Grand Theft Auto IV is rated "M" and it's not a joke. It is seriously, very really, absolutely, not for kids. There are very explicit themes of violence, sex, drug-use, alcohol abuse, you name it. So explicit, in fact, that there were a few times when the game calls on the player to do stuff I just didn't want to do, not even simulated. And I mean, this right after I "tested out" my new sniper rifle from a rooftop on passing drivers.
A lot of media attention has been paid to the game, it's the largest grossing game ever to be released, and reputedly the most expensive ever made. ($100 million budget!) A lot of fuss has been made about the gleeful amorality that the game thrives on. Critical reception has been almost universally enthusiastic. And I'm not so sure.
It's a good game. Improvements on previous titles have been made - better graphics, smoother combat game-play and most importantly, a story line with a bit more pathos than "Dude gets out of jails and kills people in the face to make it big." (In this case, "Dude arrives from Eastern Europe and kills people in the face to make it big, but hates what he has become.") But the greatest game ever? Eh, I dunno - the missions are redundant, except for the first few that establish character and story. What's more, some of the missions are frustratingly difficult, and can't be skipped. I'm not sure I've played a more frustrating game, frankly. But the view's worth the climb, over all. Literally, actually, since I climbed to the top of a construction site to watch the sun rise over Liberty City, and was struck right through with a craving to go back to the East Coast.
The city itself is probably the most remarkable achievement in the game - no load screens and barely noticeable pop-ins, and a crowd of cars and pedestrians that changes with the neighborhood. I went to "Firefly Island" (Coney Island) and walked by the very same roller coaster I went on ... well, let's say on a very happy night... and was absolutely demolished by how perfect the reconstruction was. The first time I drove under and el in the rain, with cussing, honking traffic all around, I really, really wanted to be back home in Philadelphia...This game has given my nostalgia muscles a good flexing, to be sure.
The radio is also as excellent as ever. In particular the wry commercial satires, and DJ'ing by the likes of Iggy Pop gives an all-too-plausible glimpse into what America would be like completely unrestrained by law or license. It's foul-mouthed, pandering, crass, and zooms straight to the lowest common denominator; which is both a way to appeal to the target demographic and also satirize it at the same time. Social commentary is rife, but not without plenty of raunchy jokes to make it entertaining.
My favorite in-game radio station is probably "Vladivostok FM", with it's weird Russian electro-pop which is, frankly, WAY cooler than the real Russian pop that I've heard in real Russian night-clubs. But in addition to these far out Eastern European musical atrocities, there's every flavor of music you might want, from jazz to reggae to reggaeton to classic rock. And Iggy Pop! And that's not hypnotizing chickens.
The voice-acting is excellent, and has well-written dialog to support it. Many of the bit characters are very memorable - I can't decided whether I enjoy trying to figure out what the heck Little Jacob, the rasta gun-runner is saying more than I enjoy counting the number of times gangsta wannabe Manny "Streets" Escuela uses the word "streets" in his self aggrandizing motormouth tirades or not. They're both vastly entertaining. If only they didn't want me to drive across the city under various time constraints, so much!
So, for atmosphere, the game is unequalled - but for actual gameplay? I dunno, I've enjoyed zooming around keeping a sharp eye out for a sweet ride to jack (my favorite so far being the "Banshee") but if I have to repeat, re-repeat and re-re-repeat one more mission that's a thinly veiled excuse to make timed runs across the city, I'll throw my controller at the TV.
And for realz - keep the kids away from this one. Sex is glorious and mysterious and magical, but kids shouldn't learn about it from a virtual back-alley prostitute willing to give a quick handy in the front seat of your stolen car.