Friday, June 27, 2008

GTA IV Update

Well, I've been playing a fair amount of Grand Theft Auto IV (or giving it about as much of my free time as I can reasonably justify), and I continue to be impressed by the game.

I know I've written about GTA IV before, but I can't help but come back to it. This is mostly because of the fact that despite the fact that a historic number of professional game reviewers have given it perfect or near perfect scores (IGN, X-Box World 360, Playstation Official Magazine, and many other publications gave it perfect scores), I've read a lot of comments from gamers who are fairly critical of GTA IV, and I've talked to some people who've bought or rented the game and said they just didn't care for it as much as some other games, or even as much as prior versions of the game like San Andreas or Vice City.

Nonetheless, I have to throw my support behind this game (meaning I really don't think it's overhyped or undeserving of its critical praise).

GTA IV may lack a few (although very few) of the bells and whistles that were in some of the prior editions of the Grand Theft titles, but what it lacks in gimmicks and trickery, it more than makes up for with incredible graphics, and, more importantly, with a sense of characters and storytelling which far exceed anything that I've ever seen before in a video game. GTA IV is truly a game for grownups.

This isn't to say that it doesn't employ some adolescent humor at times, but the game has a story arc with characters that you actually come to be emotionally invested in (in the same sort of way you become invested in movie or TV characters) and who grow and change throughout the course of the game. Your actions as Niko Bellic (the game's main character) have ramifications which actually seem to have an impact not only upon the supporting characters around you, but upon the development of Niko himself as he tries to make a life for himself in his new found environment (he starts the game as an immigrant, just off the boat from Europe).

The game may not have some of the more superficial rewards that were presented in earlier versions of the game in order to entice players (e.g.,, sculpting your character's physique or participating in the Monopoly-style collection of various pieces of real estate and businesses around town), but GTA IV has something different which is intended to keep its adult audience hooked and coming back for more- it has a plot.

There are scenes and events in GTA IV which really are much more comparable to things that we've previously only seen in movies, and the gameplay is driven much more by the curiosity around what will happen to Niko next than by a desire to accumulate money or possessions.

GTA IV isn't exactly preachy or over the top, but it actually has dialogue and character interaction which develop themes, and it's one of the few games where you'll hear junkies tell you the pathetic story of how they ended up hooked on drugs, where fast food companies are ridiculed for selling preservative-filled, steroid tainted food that kills people as readily as it sustains them, where immigrants give disgruntled rants about the indentured servitude that constitutes the lifestyle of most Americans, and where gangsters vent about the false advertising that lies at the heart of "the American dream". GTA IV has the prostitution, drugs, and violence that it's taken so much criticism for, but it also shows the negative repercussions of these things and delves into a few of the reasons that they're so prevalent in American big city life.

The game makes comments on everything from the health care industry, to the American political system, to internet dating, and its really got a lot to say (in its smart-assed, satirical way) for those gamers who are playing close enough attention to listen.

It takes a little while to settle into the game and to begin to realize how much you are learning about Niko and the people around him, but eventually you can't help but begin to develop curiosity about the different characters and how their stories will unfold.

Plus, on a more pragmatic note, (but a significant one for people comparing previous versions of the game with the new one) the new combat system far surpasses anything offered on any of the previous titles (making the action scenes much more enjoyable to take part in), and there's still plenty of opportunity to just screw around and explore the environment, in the ol' Grand Theft Auto tradition (and the incredibly detailed city in which you find yourself will make you want to do exactly that).

Anyway, I like the game. I understand why critics are saying its one of the best games in years. The game may not be perfect, but its shown us a different direction in terms of what games can be, and I think the brilliance involved in taking that step is something that's clearly worthy of recognition. It's a game that asks to be respected and approached on a level that's different than a lot of other games. GTA IV is what video games look like when they start to grow up. And this style of game may well help to open up video games to a whole new audience of gamers.

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