Action Action/Adventure Sandbox Action Third-person Shooter
Grand Theft Auto IV
For a series with a felony for a title and a history of bombastic, rocket launchers versus attack helicopters at dawn mission design, Grand Theft Auto IV amazes – at least in its early stages – in just how honest its take on the “American Dream” is. Landing in Broker (GTA IV’s take on Brooklyn) after a stint in the Merchant Navy, protagonist Niko Bellic has nothing other than a cousin (Roman) that’s lied to him about how successful he is, and will proceed to have very little more than that for hours.
In fact, one really does have to wonder how the pumped-up fans of the series felt on getting their hands on this game for the first time, considering it takes well over an hour before a gun is placed in Niko’s hands and that car theft – once the only way to get around – is discouraged, with most early missions taking place using Roman’s beat-up taxi. The world is so immediate and fully realized that it makes you want to follow its rules – in fact, for quite a while I wouldn’t race past red lights, instead waiting patiently – and this makes the game (dare I say it) realistically boring. You sleep in Roman’s crappy apartment, walk to his crappy taxi firm, and do crappy missions that generally involve driving his crappy taxi, all to help pay off Roman’s many debts. If we were to equate the driving segments with the longest shots of a movie, Grand Theft Auto IV feels more like Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool than it does Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
As unbearable as that sounds, if anything it’s a shame that Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t maintain this kind of pacing throughout, largely abandoning its believably tale of small-scale desperation once Algonquin (GTA IV’s Manhattan) opens up to become a fairly traditional crime thriller, with an entirely too large helping of the Grand Theft Auto series’ “satire” – gross and un – insightful caricatures of American excess that especially now (in the post-Bush era) seem ill-judged.
Thankfully, Liberty City remains the star of the game. New York City has a unique feel about it, one which Rockstar is clearly fond of (just see 2005’s The Warriors) and even as a person who has only visited New York, never lived there, it’s easy to recall the feel of New York’s neighbourhoods in Liberty City, be it from something as simple as Central Park’s analogue in Middle Park to more specific (and correctly placed) areas meant to remind of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, or Chelsea. Liberty City is a necessarily miniaturised reflection of New York City’s feel, but never before in a game has a place felt so real, even once the game’s storyline has descended into little more than a parody.
Indeed, the place feels so real that one of the game’s time saving features – the ability to call a taxi and get to places instantly (for a fee), represents to me not a feature but a way to maintain the fantasy. After all, why go to the unrealistic extreme of yanking someone out of a car when I could just call a taxi? And once there, why not just enjoy the ride, soaking up the atmosphere of Liberty City while I’m on my way to my destination? I really can’t think of another game where I’ve been more willing to enjoy the world for its own sake.
The world is so good that trying to find problems with the game as a whole almost feels like mere quibbling, but for all of Grand Theft Auto IV’s difference as a world, the mission design, perhaps by necessity, relies on the kind of things we’ve all become rather used to in a GTA title, with a list of chases and shootouts that aren’t – in themselves – particularly interesting, even with a cover system that apes (without being quite as successful) Gears of War. But with five titles released under the Grand Theft Auto III banner, it’s no surprise that mission design had become a little stale by GTA IV, and one wonders what else could be offered – after all, no one complains that the latest FIFA only features football (though I’d love to see someone who does.)
Ultimately, over a year and a half, two downloadable episodes and multiple imitators later, if there’s one thing that still amazes about Grand Theft Auto IV is how different it dares to be, even if it (perhaps) doesn’t dare quite far enough.