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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.

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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.

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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.

  1. Fascinating read, and an equally intriguing topic to be discussing. While the GTA series never invoked any true emotion out of me, I can see where you’re coming from. I guess not many people payed much attention to Niko’s characterisation, and took his development as a criminal-minded individual without much thought.

  2. I disliked Grand Theft Auto IV for the first 5-10 hours or so, but ended up loving it at the end.

    Plus, I really think this iteration of Liberty City is the best sandbox yet (outside of the Capital Wasteland, and Vvardenfell).

  3. As with any big series I think it ended up being the fashionable thing to pick on GTA4, I loved the game, and can’t wait for part 2 of your article.

  4. I absolutely loved GTA4 and found that there were a lot of emotional moments that affected me. The last 3-4 hours of that game were an emotional rollercoaster ride. It was definitely my game of the year for 2008.

    On a side note … I liked the fact that even though Niko would become richer and more powerful as the game went on, he never forgot his quest for revenge.

  5. I must admit, GTA 4 is the first GTA where I actually cared about the characters, it’s a very well thought out narrative.

  6. avatar Jamaal

    “Im leaving with Roman!!”

  7. avatar Ian

    Thankyou for summing up exactly why i thought this game was amazing. It wasnt about how ‘fun’ you thought it was or wasnt. its about how it made you FEEL. And while i laughed at the absurdity of people like Brucie, i have never connected with a character or felt emotions for one like i had Nico and Roman. When double crossed several times throughout the game i was actually pissed. It really did MAKE you a citizen of liberty city, made you feel like you were effecting peoples lives in a real way, even if they were just bytes or programming.

  8. avatar Adam

    its only a game i think your a bit to involved in this game stop playing go out side

  9. avatar Justin

    @ Adam

    Yes, heaven forbid we try a think too deeply about anything, let alone try and deconstruct it. It may come as a surprise to you, but some of us actually LIKE being intellectually stimulated while we play.

    @ James

    Great read. For me it is clearly the most complex, character driven and rounded iteration in the series, and whilst not always successful (still too reliant on caricature at times, a problem rampant in both film and video games unfortunately), the character of Niko is one of the most layered in video game history.

    The constant phone calls did shit me though.

  10. avatar Gordon

    I can’t say I feel the same way about GTA IV. I found it to be exceedingly average overall. I agree that they have put a lot more effort into making a meaningful narrative then the previous games but I just couldn’t connect with any of them. If I had connected I probably would have enjoyed it more but as is the only thing I remember is how annoying that damn cousin was. Wish we were given a moral choice to shoot him, or at least the phone (or were we? As I said I found it so average it’s all but faded from my mind)

    Guess what I’m trying to say is that I feel how much each person enjoys this game probably largely depends on if they buy into the characters.

  11. Adam: It’s only a game. And I’m only a game journalist. :)

    Gordon: I suppose my theory on the matter is that the game puts everything in there for you to ‘buy into’ the characters, but some players maybe aren’t accustomed to seeking out or paying attention to these elements.

    Everyone: Thanks for the feedback!

    I sort of realise that what I’m writing about is, perhaps, only going to really have an effect on people who take game narrative fairly seriously. In Part 2 I get into why I still think the actual gameplay is still incredibly fun, though.

  12. avatar Trent

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. GTAIV is NOT the second coming of christ that it was made out to be in those early reviews. I wasn’t really looking forward to it as I never felt really invested story-wise in San Andreas so I never played that much of it. I was much more keen on MGS4. But I found MGS4 to be one the biggest disapointments I’ve ever played. GTAIV on the other, captured me like no other GTA game ever managed to. I felt connected to Niko. I loved all the characters to the point that I ENJOYED that much mangaled “friendship” system purely because they were fun to listen to. The part that catpured me most of all occured right near the very end of the game

    SPOILERS

    When Niko finally manages to track down the man who sold him and out, he instead finds a lowly drugged up, guilt-ridden man. The mere fact that previous characters in the series who sell someone out are depicted as charming, psychotic and guilt-free made this man stand out. But what really clinched it for me was when Niko demands how the man could sell out his friends for a small amount of money. The man sadly proclaims that Niko has down far more horrific things for far less. At that crucial point, I didn’t see a fictonal character saying what was written and acting as was programmed. I saw a mirror of all the horrible things that I’d joyously done in my playtime of GTAIV. All the people I stabbed, shot and run over for a thrill. All the times I’d shot and killed defenseless people. All the enounters with people I could have spared but killed anyway. The tradgedy of Niko Bellic was that he could never escape his past because he was driven by a fire that demanded he could never stop killing. And that fire was me.

  13. avatar Gregg

    I’d just like to say that I haven’t played any previous GTA aside from the first so my opinion hasn’t really been affected by the previous 3D installments but I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised by the critical foaming at the mouth over this thing.

    I actually don’t know where to start because the last time I spoke about it was at length and it took me a good hour to clear my lungs.

    You say that they were trying to do something interesting but I couldn’t disagree more. The game was essentially the same missions recycled for every intermission of non-interactive story. Many missions had a very linear and strict way of completing them leaving little room for player authorship or creativity. Not very interesting. Considering that most of the game revolved around shooting- as opposed to gang politics or power struggles (far more interesting!)- targeting and taking cover was a mess at best. Changing weapons was a pain in the arse and so was throwing grenades. The controls were clunky to say the least. Playing Uncharted only exasperated my feelings on this.

    Due to the sparse gameplay or low quality of what was there (aside from the driving which was fun and really solid) the story didn’t grab me save for a few moments. The larger scale missions were much more involving and gave weight to the story arcs while the smaller cookie cutter missions just served to pad out what could have been a very sharp game. The writing and performances were excellent but the game was decidedly mediocre. Shooting and driving your way to watch a story section only to shoot and drive to the next? Wow. Gaming really is making leaps and bounds. Come on, Rockstar had a hit on their hands whether they’d have taken risks or not and in the end they defaulted to merely visceral thrills and few cerebral ones. The review scores led me to believe we had the second coming of games so forgive my Heresy!

    My apologies if some of this doesn’t hang together so well. I’m supposed to be working :-O

  14. avatar marko

    this is gameplay

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