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Grand Theft Auto IV
As with the GTAIII trilogy, Grand Theft Auto IV is all about the moments. Don't get me wrong: minute by minute, hour by hour, this is one of the most stupendous experiences gaming has to offer, but it's the moments that matter. These are the moments where you laugh out loud at a lewd joke in a cut scene or another biting bit of satire on the radio, then accidentally plough into a police car, setting off a disastrous car chase when you were seconds away from a mission objective. These are the moments where the onscreen action and some random tune on the soundtrack come together to create something cool and incongruous or just plain cool. And what makes GTAIV so incredible is that my moments won't be your moments and your moments won't be the same as anybody else's. Despite all the clones - the True Crimes, the Saint's Rows, the Scarfaces and the Mercenaries - it's a simple fact that nobody does this stuff better than Rockstar, and even Rockstar has never done this stuff so brilliantly before.
I think the key words here are density and detail. At its core, GTAIV still isn't a huge departure from Vice City, San Andreas or GTAIII. It's another tale of rags to riches on the wrong side of the law. The basic structure is familiar: find your feet, take missions from various mobsters and dodgy dealers, take cars when you need to, work your way up through the criminal fraternity and lie, cheat, steal and kill your way to a better life. What has made each GTA better than the last is the ludicrous amount of stuff that Rockstar piles on top. Get a girlfriend, play pool, go bowling, browse the Web, take in the sights, have a meal, see a show, get off your face on booze, change your threads, and much, much more. Liberty City is just packed with things to do, and at no point does any one of them seem like a side issue or a mini-game. They're all just parts of your hero's ongoing life story.
The world Rockstar has created here is an awesome achievement. A lesser developer might have pastiched New York, copying the look and feel of the different neighbourhoods and nicking enough iconic stuff to make it work, but Rockstar has bottled its own twisted version of the city and made it feel like a living, breathing place. The different areas and boroughs aren't just placed next to each other; they seem to merge and flow together, the character changing with the shop signs, the buildings, the streets and the pavement furniture. Each place has a tangible atmosphere, with none of the sterility that hampered True Crime or Saint's Row. You can almost feel the dirt and smell the smells. As the game bathes the streets in warm evening sun or your car makes its way through a swirling mist straight out of Taxi Driver, the effect is incredibly potent. With the exception of Bioshock's Rapture, I can't think of another gaming world that has felt so real.
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