At the start of the summer, many gamers—both casual and hardcore—were exposed to a multimedia blockbuster hit. Outselling previous record holder Halo 3, Grand Theft Auto IV sold 3.6 million copies its first day, grossing $500 million in its first week. When reviewing the game today, it is obvious that the anticipation and clamor were deserved.

The game returns to Liberty City, the same location portrayed in GTA I and III. The lead character Niko Bellic is fresh off the boat from an unspecified eastern European country and has come to find a traitor from the war that ravaged his country. He meets his cousin Roman, who had previously told Niko that he was extremely rich with sports cars and a mansion. In reality Roman only has a taxi and a shabby apartment. Though Niko will become much richer as the game progresses, he has nothing but his hopes upon arrival.

The gameplay in GTA IV parallels the plot progression in terms of depth. While beginning with easy missions such as driving the taxi around the city, missions become more difficult, with Niko eventually gaining an arsenal of weapons with which to take on entire gangs and the police.

Like previous versions of GTA, areas of the game are locked until the player is further in the story mode.

The interface of the game seems simpler than before, but still very appropriate for the style of play. An important note on the interface is the lack of a main menu screen, even though a multiplayer is available. There is an extensive pause menu though, complete with a map, game statistics and other features.

The gameplay itself is remarkable, from the physics to visual design. What stands out most is the improved driving mechanics. Even simulation fiends accustomed to the likes of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport style should appreciate the driving mechanics.

The on-foot gameplay is on par with the excellent driving. The character leans when turning, and can jump across buildings like a sort of parkourist (though not as well as Altair from Assassin’s Creed). Gunfights are impressively orchestrated with fair amounts of enemies, while providing a challenge for those willing to seek it.

The gameplay favors fighting with cover, as can be seen in the rewarding experience of sniper combat. Many of the missions incorporates elements of stealth, favoring caution to aggression.

Fighting alongside the AI isn’t too painful either, though it’s not as exciting as running in Master Chief style and taking care of business gung-ho. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to do things, so the replay value of the game is high.

From racing to gang fights, multiplayer puts players in the shoes of random mafia members. Not available as split screen or system link (LAN), gamers play over Xbox Live or Playstation Network with deathmatch and objective game modes. There are not maps for multiplayer, simply Liberty City.

While reviewing this game, I constantly asked myself what my favorite aspect of it was. Was it the engaging storyline and passionate characters, or the ability to drift precisely through corners after practicing for hours?

I realized the brilliance of GTA IV at one moment when I was driving in midday while it rained. The way the street glittered like a mirror and the taillights of other cars were more like splashed paint than red bulbs made me notice the importance of visual design not only in this game but also in every other.

I only have one issue with the game: the story Though it allows many options that shape the character of Niko Bellic, the story is poorly paced. I won’t spoil the plot, but there is a massive job in the middle of the game, and it is so epic that most other games seem pedestrian in comparison. The problem is that nothing else in the game has the magnitude of the said heist. Everything seems less challenging, not to mention cheapened.

Though inspired by New York, the game transcends some cheap copy of the city and becomes its own virtual world, fun for shallow play and able to withstand analytical scrutiny.

The consistency and believability of the surrounding world helps to liven the game even when gameplay might drag. Though the textures may pop a few times, and the game can often be unfair, these are minor quirks that don’t take away from the overall package.

A console game with dozens of hours for story mode usually doesn’t come with an extensive multiplayer mode, but GTA IV does just that: it defies previous notions of itself and of games in general.

Unlike most games, there are things to learn from Liberty City, from Niko Bellic and from the talk radio that comments on its world in much the same way that it comments on ours. This game is perfect and deserves to be played at least once by everyone, gamer or not.