When Grand Theft Auto III was released all the way back in 2001, it changed the way that the world saw video games. It offered a simulated microcosm of life, a parody of American culture, which could be explored and exploited on the whims of the player. Now, nearly seven years later, the video game world has finally received a true sequel to Grand Theft Auto III. Has it been worth the wait? Absolutely.
There’s something fitting about the title of Grand Theft Auto IV. Losing the bloated subtitles and returning to digits almost implies a return to the roots of the series, and that is exactly what Grand Theft Auto IV is. Rockstar North has trimmed the fat and delivered a product that is more focused, intelligent, and self-aware. It’s quality over quantity.
The slick presentation of the package immediately presents a game that is something special. The way the opening credits blend with the cinematic introduction and the excellent voice acting to the slick interface with crisp fonts and the clean HUD: all features of a game that is very much next-generation. Even organising online social activities is handled through a virtual cell phone. It’s minimalistic, and it works.
The narrative is particularly polished. Grand Theft Auto IV casts the player as Niko Bellic, an immigrant of Eastern Europe lured to the Land of Opportunity by the exaggerated claims of his cousin’s success. His hope that things might be different in the United States is quickly crushed as Niko realises the true America.
Tortured by the ghosts of his past, Niko, who desperately desires to be scrupulous, quickly concedes to his inner demons and reveals his true motives for coming to America. It’s a solid entry to the revenge subgenre.
In his descent into crime, Niko will encounter a colourful range of characters that, despite each one being a stereotype that contains an aspect of America, are well developed. Niko’s own development is especially fascinating, as it is tied to the morals of the player.
At certain key events in the game, Niko will be presented with a number of positions where he can be principled and merciful or ruthless and cruel. It’s up to players to decide not only how the narrative continues, but how Niko’s character develops. It’s particularly fascinating to realise that if Niko has unleashed his rage and anger, it is a reflection on the player.
The narrative also does a solid job of exposing the sinister side of the American Dream - the lack of opportunity, the ever increasing chasm between the rich and the poor, and the racism and stereotyping that creates it.
For example, at one early point in the game Niko is told by a loudmouthed adolescent that he should go mine salt for 50 years. When Niko replies that this adolescent is a “dick”, the teenager retorts that at least he’s a “rich dick”. He then gives Niko money to facetiously welcome him to America.
Along with the narrative, Grand Theft Auto IV uses the game itself to be a simulation of true American culture. Players will return to Liberty City, a city teeming with life at every level. Players can go shopping, go bowling, date, and even get drunk – with the feeling being perfectly replicated thanks to the Euphoria physics engine.
The glistening lights of Liberty City shine on a city thats own make-up is a commentary of America: themed restaurant chains aplenty. Music can only be listened to through radios – complete with adverts exemplifying American culture and paranoia – and each station is a reflection on a genre and its subculture. This is the real America.
The humour of this commentary, the fact that Grand Theft Auto IV is parody, is one of the game’s strong points. Some of the humour is subtle and intelligent – a dance radio station called Electro Choc – and others are not so – the internet café in Liberty City is known as Tw@. Regardless, nearly every sense of humour will be catered for here.
A personal favourite is the DJ of the new age station The Journey: sounding like Deep Thought (you almost expect her to say “fourty-two”), this disembodied computer voice pessimistically reflects on life, nihilism, and apathy. “You are standing on the edge of a cliff. Will you jump or will you be pushed? What is the logical difference anyway?”
Of course, Grand Theft Auto IV is a game, and this virtual world provides the perfect sandbox for play. The city itself is particularly gorgeous thanks to the RAGE engine. Driving round Liberty City is like visiting an old friend who looks better than you remember.
Indeed, it’s interesting how Grand Theft Auto IV is able to play with the nostalgia for Grand Theft Auto III to its advantage. That nostalgic sense of awe as Liberty City was first explored is a perfect yardstick for the feeling of playing Grand Theft Auto IV.
Once the narrative has been completed and once the novelty of being a virtual tourist has worn off, players can engage in a range of debauchery that has made the series infamous. Niko can break into cars and take them for a joyride; create chaos in the streets; try to ascend tall buildings; fly around in helicopters; drive drunk; and cause more damage than Godzilla. For the boring, there’s always darts at the pub.
Players can also engage in this debauchery with others, as Grand Theft Auto IV offers an extensive multiplayer mode. Surprisingly, it’s enjoyable. There are a variety of game modes in which to take part, from the common deathmatch to more structured affairs like a mode called Cops ‘n’ Crooks.
The latter sees players set into teams, with one team the police attempting to capture a mob boss, while the second team attempts to get their crime lord to safety.
There are plenty of dramatic moments to be had in both online and offline modes: high speed car chases, firing rockets into helicopters, and running across rooftops. All these are experienced, not told, once again demonstrating the power of video games to let players shape discourse.
The power of Grand Theft Auto IV is that the moment when those logs that narrowly missed the car when they fell off the back of a truck is that much more impressive and exciting when the player is the driver of the car. These are the moments that keep people playing for years.
And what is Grand Theft Auto IV without controversy? There was much talk about New Zealand getting the “watered-down” version of Grand Theft Auto IV. However, there is little that is diluted. The game is still brutal and chilling in both its violence and its commentary.
However, Kiwis engaging in virtual intercourse with sex workers will not be treated to anything more than a fixed camera angle of a bouncing car. It’s certainly not missed – and if it is, it is perhaps a reflection that one should get outside more.
It’s hard to cover every aspect of Grand Theft Auto IV because there is just so much to it. It’s a huge package that offers without a doubt dollar for dollar the best value of any video game available today. It’s a compelling narrative, a social commentary, a virtual world, a sandbox, and ultimately a compelling example of video games as a medium reaching maturity.
It’s not perfect, but given the equipment available today, it’s as close as anyone is likely to get. Grand Theft Auto IV is Rockstar North’s magnum opus and it is absolutely essential. That’s all one needs to know.