Thursday, July 29, 2010

Top 50 Games - 8. Grand Theft Auto IV

Niko Bellic has been spent the last ten years searching for someone. A scarred veteran of the war in the Balkans, he's been doing ugly jobs for ugly people: first in the merchant navy, then on a ship that smuggles people into Italy. He's been receiving e-mails from his cousin Roman in America, detailing the good life (threesomes, mansions, fast cars) he's enjoying in swank Liberty City. Spurred on by Roman's positivity, his dark past in Europe, and the promise of finding "that special someone," Niko stows away on the U.S.S. Platypus, heading for Liberty City and the new beginning it offers. Of course, the grass isn't always greener on the other side, and the cousins Bellic soon find themselves deep in the city's criminal underworld.
This isn't a movie. This isn't a novel. This is a video game. It's the first current generation entry in a franchise that was humbly named after its core mechanic: stealing cars. Be proud, game industry; we've come a long way.
Hype can be a destructive force for sure, but just as often it can be wonderful. My first GTA was San Andreas, the sprawling, ludicrous gangster epic discussed in an earlier post. It was certainly entertaining and breathtaking in its scope, but it wasn't perfect. Although it's commendable that the game could even run on a PS2, the graphics were nothing special and its sound was muffled and thin. Animations were jerky, textures were muddy, and the controls were finicky and imprecise. A next-gen Grand Theft Auto, its roman numeral representing the biggest evolutionary leap in the series since the revolutionary GTA III, would alleviate all of those concerns. Judging from its press coverage, Grand Theft Auto IV looked to be the most realistic game ever made. In the months leading up to the game's release I was carnivorous, wolfing down every interview, preview, and trailer. Needless to say, when IGN finally put up its review, I was jittery. Hilary Goldstein did not beat around the bush: he boldly proclaimed Grand Theft Auto IV to be the greatest video game since 1998's Ocarina of Time; in other words the best of the last ten years. "No way," I thought. "Could it be? Oh shit, I think so." I scrolled down the page a bit, and there it was: a perfect ten out of ten (a precious rarity from IGN). I was pumped. So psyched was I that I waited in line at the mall for the midnight launch while some douchebags got in a fight over one of them supposedly staring at the other's girlfriend (I haven't picked up a new game at midnight since). I got home, fell asleep, went to school the next day, came back home again and popped the disc into my Xbox 360. And would you believe it? I wasn't disappointed.
Although I never heard any whining pre-release, Grand Theft Auto IV's stylistic direction, the 'gritty realism' approach, has since become mildly controversial among fans. Vice City and San Andreas established the PS2-era GTA game as a silly, over-the-top feast of carnage whose ultra-violence was relatively harmless due to its unrealistic, almost comical representation. San Andreas offered dildos, flowers, chainsaws, golf clubs, and more as weapons. Gamers were used to constantly having ridiculous cheats activated, such as flying cars, wearing a gimp suit, or making all of the pedestrians Elvis impersonators. Missions were nearly as whacky as the optional content: one particularly epic task in San Andreas was to swim to a cargo ship, climb aboard, and eventually sneak your way to the captain's cabin where you engage a Da Nang boss in a katana duel. Grand Theft Auto IV abandoned all of this, and I can see why some wouldn't be happy about that. Weapons were limited to the usual suspects: AKs, knives, shotguns, sniper rifles, etc. Cheat codes this time around were really just for cheating instead of having fun. Most missions are meat-and-potatoes, requiring Niko to drive to a location, chase some mobster jerk on foot or in a vehicle, and take him out. Likewise, the scale of the environment was pared down, offering players the four boroughs of Liberty City (and the northern New Jersey clone Alderney, but who counts that?) rather than the three cities, suburbs, and countryside of San Andreas. I can understand how GTA IV's "realism" is a bone of contention, but I personally think the choice was the right one. It allowed a GTA game to become so much more for me than it ever could have been under the old creed of "more is more, believability be damned."
Walking Niko around the starting neighborhood of Hove Beach, taking petty jobs for Roman's cab company and the Russian mafia while fending off Albanian loan sharks, I felt like I was inhabiting a real place, in the shoes of a real person. Part of it was being sucked in by the game's attention to detail and part of it was willingly trying to make things as realistic as possible. For large portions of my first playthrough I turned off game-y features like auto-targeting, a colored reticule, a weapon indicator, and even briefly the GPS/health meter. I was a somewhat safe driver, I committed as few crimes as possible, I took my girlfriend out on takes and got drunk with Roman. There are some particularly striking moments in which you must make difficult, morally gray choices. When these haunting scenarios arose, I always picked the option that I felt best agreed with Niko's character (the last one had me driving around in circles for nearly half an hour trying to decide). I wanted to become Niko Bellic while playing and for a while there I did. In this sense, I find GTA IV to be one of the most effective role-playing games ever made; most people wouldn't call it an RPG, but it's hard to deny the game's immersive power.
Said immersive power probably couldn't have been achieved were it not for an upgrade in technology and mechanics. Rockstar's proprietary engine RAGE (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine), coupled with NaturalMotion's Euphoria physics and animation, makes for a much better-looking and more believable world. The graphics today are not terribly impressive, but again the game's immense size should be taken into account; the textures might not be the sharpest ever applied to geometry, but this realization of Liberty City is nonetheless extremely impressive. IV is easily the most violent and disturbing entry in the controversial series. Due to the new animation tech and bump in representational quality, the action is much more effectively realistic than it's ever been before. Blast a goon at the top of a staircase and he'll tumble convincingly down. Score a headshot on a guy who's seated in a vehicle and he'll pull said head back violently before slamming it down on the horn. I recall a mission in which I chased two Hell's Angels through a subway before emerging and taking them out with some machine pistol spray. The last enemy was tossed off his seat by a bullet or two before I sort of accidentally ran over his head with the front wheel of my motorcycle and felt a bump through the controller's rumble feature, leaving tracks of blood behind me for a few blocks. It was thrilling, I'm not going to lie, but it was also horrifying. Grand Theft Auto IV's forceful brutality haunts you and Niko every step of the way; it can be supremely satisfying, but rarely am I not terrified of my own actions. If I had to cite one reason why the new animation engine is worthwhile, however, I would pick my favorite Liberty City pastime: intentionally getting hit by taxis, just to see how Niko's body will handle the impact. The controls were also mercifully improved, making combat a visceral thrill rather than a clunky chore. Same goes for vehicle control, which feels significantly more physical than in previous outings. Following suit, audio no longer sounds like it's dressed in a burlap sack; GTA IV is a real workout for surround sound systems.
The fancy new presentation serves to make Liberty City an even more interesting place to live in. Modeled extensively after the Big Apple, this redesigned Liberty City is brimming with authentic personality. It nails the look and feel of New York City better than most movies I've seen that use it as a backdrop. From the zoomed in view, strolling down the street and taking in the lively atmosphere, to zoomed out, piloting a helicopter over the sleepless nighttime cityscape, the sights and sounds never cease to amaze. The whole "living, breathing world" thing is so overplayed it's seemed to have lost all meaning, but if there is any left, it's in GTA IV.
Two elements that nearly define the Grand Theft Auto series are its irreverent sense of humor and the radio. Vice City and San Andreas were period pieces of the late 20th century: the former took place in the coke-fueled Miami of the mid 80's, while San Andreas occupied the state of California circa 1992. Grand Theft Auto IV represents New York City in 2008, and does just as much as those two prequels to skewer its contemporary American pop culture. Precise satire is available in more forms than ever: Niko can watch Republican Space Rangers on the boob tube, browse conspiracy theory websites, listen to radio jingles, read billboards, and watch civilians spew idiocy back and forth on their mobile devices. One time as I was walking Niko down the block I heard some stupid girl say "Maybe I can accessorize it!" Four seconds later, a goateed man picked up his cell phone and asked "Did you read my blog yet?" (ironic, I know). I'm still not sure why, but at that moment I started cracking up. It's just so dead-on a portrayal of modern society that I couldn't help but burst out with sad, painful laughter. I really have to commend Dan Houser for his work here; it's an omnivorous, deadly collage of American idiocy. Whenever I would stop playing and go outside or watch real TV, it was the same goddamn thing, except unequipped of any "just kidding" means for defense.
The radio isn't just for giggles; it also boasts some great songs. A wide variety of genres are represented, from Bob Marley brah-ska to desperately hip Brooklyn indie rock. The fact that you can change stations whenever you want, that the music isn't bound with the current scenario, makes for some wonderful dynamics and amusing juxtapositions. Yeah, you could play hardcore punk during an intense motorcycle chase, but you could also play "Bump n' Grind." The choice is yours. Many cherished hours of my GTA IV experience consist of nothing but going for an evening drive to the tune of "Goodbye Horses" or Godley and Creme's "Cry."
I praised Dan Houser for his comic wit, but there I was talking about the details that enrich the world: the advertisements and pedestrian chatter. He wrote pretty much the whole script (and it is monstrous), and so his sardonic sense of humor is present in the dialogue of the main cast. But there's more to his writing than satire; the characters in GTA IV, while mockeries to an extent, are also fascinatingly nuanced and written with surprising care (of course it helps that the voice acting is some of the best in any video game). Every criminal that Niko ends up working for or worth is despicable and pathetic, from Ray Bocino, the Cosa Nostra rat who gets made fun of behind his back to Dwayne, the outdated sad sack of a crack kingpin. Niko becomes friends with some of his contacts, and can choose to call them up to hang out. Doing so more often than not results in a long car ride during which your partner in crime will wax therapeutic about how life is the same old shit whether you're in prison or on the outside, with a woman or on your own. Grand Theft Auto may glorify the violence itself, but it does little to flatter those who commit it.
Niko Bellic is easily one of, if not the, most sophisticated and "real" personalities in all of gaming. One fateful night in the Balkans, he and his squad of 12 childhood friends were set up. All but three died in what Niko believes to have been an inside job. He knows that it wasn't him, and so that leaves only two candidates, one of whom is living in Liberty City. Maybe halfway through the game, Niko finds out that said city-dweller is his old friend, now a harmlessly flaming homosexual. After doing jobs for a mysterious G-man (the only boss Niko has who actually seems cool), it is agreed that the final suspect will be brought into Liberty City for Niko to confront. When it happens, it's harrowing. The long sought after villain, one Darko Brevic, gets thrown unceremoniously out of a truck, and looks like nothing more than a disheveled junkie bum. Niko lists off the names of people Darko had killed, asking why he did it and for how much. "A thousand," Darko replies apathetically. "I needed the money." It's clear that Darko used the cash to fund his drug addiction. "You killed my friends for a thousand dollars?" Niko's voice quavers. "You ruined me, you fuck!" The player is then left with the choice of killing Darko or walking away. I don't remember what I did the first time, but either way, I know I didn't feel good about it. This is where Grand Theft Auto games are so misunderstood. They're not just cop-killing simulators and juvenile sandboxes; they're deep, dark portrayals of modern American crime, grounded in an ever-so-slightly exaggerated pop culture world. IV focuses more intently than any of its brothers, deftly exploring the psyche of the morally ambiguous but wholly human Niko Bellic.
I've put more hours into GTA IV than any other video game. It has its detractors, but guess what? It's also among the top 5 highest-scoring games ever, second only to Ocarina of Time in terms of ubiquitous critical praise. Objectively and personally, I'm on their side. To call Niko Bellic's urban adventure anything less than a monolithic masterpiece would be doing the stubbly Serb a disservice. And you wouldn't want to do that, would you? Two words: molotov cocktail.

1 comment:

  1. With the exception of that horrific and potentially jeopardizing word absence (which you cleverly fixed), another well-rounded and stylistic review, Dreany.