I now know how film critics felt after screening "The Godfather." It's been days since "Grand Theft Auto IV's" credits rolled, yet I can't seem to construct a coherent thought without my mind wandering off into a daydream about the game. I just want to drop everything in my life so I can play it again. Experience it again. Live it again. No matter what I do, I can't stop thinking about the choices I made throughout the course of the game. Those people didn't have to die. I could have saved them. I wasn't thinking straight. My judgment was clouded. Next time, things will be different.
If you thought that the previous "Grand Theft Auto" titles offered an amazing level of freedom, you haven't seen anything yet. In "Grand Theft Auto IV," you really feel like you have ownership over the entire experience. You build relationships, approach missions the way you want to, and even dictate the flow of the story. In true "GTA" style, you do the dictating with your gun. Some of the choices you make will have a dramatic "I can't believe that just happened" effect on Niko Bellic's life. This isn't like "Fable" or "Mass Effect" where you can clearly see how your input is affecting the story. You just have to live with it, swallow hard and hope you made the right choices. It's an amazing story that ends up having a soul and isn't afraid to poke fun at society's hot topics.
As much as the game makes you sweat bullets through its choices, it no longer makes you dread firing them. The new targeting system is a remarkable contraption that, strangely enough, also offers choice. By applying a hard or soft click to the aim trigger, you can switch between free aim and lock-on, a combo that sings on the battlefield, and makes you feel like a skilled assassin. With intelligent foes putting a bead on you, the gunplay is a far more visceral affair, requiring pop-and-shoot tactics, ammo conservation, and some serious skill. Thankfully, with the gameplay firing direct hits, you no longer feel like a death was something you had no control over. The gunplay is extremely polished, and is one of the game's strongest points.
Vehicular mayhem continues to play a huge role in the series, and is enhanced with an array of new jacking animations and realistic physics for both the vehicles and people you hit. The new "Pac-Man"-like police evasions, and scripted chase scenes are incredible additions as well.
When you aren't raising your wanted level with a pistol or a runaway car, the game offers mountains of incredible content where you would least expect it. "GTA IV" has a "Sims" quality to it, as it starts to feel like real life. You can sit back and watch hilarious fictional TV shows (even cartoons), go to a comedy show, lose hours of your life surfing fictional Internet sites, and even play full games of bowling, darts and pool. Of course, this is "GTA" so you can always spend your time at a strip club or a bar. I know this is going to sound lame, but one of my favorite parts of the game is people-watching. There hasn't been a world of people in a game that has felt this alive. You'll see cabbies throwing coffee cups out the window, people on cell phones not paying attention as they cross the street and umbrellas going up when the rain starts.
It's unbelievable how much there is to see and do. All of it is captured with stunning realism, and that trademark "GTA" satire. The single-player game alone is immense, and easily deserving of the perfect score, but there's something else this breakthrough product does just as well; it blows the doors off of what you expect from a multiplayer game. Just think of the way you play single player (with cops always in pursuit) then multiply that by 16. It's insanity - wonderful insanity - with rockets and helicopters soaring through the air, and players doing everything they can to win or thwart you. The game offers a slew of game modes, too, including my favorites "GTA Race" (think Cannonball Run with backstabbing death), and "Cops `n Crooks." The multiplayer runs just as smoothly as the single-player game, and offers an insane level of customization.
On top of the standout experiences mentioned, there so much more to appreciate about this game. Its dynamic mission structuring, remarkable sound design, wealth of side content, amazing animation, the list goes on and on. Long story short, I never thought I would see this much content in a game.
"Grand Theft Auto IV" doesn't just raise the bar for the storied franchise; it completely changes the landscape of gaming. Once you play it, you won't look at video games the same way again.