Grand Theft Auto IV

Game Description: For Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from Europe, it is the hope he can escape his past. For his cousin, Roman, it is the vision that together they can find fortune in Liberty City, gateway to the land of opportunity. As they slip into debt and are dragged into a criminal underworld by a series of shysters, thieves and sociopaths, they discover that the reality is very different from the dream in a city that worships money and status, and is heaven for those who have them and a living nightmare for those who don’t.

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot 

The term sociopath was coined primarily because "psychopath" had too many negative connotations. It describes people, the Gary Ridgeways and Henry Kissingers of the world, who have absolutely no conscience. It's a blanket term used to describe people suffering from a wide variety of mental problems, the most interesting and relevant to this review being Antisocial Personality Disorder. A combination of antipathy, violently impulsive behavior, and a general disrespect for the rules of society, APD is the medical community's way of explaining that criminals are, almost to a man, suffering from a psychological defect. What does this have to do with Grand Theft Auto IV? Simple. In their attempts to make a grittier, more realistic game, Rockstar North has offered the world one of the best fictional portraits of the pure sociopath in recent memory.

The ninth installment in the long-running Grand Theft Auto series, GTA4 doesn't reinvent the wheel, nor should it be expected to. The move from GTA2 to GTA3 was as significant a leap in gameplay design as Mario's move to the '64 had been, and could even be called the birth of a new genre, if DMA Design hadn't pioneered all the core gameplay mechanics in the underrated Body Harvest three years earlier. For the past seven years, Rockstar North (formerly DMA Design) have refined and tweaked a simple trio of gameplay concepts: 1: Shoot people. 2: Steal their cars. 3: Use those cars to run other people over. GTA4 is nothing more than the latest refinement of that concept, offering only two major additions: A wonderful multiplayer mode, and a truly compelling story, replacing Bully as the company's finest.

Technologically speaking, GTA4 is a borderline triumph. While the graphics don't offer the fidelity of many other titles, and the textures are blurrier than next-generation gamers have come to expect, the game looks far better, and more importantly, performs far better than any GTA game before it. There's still the occasional "GTA Speedbump", that unhappy circumstance when a car crashes into nothing at all, and then a second later a telephone pole is drawn in, but by and large all issues of appearing scenery and disappearing behicles have been resolved, and it makes the game world seem all that much more authentic.

Authenticity is the watchword here, as the developers have gone to absurd lengths to depict a 1/5 scale (or thereabouts) depiction of New York City. It's nowhere near so exact that I'd imagine residents of New York are going to be driving by their own apartments and marveling at how well they were modeled, but it certainly has the look and feel of an actual city, one of the first in videogame history.

This push towards realism in game design has affected the missions as well, and it's a change for the better. While there are probably those out there who enjoyed the hugely pyrotechnic or otherwise outlandish missions of the last few games, I wasn't one of them, and I was pleased to see GTA4 going back to basics. Most of the missions involve driving to a location and shooting a couple of people, or shooting a couple of people while driving to a location. Every now and then I'd be asked to drive a boat somewhere or chase someone with a helicopter, but by and large I kept to simple gangland enforcing and executions.

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

What keeps the more basic mission structure from getting stale or tedious is the level of satisfaction the combat offers. This satisfaction is due in small part to an improved targeting system, and in a much larger part to the brand new progressive animation system called Euphoria. Instead of canned actions or string-cutting ragdoll physics, enemies are now made up of simulated skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems, allowing them to react naturally when shot, recoiling from the impact of a shoulder hit, stumbling if shot while running, or crumpling awkwardly when instantly killed by a bullet to the head. It looks so good and feels so authentic that I found myself eagerly anticipating each new gunfight, so I could watch the new ways there were for my enemies to crumple and die.

Just as developers fell all over themselves to include Havok physics a few years back, GTA4's release has not doubt led to the "Euphoria" people's phones ringing off the hook. Frankly, I'll be shocked if in 18 months time there's a shooting game that doesn't use this new kind of character animation, or some variation thereof. For that reason, I almost don't want to give GTA4 too much credit for the animation—after all, soon enough almost every game will sport it—but still, based on the game's sales so far, this is going to be most people's first experience with Euphoria, and the unbridled joy it brings to people looking to shoot fictional people within the confines of their television screens.

The one place these amazing physics don't appear, however, is the multiplayer. All human-controlled characters are immune to the effects of gunfire, and can soak up bullets unaffected until their health runs out and they collapse. I understand why this choice was made, after all, if player characters reacted authentically to wounds, whoever got hit first would lose the gunfight. Despite the rest of the game's shift in that direction, it's simply not the kind of brutal realism that most people going online are looking for.

Luckily that absence of physics and a needlessly awkward method of going online are pretty much the only things wrong with the multiplayer mode, which is something of a revelation in all other respects. I don't suppose it should really be much of a surprise that the game works so well with extra human players. After all, I've been riding along with AI partners for a couple of games now, and San Andreas featured an experimental co-op mode. What is surprising is just how naturally the game's aesthetic encourages teamplaying. Going online only with complete strangers, whenever I started a team adversarial mode I always found people willing to pull their cars to the curb and let me in so I could help with the shooting. Everyone I played with just seemed to agree that not only was it more practical to have a car full of guns, it made the game more fun, as well.

Even better than the adversarial modes are the co-operative ones. Made for four players, each of the game's three co-op missions have the players teaming up to take down armored cars, rob drug dealers, and blow up boats. The greatest compliment I can give these levels is that during the single player game I found myself wishing that I could invite a friend into the game to ride shotgun on some of the more difficult missions, rather than having to rely on the always-awkward AI partners. I don't know what Rockstar has planned for their downloadable content, but so long as there are new co-op missions, I'll be buying them.

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

While the multiplayer may be great, it's the story that really stands out in my mind. Well, not actually the story, but rather the story's main character. While the plot is the standard crime game tale of warring factions, betrayal, and revenge, Niko Bellic, the game's star, is anything but the standard issue anti-hero. Rather, he's a fully realized person. A tragic monster fuelled by nothing but hate, he's the best lead the series has ever had. Not that there's a lot of competition. GTA3 offered a mute, personalityless cipher, Vice City gave us Tommy Vercetti, a vicious psychopath motivated by an overwhelming desire to control everything around him, while San Andreas featured the most disturbed of all the characters, CJ, a self styled Robin-of-the-'hood who used claims of familial responsibility and moral relativism to convince himself that all of his mass murdering was somehow justified.

Niko Bellic is an entirely different breed of deviant in that he has almost no motivation of any kind, beyond a dedication to his cousin, and a simple desire to punish the people he feels are responsible for leaving him a hollow shell of a man. He finds himself swinging from master to master, playing both sides for his own benefit, but he never has much of an overall plan. Niko kills some people, has sex with others, and helps out a rare few, but strangely he doesn't seem to derive joy from any of it. Unlike the player's presumptive attitude, Niko never gets any pleasure from the mayhem he causes.

An entirely passive man, Niko fully believes himself to be a product of his environment. Various allusions are made to his time in the Army, and all of the atrocities he was forced to commit during the endless wars of the formerly communist republics. What makes him fascinating is that Niko has allowed himself to be completely defined by these actions—the government turned him into a criminal, so that's what he is, and nothing else. In one chilling speech, he mentions having been a slaver in passing, the way a normal person might talk about their time working at a fast-food restaurant.

Normally main characters in games are ciphers so that the player can make decisions without acting "out of character", since there's no character to be acting out of. Here the developers have done the seemingly impossible, created a character for whom no decision would seem surprising. Even suicide seems like a natural choice for a man so bereft of any emotion. At a few of points in the game the player is forced to make what would normally be a moral choice, but here is framed in a much harsher light, with Niko being forced to choose between a side that offers cash, and a side that appeals to his sentimentality. The player isn't asked to choose between good or evil, but rather greed or narcissism. By putting the player in such an unremittingly bleak position, the developers have done something amazing, and provided the game industry with one of its most well-rounded characters, up at the top of the heap with Kiryu from Yakuza.

It's in the shadow of the story's success that I began to find the game's failures, though. The first of these problems is the game's huge tonal schizophrenia. While the game's story does everything but stand on a desk and hold up a sign that reads "TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!!!" the rest of the game's content resides squarely in the middle-school potty-humor gutter that it's been wading in for over a decade. I doubt there's anything more unpleasantly jarring in the game than listening to Niko tell the awful story of how he discovered his aunt's body after she had been raped by soldiers and tortured to death, while driving past a salacious billboard for "Pisswater Beer". The series's attempts at satire have always been on the weak side, but they benefited by largely being set in the past—since the GTA games were the only ones still making jokes about Reagonomics or the Rodney King trial, at least there was an element freshness to them. Or if not freshness, at least an element of being the thing that doesn't get thawed out too often. Now that the game is set in the present day, the targets they choose to take shots at are all incredibly familiar: Fox News, spam e-mail, conservative politicians who are secretly gay—they've been covered by literally everyone else, and much better than they are here.

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

Things also get a little rough on the combat mechanics front as well. The hand to hand combat is pretty much a wash, but in the entire game the player is only forced to fistfight once or twice, and that's just so they can learn how to do it. The gun combat is definitely an improvement—finally bowing to the peer pressure of every other third-person shooter, GTA4 at long last implements a decent targeting and cover system. Aping Everything or Nothing, the targeting system allows players to lock on to enemies, and then fine-tune their aim with the right thumbstick. This lets players choose between spraying bullets in their opponent's general direction or carefully seeking out headshots, depending on their tastes. The cover system isn't quite as successful. While targeting and blindfiring work well enough, for some reason it's impossible to lean out from cover without shooting, despite the fact that every other game with a cover system allows players to do so. This means that in order to fire accurately, the player has to lock on to an opponent and pull the trigger, which initiates the "leaning out of cover" animation. The second this animation takes can mean the difference between a hit or a miss on opponents that use cover, and if the player wants to adjust their aim, they have to do so while continuously firing, since letting go of the trigger button even momentarily will cause Niko to duck back behind cover. I can't imagine how this mistake was made—literally every other game has figured this one out, so how did Rockstar not? Do they just not want players to have a good gunfighting system?

The combat is also harmed by the fact that the enemies have no AI to speak of. Once in a blue moon an enemy will run towards or away from Niko, but for the vast majority of the time they will either stand still, firing away, or duck in and out from behind a single piece of cover. Almost no strategy is required to kill them, just a basic understanding of how to use cover and the ability to flick the targeting reticle between a number of static targets. If the Euphoria-powered animations didn't make actually shooting people such a pleasure, I'd go so far as to call the game's combat a disappointment.

There's also a problem with the size of the city. While considerably smaller than San Andreas, the last game's location, Liberty City still takes an awful lot of time to drive around. The driving is fun enough that this isn't a chore for the first dozen or so hours, but by hour twenty, when every mission asks the player to drive from one end of the map to the other, let's just say I started taking a lot of cabs, the game's helpful way of allowing the player to warp around the map in a flash.

While Liberty City is a huge, beautiful location, I was surprised by just how little there was to do in it. Perhaps because of the move towards realism in the game, Ambulance and Fire Truck missions have been removed, as have the mysterious "packages" that seemed to litter the ground of Liberty City last time around. Gone with them are the unlockable perks. Players can't become fireproof, nor are there ever any respawning weapons available at their cribs. Luckily Vigilante Missions remain, allowing the player to clean up the streets, although for no reward beyond a sense of self-satisfaction. This seems to have been a last-minute change, though, since a line of dialogue in the game explicitly states that the police car missions should be paying, they just don't.

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

This dearth of activities also shows up in the social networking system, which has been expanded quite a bit since San Andreas. Now Niko doesn't just have to take girls out on dates, but all of his friends as well. When the player completes certain mission lines, his employer becomes a "friend" who will call him on his cell phone and want to hang out. This hanging out can involve getting some food, playing minigames, or going to see a show, and it takes up far more time than it really ought to. Not only because there are so many friendships that need to be maintained, but because there are so few places to hang out and do things in the city. One would think that a place like Liberty City would have a restaurant or bar on every corner, but one would be very, very wrong. Every time one of these "dates" begins the player has to drive to pick up their friend within an hour of game time (about two minutes), and then drive them across town to someplace they want to hang out. Of course, the entire social aspect of the game can be ignored, but since these friends and girlfriends are the game's only source of helpful perks, like cheap guns, health boosts, and resetting the wanted meter, the player would be put at quite a disadvantage by ignoring them.

Perhaps the most frustrating mistake the game makes is in the car combat. When this works, it's one of the game's bright points, as passengers blast away at other cars, shredding metal, blowing out wheels, and slaughtering the occupants, but when it fails, the game is crippled by that failure. I can't understand, for example, why passengers in a car are restricted to using pistols and submachine guns, the same way the driver is—sure it makes sense that a person driving a car has just one free hand, but why can't the person riding shotgun use a, well, shotgun? A far bigger problem is that the car-chase missions are divided up into two distinct styles: Free-form and Scripted. In the free-form chases the player can shoot out wheels, run the enemy off the road, really do anything they like. In the scripted missions, the enemy car can't be destroyed until it reaches a specific point on the map where an event is triggered. Unfortunately, the game doesn't tell the player which missions are which, so more than once I found myself emptying hundreds of round of SMG fire into a car, puzzled as to why it refused to catch on fire.

Some of GTA4's problems can be attributed to the developers' desire to hold features over from previous incarnations, and the rest seem to be caused by the understandable lack of focus that results from attempting to create a truly epic game world. All of these problems are outweighed by what the game gets right, both in the superlative story it tells and the unprecedented freedom the multiplayer mode offers. The GTA franchise is a funny one. Sometimes a sequel will be a leap forward in gameplay design and overall fun (like 3, or San Andreas), but other times they'll wind up being little more than an exercise in wheel-spinning or cashing in (Vice City and the Stories titles). GTA4 is certainly a step in the right direction, and I'm really looking forward to whatever the series has in store for us next. That being said, I hope that now they've produced a new engine that they can milk for the forseeable future the developers at Rockstar North take the time to iron out some of the larger problems next time around. Oh, and while I'm hoping for things, as a longtime fan of the series and knowing how much Rockstar North enjoys going back to the well, I'd like to formally request that the next game be set either in the near-future dystopian city of GTA2, or the "swinging London" of GTA: London 1969. Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

According to ESRB, this game contains: blood, intense violence, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol, partial nudity, strong language

Parents should keep their children far, far away from this game. I know that all of their friends are going to be playing it, but seriously, you're a parent. Grow some backbone. The content listing should have made the point clearly enough, but just in case you don't know what those words mean, let me make this absolutely clear: among other things, the game features strip clubs, endless headshots, drug dealing, implied and threatened torture, and plenty of offscreen sex. If your older teens beg for it, fine, but it's not to be played by anyone who confuses fantasy with reality.

GTA Fans can rejoice, this is everything that you had hoped it would be. Sure, all of the RPG elements of San Andreas have been pruned out, but the tradeoff is a fantastic story and incredibly entertaining multiplayer mode, so don't be too sad that you can't make Niko eat burgers until he's a waddling tub.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should be pretty safe with this one. The onscreen HUD is great at keeping you oriented, the subtitling extends even to some of the incidental dialogue, and Niko's in-game cellphone can even be set to vibrate, so the controller shakes in your hand whenever you're getting a call. Rockstar North has really shown a dedication to accessibility with this one.

Grand Theft Auto IV Second Opinion

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

For the most part, the Grand Theft Auto series has built its reputation on offering a "living, breathing" world where the possibilities for interaction and decision-making have been described as endless and unrestricted. Dan Wiessenberger's review of Grand Theft Auto IV thankfully does not spout this rhetoric ad nauseum. Instead, he offers the characterization of the game's main protagonist, Niko Bellic, and the game's strong narrative, as the game's primary attractions apart from the obvious updates to graphics and controls. However, as I mow my way through GTAIV's seemingly endless variations of chase and shoot gameplay, I find myself more and more uneasy with the balance the game attempts to strike between an epic but linear narrative and the underlying promise of open-world gameplay. It is this brave, if near-impossible, balancing act that defines how I have come to experience GTAIV; a game that, from its main character to its core mechanics, is undeniably beautiful but full of contradictions.

Dan hints at these contradictions throughout his review. He comments on the game's "tonal schizophrenia" as it struggles between vulgarity, satire and serious drama. He highlights the confusing disconnect between "free-form" and "scripted" chase missions where the avenues for success are so wide for one but so narrowly directed for the other. These arguments point us towards the most difficult of game design problems involving the desire to tell the best and most dramatic story of the GTA series while simulating a realistic and believable world "open" to the players who step within it. The question is how GTAIV has sated these competing desires without losing complete coherency, logic or worse, the player's weight in the world.

It is clear that Niko Bellic provides at least part of the answer. As he steps off the boat into the new and vibrant Liberty City, the connection between the city, Niko and myself is immediately made. His commitment to a loyalty-based ethic, particularly to a dedication to his cousin Roman, is convincing enough in the first few hours of play that I carefully navigate my way through traffic avoiding pedestrians and the attention of the police worrying that if I play out of character I am somehow betraying the story and the game. Unfortunately, this connection with the game erodes as Niko's story and killing sprees progress. Dan describes Niko as a full-fledged sociopath. Ultimately, as he fails to even shudder at every brain blown or to seriously question the reasons why former allies or complete strangers have to murdered, this rings true.

While his sociopathic mindset and grim back-story allow for an underlying explanation for many of the choices and missions available in the game, Niko's lack of moral complexity makes him frustratingly two-dimensional and the game too preoccupied with well worn GTA themes. Unlike Mass Effect or Oblivion, GTAIV does not give the player a completely blank slate on which he or she can project his own personality. Rather the games tries to make Niko a rich and believable character while simultaneously offering enough leeway to accommodate and rationalize the player's variety of choices. Accordingly, Niko's actions are sometimes inconsistent and based on simple, primitive justifications like, in Dan's words, "cash or sentimentality."

Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) Screenshot

As Niko's ethics system becomes less and less consistent and meaningful, the game changes and a different, perhaps more profound sense of freedom is felt. It no longer weighs heavy on my conscience that I have just run down hundreds of hapless pedestrians chasing a lone fleeing gangster or that, in a tense bank robbery getaway, I decimated what seems like the entire Liberty City Swat Team. Nevertheless, the methods I use to get through these missions and, more generally, interact with the world, are constrained by technical and creative limitations. I cannot, for example, block the highway exit with stolen cars in anticipation of a chase mission. I cannot run into any building with a restaurant exterior but rather must travel to designated points on the map to replenish health. I cannot, in some instances, take down my quarry through skill or ingenuity before he or she reaches the designated cut-scene trigger point but rather must indulge the game's insatiable need to follow its linear narrative. With all the possibilities removed, what is left upon the third or fourth mission attempt is a mechanical exercise lacking any dynamic decision-making, of doing just enough to finish the mission and move on.

To what extent do these constraints detract from GTAIV as a whole? At the least they highlight that GTAIV is clearly not the pinnacle of videogame history as it is held by some to be considering much of those arguments are based on the myth that Liberty City is a fully realized "living, breathing" world. Instead, the game leads players from cutscene to cutscene and develops its characters at the cost of true player freedom and to some extent the reality of the world. This does not make GTAIV any worse a game. In fact, the multi-part missions, though repetitive, are cleverly designed and make use of the game's varied locations and architecture. Rather the game's constraints shape the single-player experience into something completely different to what GTAIV it is often said and lauded to be. As Dan rightly points out, the multiplayer modes give players "unprecedented" free reign in Liberty City. Is it because such modes are free from the binds of linear narratives and characters? If so, the next problem for games of this genre is how to nurture the emotional attachment that is more easily developed through story and characters while making good on grandiose promises of freedom and interactivity.

After nearly 50 hours invested in Liberty City, these issues are moot. Liberty City is so dense with culture, from its varied architecture to its faux-internet websites and range of satirical television and radio programs, that it is easy to forget the boundaries the game has set and easier to get lost within it. The improvements on graphics, sound and design were always going to be a given though it is significant that the game controls are now adequate enough to foster a sense of empowerment in every shootout or cop chase. Moreover, every shootout and cop chase has the potential to become spectacular sequences of explosions and vehicular improvisation thanks to the game's durable physics engine and the realistic progressive animations of the Euphoria system. GTAIV, with its linear "open" world may be a game of contradictions, but it is also a game that aims so high and is so well designed it fascinates despite and even because of its failings. Rating: 9.0 out of 10.

–By Carlo Sta. Barbara

Disclaimer: This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.

Grand Theft Auto IV Third Opinion


Escaped the Police, but got a Little Banged up Along the Way

Grand Theft Auto IV Screenshot

HIGH The first few hours of story.

LOW The driving.

WTF Driving into a barrier on an overpass, being thrown through the windshield, falling six or so stories, and still walking away.

I was never a huge fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. The only one I sort of enjoyed being San Andreas, and I had mixed feeling about that one. However, due to an overwhelming critical response, and the return of the annual spring-summer gaming drought, I decided to give Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA4) a chance. After finally completing it, my feelings toward GTA4 are a mixed bag.

First off, the atmosphere was astonishing. I was amazed by all the little things Rockstar did to bring their created world to life. Things like actually having shows to watch on TV instead of just a picture and sound; being able to choose from a plethora of different radio stations while driving, each with their own variety of music and talk shows; and the way everyone pulls over and moves out of the way when I am driving a police car with the siren on. Rockstar also provided many options in places to go; such as playing pool, throwing darts, and even comedy clubs featuring real life comedians. The player may even date and hang out with friends. In fact, doing so is significant to the gameplay, since friends will offer special services when they like you enough. All these elements combined made me feel as though I was actually living the life of the main character, which is rare for the action adventure genre.

Unfortunately, this is where my compliments end. Everything else about the game became flat and annoying by the time I reached one-fourth completion. Take the story for instance. It started out well enough; with main character Niko Bellic stepping off a boat from Russia and entering Liberty City, where he wanted to live the "American Dream" with his cousin Roman. Well not only did Niko quickly discover that his cousin was not living the dream life, but that he was in debt to the wrong kind of people as well. Follow that up with about ten hours of Sopranos style mob drama, and some dialog about trying to escape the past, and you have the first part of GTA4's story in a nutshell. Unfortunately, everything went to hell when the game hit the quarter mark. At that point the story, once focused and well written, dissolved into an unfocused collection of subplots. The game did try to continue the same storyline, but those plot points were often more than four hours apart from one another.

Filling the gaps were many mission strands in which people hired Niko to be their personal hit man and watch over drug deals. While I did like the stories and characters associated with these missions, they had almost nothing to do with the original plot line and the game did a poor job in tying the different strands together; resulting in them feeling more like mandatory side quests and not part of a cohesive story. Furthermore, the only motivation Niko seemed to have for taking these jobs was needing money, but the game never said why he needed it. He was not trying to earn start-up money for a business, attempting to build a drug empire, or anything. There was not even a single bill that needed paying. Because of this, I never felt like I was achieving anything. I was just plugging away with no goals, only doing things because the game asked me to.

Not helping matters much, the controls could have used some serious tweaking. You would think that a game with "auto" in the name would have decent driving controls, but apparently Rockstar's focus was elsewhere. It seemed like every vehicle Niko tried to operate was without power steering as simply making a turn without hitting something was near impossible—without almost completely stopping the vehicle, that is. Besides that, the vehicle would start sliding and skid off the road any time I applied the brakes; not all the time, but about 40 percent of it. Considering that one of the main gameplay elements of the Grand Theft Auto series is police chases, buggy driving controls are just unacceptable (don't even get me started on the check points).

Even so, I cannot shake the feeling that Grand Theft Auto IV should have been great. The atmosphere of Liberty City is something that Rockstar North should be praised for, and I really liked where the beginning of the story was headed. It is just too bad that the buggy controls and the story's lack of focus kept the game from reaching its full potential. Rating: 6.0 out of 10.

—by Coy Simmons

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 40 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 3 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

GTA IV, kids and parenting in the videogame age

The words on everyone's mind today are Grand Theft Auto IV.

This is a big game, quite likely destined to be one of the biggest in history thus far. I hardly think I need to explain why, but for anyone who needs proof, look no further than your nearest newspaper or television newscast.

Like hogs to the trough, uninformed sensationalist media are re-converging on this series not because for what is touted to be the most compelling narrative in GTA history, its detailed approach towards presenting an open-world environment, or the latest innovations in online multiplayer. No, the reasons the media flock to Rockstar’s most famous title are the appearance, deserved or not, of violence and lurid content corrupting the nation's youth and the very likely event that it will set a world’s record in sales.

I could go on for ten thousand words deconstructing and debating the history of GTA, the biased media coverage, game design, morals, values, potential influence of images and play on impressionable minds, and everything in between… but there's no need to even have the discussion.

The only thing that's necessary to say in relation to GTA IV is that it’s an M-rated game.


For people who either don't bother to read or simply don't understand what this labeling means (and that’s at least three quarters of the adults in this country) let me spell it out for you:

GRAND THEFT AUTO IV IS NOT FOR CHILDREN.

To all the ignorant adults, pandering politicians and neglectful parents who rail against the ‘evil’ games industry for turning America’s naïve offspring into Columbine clones and sexual deviants, the answer is simple—

Don't let your kids play this game.

Quite literally, that's all there is to say. The discussion ends here.

Games are like any other form of information or media. Like movies, books, and music, videogames are simply a vehicle to communicate a spectrum of content that spans a range of (say it with me now) ALL AGES, and certain content is simply NOT for kids.

As a parent myself, I make it my responsibility to check into whatever it is that my son is playing, watching, reading (and even eating) to make sure that it's within the guidelines for what my wife and I feel is appropriate for a person his age. I may personally enjoy a double feature of gory horror classics and popcorn on a Friday night or curling up with the latest torrid fantasy romance novel and breaking into a sweat during chapter 4 , but my son’s not going to be partaking of things like this until he’s mature enough to handle them, and responsibly so.

Any parent who buys (or pays for) a copy of GTA IV without doing the research and then complains about their children playing and being ‘influenced’ by the game should first take responsibility for their own actions, and admit that they're not doing the job they should be. I have absolutely no respect or tolerance for people who want the government, the industry, or anyone espousing censorship to raise their kids. If you’re too lazy to check out what’s in the game your kids are playing, then you don’t deserve to have kids. It's a parent's job to monitor what their kids are into—this is not up for debate.

But they’ll just play it at a friend’s house

…So call the friend’s parents, ask questions and have the discussion.

They’ll just get it and hide it

Support stores that enforce the ESRB and don’t sell M games to minors, and while you’re looking under the mattress for a sticky copy of Plump Rumps and in shoeboxes for marijuana, take a look-see at what’s on their game shelf or under their bed. Better yet, when their TV set is on and they have controllers in hand, look at what's on the screen.

Granted, it’s not possible to shield children from every conceivable evil that exists in the world, but an interested, involved parent will know when their kids are getting into things they shouldn’t—and even if your kid is a contraband ninja—you should consider yourself to be the strongest, most effective influence in your child’s development. By setting a good example, talking to your kids, and being a part of their life, any possible negative effects from games (as well as TV, movies, books, music, modern art, red meat, and a million other things) will be defrayed by the love and care you show them.

Will I buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto IV?

Absolutely. I’ll probably enjoy the hell out of it, too.

Will my son be playing it, or be beside me on the couch watching while I am?

Not for another ten or twelve years.

Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.

The motivational power of Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV

I haven't played Grand Theft Auto IV yet, and I probably won't play it for quite a while. But that doesn't mean it isn't exerting an influence on my life. Like many people, I've been keeping track of the game's astronomically high Metacritic ranking (99 with 31 reviews as of this writing), and it's safe to say that I'm pretty damn stoked about the possibility of playing it. The problem is that I'm currently in the midst of a competing set of interests and commitments, which for sake of brevity I'll simply refer to as "life."

In a few weeks I'll be finishing graduate school and receiving my master's degree, after which I'll be moving up to the Seattle area and (a few months later) getting married. What that means is that it's absolutely necessary that I find work within the next couple months. So where that leaves me right about now is in the throws of preparing applications, cover letters, resumes, CVs, and so forth. Not exactly the ideal set of circumstances for sinking one's teeth into a massive title like Grand Theft Auto IV. How do I deal with it?

Luckily, my fiancé came up with a rather clever idea. Since my top priority right now is on finding and securing gainful employment in my chosen field, she recommended that I hold off on playing GTA4, and instead reward myself with the game after I land my first post-graduation job. So far, this seems to be working very well. It's actually given me a lot of extra motivation to devote time to my job search (not to say that I wasn't devoting a lot of time to it already), and it gives me a nice treat to look forward to.

The idea is especially nice coming from my fiancé because ever since she learned second hand a couple years ago about the beating-up-prostitutes gameplay in Vice City, she's pretty much forever written off GTA as something she never wants anything to do with. At this point, even if the entire art world joined together and unanimously declared GTA4 the greatest artistic achievement the world has ever known, she still wouldn't give it the time of day. That being said, she has no problem with my playing it and fully supports my desire to do so.

I may not get the chance to play GTA4 for quite a while, but I can live with that. The game will still be there in a few months, but my dream job might not be. I think I'm making the right choice.

Will GTA IV DLC make a difference?

Sony’s Scott Steinberg was recently quoted at GameDaily Biz as saying that the 360-exclusive downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t going to be a big deal. My first inclination was to say that the man was smoking crack, but after further thought... I’m not too sure.


Pretty much anybody who’s anybody is going to play this game at some point, but since it’s going to be available on both PS3 and 360, that negates its potential status as a single-handed system-seller.

Then take into account that the downloadable content in question will not be available immediately (not to mention, it’s not exactly clear whether or not the small fortune Microsoft paid for the exclusive rights will guarantee that it’s exclusive forever) and I’m not too convinced that anyone who already owns a PS3 but not a 360 will refrain from picking up the game based on the knowledge that some sort of content will be coming to the opposition's box at some point in the future. It's a lot easier to drop $60 and say "oh well" than it is to save up a few hundred and buy a second console.

For people like me who have the choice to play on either the PS3 or the 360, the choice is a simple one; Since I don’t perceive the PS3 as having any real technical edge over the 360, and since the PS3’s online experience is complete crap, and since Live is as smooth as silk to use, and since I enjoy going for Achievements, and since I would most definitely download additional content when it’s offered, I’ll be going 360, no question.

However, I’m sure that the percentage of people who are in my same situation are probably a very small percentage of the overall market… it’s doubtful that we’d swing the pendulum very far in either direction, so while Microsoft’s decision to secure future download content is just fine with me, in all likelihood I would’ve bought the 360 version anyway. I imagine that other multi-console homes would likely do the same, for similar reasons.

Another thing to think about is that by the time the downloadable content is available, GTA IV’s status as the “it” game may have cooled down substantially to the point that an additional scenario may not matter that much to people who are already done with it by that point.

Or not.

I will admit that I’m a big fan of add-ons that give me a reason to dig out old discs… I did it for Overlord and for Mass Effect, and I imagine that I’d do it for GTA IV too. Hell, I'd do it for Viva Pinata if Rare offered a new animal or two.

I guess in the end, it remains to be seen what exactly it was that Microsoft paid all this money for.

Will the sum earned by downloading this content from Xbox Live make up for the fortune they spent? Probably not… Will it guarantee them a stronger position in terms of console sales? I doubt it. They’ve got bragging rights for sure, but add-ons are a new territory for consoles and I think that this is more a gamble on Microsoft’s part than an educated strategic maneuver, even with the juggernaut that is GTA.

It’s definitely something to chew on…

Grand Theft Annulment

So I went out and got a copy of...

the game everybody’s playing and the thing that’s racked up some of the highest-scored reviews of all time. The games media across tha intarwebs have been falling all over themselves to pile shimmering, golden scores on top of it, delivering the kind of unparalleled fellatio that’s usually reserved for the kind of sweaty teen dreams that only hormones can bring on.

As I write this, it’s currently got a 98/100 at MetaCritic after 66 reviews, the first 41 or so being perfect 100s—seriously, that’s insane success. Rockstar must be thrilled, since any publisher out there would sell their firstborn for numbers like that.


Niko Bellic, on the hunt for Dan Weissenberger

So, after two days of playing, what’s my take on it?

I’m not at all impressed.

It’s not that the game is terrible because it’s not, but it’s certainly not deserving of all the accolades and perfect scores. Granted, I’m still very early on and have not yet completed the single player portion, but based on what I’ve seen so far… I don’t think I actually will. How's that for a ringing endorsement?


My man CJ from San Andreas... Check that fly ride.

Now before going any further, don’t start thinking I’m some sort of GTA hater. That couldn’t be further from the truth—I gave the first perfect score of my review career to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on PS2, and that’s a number I stand by. That was a tremendous game and a major achievement. GTA IV? Not so much.

I mean, looking at the game, I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be impressed with.

Graphics? Well, the graphics are all right, but they’re not as stellar as most people seem to think they are. Quite honestly, I think there are a lot of games out right now that look a lot better


Do you play games to admire the architecture?

Realistic replication of a city? Having never set foot in New York, I couldn’t tell you whether it’s realistically modeled or not—and really, who cares if it is? My ability to recognize landmarks or particular neighborhoods has absolutely no effect on gameplay.

Improved controls? I find the vehicle control to be atrocious, quite possibly the worst in the series, and controlling main character Nico Bellic is only slightly better. Everything feels slow and clunky, and quite frustrating at times.

Gameplay? From what I’ve seen so far, it’s business as usual. The same sort of ‘go here, kill someone’ missions that have always been in GTA have made up the majority of what I’ve done so far, with nothing interesting occurring, or even being promised.

Environment? I get very little value from observing AI characters exhibit random behavior while walking down the street, and I don’t usually play games for the scenery. Simply being somewhere and spending time is not a draw.

Story? Granted, this could be the game’s homerun, but it has completely failed to draw me in so far, and I feel (raspberry sound) for the characters. Sure, I giggled at some of the absurd lines and obvious jokes, but I don’t feel compelled to follow Nico on his journey, and I have absolutely no motivation to improve ‘relationships’ with the faces I’ve seen so far. I’m absolutely willing to admit that there may be some quality drama later on, but part of good game design and creation (and really, of any creative media at all) is the ability to capture a player’s imagination and immerse them in the world; motivate them to rise to the challenge and emerge victorious. At this point, I’m completely bored by what’s been happening, and I don’t feel at all engaged—without intellectual buy-in, I have no incentive to put up with what I see as a below-average (compared to San Andreas) GTA boilerplate.

Although I’m considering pressing on if for no other reason than it’s likely going to be one of those ‘must-play’ titles that any good critic should probably have under their belt, it already feels like work and that’s not a good thing.

If anyone out there can tell me what exactly is so great about this game, I’d honestly love to hear it… keeping in mind that graphics aren’t enough to sway me and that I’ve already played through four previous GTAs, exactly what am I supposed to be getting from IV? I would guess that if this was the first time I was playing a GTA I’d be more impressed, but I find absolutely no significant between what IV offers, and what every other GTA did before it.

Whatever critics are getting out of this game in order to justify the universal adoration, I just don’t see it.


It may be generic, but Saints Row plays like buttah

As a sort-of comparison, today I picked up a copy of Saints Row, since it had been billed as a GTA wannabe, and I thought it would be interesting to see what my reaction would be to it.

Not surprisingly (or perhaps surprisingly) I thought it started out really fun and frenetic, and I was quickly engaged with the customization and absolutely solid controls. I mean, this game is pretty much a next-gen version of San Andreas with the gang slant, recruiting homies, capturing territory, and so on, only it skips the pretense and gets right to the action.

I can't say that it's a good game since I only put in about 45 minutes with it, but not having to fuss with controls and camera was quite welcome, and it had waypoints and a mini-map, so it was almost exactly like IV minus the immigrants and New York ambiance. (Bonus points awarded for the prominent display of zaftig ladies.)

Saints Row and IV almost seem like flip sides of the same coin when played them back to back like that. Take that irresistible GTA hype out of the equation, and IV seems like standard GTA, just offering less than the last iteration and still not nailing the controls.

Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.

The terrible secret of my GTA IV review!

When I gave Grand Theft Auto IV the insultingly low score of 85%, quite a few people suggested that I had some kind of a secret grudge against the game that kept me from giving it the glowing adoration that it so obviously deserved. Well, I'm finally ready to admit that yes, I did have a secret predjudice against the game, one that I'll reveal through the medium of crudely-edited video:

 

I doubt I can be much clearer than that.