Grand Theft Auto IV: early thoughtsMay 6th, 2008 by Ben
Clearly I’ve been a bit absent from the blog lately. I’ve got two excuses. One is that I wanted to let the SPUDZOOKA announcement percolate a little. The other is that I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto IV in every spare moment. It’s amazing that I managed to get SPUDZOOKA out the door at all considering the fact that I bought GTA a couple days before I finished it.
So here are a few thoughts about GTA based on my experience so far. The reasons I play? Entertaining gameplay and world-class writing.
Grand Theft Auto games have been known in the past for having some spotty gameplay. Driving has always been fun, but the weapon targeting system seems to get a complete overhaul with every release. As expected with GTA IV, the driving system and car physics are top notch. It’s still amazingly fun just to cruise around town. Now that I’ve made may way to the second area of the game, there are finally some straight roads to fly down at top speed. I’m still getting used to the hand brake in this one, since it’s so easy to skid, but I like the fact that you have to learn how to use the brakes if you’re going to get around quickly.
The targeting system again has been revamped, and this time it’s pretty good. After a little while getting used to it, I realized that it basically operates like a modified shooter control with a lock-on system added to it. You can walk around with your free target mode engaged and the system will automatically lock onto any enemies that come into view. It works pretty well.
They’ve also added a cover system, which lets you hide behind obstacles during a firefight. I’ve found this quite fun so far, since it gives me a way to take out targets systematically rather than just running in shooting like a madman, which I did a lot of in previous GTA titles.
Lots of people probably argue that gameplay is what makes GTA shine. It’s just a fun world to interact with. This is certainly true, but I think the real difference between GTA and a lot of other games is its writing. The characters are bigger-than-life and well developed. Niko, being a typical GTA hero, basically just does what people ask him to, but he seems to have a nicely layered back story that’s coming out bit by bit. Plus, a big reason I can drive around for hours is that the radio stations crack me up. This is comedy writing at its finest and a brilliant commentary on American culture.
It’s not just the radio stations, though. GTA IV finally seems to have latched onto something that others in the series have flirted with but never explored fully: the American Dream. Sure, all the GTA titles have dealt with the idea of one man pulling his own way up through whatever means necessary. But III and Vice City were simple mob stories. There wasn’t much to make you relate to the hero (in III he never spoke at all). He was just a criminal trying to get rich. San Andreas developed Carl’s character a bit more and toyed with the idea that he was a product of his circumstances and was somehow trying to rise above all the violence in his life.
But Niko Bellic is different to me. He’s a man ruined by his past, and he has come to the U.S. both to escape something and to find something (or someone). He finds Liberty City a very different place than he expected, complicated and damaged. It’s this interaction between Niko and Liberty City, his search for inner peace in a complex and chaotic place, that gives GTA IV something special. Niko in effect personifies the city, which in turn is a powerful American symbol, full of as much repressed anger and fear, but full of life as well. I can see him slowly forming a connection to the city and its inhabitants, just like I am as the player, and it’s a beautiful thing.