Hype or hot, that's the question about Grand Theft Auto IV.
The name brings a visceral reaction from many - press releases from teachers federations, fist-shaking from old fogeys, soap boxes being put into position by politicians - all of which does nothing but sell a load more games.
Analysts are predicting that GTA IV will sell more than Halo 3 in its first week, not only making it the biggest opening for a game, but the biggest opening week, revenue-wise, of any entertainment entity.
So, is it worth it? Likely, it will be.
The clever thing about the GTA franchise is they get all the outrage - "Oh my god, this is the game where you go around killing prostitutes for points."
But lost to the mainstream jackals, none of whom ever play the game, is the gameplay.
One of the most smart game franchises out there, Grand Theft Auto pioneered open-world gameplay. What that means is, even though there are missions in the game and a storyline to follow, one of the great appeals of the game is the freedom.
Jump in a car - any car, toss out the driver and go explore the city, anywhere, anytime, at your leisure.
This time the story is in present day, April 2008, and you're cast as Niko Bellic, a Russian mafia-type who's landed in Liberty City (New York), hoping to live a straight and narrow life. Well, that ain't going to happen. Your cousin and host of new acquaintances quickly get you in their clutches, and you're off into the world of organized crime.
What is different about this GTA is the polish. There was a certain charm to the past Grand Theft games, especially the '80s-retro Vice City, in its clunky, almost cartoon look.
Now, the game is much more precise. The graphics are much more realistic, completely state-of-the-art, as is a new "physics" model. The way characters move and react now is much more fluid.
There's a new movement program in the making of this game, so if you get hit by a car, you'll react differently each time as the reaction has been made to completely mirror human movement. Get hit in the knee, or the head, or the shoulder, and you'll react differently to each.
There is a very smooth and fresh feel to the movement in the game and it's a huge improvement.
The combat is also evolved. This game now has a much more professional feel, like famous shooters such as Halo or even the new Army of Two. Targeting and accuracy are much more at the forefront. There are, as you'd imagine in organized crime, a host of nasty firearms to exploit, from Uzis to rocket launchers, and you'll need them all in your arsenal because there's a lot of challenge in this game.
Liberty City and its citizens really are the stars of this game though. It looks, and reacts, amazingly real. If you just punk out a random stranger on the street, some people will drop their belongings and run away, others will come to their aid and even challenge you physically. This is where you can either fight for no reason, and bring the heat of police, or back down and move on.
While the game has grown up with substantially better physics, graphics and combat, there are some wonderfully familiar GTA touches left in. One, thankfully, is the cars. They're still rough to drive, and too many collisions will set you on fire and will ultimately explode them.
The other is the sense of humour. From the wonderfully-wicked radio DJs you listen to in the car between hit songs (yet another great soundtrack), to the billboards around town, to the standup act of Ricky Gervais in the comedy club, this GTA appears to have the same tongue-in-cheek, cheap-shot smarm that the others have all displayed.
Make no mistake, this is a violent game, an interactive Sopranos if you will. It is about organized crime and completing underhanded and illegal missions, so it will no doubt draw a load of fire from the do-gooders who will blame it for setting the kids of today on a path to hell. There are ratings, remember, and this one will be rated mature, just like movies are.
Stick to the ratings and Grand Theft Auto 4 looks like it will deliver on the hype for weeks, if not months of gameplay.
Thanks to Paul Chapman
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