Players: 1-16
Price: $59.99
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
ESRB: Mature
Website: Grand Theft Auto IV

I’m not sure how anyone could play through GTA IV within a day or two to get a review up and completely grasp the game. This thing is epic in length, and if it weren’t for Metal Gear Solid 4 coming out I’d say it’s the most jumbled and confusing story this year. Someone's always getting killed and you're never sure what's going on or who to trust. But times change, and perceptions change as you delve deep into a game. Initial impressions turn into a deeper understanding of what you’re playing. Unfortunately for the latest GTA game that means those horrid controls and wearisomegunplay scenes become frustrating distractions from what is an interesting story.

Niko’s story is one of a man on the fringes of society. The game itself is a countless attestment to the ingrained “American Dream” of getting what you want because you can take it. In that aspect Rockstar has nailed a wonderfully adept tale that holds a mirror up to our everyday life. Niko isn’t a good guy, nor is he a bad one. Simply he knows what he wants and goes to get it, by any means necessary.

Normally I don’t take kindly to being removed from gameplay to sit through a cutscene. I much prefer my game and my story to walk hand in hand like a naïve and budding couple in the halls of highschool. It’s why BioShock succeeded so well in this department. But Rockstar is the quintessential designer of story driven cut scenes that last just long enough to engage you in the next task. Even if the same essential task is repeated throughout the game. There are only so many times I can go into a place to gun down a group of enemies, thereby opening my way to the intended goal. Whether it’s rescuing Roman or getting a bag of illicit materials I find playing through these scenarios tedious after the tenth version. Only the cut scenes bring distinctiveness to each.

Out exploring the world of Liberty City it is soon discovered that this rich expansive world is inundated with too many problems to ignore. The citizens have two modes of reaction: ignore and flip their shit. Nudging a fellow pedestrian will cause them to either put up their fists to fight or begin a verbal tirade that follows you for a full block. Oddly you get the same reaction if you knock them over with a garbage truck. And let’s not talk about the confusing environment. Hours upon hours of game time and I still haven’t figured out what objects I’m “allowed” to hit and plow through. Shrubbery seems to be made of adamantium, while lightposts are clearly paper mache. It makes no sense, and if I could simply stay on the road I would.

Which brings me to something that I’ve been told is the greatest upgrade: the driving. Perhaps it’s because this gameplay element has been slightly improved over previous versions, but friends have touted the greatness of driving in GTA IV. Bullshit. The driving is atrocious and unforgivable for a game with “auto” in its damn title. Getting into a car to make a quick run should be rewarding and fun. And I can answer the question of why so many cops get killed in Liberty City: they constantly decide to cut you off for no apparent reason. I wouldn’t be forced to get out of my car and unload a full clip into the side of a police cruiser if they weren’t such arrogant and incompetent pricks.

How bad is the driving really? I’m not a completionist. That is, all of those extra Brucie missions and Roman taxi service money makers are things I normally ignore. But I quickly learned that you can get around Liberty City via taxi, and a quick press of A gets you directly to your destination. Since this costs money I spent a good portion of my early time in the game building up funds to pay for cab rides later on. This brilliant move on Rockstar’s part is the sole reason I didn’t stop playing at the 25% point. Which is good as I’ve enjoyed the story, such as it is.

Another trademark of the GTA series has been the messing around. Oh how fun it is to just tool around town, popping caps in punk bitches and riding dirty. Unfortunately that is quite a bit lessened this time around. It’s simply not fun to drive the city for the sheer thrill of it. And the illusion of freedom within the actual game moments is frequently broken. At one point early on I was taking Michelle out on a hot date (we were headed to the Cluck n Bell for some tasty grease sticks) when Vlad called and I was unable to go on a mission with Michelle in the car with me. The only way to move forward was to finish the date with Michelle and get back in the action. Those limitations broke what I felt should have been a far more open ended gameplay experience.

So how is it that I must have played a much different game than the rest of the world? Well, there’s a real nice story being told. And more than that, it’s been expertly crafted into the game itself. Grand Theft Auto IV is the only current gen game I’ve played where I feel only moderately uncomfortable using the term “cinematic.” Niko’s tale is full of betrayal and backstabbing, and you’re not always on the receiving end.

At the end of the day Grand Theft Auto IV is a wonderfully produced and slickly presented video game. Unfortunately big budget effects can never mask the downfalls of any game. Interesting and involving cut scenes give way to frustrating gun fights. And as fun as this is for a few hours, by hour number 15 the game begins to grate on the nerves. GTA IV is worthy of a good bit of the praise bestowed upon it. If you’re new to the series you may find yourself upset and confused as to why Rockstar’s opus is so highly regarded, but for the old faithful GTA IV is the bar that other games are asked to measure up to.

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