Grand Theft Auto IV is the real steal

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PITY video game players under age 17, the cutoff to purchase and play "mature" rated games. And weep for gamers with high moral standards who turn their nose up at games with lax ethics.

They'll miss out on one of the best gaming experiences of all time.

Amazingly, the highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV , which comes out today, manages to live up to its monumental hype . It shows the world the amount of depth that is possible with the technology of the current generation of game systems. While some might argue that games as morally bankrupt as the Grand Theft Auto series are leading to the demise of society, those who can appreciate decency-eschewing escapism will find nothing better than this one.

Fresh off a boat from Eastern Europe, Niko Bellic arrives to find a world of crime and opportunity in the vast metropolis of Liberty City, complete with endless roads, numerous buildings and thousands of vehicles ready for him to, uh, liberate. Niko hits the streets to chase the "American dream" by beating, crashing and shooting his way to success. It's a savage, animalistic kind of fun.

This re-imagined version of Liberty City is a lot closer to the real New York than its predecessor, 2001's groundbreaking GTA III, creator of sandbox-style video gaming. ("Sandbox," or "open world," gaming features nonlinear stories with numerous missions and events to be played in any order the gamer chooses. Often duplicated in titles as diverse as the futuristic Crackdown to the comical Simpsons Hit and Run, GTA III changed gameplay forever.) There has never been a sandbox so massive and detailed as this one.

Besides the New York-inspired landmarks, what also separates this Liberty City from the last incarnation is the amount of people wandering the streets. In the older version, there was maybe a person or two every few blocks. Here, the streets are littered with an entire population made up of disgruntled citizens. (Pick a fight with one and beware: Others might join the donnybrook and turn the tide in their favor.)

GTA IV is also a lot more realistic than past titles. Here, the real-life-inspired cars (such as Hummers, Hondas and Corvettes) drive more authentically, the inevitable crashes are more accurate (cars dent and people fly through the air upon impact) and there aren't a lot of weapons lying around in easy-to-find places.

A wonderfully unusual online multiplayer mode is also added for the first time on a console version, which should lead to massive amounts of couch-potatoism (GTA Liberty City Stories for the PlayStation Portable in 2005 showed how much fun GTA could be with some friends playing too). Car races, standard death matches and group "free roam" are some of the online possibilities.

In addition to the amazing catalog of music available on the 18 in-car radio stations (with genres such as current hits, punk, Russian rock, hip-hop and jazz), GTA IV also packs in a few television channels available for viewing at Niko's safe house that showcase the great writing and limit-testing humor the series has come to embrace. The pull-no-punches programs (such as "I'm Rich," a spoof of celebrity-obsessed "news" shows) and the right-leaning commentary (from the terrorism-obsessed "Weasel" network) are laugh-out-loud funny and add welcome breaks from the action.

GTA IV even manages to poke fun at itself. Remember the "Hot Coffee" controversy from 2005? (A minigame hidden in GTA San Andreas allowed players to have graphic sexual relations and resulted in the game getting re-rated as Adults Only.) In GTA IV, when an off-screen tryst with a female character is successful, the Xbox achievement you get is called "Warm Coffee."

Remarkably, about the only thing wrong with GTA IV is its main concept -- that "it's good to be bad." Sure, Niko and the rest of these guys are bad to the bone, but gaming doesn't get much better.

Grade: A+ (the heavyweight champion of all sandbox games reclaims the title).

Details: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms; $59.99; rated Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of alcohol, use of drugs).

Pete Metzger's Game Day column usually appears on Thursdays.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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