I finally bought my first console, the Xbox 360. That's right, I've never owned a console before now, and the reason why I bought it was Grand Theft Auto IV.
I've been a fan of GTA ever since the two dimensional GTA 2 was kicking around on the Internet back in the day. It was a cheap looking top down game where you stole cars, ran over people, caused great big traffic jams and ran from the cops. There were also missions, but mostly I liked the driving and manslaughter.
Then came GTA III which was the first 3D inception of the franchise. It featured a very well thought out plotline centered on the main character's rise through the ranks of the Italian Mafia. It was set in Liberty City, which was inspired by New York. The driving, animations and free roaming play style was revolutionary for the day.
Two more Grand Theft Auto games were made; Vice City and San Andreas. Both were improvements on GTA III while focusing on different time periods, types of main characters and settings. There were good and bad points to each one and in GTA San Andreas many fans believed that steps were made in the wrong direction. They tried adding a number of role playing aspects to the game that seemed to slow things down and over complicate matters. Thankfully GTA IV doesn't include the negative features that were added in San Andreas.
Throughout the series there are common threads. On the development side, Rockstar North (the production team responsible for these gems), push the boundaries of existing technology and innovate as much as possible with each title. Musically the titles are accompanied by hits from different eras, radio hosts that have a ton of style and this all adds to the immersion of the player, you feel a bit more like you're there because the abundance of music helps set the scene.
The titles have also benefited from the voice performances of dozens of Hollywood actors who are immediately recognizable. Each title also takes place in a large city, growing with each game in size and entertainment value. Driving and missions are always a part of the experience. They guide us, transport us into this world and take us through the stories, which have been great for the most part.
There are two more factors that follow the GTA Franchise, and they overshadow any achievements the developers have made. Rockstar and Rockstar North insist on taking their audiences to dark, seedy places. They offer the opportunity to do great virtual harm to the inhabitants of these digital environments, and the stories constantly challenge the main character and are generally resolved with blood shed and violence. Thus, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding each title.
Now that we've gone through a very rough history of what these games have offered in the past, let's take a quick look at GTA IV, the latest title in the franchise. Here is a list of things that the fans are crazy about and the same list can be used as a reference for what the critics absolutely despise about this game.
The city is huge and it's based very closely on New York.
The Non Player Characters that populate the city look more real and less carbon copy than ever.
The driving is challenging and fun. Having said that, you can actually drive drunk in this game, but it's near impossible to go five feet without running into a lamp post or flipping your car. Furthermore, the police are likely to be on your ass within two minutes of trying. I wish the response time were like that in the real world...
The missions are bloodier and the stakes are higher than ever for the main character.
There is a lot to do in Liberty City. Mini-games include billiards, bowling, and darts. Aside from that there is a variety show, strip club, and Internet cafe. I haven't discovered other locations yet, but just those give you plenty to do as you entertain npc's that can become friends on speed dial using your in game cellular phone.
Free play has never been more fun or more interesting with more varied terrain, a modified cop chase system, and more vehicles.
There are tons of radio stations, celebrity disc jockeys (I particularly like Iggy Pop), and a lot of music you don't generally hear every day, even a Eurasia station I turn the dial to often.
Performances by the digital characters are fantastic. I've failed a couple missions on purpose just to see the cut scene again. The voice acting is spot on and lip sync has improved by leaps and bounds.
The entire world looks incredible. Using the next generation technology in today's consoles, the developers out did themselves on the level of detail and interactivity that really sucks you in.
Combat is much improved using a target locking and cover system that I'm sure will be included in the franchises next title.
There's multiplayer, where digital street violence becomes a different animal entirely as sixteen players go at it and hundreds of npc bystanders are caught in the middle.
That's what you'll find in the new Liberty City in a nutshell. I love it, to be honest. It's like being in a mobster movie. This is gaming for adults at it's best with a good story, lots to do if you don't care to follow the plotline and even a little accountability built in. Like I said, drunk driving in this game is almost as bad an idea as it is in the real world, it gets you no where. The police are also vigilant; just try popping a round off in a back alley with no one around, four times in five you'll have the police on you in seconds and have to make a run for it.
Do I think that this game will give rise to police chases and crazed lunatics gunning people down in the streets? In a word; no. I firmly believe that people who play this game then go forth and commit crimes of any shape, form or severity already intended to do harm of some kind or had much more pressing mental problems before they ever picked up a controller.
The parental and censorship groups are up in arms as usual about this game. The biggest picking point is that this game is rated M (Mature), and not 18+. I understand their point of view, but to rate a game 18+ in the North American market is to make it unavailable in more than 50% of retail locations since they will not carry 18+ rated titles no matter what they are. The stores are already checking ID when they sell a copy of GTA IV and they're making a public stand about it. Best Buy has been the leader here, claiming that they are only permitting people eighteen or older to purchase this game.
I can sum up what I really have to say to all the censorship groups in a simple statement. You're lucky. You're damn lucky in fact. GTA IV is the big target on the shelf, it's popular, it thrives on pressing at the boundaries and it is a massive publicity whore that gets off on the controversy. If you look over into the Asian market you'll find there are over one hundred adult titles. They range from hyper violent console games all the way to full on sex games with digital customizable girlfriends. I'm not saying our market should resemble theirs, that's a question no one can answer until it starts trending in that direction. What I am saying is that the parent and censorship groups are lucky that there aren't fifty production companies all putting English adult titles out next year. Who would you pick on then? There wouldn't be just one title, there would be an absolute epidemic and just like other markets that find themselves in this kind of position, they'd find a way to sell these titles before you got a chance to motivate the law into action. More and more adults are playing video games, their tastes range from the refined to the most base you could imagine. It is only a matter of time before our market realizes what kind of demand exists for games that don't fit easily into our predefined ratings system and genre categories. They're coming, and you're all very distracted by one title so there is a great chance that any vast market shift like the one approaching will catch you parent and censorship groups completely by surprise.
For any adult who is looking to pick this game up, go out and get a copy if you enjoy action movies, mafia flicks or just want to romp around Liberty City. This is gaming with most of the conventional limits removed, and I found it was a lot of fun.
For anyone who's considering purchasing this for someone under the age of 18, don't. Just don't. The ratings system is there for a reason and even if you think your teenage son or daughter is mature enough for this don't even consider buying this for them, especially if you won't play it yourself first. There are graphic images in this game that make full grown adults cringe and ask themselves moral questions, don't put your kids in that position. Their choices may surprise you in ways you're not prepared for.
The barrier between film and interactive entertainment is dissolving and this is one of the games that will become a reference point in history. I really enjoyed playing the first half of the game and am absolutely comfortable recommending it to anyone who's enjoyed previous GTA titles. On the other hand, if you have problems with graphic content and foul language, just walk on.