was happy to find that Grand Theft Auto has most definitely not jumped the shark. I was initially disappointed when I discovered that my expectations, no matter how unreasonable, that GTA4 would let you play through the entire campaign with a friend weren't to be met. But that was short lived.
The sheer level of customization in the game, the wild variety of play, and the unsurpassed size of the maps made the lack of a full co-op campaign seem like an afterthought.
To start playing a multiplayer game you bring up Nikko's cell phone in the single player campaign and, using the in-phone menu, select multiplayer. So you can drop into one of these sessions whenever you want.
While you can't play as Nikko, the campaign's main character, you can customize your own character, creating someone by choosing male or female and then selecting among four different heads, four torsos, four legs and several types of glasses and hats.
All but one of the multiplayer modes supports up to 16 players. (The co-op missions only support up to four.) The host has an amazing array of options that they can control. While setting up a game, the host can choose to modify the routine, like respawn times, weapon selections and friendly fire, or the unusual, like the time of day, the weather, how heavy the traffic is or how many people are on the street. You can even control police presence in your matches.
While the game allows you to select parts of the map to play in, choosing specific boroughs, smaller neighborhoods, or areas like the airport, it doesn't prevent players from roaming the entire city during any given match. Instead the respawns and weapon drops only occur in those areas.
While the high level of customization adds a lot to the experience, I was just as wowed by some of the little things built into multiplayer, like the ability for players waiting in a lobby to turn on their radio and listen to GTA's soundtrack. Deathmatch
My first experience with GTA 4 multiplayer was deathmatch and team deathmatch.
Instead of winning with kill counts, both of these modes look at your cash total to see who won the match. Cash is earned by killing members of the other team and you can get extra cash by darting out to collect the money they drop when they die.
The controls were solid, as I've mentioned before
, but what made this deathmatch feel so different was that it felt like it was taking place in a living, breathing world. People were walking around, there were cars to be stolen. You can actually load up a car with your entire team and try to drive-by the other team mates. You could even, if you felt like it, take off to parts unknown, areas on the map nowhere near where the action was taking place.
Deathmatch was fun, and the added twist of an open world and a huge map, definitely upped the value, but it was still deathmatch. Cops N Crooks
The next mode we played was Cops N Crooks, a variation on your typical deathmatch mode where you have to find and take out the bad guys.
The team playing as cops can see the crooks on their radar, but the the crooks can only see the escape point on the map and don't know where the cops are until it's almost too late. The mode has two derivations: In All for One you need to kill the boss, played by one of the crooks. In One for All everyone has just one life and once the crooks are dead the cops win.
There were some really nice touches to the game that made this stand out from some of the other modes I've played in shooters. For instance as the bad guys, you can give each other waypoints on the live map, allowing one player to drive and another to navigate.
We also played matches were the bad guys split up into two groups, doubling the chance for the boss to get away because we weren't sure which group he was with.
Lots of fun, plenty of potential, especially when you factor in that this all still takes place in GTA's open world. GTA Race
This was the mode I least wanted to play, but came in as one of my favorites to mess around with. Imagine Mario Kart in a real world, with real cars. Now add machine guns, pistols, rocket launchers, molotov cocktails, in fact every weapons in GTA. Now, let people get out of their cars and do whatever they want to win, or prevent other people from winning. Wow, just wow.
This mode lets the host choose vehicle types before a race, the race course, time limit and number of laps. Sure the game has checkpoints, and you need to hit them, or most of them, to complete a lap, but being the fastest doesn't get close to guaranteeing a win.
In our introduction to the mode, myself and Newsweek's N'gail Croal were burning around the course, which I believe took place near GTA's Central Park, when we came to a stone archway we absolutely had to go through to complete the lap. Problem was, there were cars, lots of cars blocking our way. By the time I had assessed the situation, one of the other players ran up to me and killed me at the wheel.
The race quickly devolved into a deathmatch until we realized that Croal had nosed his car through the wreckage and was burning through the laps. In another race, this one taking place at an airport complete with moving planes, I didn't bother trying to speed through the course and instead clamored on top of an airport gangway with a rocket launcher and just waited. When people came by I blew up their cars. Meanwhile Rockstar's Jeronimo Barrera was taking great pleasure trying to mow down Croal in what looked like a golf cart.
From what I played of it, GTA Race could easily be a standalone game, something that would occupy a gamer's attention for months. Hangman's NOOSE
The final mode we played was probably the most impressive. Hangman's NOOSE is Rockstar's answer to a story-driven campaign mode. Instead of allowing players to complete chunks of the single player campaign with a friend, the developers decided to create side missions, featuring ancillary characters, that can be played as a group with a total of four people.
Rockstar declined to say how many of these co-op missions the game will ship with, but I'd think it would come with more than the one and I'd bet that the 360 DLC will be all about this mode.
The mission we played was Hangman's NOOSE. In it you're asked to rescue a crime boss from an army of police who are picking him up on the runway of the airport. The missions started out on the runway and as we shot it out with cops, two more armored SWAT trucks drove up, unloading more and more cops.
The first play through was pretty succinct, we grabbed the armored truck, got the boss in it and tore across the city to our extraction point while the city's entire police force mobilized to stop us.
The second play through didn't go nearly as well.
A Rockstar developer took the wheel of the armored car again, and another rode shotgun. Croal hopped into the back to shoot at pursuing cops. I opted to swipe a helicopter that was on the runway and followed the wagon as it entered the interstate, trying to gun down the stream of cop cars in pursuit.
Then it happened: Croal was shot. The hit didn't kill him, but it did knock him from the truck which continued to speed toward the drop off point. Soon Croal was surrounded by cops on the middle of an interstate. I turned my chopper around and told Croal I was coming for him. Landing the copter in a nearby clearing, I got out to try and find Croal, but he had snatched a car and was already out of the police infested area.
I ran back to my copter only to find its rotors had been snapped off during my crap landing next to a copse of trees. The whole thing ended with me being gunned down by a phalanx of cops as I ran down the interstate toward the distant extraction point, and the whole team losing.
The missions was actually very straight forward, lacking almost completely in narrative and pretty short, but that works in GTA IV. It works because the game, especially in the multiplayer modes, seems to be providing you a way to create your own experiences.
I could replay Hangman's NOOSE a dozen times and not get tired of it, mostly because each time through created a different experience. It's so open ended that they story you play, as with single player, often seems like your own.
I've certainly not played enough of Grand Theft Auto IV to being able to say whether the game will live up to mounting expectations, but I can certainly say that Rockstar hasn't been caught resting. This game, and it's unusual and varied take on multiplayer gaming isn't packed with obvious innovations, but it still manages to innovate where it counts most: In storytelling.