Grand Theft Auto is many things: a popular video game and a controversial subject, among others. It's also a brilliant satire wrapped in an ingenious crime story inside an interactive masterpiece. It really is.
In Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV, Liberty City lives like Frankenstein's monster, a concrete- and billboard-plastered jungle sparked to life and spoiling for a fight around any street corner.
Come ready, come wary, come emotionally steeled: it's Liberty City as you've never seen a fully interactive metropolis before. The ninth iteration in Rockstar's acclaimed - albeit controversial - series wields the fruits of its astonishing $100m budget so effectively, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine this deluxe sandbox and crime spree simulator being a single penny better.
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Just some good ol' boys
Most of what you do in GTA IV still boils down to hustling jobs, stealing cars, trucks, and motorbikes of all makes and sizes, chasing and frequently stabbing, beating, or shooting enemies by land, sea, and air, and evading the law (only when you're caught, of course). Missions come in twos and threes and are usually conveyed through a convenient pop-up mobile phone, as are calls, contacts, text messages, and plenty of bling-tones if you've got the money and inclination to buy upgrades around the city.
The phone lets you manually dial outbound as well, which allows you to optionally interact with numbers cleverly strewn on or around signs and on websites in internet cafes sprinkled throughout the city - you can even dial 911 to summon a police car for help or just to engage in a little extra-brazen car-thievery.
Lining up money jobs through the phone's a snap, too, once you work yourself into the good graces of employers, who'll send you on missions ranging from taxiing patrons and vehicle jacking, to intimidating the stubborn or just plain stupid - even the occasional hired assassination.
I'm Niko from the block
Being Niko Bellic - the illegal East European immigrant you play for the game's duration - is a frantic tarantella with fate. He's a soft-spoken tough guy able to kiss or kill on a dime.
His early jaunts where he almost innocently intimidates or roughs up Liberty City's delinquent payees quickly devolve into a violent scrabble through a bullet-clawed, thug-fouled, cacophonous urban labyrinth in search of money, sex, respect. And, when all those evaporate (as we know they ultimately must), he looks for a sense of identity, place, and belonging.
Niko clambers off an industrial freighter in Liberty City's harbour as the game's opening credits roll, wearing his ideals carefully under his sleeve. But he quickly becomes embroiled in escalating feudal battles between warring powers who cat-paw him around until he's forced to take matters in hand and come to grips with his own sordid history.
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