Years ago, Omegasim introduced me to Grand Theft Auto 3 on the PlayStation 2, and I’ve been a GTA junkie ever since. I often have way more fun just running amuck then I do completing missions. My favorite in the series, to date, was GTA: Vice City. I loved the atmosphere, the action, and the fun odd-ball personalities. San Andreas was great too, with it’s huge game world and massive customization, but it was too dark and brooding for my tastes. I feared that Rockstar would continue this trend with GTA4, but that’s not the case. GTA4 is a reinvention of the series for the next generation, and it’s now the best yet.

Let’s start with the personality aspect. I loved Tommy Vercetti in Vice City because he had a wicked, on-edge sense of humor. Niko Bellic, the star of GTA4, reaches back and plucks Tommy’s calm yet smart-ass attitude, along with the often entertaining cast of crazies that were missing from San Andreas. Roman Bellic, Niko’s cousin and the early game’s story driver, is a riot in and of himself, what with all the trouble he gets into and tries to talk himself out of. I also like a number of the contacts you run across, since they too have a darkly funny tinge. This series is at it’s best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and GTA4 does that.

The sound is impeccable. Whoever did the voice casting needs a commendation, because this is some of the best I’ve ever heard.  The radio stations are great and the chatter of pedestrians on the streets is very, very believable. I don’t listen to much of the music that was included (I’m an oldies guy), so I’m often on the talk stations. They aren’t as good as Chatterbox (GTA4) or VCPR (GTA:VC), but they hold their own. Everything is uniformly natural and believable. The game world, though, is something else.

Liberty City is phenomenal, simple as that. I love the architecture, the street layout, and it overall feels more like a living city then any other representation that I’ve ever seen in a game. Lights brighten the dark streets at night, traffic – both the cars pedestrians – are well orchestrated, and rainstorms are a sight to behold. The selection of cars in the city is great, too. I enjoy hunting down a sweet set of wheels for joyriding, or possibly picking up and impressing one of my dates. Speaking of dates, relationships are a big subplot of GTA4, and you’d do well to work on them.

Early on, Niko gets a cell phone from Roman. This becomes your gateway to the world. You get calls from contacts for both missions and social outings, and you can call any of your contacts at any time.  You can also dial a host of other numbers you’ll find around the city for more fun. When you visit the TW@ internet cafe, you can surf the in-game internet, with tons of fictional sites for you to view. The phone is also your gateway to cheating, if you’re up for that.

Customization has been scaled back from San Andreas, but you can still pick out an outfit for Niko, and your dates will recognize changes in your attire and react accordingly. What’s been buffed up, though, are the peripheral goodies. Cabarets, strip clubs, a comedy club, bowling alleys, billiards and darts are all doable, both solo and with a contact. You can also go drinking with some characters (like Roman), and the results are funny but dangerous. Good luck getting your contact home; you’ll need it. Finally, you can watch TV in your apartments, getting a number of fictional shows as well as broadcasts from the cabaret and comedy club.

The wanted system is different from the old GTAs. You now initiate a search area upon committing a crime. Leaving the search area without being seen allows you to wait it out, but the search area grows with each star, and also takes longer to wait out. You can still go to Pay and Sprays, but they’re not the cure-all they were before because if a law figure sees you enter, you can’t have your wanted level removed. On a side note, you can now have your car washed to get the pedestrian stains removed.

Let me say one thing about the new Euphoria physics engine: it IS the future. As much as I like the Havok engine, this newcomer has it beat, hands down. All games should drop Havok and pick up Euphoria. I can’t think of a game type that wouldn’t be improved with this new physics system. I don’t give out 10s cheaply here. In fact, I’ve never given a game a 10 before on That changes today. GTA4 is just about as perfect an example of gaming as I can imagine. It’s dark storyline and graphic violence means it’s not for the little ones, but for the rest of us, this is gaming bliss. Alphasim out.