One of the costs of, you know, not having unlimited money or time to spend on games is that I miss out on a lot of great titles when they come out. The money tree is only so fertile, and I don't buy a ton of new games. I've mentioned this before, so I won't bore you by rehashing the topic again. The important part is that most of the games I play are at least a couple years old.

One of those titles that I never got around to enjoying is the legendary Grand Theft Auto IV. Why I never played this before, I really don't know. There are great games, and then there's GTA IV. It's reached darn near mythic status among the gaming community. GI's own Andrew Reiner awarded the game a perfect 10 when it was released. He and legions of other fans love GTA.

That massive following was why I finally picked up a copy. Well, not exactly. Grand Theft Auto IV is also $20 off Steam. That low of a price for a massive open world game like GTA IV sounded like a deal to me. After beating Mass Effect 2 for the third time, I was ready for something new. GTA looked like a good way to meet that need.

Man, I had no idea what I was downloading.

Grand Theft Auto IV is effing amazing. It's one of the biggest, most thoroughly well built games ever made. Rockstar said they spent well over $100 million in development, and I can see why. GTA IV is massive. It's absurdly well detailed, complete with radio stations, darts/pool/bowling minigames, realistic drivers, hilariously profane pedestrians, and even television channels with entire shows you can watch. The level of work present in Rockstar's magnum opus is awe inspiring. I've never, ever seen a game with this much detail.

But let's be honest, you don't play GTA just to watch Republican Space Rangers (hilarious as that show is). You play it for the gameplay. It's excellent, by the way. The mission structure is basically Niko Bellic (your character) acting as a hired gun or protector for the various smugglers, drug dealers, car thieves, mafia bosses, and racketeers you meet along the way. The missions have nice variety, ranging from assassinations to taxi duty to stealing cars. Needless to say, they're a ton of fun.

Part of that variety stems from the variety of employers which Niko works under. His motivations are uniquely neutral, allowing him to effortlessly socialize with the scum from every part of Liberty City. As far as protagonists go, Niko Bellic is one of the best. He's not as supremely well written as John Marston, but remains compelling in his own way. Like Marston, Niko is the quintessential outsider, a man with his own goals who stands apart from the people around him. He is a killer and a criminal, but Niko Bellic is still more honest than any of the morons he works for.

Make no mistake here, the people Niko works for are complete idiots. Roman relentlessly believes in the American Dream but cannot rise above basic poverty. Manny tries to be "the voice of the streets," but ends up looking like an idiot with a camera. Vlad pretends to be a rich businessman, but is no better than a basic crack addict. Brucie is indescribably stupid.

That was one thing I really didn't expect from Grand Theft Auto- social commentary. GTA is always cast as a murder and violence simulator, not a well-written satire. GTA IV is actually the most complete mockery of modern America I've ever seen. Each part of the game is a cruel parody of American life.

The radio station DJs are absurdist versions of the music they play (e.g. the rock and roll station's DJ is an raging testosterone fueled biker, the hipster station's DJ is condescending toward all other music). There are liberal and conservative talk shows that perfectly spoof idiotic radio personalities like Glenn Beck and Keith Obermann.

Even the advertisements are ridiculous. The products are obviously fake, but the ads mercilessly satirize modern America's consumerist culture. Everything they advertise is so obviously worthless you can't help but laugh... at least until you realize that GTA's parody isn't too far from the truth. And the overriding truth of Grand Theft Auto IV (at least what I've gathered so far) is that life has no happy endings. The story makes a mockery out of the idea of the American Dream. Nobody in GTA IV is ever satisfied or meets a good end. It's a very nihilistic view of life, but the way the game presents its nihilism... it's true.

Don't worry: Grand Theft Auto isn't all negativity and gloom. One of the fun parts about open world games is making your own fun, and GTA is more than happy to let you do that. The most obvious way is to start a police chase. It's easy to escape the cops when there's just a few of them chasing after you, but things get hard quickly once they bring in the helicopters and patrol boats. Still, driving at breakneck speed with a dozen cop cars and a helicopter right behind you is a blast. Trying to start the biggest police chase possible is a great way to kill time.

 If that doesn't appeal to you, there's one other very obvious way to have devious fun in Liberty City. What's all around you and easy to steal? Cars. Steal a car and take in up atop a bridge or building. Shoot it a bunch of times to set it on fire (that means it's going to explode). Now drive it towards the edge of said building and dive out at the last second. You just launched a massive ball of fire and explosions at the people below. That's car bombing. It's a lot of fun, kind of like lobbing a grenade into rush hour traffic (also recommended).

The bottom line is that Grand Theft Auto IV is amazing. The realism and absurdly complete world is a fantastic parody of American life and still hilarious. The missions are fun (although no mid-mission checkpoints, what the hell) and worth doing for the excellent story and gameplay.

It doesn't really matter what platform you decide to get GTA IV on, it's awesome on all of them. The only difference is the PC version lets you import your music as an in-game radio station. It's not a huge deal, but I still got a kick out of running from the cops while listening to this song:

Yeah, not exactly a song to get your blood pumping. But I digress. Grand Theft Auto IV is amazing, and I highly recommend you get it. It's dirt cheap by now and has more gameplay than most games dream of. Talk about awesome.

That's about it for me. What about you? Do you have GTA? If so, what's your favorite way to kill time in Liberty City?