Grand Theft Auto IV - Xbox 360

How on earth can Grand Theft Auto IV live up to the hype? With the series so adored by gamers all around the world, Niko’s trip to Liberty City has been high up on every gamer’s radar since, well, since Rockstar announced its arrival on the next-gen consoles.

Many pretenders to the throne have appeared since Rockstar’s last full GTA title. Saints Row on the Xbox 360 in fact was hyped by some to be the best example of the genre that Rockstar single-handedly created.

Niko’s tale, however, is finally ready to be told. Liberty City (the setting of the much loved Grand Theft Auto III if you’d forgotten) has been given a brand new lick of paint, and the prostitutes are just lining up to be used and abused. Let’s get into that murky criminal underworld once again.

The star of the game, Niko, is quite literally just off the boat. Arriving in Liberty City from some unspecified Eastern European country, it is his cousin’s tale of wealth, women, and all round good living that encourages the former soldier Niko to America.

It’s not long until Niko discovers that his cousin isn’t quite living the Playboy lifestyle. Niko, however, has some scores to settle, and he desires to live the good life as he does it.

Obviously we don’t want to divulge too much about the game's length (about 40 hours all on its own) and story. But the combination of some stunning cutscenes, populated with fantastic animation, and incredible voice acting, and Niko’s blatant heart makes for a character and yarn that raises this aspect of the game way above the standard "bad man trying to kill everyone and everything" video game fare.

Not that Niko is the only star. Liberty City is an incredibly alive and vibrant place. More than ever before every single avenue and area has its own unique personality that you’ll come to instantly recognise. Streets are littered with incredibly well-animated pedestrians, each of which are intelligent enough to react to your provocation and actions.

On foot, Niko has so much more he can do. He can clamber all over the city, finding sneaky areas to snipe from, and attempting to avoid the police after a fully fledged brawl. But, it’s the gunplay that has seen the biggest upgrade.

A Gears of War-esque cover system has been included, making the brutal killing a much more enjoyable experience. Switch the auto aim feature off (which you’re encouraged to do sp straight away) and you’ll be popping out from behind cover to pick off enemies and blind firing with absolute ease. It’s easily as good as any stand alone third person action title currently available.

And there’s so much more. Each vehicle has much more weight and inertia thanks to the brand new game engine, making driving a much larger test than ever before. Being chased by the cops is an incredibly exciting experience, especially when your car starts jerking violently after they manage to pop one of your rear tyres.

Everything is just so much more mature. Stealing a parked car now involves smashing the driver's window, and hot-wiring the vehicle, all while hoping that a police car doesn’t happen to drive past and catch you red handed. With Niko having an unnervingly realistic feel, you’ll be less eager to go on the kind of horrific violence-ridden destruction sprees that the previous games in the series are famed for. Though the potential to simply obliterate anyone and everyone remains fully intact and the brand new game engine makes it a much more beautiful experience too.

Then there’s the online modes. Up to 16 of you can jump into Liberty City online at any point, and do anything from simply take part in a few races, obliterate each other in a standard death match, or make use of some of the more innovative modes on offer. Having a number of you as the police, and the rest as the robbers trying to make their escape is undoubtedly one of the best online gaming experiences available at the moment, and this mode will give birth to a million different tales to be posted on message boards around the world.

Now, for the console rivalry. Much has been made of the downloadable content available for the Xbox 360 version later on in the year, though little actual news about said slice of pie has leaked as of yet.

But which version is the best? Well, aesthetically both are close to absolutely identical. The PS3 version seems a little "cleaner" though the Xbox 360 iteration seems to have a slightly more solid frame rate.

Essentially however, both consoles are home to an absolute masterpiece. If you own both consoles, plump for the one that most of your gaming chums will be purchasing in order to take it the absolute joys of the online multiplayer.

Verdict

Buy it. Play it. Experience it. The hype has all been true. Grand Theft Auto IV is the single best game currently available on this generation of consoles. If any other title manages to beat this in terms of excitement, aesthetics, atmosphere, and story telling, then it deserves its own religion.