Offering a trunkload of improvements and a sprawling urban environment packed with details, the latest in an already fabled series is now also the greatest. Plus: ''Mario Kart Wii''
Grand Theft Auto

(Rockstar Games; PS3, Xbox 360; Mature)

It is news that will sadden girlfriends and wives (and even movie execs): Grand Theft Auto IV is finally here. And the latest installment in the bestselling (and controversial) franchise that infamously brought the gangsta life into rec rooms across the country does not disappoint. Generational improvements in graphics, sound, and memory are apparent in every detailed scene: it’s adrenalized urban mayhem for a high-def generation.

As Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic, you are lured to Liberty City (a not-so-very carefully disguised New York City) by your cousin Roman. It is in this setting — with the grime-and-crime levels turned up to ’11’ — that Niko must begin his rise to power, dealing with cops, street hustlers, drug dealers, and the Russian mob. What makes the experience so thrilling is how many different paths you are offered as you try navigate these mean streets.

Most so-called ”open sandbox” games offer players a chance to roam, but GTA IV delivers a sense of freedom previously unimaginable. Niko can do just about anything and go anywhere. He can race around the city on a speedboat, take part in a highway chase — even peruse personal ads on websites. Just as significant: the game controls (for combat and driving), always the franchise’s big weakness, are now vastly improved and no longer get in the way of the action.

Its criminal themes notwithstanding, GTA IV is more than a state-of-the-art videogame: it represents a compelling (if bloody and violent) example of both the narrative and immersive power of the medium. AGeoff Keighley

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