Crispy Gamer

Grand Theft Auto IV

Get even more Grand Theft Auto IV at Liberty City Central.

Let's get this one out the way now: Grand Theft Auto IV will be a runaway success. It's been four years since San Andreas, and legions of button mashers everywhere reserved copies of Rockstar's next big game as soon as they possibly could. Still, open-world games have come a long way, and other titles -- Crackdown comes to mind -- have proven they can deliver compelling takes on branching, free-roaming gameplay in sprawling game worlds.

There's a special formula that only Rockstar can deliver, though. The GTA franchise sports the crudest NPC chatter anywhere, features media landscapes full of cutting satire, and gives you protagonists that seem out of a lost Hunter S. Thompson/James Ellroy collaboration, and although Rockstar's keeping mum on the story and single-player aspects right now, all of the above is still in effect in the multiplayer game. GTA IV looks great, too; it's running on the Rockstar Advanced Graphics Engine (RAGE), which made its debut with Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis. Under the hood, it's also using Natural Motion's Euphoria technology to drive the artificial intelligence behaviors in the ersatz New York City of Liberty City.

So, consider some of the fears surrounding the game allayed. Rockstar still has something to prove, on two fronts, actually. First, the exclusive episodic content for which Microsoft supposedly shelled out big bucks needs to hook Xbox Live users in a big way. Second, they're delivering multiplayer content to a GTA console game for the first time.

In typical Rockstar fashion, they're not spilling any beans on the downloadable stuff yet. After a hands-on session with four of the game's multiplayer modes, it seems like the chaotic fun players expect out the GTA series' single-player modes will show online as well. Players will be able to customize their ne'er-do-well's look before jumping online, which is done in-game by accessing a menu on lead character Nico's cell phone. It was pretty seamless, reminiscent of the quick drop-in seen in Burnout Paradise. Rockstar reps say multiplayer will accommodate somewhere between 10 and 20 participants in adversarial modes and four players in co-op. Our play-through with Team Deathmatch included two other journalists and members of the dev team. The goal in this mode was to snatch up the most dollars, which you get by eliminating enemies on the opposite team. You can get your whole team together in a vehicle and head straight for your opponents drive-by style, or play cat-and-mouse through the city. With weapons and armor littered over the map, this mode wasn't too different from what it is in other games. The thing that struck us, though, was the map itself. There weren't separate maps from which to choose; instead, the same cityscape from the single-player mode serves as the battlefield for multiplayer and the player hosting the game can set the borders.

Next, we jumped into Cops 'N' Crooks, where two teams of four compete across both sides of the law across the whole city. On the Crooks team, one player becomes the Mob Boss and his soldiers have to shepherd him to an extraction point before the Cops find them and take them out. If it sounds too straightforward, it isn't. Rockstar's thrown some nice tweaks to make C&C a uniquely balanced and more tense affair than a standard escort mission. The Cops team can always track on the Crooks on the in-game radar. Crooks don't have the same advantage, but that team's the only one that knows where the extraction point is. The round ends when the Boss either escapes or gets capped and then teams switch sides. Like Team Deathmatch, cash plays a role and more money is earned for more people escaping with the Boss.

Another co-op mode called Hangman's NOOSE followed the run-and-gun of Cops 'N' Crooks. This mission pits players against NOOSE, Liberty City's AI-driven police tactical squad. After a short cut scene that shows visiting mob boss Kenny Petrovich landing at a local airport, a team of players must fend off hordes of NOOSE officers and clear a path to a pre-established haven on the map. The team can split up into different vehicles, but the computer AI throws everything in its arsenal -- including multiple helicopters -- to thwart Kenny's safe passage.

Lastly, journos and devs revved their engines against each other in the GTA Race mode. One player hosts the race and determines the vehicle type, number of laps and time limit. It's a simple point A-to-point B race, but still allows for the freedom associated with all things GTA. You can set up roadblocks by abandoning cars in the middle of the street, shoot your opponents while on foot or hijack an altogether new vehicle.

It'd be a stretch to say that these modes are totally new ideas, but they do deliver tweaks that feel franchise-appropriate and not like content re-skinned with GTA textures. Impressively, they played glitch-free and kept up the same graphical fidelity. Best of all, these four modes aren't the only multiplayer tricks GTA IV's holding up its sleeve. We spied a few more while navigating the menus, so stay tuned for updates on Liberty City's various mayhem orgies.

This preview was based on a publisher-driven demo at the Rockstar NYC offices.

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