Grand Theft Auto IV’s PS3 and Xbox 360 releases are, according to Gamerankings, the first and third best reviewed games of this console generation (with Super Mario Galaxy snuggled between their awkward percentage divide). The series has consistently rated well since the release of GTA III, which is often cited as one of the most successful transitions into 3-D any game franchise has ever made. GTA IV’s leap wasn’t as significant, but it was, the reviews argued, just as impressive.
And yet, as time went on, dissent towards the game started to pop up on blogs, forums and player reviews. At first, complaints at the in-game phone, the lack of sky-diving and other such distractions introduced in previous entries to the series and cries of ‘this is boring!’ seemed to be made in defiance, as though some players simply wanted to rebel against the magnitude of the review scores. As always, accusations were made that reviewers were being paid off, and the anti-GTA IV sentiments spread.
By the time the PC release came about, even some reviewers were changing their minds, stating that Saints Row 2′s recent release had ‘reminded them what fun was’. The end of the year rolled by, and GTA IV, despite being easily the best reviewed game of the year, lost out to the likes of Fallout 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4 in a lot of the gaming media’s ‘Best of the Year’ awards.
On a personal level, I find the accusations of GTA IV being ‘boring’ rather disheartening. Certainly, there are problems with it, even reasons to perhaps dislike it, which I will try to extrapolate on throughout these posts, but how can a game that worked so hard to really do something interesting with the medium be called ‘boring’? For all its exaggerated characters, occasionally clumsy combat and bowling bromance dates, I honestly don’t think any game has ever gotten me quite as emotionally involved in its world as GTA IV did.
GTA IV is filled with minor, yet hugely significant moments. It draws you into its world, makes you a citizen of Liberty City, chasing after your own piece of the American Dream. And then, slowly but surely, it lets you know that the dream isn’t there to be taken, simply by thrusting a gun into your hand and asking you to use it. Forget about the cliched ‘let him live or let him die’ moments – the game really stands out when it either doesn’t give you a say in the matter, or when it doesn’t advertise the choices you can make.
Case in point – in an early mission, the game tutors you on targeting specific body parts while hassling some guys to pay up to one of your bosses (honestly, I don’t remember which one – Vlad, probably). The game instructs you deliver a non-lethal shot to one guy. As Niko, I did this with no real remorse – it’s only a game, after all, so I did what I was supposed to do. What happened next has very much stuck with me. The guy next to him, his hands in the air, cried at me to please let them live. For reasons I’ve struggled to come to terms with ever since I first played this scene, turned to him and shot him dead.
‘Guilt’ is a rare emotion to provoke in an offline gaming experience, and yet, I was racked with it. Why, exactly? I can’t feel bad about killing a man who doesn’t exist – about, essentially, engaging in an activity that is so important to the game’s experience. But perhaps the guilt has lingered as it was the first time I really let Niko start to slip. Sure, I’d no doubt run over some pedestrians, and I’d killed a lot of guys in shoot-outs already, but this moment was so immediate and visceral.
It was a choice I, and Niko, had consciously made, and it wasn’t to make the game more fun, it wasn’t to help complete the mission. There was really no excuse for it beyond simply thinking it was appropriate, at that moment, for Niko to kill that man. Somehow, it made sense that someone could die in this way in Liberty City, and being a part of that problem made my stomach lurch.
GTA IV is filled with similar moments, but with the choice taken away from you. At several points, the game forces you to kill unarmed men in cold blood. Men who have done bad things, by and large, men who will not be missed – but still, these moments are hugely confrontational, dragging you ever deeper down a hole that Niko will not be able to climb out of.
At one point, my nerve gave out completely, and I tried to let a man I was meant to execute escape. The game made it clear that I would fail if he escaped, so I ended up chasing him along a cliffside path, eventually shooting him from a distance. It was easier that way than looking him in the eye would have been.
While about five examples of this come to mind immediately, there are two real standouts. One is from an optional ‘Most Wanted’ mission that sees you going after a drug dealer in a grungy apartment block, long since handed over to the city’s serious drug addicts It’s a place you come back to in The Lost and Damned to collect Johnny’s girlfriend, if that helps.
Walking down the various corridors to the target, junkies stumble around, largely oblivious to your presence, graffiti is sprawled across the walls, and there’s no sense of personal space or privacy. It’s the bottom-rung of society, and perhaps the most transparent example in the game of Liberty City’s underbelly. When you find your target, asleep on a mattress in his dingy room, it seems almost as though you’re putting him out of his misery.
Killing comes all too easily for Niko, but in this instance, you can’t feel too bad – which, really, is every bit as chilling as agonizing over it. The other came during a rather important story mission, the details of which I won’t go into so as to not spoil anything, suffice to say that it ended with me shooting down a former contact as he desperately tried to break open a door to escape from me.
But the initial shots didn’t kill him – as I stood over him, pistol aimed at his head, he whimpered, realising that begging would do nothing, crying “I’m going to die!” and I lined up my shot. Amazingly, my head shot didn’t kill him. A glitch, or a fault in game design? Probably. But still, it heightened the scene’s impact immensely – forcing me to pull the trigger a second time on this man, the terror in his voice and the way he tried to bust open that door…it was intense.
Much, much later in the game – a good fifty-five to sixty hours later, in fact, we after finishing the story mode – I was wrapping up all the game’s ‘random encounters’. These involve ‘running into’ people on the map who need your help, and is honestly best tackled with a guide by your side because otherwise it requires a lot of driving around and hoping.
Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but those who have experienced the moment will know what I’m refering to – almost immediately after meeting up with this guy, he dies. Hit by a car. It’s not your fault. The guy was going mad, and you simply tried to talk some sense into him. Niko, despite himself, hasn’t realised that expecting sense in Liberty City is an absurd ideal. GTA IV, like a lot of the great American literature of the 1950s-60s, is all about the idea of the ‘American Dream’.
By this point in the game, Niko was richer than he had any need to be, yet still I had him collect the money from this man’s corpse. After the ‘Four Leaf Clover’ mission, money in GTA IV essentially serves an entirely symbolic purpose: once you become wealthy, you realise there’s nothing worth spending the money on. From a gameplay perspective, it’s irritating, but put into a symbolic context, one could summarize that it serves as a comment on Nico’s drive and desire to achieve the ‘American Dream’ through wealth.
Towards the end of the game, the narrative droops as the player – and Niko – lose sight of what it is, exactly, they’re killing for. Niko’s end goal (revenge) seems absurd once he is in a position to achieve it, and the life lessons he learns come at the cost of his soul.
In any case, after this man was run over, I stood and watched as the scene played out. The man who ran him over got his phone out, called for an ambulance, and drove off. Despite everything he and I had done, somehow I had to let Niko have a tender moment here.
I waited with the body for the ambulance to arrive. He wasn’t a good man, and during our brief association I’d seen him do some terrible things, but considering what I myself had done, who was I to pass judgment? It may have been a self-imposed action, but for the minute it took for the ambulance to arrive, I felt the kind of total immersion that games so very rarely evoke.
Stay tuned for the second part of what will likely be a three-part examination of GTA IV in the lead-up to my Gay Tony review. There’s still so very much to discuss.