[30 May 2008]
It is difficult to quantify just how much the Grand Theft Auto franchise has contributed to gaming as a medium, both in terms of pioneering design choices that have since become all but ubiquitous, and with respect to positive and negative perceptions of games and gamers in general. Grand Theft Auto IV is arguably the most anticipated game title of the last several years, and the critical praise for it has been nearly universally effusive. But though media hype can elevate mediocre titles to heroic status, Grand Theft Auto IV is a legitimately incredible game from a number of different perspectives, and it certainly cements, even further, the franchise’s place in gaming history.
To start with, this is a much more mature Grand Theft Auto in almost every way. Other reviewers have claimed that Niko Bellic is the most likable protagonist of the series. It’s conceivable that this is because he’s much more empathetic and relatable than any that have preceded him. As the game progresses, and Niko goes through a range of emotions including bemusement, rage, frustration, and many others, it is difficult not to feel those emotions along with him, dulled though they may be through the lens of a fictional character.
San Andreas was certainly an effort to bring more to the series, and while much attention was paid to the extraordinarily large environment, it becomes clear now that the design and writing for CJ, the protagonist of San Andreas, deserves equal praise. While the role-playing and character-building elements for CJ were probably ill-advised, he was also Rockstar’s first sincere effort at presenting a Grand Theft Auto protagonist that was nuanced and layered, as opposed to a simple greed-driven sociopath. This experiment clearly pays dividends with Niko.
While the inspirations for Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas were clear, IV is not cut from the exact same cloth as any of the iconic crime films. The writing here is even sharper than before, but the originality puts it over the top. The cut scenes are easily the most well-directed and compelling of the entire franchise, and since the character models and animation are as close in quality as they ever have been to the rest of the game, there are no blocky hands or stiff movements to distract the player from how intense the on screen narrative is.
It’s easy to focus on the implementation of Liberty City as one of the most impressive aspects of the game, and indeed almost every existing review does just that. It is an extremely impressive feat, even if it is more about veneer than anything. You can’t really go in every building or interact with every element, but the illusion that you can is extremely well implemented, almost solely due to the attention to detail in the city’s presentation. No section of it looks generically like any other, and it’s populated by citizens that seem to have their own individual wills and personalities. It is clear how painstaking the layout of Liberty City was, and no other game (including the previous Grand Theft Auto titles) even comes close to its achievement. San Andreas may have had as much detail overall, but its breadth-based approach of spreading that detail across three cities in a virtual state made the scope of the vision much more impressive than the actual atomic elements. Scaling everything down to the size of a large city makes these elements more jaw dropping in Grand Theft Auto IV.
Grand Theft Auto IV is so detailed and cynical, that completely counter to the real world, the insane brilliance on display is exemplified in the microcosm of the in-game television. Since Grand Theft Auto III, the radio stations in the franchise have represented both an interesting design choice and a fun diversion while driving around. The original commercials and talk radio programming have arguably been the most satirical components of the series. This has been extended in Grand Theft Auto IV to include a ridiculous amount of original television programming, viewable in any of the game’s safe houses. From spoofs of the kinds of shows that serve no purpose but to tour domiciles so opulent all but the most wealthy would never be able to afford them, to fake commercials that skewer the politics of clear parodies of popular television shows, there are no sacred cows in this universe, and the most common target is self-indulgent pop culture.
It’s ironic then, given how much it crucifies mainstream entertainment, that Grand Theft Auto as a brand has itself entered the mainstream lexicon. By the same token, if it were not so popular, Rockstar most certainly would not be able to invest the time and money required to create a world so rich in detail. In a sense, this is gaming’s Chappelle’s Show or All in the Family or any other piece of art imbued with critical wit, that is both commercially and critically successful. Though this incisiveness is nearly overshadowed by the puerile sense of humor that gives Grand Theft Auto its broad appeal, it is the mixture of both elements that lend the series its trademark voice and make it enjoyable in a variety of different ways. Arguably, it is this, more than the “sandbox” style of gameplay more commonly focused on, that makes the series so approachable and popular.
Grand Theft Auto IV is staggering, and as Grand Theft Auto III inspired countless clones, so too will this game. But though developers keen to copy the Grand Theft Auto formula have been somewhat successful at replicating the signature puerile sensibilities, violence, and non-linear design, not one has been as smartly satirical nor as blackly comic. Given that these elements are sharper than ever before in Grand Theft Auto IV, and also that the whole world is astoundingly alive and unbelievably detailed, the other developers have a lot of catching up to do. Though it may seem like hyperbole, Grand Theft Auto IV legitimately deserves the praise that has been heaped upon it, and its impact on the landscape of gaming will be felt for some time to come.