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.