Monday, December 27, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Is there any medium more ripe for watchdog scandals than video games? Movies are protected by a culturally-accepted rating system that is generally trusted to keep the more impressionable from consuming the darker stuff. Books, notwithstanding the recent uproar over The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, seem to be past their scandal-causing prime of the Enlightenment. Even music, which as recently as twenty five years ago was knitting Tipper's panties into a knot, seems to have been accepted by the permed-soccer-mom mafia.

Times have changed folks.
Video games have assumed the mantle of stone on which many a righteous ax is ground. The medium is particularly fertile for the sensationalizing news networks armed with the twin guns of ignorance and stereotype. Thanks to the inertia of public perception and the video game marketing explosion of the 80's and 90's, many assume video games are targeted for consumption by the 8-14 year old set. Fact: the core audience for video games are males aged 18-49. Combine this stereotype with the fact that most mainstream news anchors have little to no experience with the medium and you have the situation we are faced with today: "in-depth" reports which would be hilarious were they not so widely believed.

One of the most persistent stories dates from 2001's seminal Grand Theft Auto III in which news anchors were shocked, shocked, to learn that little Johnny was able to pay a prostitute for sex, then beat her to death with a bat and take his money back. This story turned out to be the perfect polarizing talking point that cemented ignorant opinions about the medium thanks, in large part, to the fact it was true. It was difficult to defend the game from this accusation without sounding evasive but, unfortunately, the argument requires a larger answer than simply responding to the specific accusation. And larger answers have no place in this sound-byte ether of pop-consciousness.

Pointing out that 1) video games have evolved to meet the demands of a more mature audience and that 2) the game mechanics are no longer a simple set of pre-ordained commands and situations, only scratches the surface of the larger argument. The beating-your-money-out-of-a-prostitute-you-just-slept-with situation is a perfect example of a phenomenon called 'emergent gameplay' which is, itself, the product of shifting demands of an ageing consumer base.

Wallpaper from Gameswalls
Rockstar, the developers of Grand Theft Auto III, wanted to establish a deeper emotional connection with the player by creating a more immersive world. To do this, they created a sandbox in which the player could pursue any number of distractions from the main quest. Instead of being forced to run forever from left to right, avoiding a variety of obstacles in a relentless quest for the end, players were invited to explore a world at their leisure. This approach succeeded in reaching an older audience because it respected the intelligence of the gamer to find their way through the story with less hand-holding from the designers.

To make this sandbox an enjoyable space however, the developers needed to establish certain rules. The avatar was mortal, non-player characters (NPCs) would react believably to the player's actions, and violence would be met in kind from the sandbox's virtual police (and eventually military) forces. In establishing these rules for its sandbox, Grand Theft Auto III inadvertently provided a framework for all sorts of perverse emergent gameplay of which the aforementioned prostitute-murder is but an example. (Imagine the shock of news anchors if I told them that I once lit a car on fire, stole the firetruck that came to put out the fire, and ran over the firemen with their own truck.)

What is most frustrating about this argument is that the game itself was one of the first to understand that 'mature content' meant not boobs and blood but adult situations and nuanced stories. Grand Theft Auto III is considered a seminal piece of work for both its maturity and its new gameplay mechanics. But in the morass of public opinion, it is still living in the shadow of ignorant sensationalism. And it is in this shadow that its successor, Grand Theft Auto IV, must be understood.

Review...I promise
With that lengthy preamble out of the way, let's get to the review. Released seven years after the ground-breaking GTAIII, Grand Theft Auto IV manages to be just as revolutionary as its predecessor albeit in less garish ways. It leaves the open world and emergent gameplay setting largely intact but excels in its characters and story-telling. If Grand Theft Auto III was a tentative first step toward a more mature medium, Grand Theft Auto IV is a massive second leap.

STORY: 5/5
Grand Theft Auto IV focuses on the immigrant experience of Niko Bellic, a Serbian war veteran who moves to Liberty City (New York City in all but name) with emotional baggage and not much else. Through his gregarious cousin, Roman, Niko quickly gets involved with a variety of colorful underworld characters as he attempts to hunt down a traitorous Serbian who was responsible for the deaths of Niko's comrades. This overarching plot device eventually fizzles to its anticlimactic conclusion, in the process entangling Niko with a string of smaller, episodic characters and stories.

This narrative structure serves to underscore the overarching message of the story: America's stated promise of wealth, fame, and fulfillment may be false but the less glamorous reality of life is more beautiful in its grit. Niko comes to America searching for a grand cathartic fulfillment to silence his vengeful demons but instead finds hardship, friendship, and finally love. While the story doesn't sugar-coat the darkness that Niko must face, it ultimately feels hopeful, thanks in large part to the incredibly expressive protagonist and supporting characters.

Niko Bellic
Niko is ostensibly a tough-guy but never feels clich├ęd. In a video game, this achievement is nothing short of astounding. Indeed, the game's refusal to posterize any of its characters is admirable. Its inhabitants are most similar to The Wire's twisted but understandable tragi-heroes. Victims of circumstance and chance, taking opportunities as they come with little concern for moral or legal ramifications. And the most nuanced is Niko himself, face etched with the burdens of his past, doggedly doing what he can to protect his cousin and find his enemy.

Despite the open world sandbox filled with opportunities for emergent gameplay and a few story-related opportunities for player decisions to affect the outcome, this isn't our story. It is Niko's and, though we control him through it, he never feels like an empty avatar for the player. Rockstar's ability to inject such character and emotion into Niko's polygon visage is consistently engrossing. Though the satirical atmosphere prevalent in all Grand Theft Auto installments is pervasive here, Niko anchors the story's gravitas and through his trials we connect with the game in a far more meaningful way.

As noted, GTA IV's gameplay is more of an evolution of the previous installments rather than a revolution. Indeed, much of the excess of San Andreas has been trimmed back. Gone are the jet-flying, bicycle-riding, base-jumping antics of CJ but these omissions are in service to the story and its relateable protagonist. In their place we have an impeccably animated set of characters and a physics system that seems to be applied to every traffic cone, coffee cup, and hot dog vendor. This refinements are mostly welcome although piloting Niko up and down stars can feel overly clunky and driving from point A to B feels more like a drag.

One of the best improvements is in the combat mechanics which have made targeting and taking cover a far more enjoyable process. Pressing the left trigger halfway will bring up a free-aim mode while pulling it all the way down will lock onto the nearest characters. While locked on, Niko can target specific body parts. It feels natural and easy while not so simplified that there is no challenge to it. Tapping the right bumper while near any cover-appropriate architecture will pin Niko safely out of harm's way. From this position, he can still target enemies, giving the player some time to strategize their way through the combat.

I found in previous installments that the most addictive gameplay was in the driving while combat was more of a chore. Interestingly, GTA IV reverses this preference thanks to weightier cars and a less forgiving physics system. I was more likely to hail a taxi in GTA IV in order to skip long trips from one end of the map to the other while these jaunts were some of my favorites in the title's predecessors. This had the result of making me hew more closely to the story and miss out on some of the emergent gameplay that made the series famous.

Minor quibbles about the control aside, Grand Theft Auto IV is an impressive achievement both as a video game and as a vehicle for a well-told story. Rockstar continues to push the envelope for the medium as a whole, helping it grow out of its awkward adolescence and eventually, inexorably, into an accepted mainstream form of entertainment.

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