Polyester pants and a double knit shirt aren't the usual soldier's attire. Yet they're Niko Bellic's wardrobe of choice as he hits the streets of Liberty City.
I sprint and slide in behind a nearby crate of building materials, cutting down a targeted hood with a spray of assault rifle fire.
He hasn't been in America very long, but his on-the-ground experience on the Balkan Peninsula and work as a human trafficker in the Adriatic Sea has helped him slip into the city's underworld like a scraggly bearded peg in a back-alley hole.
I switch weapons and take a well-placed sniper shot to obliterate another mug's head, sending him falling to the concrete below with a bone-crunching splat.
The pain of Niko's past has robbed him of any concern for life—especially his own—and left him convinced there is no such thing as redemption. He's a simple man who needs nothing but a greasy meal and an occasional lap dance from a stripper to keep him trudging toward the only thing that matters to him now—vengeance.
With a quick leaping movement I flip a grenade into the open bay of a helicopter. The rising chopper erupts in flames and incinerates the last of the bosses I'm sent to kill.
After several attempts, Niko—and I—finish this current mission against an army of mafia thugs. It's a pretty daunting challenge, even by Hollywood standards. But it's just one more day in the life of a Serbian killer in Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto IV.
It's the blending of emotionally involving storyline and violent action that nudges this title from mere video game shoot-'em-up toward something approaching interactive cinema. And that's why GTA IV has hard-core gamers and the game-reviewing press shooting their automatic rifles gleefully into the air while cheering themselves hoarse. IGN ranked the title a "10" and claimed, "It's one of the best games we've ever seen." Reviewers at GameSpot mirrored that praise, calling the latest episode in the GTA saga a "superb character-driven story."
USA Today dubbed it an "exhilarating adventure" that is much like "an interactive episode of The Sopranos" from which you can "expect a lot of bang for your buck." But writer Marc Saltzman, at least, went on to admit that "controversy is unavoidable with this game." Controversy? Didn't the out-of-this-world sales figures for Halo 3 finally put an end to everybody quibbling over a few thousand people getting brutally killed in a video game? Well, not quite.
As the thickly accented illegal immigrant Niko, players step off a merchant navy vessel and into a digital version of what amounts to be New York City. (Liberty City is "where the American Dream goes to die," boasts the game's Web site.) They then meet up with Niko's cousin, Roman—an eternal optimist who hopes to make it big in America but who's also in debt up to his ears. To help his sad sack cousin, Niko agrees to take on the role of enforcer and carry out a few missions for the Russian mob.
One thing leads to another.
Niko ends up befriending or murdering an array of lowlifes from the underbelly of society—including Russian thugs, Irish mobsters, Jamaican pot dealers, corner crack-pushers, Puerto Rican hoods, a corrupt police commissioner and a variety of other unrepentant operators and hustlers.
As befits the title, most of the open-world gameplay is made up of carjacking vehicles and recklessly racing through city streets. But assigned missions usually focus on strategically figuring out how to kill someone. Or determining the best way to retrieve stolen items. Or evading the police. Or making drug deliveries.
You can also drink and drive in this game, leaving you with a blurred and wobbly view.
"Rockstar has tried to make Grand Theft Auto IV feel like less of a video game," writes MTV News contributor Stephen Totilo. "Shooting a policeman, a criminal or a civilian will cause them to tumble with convincing physics. Shot people look hurt. Cars handle more realistically and more distinctly. ... The improved physics and animation make the game feel more real, the player's actions more fraught with consequence. ... It's a realer GTA. Is it also a game? Of course. Is it still 'just' a game? That depends on your perspective and what your hopes are for how something like this might impact those who play it."
When not making money for murder or spending it on bigger, badder weaponry, Niko can also take time to pursue the "normal" things of life. He can watch TV, go online to explore the Internet and even join a dating service. Players have the option of dating up to three or four different women and taking them out for bowling, darts or pool, hitting a few bars or catching some live comedy. And if the gal feels well-treated, she may extend the night's festivities by inviting the tough-looking Serb up for some "hot coffee." (Which puts you outside her bedroom window to hear her calling out Niko's name during sex.)
But if Niko is a "failure" in the dating department, he can always take a buddy to one of the strip clubs in town. There, busty young women dressed in brief panties and pasties will pole dance, give him an erotic lap dance and coo nasty things into his ear. Similarly, receiving sex from a prostitute is as easy as driving up, calling her into your car and finding a deserted alleyway. No hidden sex scenes needed in this GTA rendition. These women stay clothed (if you can call what they're wearing clothes), but climb onto Niko's lap and talk dirty to him while going through all the motions.
Speaking of dirty, GTA IV immerses its players in a world laced with constant foul language of every stripe. Gamers just walking down Liberty City's streets will be greeted with a cacophony of f- and s-words.
Sex is diversion here, though. GTA games are really all about grabbing the nearest weapon and leaving your opponents' brains splattered across the wall behind them. Gamers can find or purchase a wide variety of munitions—including shotguns, machine guns and RPGs—or simply pick up a brick from an empty lot. Along with an ample rogue's gallery, innocent passersby and policemen can be run down or blown away whenever the player desires.
And if the single-player mode doesn't offer enough bloodshed, gamers are (for the first time) also given the option of online multiplayer modes. Up to 16 enthusiasts can blast each other in a host of cooperative and competitive shoot-outs that include a free-for-all deathmatch called, uh, Deathmatch.
In short, the makers of Grand Theft Auto IV have gathered together all the possible social evils they could come up with. Prostitution. Illegal drugs. Drive-by-shootings. Cop-killings. Carjackings. Political corruption. Racism. Rampant murder. Everything's bundled into one massive and, sadly, cutting-edge game—in which you're immersed for 30 to 80 hours. And that's just the first time around.
Are you mystified that anyone would spend that kind of time on this kind of stuff? Are you certain that at least kids won't be playing since parents won't let them? MTV News and Wired magazine both interviewed groups of gamers under the age of 17 who have played previous iterations of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and who plan on getting their hands on No. 4, too. One said, "My mom doesn't have a clue about games or ratings, so we'll just go in and get it." Another commented, "I am mature, and my parents know this is just a video game." Still another noted, "If my parents took video games as serious as movies and paid more attention to what I was playing, all of this could be avoided. ... Not that I would want them to do that."
We very much do want them to do that.