I can remember the first time that I played Grand Theft Auto 3 with such vivid recollections that it’s almost like I’m back at my friend Barrett’s house in his basement and having my mind blown again and again by the revolution in gaming that game signified. While every entry since has improved upon the formula in major and significant ways to the point that replaying GTA 3 can almost seem like an antiquated experience, the basic thrill of exploring a wide open world at your own leisure and discretion hasn’t lost any of its charm in the ten years since GTA 3‘s release. There is only one flaw with creating such lavishly constructed worlds with such a wide variety of tasks to perform. Namely, it is far too easy for me to get distracted with all of the side-quests and exploration that I can forget to actually beat the main story of the game. I got Grand Theft Auto IV the day it was released back in my freshman year of college. I played it for literally dozens upon dozens of hours, but it wasn’t until now, nearly four years later, that I finally beat the game. I do not tread lightly when I say that Grand Theft Auto IV, upon its release, stood as one of the greatest video game experiences of all time, and four years later, age hasn’t diminished its power one bit.

Just like the previous entries in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV is an open-world action adventure game following the criminal exploits of a deadly protagonist. The series returns to Liberty City, the setting of GTA 3, but the city has grown massively and is now a picture perfect recreation of New York City in the early 2000’s. Much as in the past, the protagonist, in this game’s case Eastern European mercenary Niko Bellic, accepts missions from criminal contacts for cash as well as plot advancement. These generally fall into the kill all of these enemies, escort/protect this individual, or procure this car/item mission structures that are the bread and butter of the genre, although many missions are considerably more creative. With access to an arsenal of weaponry that would make a South American nation envious and the ability to steal/drive any of the seemingly endless vehicle varieties in Libert City, GTA IV gives the player a wide array of tools to either complete the story of spend dozens and dozens of hours causing havoc and mayhem in Libert City.

Whereas previous entries in the series were over the top parodies of the popular crime films of its particular era (GTA: Vice City = Scarface, San Andreas = Boyz N the Hood), GTA IV firmly cements itself closer to reality with a much more grounded and personal story. At the center of it all is the protagonist, Niko Bellic. Niko is one of the most well-rounded and fully developed characters this side of the Metal Gear Solid series and sets a new high-water mark for anti-hero protagonists. A jaded and broken veteran of the Serbian civil wars in the ’90’s, Niko is a man wanting to turn his back on his life of violence and despair but keeps finding himself pulled back into the fold to protect his cousin Roman whose gambling debts with mobsters keeps Niko knee-deep in trouble. Simultaneously, Niko has tasked himself with discovering the location of two former comrades in the military who may have had something to do with an incident where Niko’s entire squad is massacred. Through Niko’s regular recreational interactions with his friends in Liberty City, you get a compelling portrait of a man torn between loyalty to his family, his desire for revenge for his fallen teammates, and a simple thirst for the American Dream.

While the stories and settings of the previous games were always huge draws (San Andreas still has one of the largest and most populated game worlds I can think of), the actual gameplay of each GTA title could be a little weak. Specifically, gunplay was especially atrocious and nearly uncontrollable. Learning from such popular titles as Gears of War or Rainbow Six, Grand Theft Auto IV wisely introduces a polished cover system as well as improved auto-lock on which removes the annoying legacy issue of shooting a civilian instead of the bad guy firing at you. Additionally, cars control more realistically. So, while upper-level sports cars will allow you the level of speed and control that previous games have accustomed you too, cheaper cars are going to handle like cheaper cars. So, while you may decry the boat-like mobility of early vehicles, it will make you appreciate the later ease of control of end-game cars even more. Also, the game is chock-full of memorably constructed missions like a bank robbery straight out of Heat as well as some other large-scale missions that make GTA IV seem like your favorite blockbusters.

A Grand Theft Auto game wouldn’t be a GTA game without a seemingly endless supply of extra content to keep you busy and GTA IV is no disappointment. In addition to series staples like taxi driving and masquerading as a cop, you also get new missions like high-level assassinations, carjackings, drug running, and a myriad of other ways to keep you occupied in your lulls in the story. In addition to actual gameplay additions, the world itself is full of a million things to discover and analyze. There is a completely functional in-game internet with enough content for you to spend hours and hours just reading the hilarious web pages. Also, there are several TV channels with full-blown (and again hilarious) programs for you to watch and enjoy. Republican Space Rangers was a highlight. Also, you can hang out with your friends and engage in activities like darts, bowling, pool, and drinking as well as strip clubs and comedy shows.If you try and take in all that the game has to offer in one play through, you’re probably going to playing this game for months straight.

Grand Theft Auto games have never been the prettiest games to look at, and while GTA IV is a considerable step-up from its last-gen predecessors, it definitely hasn’t aged well in the four years since its release. However, it’s still a technical marvel. Liberty City is one of the meticulously constructed and well-designed environments in the history of gaming. From what I’ve read, it may be called Liberty City and it may be full of non-existent stores and brands, but it is also a practically perfect recreation of the Big Apple that many New York fans say is the truest recreation of their city they’ve ever seen. To add to that, the city is populated with a very large and bustling population that is constantly engaged in dynamic activity that makes it almost as much fun to people watch as it is to go around and kill random civilians. You’ll see them on cell-phones, having conversations, reading the news paper, and there’s so much diversity in the character models, that although you do see repeats, it is a much rarer occasion than in most games of this ilk. The only really glaring technical problem with the game is endemic to all Unreal enginge games and that’s texture pop-in.

I’m giving this game an A+, but that doesn’t mean its a perfect game. It simply means that it still stands all of these years later as one of the most ambitious and more importantly successful in its ambitions games that I’ve ever played. Sometimes, the checkpoint system can be extremely unforgiving and motorcycles, boats, and helicopters are all a bitch to maneuver, but that doesn’t stop the point that on the current generation of consoles, no game has managed to pull off the kind of storytelling and game play sophistication that GTA IV seemingly does with such ease. With easily one of the best leads in the history of video games and enough varied and polished game play to keep you more than interested throughout the entire adventure (plus online multiplayer to boot), GTA IV has a little something for everybody. A lot of people hated on the game for abandoning the the more over-the-top roots of previous entries and for Liberty City being smaller than San Andreas‘s world, but the sense of realism and emotional drama lends GTA IV so much of its power, and I’ll trade the meticulous attention to detail of Liberty City to the occasionally empty expanses of San Andreas any day. At the end of the day, this is the definition of must-own videogaming and it is a necessary addition to any serious gamer’s collection.

Final Score: A+