Eight hours into Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99), I've stolen 17 cars, run over 20 people, and killed another 15 (some of whom had it coming). I've shaken down a couple of store owners and beaten up an old lady. I've driven while drunk and, perhaps worse, while talking on a cell phone.
I've also bowled and played pool. I've listened to some really cool tunes and watched a surprisingly lame standup routine by Ricky Gervais. I met a nice young lady and took her out to dinner. I bought some new clothes and got my car washed.
I haven't murdered any prostitutes or engaged in any graphic sex acts. (Although, for the record, there's a very brief, non-interactive S&M scene right at the beginning of the game - which almost serves as a warning that this isn't Pokemon.) And the violence has been relatively tame: Certainly, the number of bodies dropped per hour is less than in the last two Oscar-winning best pictures, No Country for Old Men and The Departed.
Still, protests are inevitable, because any game that puts the player in the shoes of a criminal is bound to be seen as perverse. It's hard to argue with critics who find the Grand Theft Auto games immoral, because the developers at Rockstar Games seem to revel in their nihilism. I've attacked Rockstar in the past for such cynical, ultra-violent games as Manhunt 2, but I'd never argue that they don't have the right to publish them.
Just so we're clear, Grand Theft Auto IV is not for the kids. It's rated "M" for mature, so people under 17 shouldn't be able to buy it. It has lots of blood, some nudity, and a nearly constant stream of filthy language. And it's very entertaining.
It's the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European who's just arrived in America. As soon as he lands in Liberty City (which looks an awful lot like New York), he's greeted by his cousin, Roman, who's been in America for 10 years. Roman has lured Niko with promises of glamour and riches, but all he really has to offer is a dilapidated apartment and a crummy job at a car service.
Niko and Roman's relationship is initially played for laughs; they reminded me of the Festrunk brothers, the "wild and crazy guys" from the early days of NBC's Saturday Night Live. But things quickly take a darker turn when Nico shows up for work, only to end up running errands for a low-level crime boss. Niko also has another motive for coming to America besides trying to strike it rich, and I don't think it's giving away too much to say the plot escalates into a revenge drama.
So far, I've found the plot to be the most compelling element of GTA IV, which I couldn't have said about previous games in the series. I really care about what happens to Niko, so much that I wish Rockstar had sent me a cheat sheet so I could get to the plot points a little more quickly.
Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the scenery. Not surprisingly, given the souped-up graphics of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, this is by far the best-looking of the GTA games. What took me aback was just how well it evokes New York City, from the glittering skyline of Manhattan (here called "Algonquin") to the trash-strewn elevated-train platforms of the outer boroughs.
The overwhelming sprawl of Liberty City does have one big drawback: It can take a long time to drive from one job to the next. Fortunately, you do have a diverse menu of radio stations to listen to, whether you like talk, rock, jazz, or funk. The soundtrack has about 200 well-chosen songs, with talent ranging from David Bowie and The Who to the Russian punk band Leningrad.
The other drawback to Rockstar's otherwise laudable ambition is that none of the many individual game play elements are particularly distinguished. Hand-to-hand fighting is awkward, while gunfights are just a little better. (Rockstar has made aiming and shooting quite a bit easier this time around.) Among the variety of bonus games, I kind of enjoyed shooting pool but found the bowling lackluster.
Of course, GTA is mostly about driving, and Rockstar has made some big improvements. You always have access to a GPS-like device that shows you the best route to your target. You can choose between several different camera angles, although I pretty much stuck with viewing the road from Nico's point of view. And the car damage feels more realistic; you can only plow into so many Jersey walls before your performance starts to suffer.
Rockstar doesn't pull off everything it tries to do. There are certainly better fighting, shooting and yes, bowling games out there. If all you care about is high-speed urban driving, there's always Burnout Paradise. But if you want all of that, along with a dose of satire and a fascinating story (at least for the eight hours I've seen so far), you won't want to miss GTA IV. You're unlikely to find a more ambitious game this year.
Three-and-a-half stars out of four.