[This is the second part of a 3-part series that takes a deep and personal look back at GTA4. You can read the 1st part, "My City Screams" here.]
There were rumors that CJ’s house in GTA: San Andreas was haunted by the ghost of his mother. It’s easy enough to see where this idea came from: CJ is, in a way, haunted by his family. He returns home out of family loyalty, the death of his mother and the state of affairs back home keep him tied to his old neighborhood. Ultimately, it was handled a little inelegantly (and no, there was no ghost), but it was there regardless.
Niko, too, is unquestionably haunted. His interactions with his ‘friends’ – the ones everybody complained about, because they kept calling and asking to go out and get drunk or fly around in a helicopter – allow Niko’s ghosts to come to the fore. The player may have long grown sick of bowling dates and the stupidly easy darts mini-game, but for Niko, his friends – especially Packie and Dwayne – are the only way he can get his problems off his chest without resorting to murder.
When the writers behind The Simpsons decided to make Seymour Skinner a Vietnam vet, they did so because they believed, quite rightly, that the notion of a cartoon character being in the Vietnam War was funny. Cartoons and games have taken a similar journey to public acceptance. It’s only quite recently that the idea of gaming and cartoons being for kids has been well and truly dispelled within society (if not all areas of society, than certainly enough for it to mean something).
It’s interesting to think that game narrative has reached a point where we can be completely convinced that the guy we’re controlling has fought through an unseen war – one we ourselves have no desire to revisit.
As gamers, we’re used to blasting our way through battlefields, blowing away Nazis, Vietcong and Alternate-History Freedom Hatin’ Commies left right and center. Yet the absent war of GTA IV is perhaps the most effectively brutal and horrifying war story a game has ever told.
Granted, Call of Duty 4′s portrayal of the effects of war is worthy of its own multiple-part article (and massive kudos in advance to Infinity Ward if Soap displays a logical reaction to what he witnessed throughout the first game in the sequel), but we don’t get to see these men back home. Niko’s time in the Yugoslav War has left a stain.
The American Dream, to him, is a new suit. But, of course, the stain runs too deep for Niko to ever truly be rid of. His recollections of his own actions, what he saw and what he had to do, are chilling and horrific.
Niko’s friendly excursions are, by and large, vehicles for story-telling and characterisation rather than enjoyable moments in and of themselves. During these moments, the game essentially transforms into an interactive narrative.
Certainly, it’s annoying having to endure a largely silent drive back to your friend’s house afterwards (unless you hail a cab, of course), but to turn your phone off, or forgo the achievement for raising your ‘like’ ratings above 90%, means missing out on some great insight into why Niko cannot seem to stop killing.
My argument here, essentially, is that the simple act of ‘being’ Niko in the game is fascinating. Whilst some players felt sympathetic to Niko’s desire to do good in America and avoided unnecessary kills, I couldn’t help but let Niko’s dark, efficient murderer side get the better of me at times.
For all its faults (incredibly generous lock-on and occasional sluggishness) the combat in GTA IV benefits greatly from the character. I found myself parking a block away and jogging to fight scenes so I could scope out the best cover and maybe snipe a few guys. It’s a fairly normal way to act in a game like this, yet somehow it feels more right here – it feels appropriate to Niko’s character. Niko is easier to get inside than your usual guy with a gun. Although his kill count means that he’s a character who could only ever exist inside a videogame, he still, somehow, feels real.
With all this talk of characterisation and crafting the city’s vibe, I should probably stop and discuss the fact that I do, in fact, think the game is ridiculously fun as well as incredibly interesting. Part of it is, of course, feeling a connection with Niko, though another part is the way a windshield crumples and blood sprays on it when you shoot the driver of that Turismo you want.
Then there’s the moment where I abandoned a flaming semi-trailer in a petrol station, leapt out and ran outside the 4-star wanted range on foot as the station exploded behind me. Or when I dodged a car in multiplayer by jumping and grabbing a ledge above me, as the car smashed into the wall that was now beneath my feet. Or when some friends and I jumped online and set up a pair of helicopters hovering just beyond a jump and took turns hurling cars over them. Hell, even the ‘Qub3d’ arcade machines were pretty fun.
I wonder, too, if people are as enthralled by the in-game internet as I am. Not simply because of the plot depth your e-mails add or because looking up ‘Little Lacy Surprise’ gives you a four-star wanted rating – Rockstar clearly worked hard on the in-game ‘net, and the results are absolutely hilarious. There isn’t a single page there that isn’t well thought-out, intricately written and edited.
The parodies of the blogosphere and online dating scene are particularly spot-on. I hate to think that some players may have simply used it for the relevant missions and then ignored it – although the game makes no effect to prompt or force you into looking through it, the in-game internet is worth your time.
And then, of course, there’s the in-game television and radio programs. Although not quite as impressive as the internet, it’s worth turning the game on and flicking through the channels, or parking somewhere and listening in to an episode of Judge Grady on the radio.
And yet, it would be wrong of me to ignore that game’s various gameplay flaws. The actual missions, I admit, may not be quite as exciting to those who do not share my investment in Niko. Most frustrating, to me, is that something goes amiss on every single mission – you know that something bad is going to happen well before Niko does, simply because that’s how the game works.
I would have liked to see the occassional mission that went smoothly, with no killing, just to shake things up a bit (San Andreas did this for one or two missions, to great effect). It would have given the moments where everything falls apart a bit more punch. Perhaps worst of all, if you managed to get ahead of the game and fire off a shot on someone before the game wanted you to, the shot would have no effect on them, making you all too aware of the mission’s restrictions.
And, yes, the game should have had mid-mission checkpoints. There were only a few toward the end that I ended up needing to play through multiple times, but it was still irritating, and their inclusion in The Lost and Damned was wholeheartedly welcome.
Regardless of their flaws, I would still argue that the missions were, generally speaking, very well structured. The game often manages to define linear paths through an open world without ever expressly hemming you into them. In the now famous ‘Four Leaf Clover’ mission, your escape through the streets feels very logical, as though nobody in their right mind would try any other options.
You take the linear path because it makes sense, not because the game sets up invisible walls. The car chases are immensly exciting, too. Firing whilst driving is much easier than in previous iterations, and lining up the perfect drive-by is immensely satisfying.
So on a basic level, ignoring my ranting about what some would no-doubt label ‘narrative wank’, I still find the game immensely satisfying. But it is the characterisation of Niko, the beating heart of Liberty City and the game’s complete dedication towards evoking the player to consider the nature of their actions that, in my mind, elevates the game into the greatest of our console generation so far.
‘In Defence of GTA IV’ will conclude next week with the 3rd and final part.