Grand Theft Auto IV

It’s hard to read in the middle of the night between feedings of newborn twins, but playing video games works. It keeps me up (which is a good thing, since if I fall asleep by the time the screaming wakes me I have two very angry daughters) so I use various tricks to stay away during the “graveyard shift”.

When it comes to video game consoles, since the Sega Megadrive (a.k.a. “Genesis”) came out, I’ve been keeping more-or-less up-to-date, although I avoid the insane early rush to pay extra for buggy consoles with mediocre launch titles (which generally receive gushing reviews because the reviewers are bamboozled by the graphics). We’ve had a Wii since about six months after it came out, and I just succumbed and bought an X-Box 360, despite my hatred of Microsoft, because the only games on the PS3 that I would find compelling are the new Ratchet & Clank and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid (and I don’t really need to be reminded how annoying MGS games are).

In a vain attempt to stave off the next generation, I bought a copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and played it for a while. I’ve never finished the main storyline in any of the GTA3 games (I’ve played them all) despite having logged more than enough hours in each to finish in theory. In fact, I’ve never even unlocked all the content. Usually, I tend to advance plot in RPGish games and ignore sidelines that are obviously off-arc (relentlessly goal-oriented, that’s me), but the GTA games aren’t quite RPGish enough (well, San Andreas kind of is) and the so-called sandbox (tooling around cities at high speed, doing insane stunts, and killing random people) is pretty seductive while the missions tend to be repetitive and often annoyingly hard. (And if you can’t do them, they’re even more repetitive.)

It’s particularly interesting to play GTAIV immediately after playing San Andreas, and here’s why: ignoring the multiplayer aspects of GTAIV (which don’t sound terribly compelling to me, but I’ve yet to try them), GTAIV is in every respect a smaller, less ambitious, and more restrictive game than San Andreas. The controls (at least on the XBox 360) are gratuitously and annoyingly different from those on the PS2 (despite the XBox controller being an obvious attempt to clone the PS2 controller without being sued), but there is a “classic” mode which is more similar (I found it even more confusing), and I found them more likely to hose you in tight spots. (I think almost every time I’ve died and most of the times I’ve failed a mission it could be ascribed to poor controls.) The one new piece of core game play is the ability to explicitly take and use cover, which is a Good Thing, but not so brilliantly implemented. (And in San Andreas you could use cover by crouching behind it, which while not as “cute” worked better.) Perhaps a GTAIV follow-up will refine the cover controls to make them less likely to glue you to a pillar in front of shotgun-wielding enemies.

Aside: both games have a very ambitious, well-written, and well-acted storyline. If anything, I think that San Andreas’s storyline is more coherent and has less heavy-handed silliness (or maybe not, while GTAIV has Brucie — the juicer stolen car dealer, and Manny — the ex-gang-member-turned-wannabe-celebrity, San Andreas has a succession of ridiculous girlfriends).

Yes, in GTAIV you can play pool, go bowling, visit a strip club — but this is either lame, tedious, or simply canned content. The equivalent “mini-games” in San Andreas involved taking over neighborhoods, burgling apartments, the “usual” taxi, fire, police, and ambulance driving challenges — i.e. they leveraged the core gameplay (driving around a city at ridiculous speeds and killing people) to make the world deeper and more interesting rather than being gratuitous and pointless add-ons. While GTAIV ditches San Andreas’s (mildly annoying) character development system), it extends and deepens its even more annoying relationship system to cover your “guy” friends.

Addendum: one thing I should mention is that GTAIV has a new and significantly improved system for handling being “wanted”. Now, when you’re wanted, a search area is shown on your radar/map along with indications of where the police are (I think they omit the ones on foot). The more wanted you are, the larger the search radius. Each time you’re seen, the search area recenters on you. So getting away from the police involves a judicious combination of speed and stealth, making it a much better sub-game.

And I should mention: San Andreas feels a lot bigger than the Liberty City of GTAIV. For a start, San Andreas featured some very well-designed countryside (which felt much bigger than it actually was).

There’s much to love about GTAIV. It is incredibly beautiful to look at, and it’s nice to get out of “period” and back to the current day, because it affords much more opportunity for social commentary (and there’s a lot of it in the game) and also because we are in (in my opinion) something of a golden age of car design right now, and it’s nice to see doubles of cars like the Honda S2000, the Nissan Rogue, the Chrysler 300, Hummer H2*, and so on, filling the streets (along with a variety of classic finned cars from the 50s and muscle cars from the 70s of course). In my opinion, the cars in GTAIV are the most beautiful (and not just because of the graphic resolution) we’ve ever seen.

* Yes, the Hummer is a sin against nature, but it does look kickass. In the game it’s called the patriot and often comes with a huge billowing flag painted on it. I’ve not driven one much in game but it would be pretty funny if it were the only vehicle in the game that runs out of gas.

The city feels more “alive” than San Andreas. Food and newspaper vendors appear during business hours, and disappear or close shop at night, pedestrians exhibit wider varieties of behavior, including chatting on cell phones and holding conversations.

Social Commentary, in the form of constant, unrelenting, sarcastic, and — methinks too — cynical wit is embedded throughout the game, whether it’s on your car radio, the TV in your apartment, the faux web you surf in internet cafes (you receive spam in your email, of course), the comments the clerks in fast food outlets make about the food they serve, or the conversations you overhear on the street. Pretty much anything from terrorism as an excuse for political repression to those annoying ads for scooters on late night TV to political smear tactics to Fox (“Weasel”) News gets a thorough head-kicking. And of course they make fun of the media while imitating it. It’s all a bit Sophomoric but there’s so much of it, it’s so dense, and it’s aimed in so many directions that some of it will make almost anyone laugh out loud at some point.

The underlying morality of GTAIV is pretty interesting too. As with Bully, it seems the designers want to at least allow (if not encourage) the player down a kind of path of redemption. (I haven’t finished the game, and may never, but this is how it seems so far.) The fact that the player will almost unavoidably kill hundreds of people*, mainly innocent bystanders, in the course of attaining redemption is, as in the Matrix movies, silently ignored. Who knows, maybe there’s some kind of special ending for anyone who manages to avoid all innocent deaths while completing the main story?

* The game does keep track of your victims, albeit without categorizing them as, say, road kills versus deliberate shots. I’ve found myself killing pedestrians just trying to get to a date’s house on time, so the low value of virtual human life is pretty astonishing.

One obvious difference between GTAIV and its predecessors is that it has a new story to tell, that of a central European military veteran with a dubious past joining his cousin, a ne’er-do-well taxi operator, in Liberty City and trying to make his way in America by doing anything that pays well and makes good use of his talents (he’s very good at killing people — although, annoyingly, much better at it in cut scenes than when you’re in control — and pretty good at breaking into cars).

As Zero Punctuation has pointed out in his excellent review of GTAIV (no, I haven’t mentioned the man-dates, but thanks to Zero Punctuation, I don’t need to), numerical ratings for games (or books, or movies) are kind of nutty, but if you’re forced to give one, implying GTAIV is perfect is just ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned above, in terms of gameplay it’s in some ways a step down from GTA San Andreas, and it’s really quite disingenuous (golly, I use that term a lot lately: I use it to mean “feigned ignorance” and not mere dishonesty or insincerity — I think there’s a lot of it around) for reviewers who obviously played the latter not to even so much as mention this glaring fact. In terms of graphics it represents a radical improvement, but one that is no more than is to be expected¬†for the new generation of game platforms. And since GTAIV is at heart a single-player game, even if the multi-player component is amazing this can’t drag it from a solid 8.5 to a ridiculous 10.0.

So now that I’ve finally succumbed, I need to try out Bioshock and Mass Effect.