Hype Check: 'Grand Theft Auto IV'
What it is: The latest installment in the free-roaming, crime-spree-filled video game series, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated title of all time -- of this year, anyway. And, with the bevy of perfect scores being applied before and since its release, it stands to possibly be the most highly rated game of all time as well -- again at least until some other new top-notch title comes along and changes that. It's also the first game to be numbered as a proper sequel since 'Grand Theft Auto III' wowed gamers (and horrified parents) almost eight years ago. In this most recent entry, players roam pretty much anywhere they want through the streets of a somewhat scaled down New York City, playing the role of a recent immigrant from Eastern Europe. As in the earlier games, players work their way up from small-time crimes to major heists, with the ultimate goal being to make 'Scarface'-worthy names for themselves.
Why it's different: 'GTA IV' is the first of the series to appear on both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, meaning that it blows away the earlier titles in terms of looks. Remember how in the old games buildings would pop into view at the last minute if you were driving quickly? No more; you can see skyscrapers miles away now. Those environments are more detailed, too, as well as the characters within them, who look distinctively more human than the blocky thugs in previous titles.
This is also the first title to officially offer online multiplayer through a handful of modes that range from races around the city to, well, completely disorganized mayhem. Unfortunately, they're separate from the game itself, meaning you won't be going through a mission and bumping into a buddy en-route, but they're still a blast and should give this game plenty of life. If that's not enough for you, though, the Xbox 360 version at least will include downloadable content, adding new territory to explore and missions to complete, meaning this game will continue to grow.
What we like: The new storyline, that of an Eastern European with a checkered past coming to America to escape trouble, only to find even more thanks to his dunder-headed cousin, is definitely appealing. For once the main character is a seemingly humble, likable guy; not a thug or a gangster. The streets of Liberty City, a fictionalized New York City, are familiar (including a subway system Big Apple-dwellers will be able to use without a map) yet diverse and ready for exploring, and being able to walk right into a building without having to sit through a "Now Loading" screen is a huge improvement.
What we don't like: The game is a huge improvement visually over its predecessors, but doesn't come close to comparing to recent graphical powerhouses such as 'Mass Effect'. While the cityscape looks great, as you can tell from the skyline in the above screenshot, the colors and textures are occasionally a bit flat, resulting in terrain that's somewhat dull looking. Cars in particular disappoint, with their blocky fenders and simple, generic lines. But that's somewhat forgivable given the massive scope of the environment and experience here. Also, as much as we enjoy completing them, the missions in general feel a little familiar, like frequent assignments escorting people from A to B, and constant escapes from persistent police officers.
What it costs: $59.99
Does it live up to the hype? There's absolutely no reason why any fan of the 'Grand Theft Auto' franchise would not want to pick this up. It's improved in every way over the earlier versions and the multiplayer modes plus future downloadable content will give this one far more life than any of the earlier games. It's not quite perfect (despite all those 10/10 review scores), but it is damn good. Just about any gamer out there will have a blast exploring Liberty City and working their way through the storyline -- that is except for those who can't stomach committing a few felonies on their way to gaming bliss.