And for all the talk about the amazing sandbox on offer in this take on Liberty City, the start of GTA IV is more linear than its predecessors. The first dozen or so assignments are geared to walk you through the options available in the game in a ponderous, step-by-step fashion. So you take out a girl to get a look at mini-games like bowling and playing pool, and even check out entertainment at cabaret shows and comedy clubs. You beat up a couple of goons to get some experience with the new hand-to-hand combat. A thug has you keep an eye on his drug deal to teach you the basics of the new weapons targeting system. That sort of thing.
It's actually a pretty dull introduction to the game, and I found it very restrictive. I could deal with the same old blocked bridges (this time due to a terrorist threat at the start of the game) closing off access to some of the map, but GTA IV takes away a lot of essentials in the beginning. One of the first things I did with San Andreas and Vice City was to get to know my surroundings and make a few bucks playing cabbie for an hour or two. This wasn't possible in GTA IV. Instead, I had to get in good with Roman first. I had to take him on a boys' night out, preferably to a strip club to see the American titties he loves so much, before he okayed me to drive one of his company cabs. This can be done really early in the game, but still, not being able to steal a cab right off the bat just feels wrong.
Everything takes a much darker turn when the tutorial-style missions wrap up, though. Not to drop any spoilers, but in small talk while driving to missions Niko reveals to his first girlfriend and Roman that he's actually in Liberty City looking for somebody, and that his experiences in "the war" pretty much "ruined him" for life. He even goes off on a rant with Roman at one point, giving a lecture about how bad things happen to people that they carry through their entire lives, and how they can't be removed simply by getting on a boat and moving to a foreign land. Cheerful.
Niko's tortured soul is on display more and more as the story missions develop. I found this whole aspect of the game a little too serious, although I sure can't argue with the quality of the plotting, dialogue, and acting. Everything is first-rate. While the story may start out as a "Wild and Crazy Guys" farce, it soon evolves into a serious drama layered with moral overtones and choices about how good or evil you want Niko to be. The end result for me was sympathizing with Niko, getting ever more curious about what could have happened to him in Europe. Even though I found the basic play structure awfully similar to the now six-year-old Vice City, the story pulled me along. I had to figure out what was really making this guy tick.
Additional story and setting development kept me playing into the wee hours of the morning as well. What's on offer here simply blows away anything in the previous three GTA games. Liberty City feels alive. It's absolutely huge and is modeled more accurately after New York City than it was way back in GTA III, with landmarks like the Statue of Happiness and pretty authentic takes on NY boroughs like Brooklyn (Broker) and Queens (Dukes). The only drawback is that this urban jungle is, well, a little too urban for the most part. Although there are some nice suburban areas with brownstones and elite mansions, most of the time you're wheeling around concrete canyons that just don't have the personality of, say, the beachfront strip in Vice City or the hillbilly Badlands in San Andreas.