On the Bright Side: Grand Theft Auto IV
For even more GTA IV, go to Liberty City Central.
You don't have to enjoy Grand Theft Auto IV's liberating gameplay or condone its controversial content to appreciate how the title has ripened the medium. Remove all the violence, the sex, the profanity, the drunk driving and the anarchy, and Rockstar's latest opus would still be a remarkably innovative game. It wouldn't be as free-roaming, funny or mature, but it would be sophisticated nonetheless. Here's why:
Upon booting my PlayStation 3 version of Grand Theft Auto IV, I was immediately taken aback by the introduction: There are no menus, no loud music, no pending request to "press start button." The game opens as the playable character arrives in America by boat. There is no embarrassing or forced dialogue as he interacts with fellow immigrants. The opening credits are tightly integrated with on-screen animations. Other than the computer-generated graphics, there is no discernible evidence that you are playing a videogame. "This is drama," I thought to myself.
Though you soon take control of the endearing Niko, reminding you that you are in fact playing a game, the cinematic subtleties remain throughout. I see blinking beacon lights on the tops of distant skyscrapers. They look real thanks to convincing blurring. I visit a secluded back room in one of the game's many hospitals on a whim, and I'm amazed by the level of detail. "Why would Rockstar put so much effort into an inconsequential room that several gamers might never explore?" I thought. Later, I accidentally knock over a street painting while in a hurry. Fallen leaves and dust kick up as the canvas gently hits the sidewalk. It's surprising because few games, if any, pay this close attention to detail.
As a result, Grand Theft Auto IV has set a new precedent in what can be expected from a videogame. It gives hope to any developer striving for cosmopolitan presentation, whether working with G-rated themes or M-rated ones, and is sure to inspire more cinematic, menu-less titles that create a more complete, immersive experience than a traditional game.
The living environment
Deep within the bowels of the Statue of Happiness (Rockstar's parody of the Statue of Liberty), curious gamers can find the "heart of Liberty City," suspended by chains and beating quietly. It's a silly-looking Easter egg, but it ironically represents the lifelike (and unexpected) behavior of the world outside.
Non-playable characters randomly interact with one another (sometimes heatedly), and often times their exchanges are independent of what you are doing. New NPCs quickly arrive on the scene to further the atmosphere. The environment is so spirited in fact, that it's not uncommon to stand on a busy street corner for 10 to 15 minutes just to soak it all in and enjoy a quick chuckle.
I often get annoyed when interrupted by my in-game cell phone (which is used to manage my adventures), just like I do in real life. I'm reluctant to check my in-game e-mail at times, knowing that my inbox will have increased my to-do list and hate for spam. I can scan a criminal database using police computers to locate targets and arrange under-the-table jobs. All of this makes my digital world seem all the more real.
To call GTA IV a sandbox game is a gross understatement. It's a sprawling, vertical and breathing city filled with ambiance. It makes a liar of any other current game that describes itself as open-world. "I may never finish the game," writes Wired's Clive Thompson in his review. "In a city this vibrant, it's hard to stop getting distracted."
I couldn't have said it better myself, and can only hope more games follow suit.
What really makes Grand Theft Auto IV "mature," more than even its racy content perhaps, is its witty parody of American excessiveness; its flamboyant commentary on social and political issues; and its piercing ridicule of any and all ethnicity. It's difficult to find such satire in games, yet here it is: smart, current, wide in scope and comical. And the punches are delivered in copious amounts and in all manner of distribution: billboards, restaurant names, advertisements and several hours' worth of fake talk radio and multichannel television programming replete with bogus commercials. Twenty hours into the game, I have rarely heard repeats, and I am still discovering new media -- a first for gaming in my book.
These elements should not be overlooked because of the controversy over offensive content. Rather, they should be applauded. While I understand the responses triggered by some of the content found in Grand Theft Auto IV, I can't deny what's been accomplished with its release.