For the last 3 weeks I’ve been away to Liberty City with frightening regularity. That’s Grand Theft Auto talk, but I have a feeling that you knew that. I’ve killed pigeons, jumped rivers, fallen out of helicoptors, and ridden motorcycles through the subway. This week I wrapped up the single player game 100% and finished up some miscellaneous achievements that have been eluding me, so I feel compelled to take a break from the gaming and the rest of my distractions and finally sit down and tell you how much I like this game.

One of the factors that has made GTA such a compelling series of games is Rockstar’s persistence in getting the environment just right. Not just in terms of buildings and appearance, but overall feel – sounds, conversations, advertising, and more. The PS2 generation of games were amazing for their time; everything felt so lush and fleshed out. The veneer has since worn a bit, mostly thanks to the huge leaps with this generation of consoles, but you can still pop in any of the games and appreciate the effort that’s gone into them.

But let’s talk about this generation. I’ll admit, I was a little let down when I learned (last year) that Grand Theft Auto IV would be set exclusively in Liberty City (same location as Grand Theft Auto III, but there’s little to no resemblance). I had been spoiled by the vast environment of GTA: San Andreas, spread over three cities and an entire state. But Rockstar had their reasons. Instead of simply making GTA IV larger, they wanted to make it deeper and more detailed. And considering the game was delayed by six months, I’d imagine trying to model another city with the same depth as Liberty would’ve added even more time. And finally, disc space was already at a premium, at least for the Xbox 360 version.

Given all this information, you get a sense that Rockstar really has their priorities straight. And when you play the game, your suspicions are proven correct. I could write pages about all the aspects of this game that I love, but to sum it up, I appreciate that they’ve given you a protagonist with a tangible background, and logical motivations. Then they’ve created a cast of interesting, funny, and sometimes annoying supporting characters and then wrapped that all up in a compelling story with many twists and turns. They’ve given you the opportunity to make some of your own decisions this time around, and while they don’t necessarily affect the story as much as you might expect, they’re still interesting and some will really have you digging deep to determine what decision you’re more comfortable with.

Visually the game is everything you’d expect. The surroundings are beautiful in that gritty sort of way; perfect in their lack of perfection. The vehicles this time around are especially nice. There were lots of oddly-proportioned cars in the previous games, but at the very least these cars are good-looking, if not downright sexy. The audio is up there as well, with the perfect amount of ambient noise, interesting pedestrian voices, and radio with humorous dialogue and well-chosen music. I especially enjoyed the cameos from Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live.

The only thing that I had issues with at first was the updated control scheme. GTA IV introduced a new cover system and slightly different shooting mechanics. They also tweaked the handling of the cars to be slightly more realistic. I’m still getting used to the new controls, even after having spent nearly 100 hours in the game, but I do like them significantly more than I did when I started. Ars Technica’s Ben Kuchera summed the game up perfectly in his review:

This is not a game that instantly impresses, and the more time you spend seeing what surprises the game holds for you, the more you will be drawn in. By hour five you’ll be happy, by hour ten you’ll be impressed, and by hour thirty you’ll be blown away.

Plus, it’s the highest-rated game on Metacritic and holds the title for the biggest video game launch ever.