GTAIV's friends invariably come with benefits.
You'll keep in touch with your dates, friends, and some of your enemies using another of GTAIV's great new features: a cell phone. It's hard to believe that something as simple as a cell phone could add so much to a game like this, but it's implemented so well that it's hard to imagine leaving any of Niko's safe houses without it. If you've ever used a cell phone in real life, you'll have no problem operating this one and, given that it's controlled using only the D pad and a single button, it's easy to call up acquaintances and take calls even while driving. There's no unwieldy conversation system to deal with; you simply choose which friend you want to call, what you want to talk about (it could be work, a fun activity, or asking for a favor) and then, assuming that he or she answers the phone, the conversation plays out. Incoming calls are even easier, though they occasionally come at inopportune (or amusing) times; hearing your cell-phone's signal interfere with your car radio is the least of your worries when you consider the possibility of a date calling you while you're with a prostitute or embroiled in a gunfight with the Mafia. Incidentally, new ringtones and visual themes for your phone can be purchased via the in-game Internet, which is typical of the incredible attention to detail that you'll come to take for granted as you play.
To give you some idea of just how much thought has clearly gone into the crafting of GTAIV, even the act of stealing a parked car, which is still achieved by pushing a single button, can now result in any number of different things happening. If the door is locked, as is often the case, Niko will smash a window with his elbow or his foot to get inside. Once inside the car, he may need to hot-wire it to get it started; you can speed up the process slightly by using the shoulder buttons on your controller. If the car has an alarm, it'll sound for several seconds and cause the headlights to flash on and off as you drive away--practically begging any nearby cops to come after you. Stealing cars with drivers and/or passengers inside opens up lots more possibilities, the most amusing of which is someone (possibly you) getting an arm caught in a door and dragged along as the vehicle speeds away.
Most of the vehicles in GTAIV, like those in previous games, have very loose handling that makes it easy for you to perform Hollywood-style U-turns, skids around corners, and the like. You can play through most of the missions without ever violating a traffic law if you really want to, but you can get away with (and will have a lot more fun) driving like a lunatic, provided that you don't collide with any police vehicles or mow down too many pedestrians. A neat touch when driving with the default camera view is that the camera, which is positioned a few feet behind the rear bumper of the car, centers on you rather than on the vehicle, effectively offering the vehicular equivalent of an over-the-shoulder view. When you take the control of something sporty, the camera also positions itself much closer to the ground, which adds to the sensation of speed.
The police are rarely far away, but escaping from them is easy for the most part.
The vehicle handling is difficult to fault, regardless of whether you're in a sports car, a garbage truck, a motorcycle, a speedboat, or a helicopter. However, while driving, you might notice one odd quirk that has been a constant ever since GTAIII: When taking the controls of certain vehicles, you'll suddenly notice a lot more of the same vehicle on the roads. It's not a big deal, and it isn't detrimental to the gameplay, but it's a little jarring if you get into one of the more unusual vehicles in the game--for example, the equivalent of either a Ferrari or a pickup truck--and suddenly find that the city is filled with them. That particular quirk is pretty common in some of the multiplayer modes as well, though you'll likely be too busy keeping an eye out for other players to take any notice when you venture online.
Getting online in Grand Theft Auto IV couldn't be easier. You simply select the multiplayer option on your cell phone, choose which type of game you want to host or join, and then enter a lobby and wait for the game to start. You won't be getting bored staring at a list of names while you're waiting, though, because when you enter a lobby you actually enter an online version of Liberty City in which you and up to 15 other players are free to do anything. There are weapons scattered all over the place to ensure that things don't stay too friendly for very long.
There are more than a dozen different multiplayer modes to choose from, and although some of them are variations on similar themes, there's certainly no shortage of variety. As the host of a multiplayer session, you also have the freedom to greatly customize all of the game types with variables such as friendly fire, police presence, weapons sets, traffic levels, radar functionality, and many more. You can choose where you'd like your game to take place as well, considering that many gameplay modes can be played either on a specific Liberty City island or across the entire map.
Even conventional 16-player modes such as Deathmatch and Race feel quite different than anything that you've played before. And in addition to those, there are objective-based games in which you're tasked with completing missions similar to those in the single-player game: a team-based Cops 'n Crooks mode, a Turf War mode in which teams compete for control of territories, a carjacking mode, three cooperative missions that support up to four players, and more. With the right group of people, there's no reason why you can't have a lot of fun with every single mode that's available. We experienced a few frame-rate issues and lag that caused other players and their vehicles to jump around the screen at times, but for the most part GTAIV's online play is a real treat. One especially neat touch is that, as a passenger in a vehicle being driven by another player, you can mark waypoints on the GPS system for your driver using a map that tracks the locations of other players and objectives.
Multiplayer games are an opportunity for up to 16 players to get together in Liberty City.
If you're wondering about differences between the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of Grand Theft Auto IV, the truth is that there aren't many. The PS3 version can only be played after a mandatory install that takes around 10 minutes, and its load times are a little shorter and less frequent as a result. The visuals, which don't always hold up to close scrutiny but are impressive during typical gameplay, are comparable and feature the same quirks (shadows that flicker, for example) on both consoles. Likewise, the audio, which can take a lot of the credit for why Liberty City feels so alive, is exceptional regardless of which console you have and how many speakers it's hooked up to. True to form, GTAIV's soundtrack has plenty of great licensed songs and, unlike other games we could mention, it doesn't force the artist and track information down your throat with pop-up windows that detract from gameplay. However, if you want that information, you can simply dial up a song-recognition service on your cell phone and, after a few seconds, receive it in a text message. Genius.
In case you haven't guessed already, Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that you simply have to play. The single-player game, which you can still play long after you complete the story, is the series' best by far, and the multiplayer features are good enough that you'll likely have no problem finding people to play with for many months to come. The minor flaws that you'll experience are no more difficult to overlook than those in previous GTA games, and they're greatly outnumbered by the features that will impress and surprise you anytime you think you've already seen everything that the game has to offer. There's lots to see in Liberty City, so you'd best get started.