Grand Theft Auto IV PS3 / Xbox 360

Grand Theft Auto IV PS3 / Xbox 360
Once upon a time, America opened its arms to the huddled masses of new immigrants yearning to breathe free. As they arrived on ships, past that iconic statue, they probably thought of their new, thriving metropolis as, well, Liberty City. But times have changed.

When Niko Bellic arrives in Grand Theft America — via ship and without papers — attitudes towards immigrants, especially illegal ones, have hardened and the land of opportunity’s promise has become a pipe dream. He — or rather, you — came from Serbia based largely on the boasting of your cousin Roman, whose American dream turned out to be just that. He’s deep in gambling debt, with loan sharks on his back and cockroaches in his apartment. His girl is stepping out on him and his cabstand is just barely in business.

Well, Roman wasn’t the only reason you came here, there’s some unfinished business from the Balkan war to take care of, but that’s for later. Right now you have to survive Liberty City — whose name is such a misnomer that a terror alert has initially cut off the Broker borough from the rest of town — and that will involve becoming embroiled in the Eastern European criminal underworld, whether you like it or not.

But you will also go on dates — and if you play your cards right, you might even get lucky. You could also go bowling, play darts, drop too much cash in a strip club or just while away the hours surfing the net, watching TV or just cruising, driving around this beautiful town with the radio, and its 214 songs, blaring.

Rockstar has also stepped up its game with the multiplayer, which includes 15 online modes, ranging from the usual death matches, albeit with 16 dudes spread out across a sprawling cityscape, to co-op team play involving turf battles, cops’n’robbers showdowns, car racing, actual missions and, of course, a free roaming mode that lets you do whatever the hell you want (including exploring parts of the city you haven’t yet unlocked in single-player).

Not surprisingly, GTA IV has endured its usual round of condemnation. An immigrant rights group decried Bellic’s Balkan heritage, though this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of an illegal immigrant ever crafted. Some no-name politicians, anti-gaming activists and parental censorship groups slammed the violence, most likely without playing the game. But none of the charges have stuck this time in part because GTA IV transcends its potentially transgressive nature through sheer technical, stylistic and narrative virtuosity.

In the wake of 2001’s GTA III came a tsunami of sandbox clones — even Spiderman and The Simpsons ripped off Rockstar’s steez. Of course, so did Vice City and San Andreas, hence the denial of a roman numeral. While it may not be as much of a leap as the top-down GTA II to free-roaming pioneer GTA III, number four nonetheless puts sandbox gaming through the evolutionary process. Liberty City may be less geographically spread out than San Andreas but damn if it isn’t more alive — as if to prove this point, Rockstar even put a beating heart inside the Statue of Happiness, their piss-take on the Statue of Liberty.

Because of this virtual vitality, often you may hail a cab rather than carjack and when given the chance to kill or let live, you may be surprised how much empathy you have developed. The fact that Rockstar upped the realism of how its pixilated population reacts to being gunned down also impacts a gamer’s morality.

Outside of the missions (and even sometimes within them) the destruction you rain down on this town is by your choice. So, if you to call 911 and then sniper a few cops instead of taking your girl Michelle to a comedy club, where Ricky Gervais is doing stand-up, well, that says a lot more about you than it does about Rockstar Games. (Rockstar Games)