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Impressions: GTA IV online multiplayer (Xbox 360)

Stepping off the boat into the menacingly awaiting Liberty City, I can only imagine the emotions running through Niko Bellic's closely-shaved mind. As the stoic Eastern European protagonist first set eyes upon this labirynthian city and this brave new nation, he must have experienced no small amount of intimidation at the vast amount of opportunities that had, in a mere instant, been made available to him.

As I first popped Grand Theft Auto IV into the disc tray that it would surely be entombed in for the next few months, and charged with giving my impressions on the game's enigmatic online capabilities, I felt the same sort of intimidation -- and so, I imagine, will you. Not just because of GTA IV's multitude of online options and game types, but also due to the fact that, aside from those who played San Andreas online on PC, most of us have never taken this seminal series onto the equally cavernous internets.

Gallery: Grand Theft Auto IV | 48 Photos

Before committing my initial impressions of the online multiplayer modes in GTA IV to digital paper, I must admit that despite having played the game until sun-up, I still don't feel as if I have a true understanding of the subtle intricacies of each individual game type -- I can only provide you, the reader, with the overarching feeling that I came away with from the various modes. With enough hours logged onto that digital metropolis, I'll probably have a better idea of how to succeed at the various offerings, and develop some semblance of strategy, no doubt improving my opinion of the multiplayer options provided.


Keeping it simple, I decided to try out the most familiar-sounding gametype on the list first -- a toe-dipping I'm glad I executed, lest I be swept away in the game's vast ocean of gameplay opportunities. It's pretty standard fare, really -- free-for-all, weapons and health packs spread throughout the map, most kills wins, etc. A merciful "spawn near enemies" option kept the action at arms length at all times, a boast I cannot make for a few of the other modes. Fun (especially when acts of vehicular manslaughter become involved), but not exactly a reinvention of the wheel.

Team Deathmatch

Again, strikingly similar to similarly titled game modes across countless games, but actually much more enjoyable than regular ol' Deathmatch. Getting your four-man wrecking crew into a Sedan o' Death, all four leaning out the window with cap-busters in hand, executing any poor schmo that should happen into your field of vision -- there may be experiences like it in other games, but its never been presented in such a viscerally satisfying manner before. One of the best times I had all night, was playing this mode with friends, eager to hang out the passenger side of a helicopter, and rain my special, bullet-centric brand of justice upon my unsuspecting enemies.

Race and GTA Race

Let me start by saying this: I'm not sure why anyone would want to play plain old Race mode. Don't get me wrong, Rockstar has done an amazing job with the driving mechanics in this game, giving each car its own unique mass and handling capabilities -- but this mode, a clone of the standard racing missions often witnessed in the GTA series (ancillary, frustrating ventures I often elect to skip), is somewhat underwhelming. Your mileage (hurr hurr) may vary, but for me, Grand Theft Auto has never been about competitive driving.

GTA Race, however, is a horse of a different color. It's like Mario Kart, if the denizens of that Nintendo franchise wielded Uzi's and Glocks in lieu of multicolored carapaces and fruit husks. It's frantic and fun -- with one minor hitch. Often, these races will have a theme (one I participated in had everyone driving massive industrial trucks), and should you die, there's no guarantee you'll spawn near an appropriate vehicle, leaving you to foot it until you can find one, or to abandon the theme altogether. Not exactly sporting, but I must admit that one of my favorite moments of the evening was jetting between those gargantuan motorbeasts on my Vespa, barely cruising between a pair of them as they crushed together like the unforgiving jaws of a automotive monster.

Gallery: Prior Offenses: A Grand Theft Auto Retrospective | 14 Photos

Team Mafiya Work

There's something I need to address right this minute -- I spent the evening playing on a 32 inch LCD television, on a couch about, oh, seven feet away from the entertainment center. From this distance, and at that size, the minimap appeared a bit larger than a half-dollar coin. In Team Mafiya Work, the navigation between missions using markers on said mini-minimap is the key to success -- and without a clear, readable, on-the-go cartograph, I had a tough time playing this one.

The mad-dash pursuit of assassination marks and spoils from interrupted drug deals is hectic and fun -- though interference from your opponents in this particular gametype is especially frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed it, but wish there was some way to adjust the UI to some extent, for those of us with less-than-immense tellies.

Cops n' Crooks

Without a doubt, the most fun I had all night. Crooks start out on foot, with mere pistols and a head honcho to escort to a set location, Cops start out packed into squad cars with SMG's and a hankerin' for kingpin blood. No matter what side you end up on, it's a blast. Whether you're running distraction as you trail your bosses car, trying to run the pursuing officers off the road, or chasing the lead perp on foot, jumping over fences and leaping across rooftops in your endless pursuit for justice -- only to empty your clip into the air, screaming, because you love him too damn much.

Free Mode

I feel I may have cheated you, the reader, out of a more thorough write-up of the other game modes due to the fact that I spent a vast majority of my time simply perusing the city with a few friends. That "limitless opportunity" I discussed before is mind-shatteringly apparent here -- the activities you can invent for you and fifteen friends to take part in are many. How about a peaceful helicopter tour? A recreation of your favorite scene from "Taxi Driver"? An aquatic pirate conquest on all the boats in L.C.'s harbor? An impromptu, "Ronin"-esque car chase? You'll slide between these escapades with no notice or planning -- nor will you be concerned with the lack of scores and rankings.

"I didn't even get a chance to try out all the modes, despite having played the game for six straight hours."

As the sun began to rise on my bleary, sunken eyes, I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of what GTA IV's multiplayer had to offer. Free Mode, alone, is a terrifyingly deep well of entertainment that taps in to subterranean pockets of ludological pleasure that developers have been seeking for years. I didn't even get a chance to try out all the modes, despite having played the game for six straight hours.

It speaks to the quality of Rockstar's magnum opus that I actually find myself torn between continuing my economic ascension in the astonishing single player storyline, and further exploring the options offered on the endlessly entertaining multiplayer. When faced with decisions like that, I don't know how any mortal man or woman can consider wasting their suddenly valuable time on things like school or work.
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