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The best of the Grand Theft franchise

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

It is dark in the big city, but the place is humming. As I drive through this virtual Liberty City and check out landmarks modelled on real-life New York, a character lists the various groups who call the place home, including "vacationing Europeans and scared Canadians."

And he's right, I am a little fearful. This new Liberty City is the setting for - and one of the true stars of - Grand Theft Auto IV, a Mature-rated video game released this week for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by Rockstar Games. Liberty is a faithfully rendered environment where the dreams and nightmares of urban life are displayed and then satirized. But it's not the often-violent content that has me worried as much the time it is going to take to see it all.

It could take forever to get through 100-plus hours of game play, watch the mock TV shows - the reality series Waning with the Stars is an early favourite - and listen to all 19 stations on the car radio.

I have, after all, been here before. It has been seven years since Grand Theft Auto III, in moving from a top-down driving series to a three-dimensional action game, rewrote the interactive entertainment rule book with its go-anywhere, try-anything structure, to say nothing of its impact on the wider culture. Since then, there have been numerous prequels and expansion packs, enough to make me wonder how much more of Liberty City and Rockstar's angry wit I need to see and hear.

In the early going, it is safe to say Grand Theft Auto IV does not have the shocking novelty of that third instalment. To play it, you do much the same things as you do in its forbears - drive, fight, and drive some more. It does have an intriguing central character, a veteran of the Bosnian war who immigrates straight into the underbelly of a large American city, but so far it is shaping up to simply be the best of the recent Grand Theft Auto games.

That is no small achievement, however: For this seminal series' ardent fan base, it will be more than enough to justify a long vacation in Liberty City.

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