Grand Theft Auto IV isn't all that different from The Wire—each takes a novelistic approach to telling stories about a naked city. Niko Bellic, the game's tough Eastern European protagonist, rubs elbows with dozens of well-drawn lowlifes—all painted with the same gray moral brush. As fresh-off-the-boat Niko, players insinuate themselves into the sordid lives of dealers and mobsters at their leisure, dipping in and out of their plots. These thugs, rivals, and allies all have their own arcs. Some flame out, succumbing to demon blow. Others bloom beyond caricature as Bellic earns their trust.
But it's how Bellic interacts with the game's faux New York that grabs gamers by the throat. Cast all the story, music, and sharp satire aside, and Grand Theft Auto IV is about jacking cars, then shooting, punching, or running over people that get in your way. At this point in gaming's short life, it's finally time to ask the question: Is a carjack really a carjack? Could Niko Bellic's Terminator-style ruthlessness be an expression of American greed? Or maybe it's simpler than that. Maybe it just feels good to tear some jerk out of his fancy car or empty a rocket launcher in the direction of those who would tell you "no." Like the last seconds of Thelma & Louise or the blaze of glory at the end of Scarface, such sprees are supreme acts of recklessness and rebellion. Grand Theft Auto IV is, simply, the latest way to flip the bird. And damn if such a simple gesture doesn't feel good.
Beyond the game: Online play transforms an already amazing experience. Roaming lurid Liberty City with friends is a blast. The random element of the city's cops, traffic, and pedestrians makes the mission-based multiplayer games way more interesting than they ought to be.
Worth playing for: Beneath all the gunfire there's a heartbeat. When Bellic is asked about how he was changed by the war he fought back home, he answers, "It ruined me." Expect the game's delicate soul to go unnoticed by its critics.
Frustration sets in when: Replaying failed missions still feels like a hassle. But the pain of these do-overs is softened by the new dialog that the characters speak the second time around.
Final Judgment: Urban blight meticulously simulated, deftly skewered.