gta4With the release of Grand Theft Auto 3, the GTA series went from a cult hit to a pop culture icon almost overnight. However, as titles such as Vice City Stories painfully illustrated, the series was beginning to run its course. Though it was far from mediocrity, it was becoming obvious that the series would need to be reinvented if it was to maintain its relevance in the new generation of game consoles. Thankfully, this was a fact that was not lost on Rockstar, and they went right back to the drawing board for GTA IV and came back with nothing less than a masterpiece.

GTAIV takes place in a new version of Liberty City which was made to resemble New York City more closely than in GTA 3 or Liberty City Stories. The 4 boroughs of Liberty are based on 4 of New York’s boroughs. Queens is Dukes, Bohan is the Bronx, Algonquin is Manhattan, etc. The Statue of Liberty has been changed to the Statue of Happiness, and New Jersey is known as Alderney. You play as a man named Niko Bellic, a former military personal from Eastern Europe. Seems that he has done some things back in the old country that he hasn’t exactly been proud of. Lured by his cousin’s promises of wealth, mansions, women, and prosperity, he makes his way over to America. However, he finds out that his cousin’s ‘mansion’ is a dingy apartment in the south of Broker, his taxi business is struggling, and he is thousands of dollars in debt. Before long, Niko gets caught up in the classic GTA-style mayhem.

Now don’t expect to be meeting past GTA characters such as Phill Cassidy, Kent Paul, or even Carl Johnson. This is a new continuity after all. However, the characters you’ll meet are just as memorable. Wait until you meet the McReary family, Little Jacob, Elizabetha Torres, and ‘Street Crusader’ Manny. Meeting is a huge part of what you will be doing in the game too. You’ll frequently be asked by your friends to take them out someplace, such as bowling, darts, or to get something to eat. If you don’t call them, they’ll call you, and if you don’t take them out, they’ll send you text messages and emails, bitching about how you’re never around. Remember the girlfriends in GTA San Andreas? You know, you’d take them out and you’d get perks like keeping weapons after you get arrested of killed? This is like that, but more annoying. Though it gets tedious, there is a benefit. After, a certain level, you get special perks from your buddies. For instance, Jamaican thug Little Jacob sells you weapons at a discount, Brucie allows you to take a ride in his helicopter, and Roman sends you a taxi cab to take you where you want to go. You can use your cell phone to arrange meetings, get the heads up on missions, and even enter the game’s online multiplayer modes.

Yeah, you heard that right. For the first time in the series, players can get online. It’s not just generic deathmatch and capture the flag either. There are 15 different modes of multiplayer, including my personal favorite, free mode. All GTA fans know how fun it is to raise their wanted level up to 5 stars just to see how long they survive. Well, free mode is like that, except with up to 15 other players. The entire city is open to explore, and the game is as fun as you can imagine it. You can even download two new episodes (The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony) on Xbox Live and Playstation Network, both of which feature new lead characters, new missions, and new storylines.

Several aspects of the formula have seen minor and major changes. For instance, police evasion is different. When you gain a wanted level, a circle appears on your radar, signifying the searching area. Your goal is to escape the circle and stay outside of it for a few seconds. However, if another police officer spots you, the circle reappears. You can escape into a pay-n-spray, but unlike past GTA games, it only works if police don’t spot you going in. There is a new cover mechanic, and mastering it is a must if you want to survive the game’s hellish gunfights. There is a new aiming mechanic as well. By holding down the left trigger, you automatically lock onto an enemy, and you can jiggle the right analog stick to hit individual body parts. By holding the trigger only halfway, you can enter a free aiming mode. It’s easy to get the hang of, and it works like a dream. You can still buy weapons, but the ridiculous Ammunation stores have been replaced by basement dealers. The graphics have received a much needed overhaul as well, due to Rockstar’s Rage engine along with NaturalMotion’s Euphoria animation engine. While it isn’t exactly the Cryengine or Unreal 3, it makes GTA4’s graphics look more lifelike and natural than any other game in the series. Bullets chip the paint and masonry off walls, cars damage was is shown realistically, and character faces show real emotion.

The game has done a superb job of drawing players into it’s world. You can surf dating sites online, look up criminals on an online database, watch TV at home, watch Kat Williams at a comedy club, and even play video games. The NPC animations are another impressive part of the game’s atmosphere. They are more lifelike and organic than ever before, and they react realistically to events around them. One time, I was was walking along the street, and a man ran past me, than a cop ran after him, and tackled him to the ground. Another time, I got into a fender with another driver, who pulled me out of my vehicle and started to fight me. A police officer then tackled him to the ground, put him in handcuffs, and asked if I was okay. Another time, a guy tried to carjack me. I thin pulled him out of my vehicle and punched him around a few times, and he took off running. Then, I pulled out my gun and shot him in the back of his leg. Finally, I got into a fist fight with an Asian guy. I had the upper hand, but then his friend drove up and joined in, so I once again pulled out my gun, and shot them both. I’m sure you’ll come up with your own stories. Things like this draw you into the game, and it gives you that feeling of being part of a living, breathing, world, as cliche as that may sound. It feels like even though you’re the main character, there are people around you going about their own lives and dealing with their own issues. This feeling is important for any game that features an open world, be it GTA, Saint’s Row, The Elder Scrolls, or even The Sims.

With all the changes and additions, one thing that thankfully hasn’t changed is the game’s radio stations. Since GTA takes place in a modern day period, there is no need for the music to be restricted by a certain past era, like in San Andreas. The stations play several types of music, from both classic and current hip hop, to world music, and even classic rock. My personal favorite is a jazz fusion station, hosted by none other than the god father of acid jazz himself, Roy Ayers. The game’s trademark sense of humor has been untouched as well. The game’s radio commercials, websites, and news reports parody everything, from Japanese anime to court TV. Fox News (or Weasel News as it is known in the game), Bill O’Rielly, America’s culture of fear and xenophobia are especially targeted.

At the time of its release, many gaming magazines and websites gave GTA4 a perfect score, generating controversy. While I won’t way whether or not I feel that it deserves a perfect score, I will way that the game has earned some very high marks. It is one of the best games of this console generation, and for the series, it ends up being as significant a change to the formula as GTA 3 was so many years ago. This gets me all the more excited to see what Rockstar has in store for teh next entry.