob to the Italian Mafia. His endless attempts to start fresh and construct a new life inevitably fail, swept away by the undercurrent of Liberty City’s crime.

And there’s the rub: Amidst all the carnage and explosions, you find yourself actually caring about Niko. The storyline is one of the most engrossing you’ll find in a video game since “Bioshock,” and the game actually calls on you to make moral choices (if you call choosing which of two guys to kill a “moral choice”), with different results for each decision.

In addition to a (mostly) believable storyline, Rockstar has tried to amp up the realism in “GTA IV” by making subtle changes to gameplay without distorting its core. The most notable addition is the cell phone, with which you can call and text your friends, take pictures and even dial 911 if you ever find yourself in need of a police car or fire truck. Taxis now teleport you directly to your destination (a huge timesaver), you eat fast food to get healthy (ironic, no?), you can go on dates (or just pick up a high-priced escort) and go drinking with your boys (then drunkenly attempt to drive home). It’s a whole slew of new virtual activities for the U.S. Senate to call hearings about.

But for every element of realism Rockstar places in the game, there’s an equal amount of fantasy, which is why the game is still fun to play. After all, who wants a game where you have to obey traffic signals and stop to get gas and use the bathroom? Sometimes the discrepancy between reality and fiction is downright head-scratching, like when the police show up at a drug deal and your partner informs you that you can get 10 years for heroin possession. Oh really? And what’s the sentence for killing 30 SWAT officers with an AK-47 as you shoot your way out of the bust? Niko is characterized as burdened by inner conflict, but it sure doesn’t seem like it when it takes him three seconds to be convinced to rob a bank or shoot down a helicopter with an RPG. Yet none of this ultimately matters – the game is just too much fun to concentrate on these little moral discrepancies.

There are a few hiccups that prevent the game from achieving absolute perfection. The targeting system is decent, but still a bit sketchy, and the awkwardly timed bullet delay makes sniping almost worthless. Popping out from behind cover is also flawed, and often times feels like a glitchy and unfinished aspect of gameplay.

But don’t expect the “Grand Theft Auto” series to go down anytime soon, as this latest chapter is a revolution as big as “III”- a real step forward in storytelling and immersion. “GTA IV” is undoubtedly the game of the year, and is one for the ages. The question isn’t if you should buy and play it, but whether you’ll be able to stop.

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