Driving reign

Pub date May 14, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionGamer

Rockstar Games/Take-Two Interactive (XBOX360, PS3)

GAMER Since its April 29 release, more than 6 million copies of Grand Theft Auto IV have been purchased. While Take-Two Interactive is still taking contractor bids on Scrooge McDuck–style cash swimming pools, the gaming press has worked itself into a frenzy, bestowing five-star reviews and expostuutf8g on how GTA IV will revolutionize gaming, culture, and possibly the world.

This hyperbole exemplifies gaming’s innate pathologies. Since their inception, video games have been portrayed as the puerile inferior to other entertainment media, and game designers, players, and critics have long coveted a seat at the table alongside the realist novel and the feature film. When a game as ambitious as GTA IV is released, advocates are quick to frame it as the "future of the medium," a kind of messianic product that will show those old-media Luddites what they’re missing.

GTA IV is not video Jesus. Still, by any reasonable standard, it’s an incredible game, taking the hallowed legacy of the previous GTA games, striving to be bigger and better, and mostly succeeding. At this late date, weeks after its debut, describing it as "only" the next Grand Theft Auto game can seem like very faint praise. Then again, criticizing the game using the metric of its hype is like getting a Benz for your 16th birthday and complaining that you didn’t get a Batmobile.

The GTA series is credited with inventing the "sandbox" game, which drops the player into a vast interactive world with little or no agenda. Complete the missions that drive the story forward — or don’t. Murder passersby until the police have to call in the National Guard — or don’t. Furnished with the power of today’s consoles, Rockstar Games has created a staggering sandbox, recreating New York City’s five boroughs (and a miniaturized New Jersey) in such loving, exhaustive detail that it’s hard to list all the coolness concisely. There’s a working subway system, multiple hours of fake, satirical television — one could go on forever.

In addition to the huge strides the game makes in environmental design and artificial intelligence, it also delivers the latest in interactive storytelling. You play Niko Bellic, a veteran of Balkan strife who disembarks in Liberty City hoping to escape his past and embrace the American lifestyle his previously arrived cousin Roman has touted as luxuriant and easy. Of course, it is not, and Niko is inexorably drawn into the criminal underworld he tried to leave behind.

While it doesn’t quite deliver the reinvention of the immigrant narrative parsed by some reviewers, the game provides an engrossing tale, full of three-dimensional characters (in both senses of the phrase), magnificent action sequences, and deft plot twists. The voice acting is superb and extensive; many conversations have alternate versions, expecting you to get killed and end up listening to them twice. The character animations — in a sense the game’s other kind of acting — convincingly capture the most esoteric gestures, down to the shudder of a crime boss as a line of Colombia’s finest explodes into his sinus.

The save system is still frustrating, and the prospect of replaying a long, violent confrontation after failing right at its end is often almost too much to bear. Despite GTA IV‘s unfettered gameplay, the missions are still very conventional and leave little room for creative problem-solving. Sure, there are a number of red pill–blue pill dilemmas. But in a game that allows you as much freedom as GTA, having to stick to the plan in each attempt becomes annoying. The new multiplayer mode provides a panoply of game types, ranging from traditional death-match and racing modes to cops-and-robbers high jinks that exploit what’s best about the game. Unfortunately the interface is confusing and finicky, and the online player-base seems to still be enmeshed in the game’s vast single-player story.

Grand Theft Auto IV is not without its faults. It may not establish video games as a serious medium. But if you want to have 300-odd hours of fun, there’s no better way to spend $60.