After a few releases set in different locales the GTA series returns to Liberty City, last seen in the first 3D title of the franchise, GTA III. This is anything but a re-run however, taking full advantage of the PS3's hardware to deliver the most sophisticated game in the series to date. The contrasts to GTA III are striking, in place of a mute and colourless protagonist you get Nico Bellic, an impressively complex and intriguing personality who you will find out a lot more about as you progress through the main missions.
This time the story is a lot more serious than before and the narrative is much stronger; in place of a slightly random collection of characters and missions there are inter-related episodes and the characters you encounter will at times pass comment on your actions and who you have been hanging out with which made the whole thing feel much more realistic. The storyline tackles some interesting themes such as whether it is wise to seek revenge, can an immigrant create a new life for themselves or will they be burdened by the past and how people can see the world differently on account of their personalities. A big change to the more cartoonish style of previous GTAs.
Indeed, realism has been enhanced in many aspects of the game. GTA III was an impressive achievement at the time but this expands on it in so many ways. In place of an elevated rail system with a few stations there is an integrated overhead rail and subway system with several lines and dozens of stations. When travelling on the system you even get recorded announcements for each station. You can also get around town by taking taxi rides (as long as you have the money); doing so allows you to watch the city go by or you can just skip straight to the destination. The fast food outlets and clothes shops return from San Andreas as does the dating. These elements work in pretty much the same way as before though I did miss the fluctuating waistline element from SA which was pretty entertaining. As before there is a large range of cars and motorcycles in the city but their physics have been upgraded a bit, making them a bit trickier to control at first. You can actually cause a vehicle to spin out this time but it doesn't take too much time to get used to this.
The best thing about the game for me was Liberty City itself. It is just amazing. Each neighborhood has its own distinctive character such as one area which has many Korean-owned businesses indicated by bi-lingual signage. The attention to detail is fantastic: smoke stacks in industrial areas puff out smoke into the atmosphere, skyscrapers are floodlit at night, traffic lights sway in the breeze. Driving around town is a pleasure and the landscapes are so varied that it never feels repetitive.
The downside of all this is that the amount of detail used makes the city difficult to render resulting in noticeable pop-up, blurry backgrounds with greater distance and a slight jerkiness to the game engine. These aren't a huge problem by any means but they do detract from the experience a little. A bigger weakness is some of the missions. There were some strong ones but a fair number revolve around driving to a destination and shooting a bunch of guys which was a little monotonous at times. Rockstar have added a useful cover system which was a nice touch but that old bugbear a flaky auto-targetting system made an unfortunate return. To be fair it works reasonably well most of the time but still decides to lock on to a guy about a block away instead of the one right next to you on occasion which was irritating. It is disappointing that this long term problem of the series was not fully resolved.
You might be wondering where the laughs and silliness have gone. Don't worry, there are plenty of comic touches throughout the game. Nico has a dry sense of humour which is especially noticeable in scenes with his naive but optimistic cousin Roman which are at times hilarious. There are also the typically ridiculous radio stations, amusing comic characters like Brucie and the usual silly puns which can be seen in signs across the city.
GTA IV is very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary so if you hate the GTA series then this is unlikely to convert you. Everyone else should definitely consider playing one of the best games of its type to date. Although it has a few flaws they don't significantly detract from the overall experience of what is a very accomplished game.