Steal a glimpse inside 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

It's expected to be the biggest event of the year for gamers: Grand Theft Auto IV launches April 29 for the Xbox 360 and PS3. Some analysts predict publisher Rockstar Games (rockstargames.com) will sell more than 6 million copies in Week 1 and up to 9 million by fall. At Rockstar's headquarters, I got an early look for USA TODAY.

Story

You're Nikolai "Niko" Bellic, who leaves his rough Eastern European town to pursue the American dream. His American cousin, Roman, promises that the streets are paved with gold; but Niko discovers he was lured here to work for Roman's small cabstand and help him get out of debt with loan sharks.

To survive, Niko makes money, connections and a name in the criminal underworld. As you'll discover, Niko had his own reasons for wanting to leave his homeland.

Location and look

Players return to Liberty City from 2001's GTA III, modeled after New York City and New Jersey. (Manhattan is called Algonquin, Times Square is Star Junction, Central Park is Middle Park.)

Every time you hop into a car you'll have access to many local radio stations, each with a different music genre and humorous DJ.

And while the game world is smaller than the cities found in 2004's GTA: San Andreas, it is fleshed out with incredible detail, realistic graphics, motion-captured videos, more verticality (such as access to skyscraper rooftops) and a 24-hour day-and-night cycle (two minutes of game time equals one hour).

Game play

As with past GTA games, IV can best be described as a non-linear "sandbox" world, populated by pedestrians and cars that obey traffic lights, in which you can go anywhere and do anything.

Players will take on dozens of missions over the course of this game, assigned by the characters you'll meet. One challenging mission is to get the address of an informant, and you must carjack a cop cruiser to gain access to the police computer.

How you accomplish this task is up to you: You can call 911 on your mobile phone so an officer comes and then take his car; shoot at pedestrians until the police arrive; or stealthily steal a cop car from a police station.

More so than in the past, gunplay is an important part of GTA IV, whether it's on foot or while driving, and players will also master hand-to-hand combat based on the Israeli krav maga combat style.

Multiplayer and more

Arguably the biggest new feature in GTA IV— and a first for the series — is online play for up to 16 gamers.

Both cooperative and competitive modes will be available, including Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch ("frag," or kill, as many players as you can before the time is up); GTA Race (race your vehicle to the finish line, while firing weapons at rivals); Cops N' Crooks, a team-based mode that pits the police against thugs trying to protect their boss; and Hangman's Noose (a four-player co-op mode).

Among other features: downloadable missions after the game ships (Xbox 360 only); characters who remember if you helped them or not (which may affect if they'll assist you in the future); mini-games such as bowling, pool and arcades; access to e-mail and the Web for info and missions; and optional in-car GPS navigation so you don't need to look at the map as much.

Gamers who want a taste can watch the latest trailer at rockstargames.com/IV.

Controversy

Not unlike previous GTA games, Grand Theft Auto IV will ruffle feathers among concerned parents, politicians and activists.

You still can kill police, but it's wiser to avoid these shootouts because if you're arrested, you'll lose all your money and weapons and fail the mission. Though they'll try to jump out of the way, you also can drive into pedestrians.

Players can again proposition prostitutes to get a "health boost." Exotic pole dancers are in the game — but there is no nudity, nor is there a hidden sex mini-game, à la "Hot Coffee," which landed the game publisher in hot water in the past.

You also can drink and drive in this game, and if you choose to go out partying with friends, at the end of the night you can walk home, hail a cab or drive; if you drive, your vision is blurred, making it harder to control the vehicle.

Finally, GTA IV contains plenty of foul language.

In short, heed the "Mature" rating on the box. It's not appropriate for players under 17.

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