GTA4 is a game you have to spend a lot (a lot!) of time with. Rockstar built a big, impressive approximation of New York City that’s a joy to cruise around in with your top down, at night, Jazz Nation Radio cooing Chet Baker or Miles Davis softly through your speakers. Or R. Kelly, or Stevie Nicks, or David Bowie. Ah, I didn’t like the radio selections at first but they grew on me except, uh, the Puerto Rican rap station. C’mon, how many rap stations does a GTA game need? Anyway, there’s a lot to see and a lot to do, stuff I didn’t try to discover yet. The game’s been out a while now so you probably know what I’m talking about. I’ll try not to regurgitate the billions of other GTA4 opinions out there … instead I’ll address the numerous hyperbolic exultations of the game’s brilliant plot and flawless gameplay.
Which doesn’t really exist. There’s been a lot of talk about how deserving the game actually is in regards to all the 10s and A+’s and Totally Rads it got out there in the gaming journalism community more than a month ago. Hardcore gamers who’ve finished the game’s story campaign by now must know the plot is just a revenge yarn, the gameplay consists of the same formula and the controversial content is no more offensive than your average South Park episode. All the misogyny, cussing, and violence in the world couldn’t cover up the game’s pitfalls but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a lot of the praise. It’s a terrific upgrade of past GTAs. You can actually shoot people with a vastly improved targeting system, something once thought impossible in a Rockstar game (anyone who’s played Manhunt knows they can’t be bothered to playtest their games), and there are a few excellent setpieces seemingly inspired by Casino Royale and the Bourne flicks that have you running across rooftops, up construction cranes after a mob target that you can kill execution-style or, if your heart has mercy, let live.
GTA4’s the latest game that allows you to make choices that affect the game’s plot. Along the way the game will give you the option to kill or not to kill, or the option between two people to kill. The choices are sometimes easy – the character is a prick and deserves an early funeral – or it’s a choice that’s, surprisingly, psychologically draining. In one of the game’s final moral choices I felt like Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en, lip quivering, gun shaking heavily in my hand as I weighed my decision in my mind: blow the guy away, or lose a piece of my soul. It’s the defining moment of the game when plot and gameplay crisscross into a seamless memorable experience. I had to consider the consequences of my actions. That there are consequences at all is a pretty big step forward more games should take (Bioshock and Chrono Trigger spring to mind as other, albeit limited, examples).
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t give you the option to kill some characters who doggedly deserve a bullet in the brain. Brucie may have a lot of fans but I still lament that I can’t kill his doping neo-Nazi hide properly in the narrative. I have to satisfy myself by beating him to death with a baseball bat whenever he wants to go out drinking or car racing. The new friend/date game mechanic gets boring and frustrating after a while. Playing pool and going bowling stays entertaining for so long until it becomes a chore. It’s cool you can gain a character’s trust enough so you can use their services – like Little Jacob’s gun store or Brucie’s helicopter (which feels like piloting Jell-O on an ice rink) – but the plot guides you through the friends you need anyway so there’s little reason to bother with the other schmucks.
Your conduit to all the relationship managing is your cellphone, a nifty device that also allows you to restart failed missions on the fly – no more backtracking for 20 minutes to your mission destination like in previous installements… unless it’s a mission where you have to tail or chase someone in a vehicle, undoubtedly the worst part of GTA4. By the time I reached and failed my 60th “chase guy in car” mission it was difficult to muster up the verve necessary to retry the damn thing. They’re all the same – chase guy down and kill him. It’s a wonder why there are so many in the game. The more creative missions, like calling a guy on the phone to get him to walk into view of your sniper scope, are few and far between. That must be what makes them, like the to-kill-or-not-to-kill moments, so special. The shoot-outs never lose their sheen either and I always found myself looking forward to the next big Michael Mann-style showdown.
There were some little glitches in the game that ruined it for me sometimes. This may not be common but during the exchange-mob-daughter-for-diamonds mission with Packie, that spud-suckin’ mick, cops appeared and botched everything. I tried to run away but that involved navigating around a fence perimeter, something Packie and his booze-addled brain couldn’t accomplish due to incredibly stupid partner AI. He stood still or ran around in circles as the fuzz popped several sizable caps into his Emerald Isle-reared rear. Agonizingly frustrating, to say the least. Also, after a successful mission a client would call me and some outside force would interrupt the call. A random car would run me over or I’d press the wrong button (the Xbox 360 buttons are unresponsive sometimes) and the call (and the phone) would just go away. Was the call important? Probably not, but annoying all the same. I’m actually kind of surprised there’s no talk of cell phone-induced brain cancer in the game’s abundance of comedic material or maybe I missed it. It has to be in there somewhere.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of GTA4 (aside from Liberty City) is the amount of people who worked on the game’s puerile humor. The end credits lasts approximately 50 years (I can’t believe there’s no Achievement for sitting through the whole thing) and they’re all comedians and writers like Jim Norton, Ricky Gervais, Katt Williams and Juliette Lewis (?!). It’s mostly left-leaning stuff though the humor is equal opportunity and always venemous. No lousy parent or opportunistic politician is left unmolested. Think Idiocracy, South Park, or The Daily Show. There are potshots at closeted homosexual conservatives, a parody of 24 called 72, a a reality show called America’s Next Top Hooker … Yeah, little of it is very creative, if there are some gems I struggle to remember what they are. Still, nothing offensive to anyone who watches Comedy Central or browses the Internet regularly.
The whole game is a Funny Games-style stab at the American way of life. It doesn’t reach the artistry of that particular film but in light of the recent release of Metal Gear Solid 4, the Grand Theft Auto series is another one of the few video games that holds a mirror up to the players playing it. The story of GTA4 turns out to be a two-faced take on the pursuit of Happiness. The main character Niko is a morose, resentful shell of a man who arrives on our shores damaged and ends up more damaged. America gets painted to him by his cousin Roman as a land of opportunity, wealth and huge breasts. The promises turn out to be as fake as the mammaries as Niko ends up working for two-faced mob bosses to make a living. To make matters worse, the women he dates aren’t who they seem to be, everyone he meets is a self-righteous phony and the advertising on the car radio and billboards make him sick. Liberty City is full so much suffering and bullshit he wonders if it’s any different from the warzone he just escaped from. The violence, amorality and pain is just as prevalent, only it’s glossed over the surface with fast food, porn and reality TV ads. But Niko chooses this life, to get involved in mobs and mafias and awful people to track down his prey, someone who betrayed him and his friends and family back in whatever vague Slavic country he’s from. Loyalty, understandably, is a very big part of Niko’s life though he continuously makes and breaks new bonds throughout the course of the game’s plot, regardless of whether or not he sticks to his own code of honor. That the game gives the player part of Niko’s responsibility makes the reactions to his choices all the sweeter. In the process Niko is left, arguably, worse off than he began and it all of it will be your fault.
The game’s dystopian bent fits in nicely with the happy-go-lucky American Dream yarns of last year like There Will Be Blood and American Gangster. The story’s executed well even as it mostly boils down to a revenge story (or rather, a series of revenge stories), and it’s fairly straight-forward. Unlike the recent Metal Gear Solid 4 the story doesn’t get bogged down under metaphors about numbers, light and shadows. The writing is straight and to the point, though it ranges from very good to pass – some nuance would’ve been appreciated in some locations (Niko tells a possible lover point-blank “I hurt people who get near me!” But then Niko’s that kind of guy). Like Old Snake, Niko’s a shadow of a man, a beast, a killer … but when the game is famous for its carnage – driving on sidewalks, killing cops, stealing cars – Niko’s chances at redemption seem a tad mendacious. On the other hand, his hypocrisy is pointed out at precisely the right moment and you, the player, don’t have to do any of those horrid things to begin with. Grand Theft Auto has always been about freedom and choice, just like America. Or, as Niko finds out the hard way, the repercussions of choices.
I see it as a nice stress-reliever. Some times at the end of the day I just want to drive on the sidewalk.
Tags: Grand Theft Auto 4