GTA IV adds many elements to the established series that fans have been clamouring for, such as a better combat system, cars that don't vanish if you leave them for two minutes, autosaves and instant mission restarts. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited feature, however, is the addition of online functionality. It's not strictly new, of course, since there have long been PC mods that allow players to romp together on that platform while the PSP off-shoot series has also boasted Wi-Fi multiplayer challenges.
Somehow, though, the addition of a fully-featured multiplayer suite to GTA IV still feels like an event. The option may have been explored before, but it's tempting to think of those as practice runs for the real thing.
While the array of communal options is impressive, I'd be lying if I said my first impressions of GTA IV online were particularly favourable. The lobby system is rather opaque, with no immediately obvious mechanism for handling invites in-game. The fact that Rockstar has opted to provide a tourist guide rather than an instruction manual means that a fair amount of trial and error is required to find the options you want. Playing on the day of release probably wasn't the best idea either, since the strain of having everyone in the world playing the same game at the same time made for a frustrating online experience.
Dropped connections and aborted games were a common feature for the first 24 hours or so, a fact compounded by the inexcusable decision to boot players back into the single-player mode, rather than the lobby screen, should the interpipes clog up. I spent around thirty minutes on average trying to get games organised and started on Xbox Live, only to find everything falling to pieces when the time came to actually start the action. Having taken an unscientific straw poll of people on my Friends List, it seems that most encountered frustration experimenting online. Did PSN suffer similar creaks and groans? It went down altogether, and Sony and Rockstar kept schtum about why. Is it all sorted out now? Let us know down below.
Now that things have settled down, let's see what toys you have to play with. Before getting on with the important business of shooting your best mate in the face and then running over their corpse, everyone gets to create their own GTA avatar, although the system feels rather basic compared to the character creation tools of other games. You can expand the initially slim selection of faces and outfits by earning money in ranked games, but there's no escaping the fact that the textures and models have taken an obvious hit in quality in order to keep the online fun flowing. It's a trivial detail in the large scheme of things, but as your avatar isn't even used in certain online game modes there's not much chance, or incentive, to create a character with any real individuality. It doesn't help that the character is shown on a black background, meaning that many of the costume options are rendered invisible unless you whack up the brightness or contrast.
In terms of actual game modes, they're broadly divided into team games, co-op games and the ever-present mayhem games where it's every man (or woman) for themselves. Deathmatch is the most obvious example of this, allowing up to 16 players to romp around murderlising each other to pieces using the vast array of weaponry carelessly lying around. This is pretty much what most people probably had in mind when thinking of multiplayer Grand Theft Auto, and it's predictably fun in a meat-and-potatoes sort of way. There are plenty of options for the host to shake things up, including smaller maps such as the prison and various assists that can make it harder or easier to find and kill each other. Traffic, pedestrians and cops can all be toggled to different levels, depending on how much carnage you want to cause.
Simply by offering a large open environment, with loads of vehicles and devastating weaponry, Deathmatch immediately scratches one of the vital multiplayer itches - the ability to come away from each game laughing about ludicrous deaths, outrageous flukes and oh my god did you see that it was awesome. Things are given a Rockstar edge thanks to the often hilarious status messages, which range from the fiendishly offensive to the fantastically blunt. It's much more fun to see that someone has been "3rd worlded" or plain old "f**ked up" rather than simply "killed" or "fragged".
Should you tire of such single-minded violence, there are modes such as Mafiya Work and Car Jack City. Both still allow you to slaughter the other players, but the addition of tasks and missions gives it a bit more structure. Car Jack City is pretty much what it sounds like - players race to find and deliver specific vehicles within a time limit. Mafiya Work is even better, since it keeps the variety flowing with a constant stream of missions to accomplish, ranging from pickup and deliveries to assassinations. Not knowing what you'll be asked to do next ensures that even the least confident player can get lucky, and having sixteen maniacs rampaging around the city trying to beat each other to the next payday (or just beat each other to death) hits just the right note of organised chaos. Deathmatch, Mafiya Work and Car Jack City can also be played as team games, which adds yet another layer of depth and enjoyment onto the experience. Once again, the vast territory to explore and the near infinite combination of routes, tactics, weapons and approaches means that you can play the same game all night and never have the same experience.
The race mode seems fairly redundant, however. Yes, there are cars in the game, so online racing seems logical but I don't really understand why anyone would want to load up Grand Theft Auto if they just want to do straight races around a city, especially when the GTA Race option offers much the same thing, but with the inclusion of excessive violence. The ability to take the lead by blowing out your opponent's tires shouldn't be underestimated. There are plenty of normal racing games out there, so I'll take the Dick Dastardly option instead, thanks. Both vehicle modes are obviously affected by the new vehicle handling of GTA IV, so I'd suggest holding back on these until you're confident in your ability to duck, weave and hurl your car around corners without sliding sideways into a lamppost.
I suspect that Rockstar could have left it there and most people would have what they wanted from online Grand Theft Auto. It's to their credit that they've come up with additional modes that expand or tweak the experience in amusing ways. That's why, down at the bottom of the selection menu, you'll find the games that I've found most rewarding.
Cops 'n Crooks is the one that caught a lot of attention when it was announced, and I've yet to play a game that wasn't laugh-out-loud hilarious. Playable in two variant forms, All For One selects one of the Crooks to be the boss and the others must keep them safe as you all race to safety. One For All simply requires the whole team of criminals to make a clean getaway. Those playing as the cops, meanwhile, have to take them down by any means necessary. Turf War, on the other hand, is a Capture The Base mode by any other name. While the concept may be as old as the hills, it's yet another mode rescued from predictability by GTA's over-the-top potential. Often epic in length, and getting progressively more fun the more players are involved, both Cops 'n Crooks and Turf War feel wonderfully like taking part in your own slapstick Hollywood action movie.
For those who prefer their slaughter on a more intimate scale, the smaller games, designed for between two and four players, offer compact little multi-staged missions against NPC opponents, with a strong focus on co-operative play. Ensuring that you have to work together, all team members get just five lives, and must all meet up at the rendezvous point to end the mission. Enemies are fairly stupid and easy to kill, but vast in number. Earning 100 dollars for each kill, plus a hefty bonus for completion, these are your best bet for advancing through the online ranks. In Deal Breaker you race to a drug deal and bring down the rival crew. Bomb da Base II involves stealing an armoured car full of explosives and then using the charges to destroy a boat. Hangman's Noose, on the other hand, requires you to protect gang boss Petrovic as you escape from a police sting at the airport. Fairly linear, these are modes where you have only a small amount of room for improvisation, which makes your choices all the more engaging. Trying to get Petrovic past a police barricade in an airport luggage trolley, for instance, probably isn't the best idea. Is it, Tom? [To be fair, that was Martin. I was the one suicide-bombing the cops using grenades. - Ed]
Based on a few days of intensive GTA multiplayer action, there's certainly a lot to praise here. You won't go short of gameplay options, that's for sure, and even when you've mastered every mode, there are enough tweaks that can be applied to keep things varied in the long term. The way it ties in with the Rockstar Social Club website is cute, enabling you to track the statistical carnage across the city on a daily basis, but the actual multiplayer section of the site isn't open yet. It's probably too much to expect the level of multimedia features that Halo 3 offered in this regard, but this a game crying out for the ability to retain some evidence of your outlandish escapades and share it with friends.
That's not to say there aren't grumbles or improvements that can be made. Graphical purists will find much to sneer at in the PS2ish models and texture pop-in, while a laggy connection can make certain modes unplayable as cars and characters vanish and reappear all over the place. The ranking system doesn't offer much in the way of depth or incentives, being rather long-winded with large gaps between level-ups but no real reward for your perseverance. Some new hats for hours of play aren't exactly generous.
The free-roaming Party Mode, meanwhile, is a great idea. It's essentially a live gameplay lobby with no cops and loads of guns, not unlike Burnout Paradise's Freeburn, but the fact that you jump from there to the same stark lobby screens to start an actual event feels like a poor use of the space. A smattering of on-the-fly group tasks, such as destroying a certain number of vehicles or jumping from a certain height, would make it feel less like a copy of the existing (and self-explanatory) Free Mode. As you're already in the city, why not trigger the games within that city, and have players race to the area where the fun begins? For a series so dedicated to immersion, and given that everything happens in the same city, the stop-start nature of a long multiplayer session feels a little odd. It'd also be nice to be able to play some of the activities like pool, darts and drinking.
A shaky technical start and some room to improve, then, but hopefully we'll see some small updates and patches to tweak the front-end functions as Rockstar monitors how people are playing. In terms of pure gameplay, what GTA IV online lacks in sophistication it more than makes up in gleefully entertaining lunacy. Which is all we ever hoped for, really.
Check out our Grand Theft Auto IV review to read about the single-player mode.