Scorsese Meets GTA
This is not your older brother's GTA. The latest addition to Rockstar's delightfully dysfunctional carjacking family is a more mature, more sophisticated experience than its predecessors in just about every possible way. Where San Andreas was a revenge fantasy swiped from early-90s blaxploitation, Vice City a nostalgia-soaked joyride with a charismatic sociopath, and GTA III a trip through the wires of a silent punk who'd do anything for money, Grand Theft Auto IV is a full-blown crime drama with aspirations to Scorsese-style cinema.
And I'm not quite sure how I feel about that. Don't get me wrong. GTA IV is an incredible achievement, and easily the most playable, most refined game in the history of the series. If you're only going to play one game this year, uh, and you're over 17, this should be it. But morality has creeped into all of the crazy carjacking and cop-shooting gunplay, courtesy of a troubled Serbian protagonist haunted by what happened to him before he escaped Europe and deeply troubled over what he's doing to make a buck now in good old Liberty City.
So while there are still plenty of laughs here, and unlimited opportunities to get your SMG on in some of the zaniest crime sprees and cop chases imaginable, sober reality sticks its head into the tent a little too often for my liking. By about the midway point of the story missions, I found myself over the new graphics, the new mini-games, and the greater scope of the gameplay. I was longing for the simpler old days when CJ was burying construction foremen alive for looking at his sister and Tommy Vercetti was taking anonymous payphone contracts to murder wives for a few bucks. GTA was once a cathartic place where you could work out frustrations with the real world by going medieval on the ass of this virtual one; now it's more of a morality play that ladles out guilt with the once-gleeful carnage.
But these ethical dilemmas aren't all that noticeable at first. You play Niko Bellic, an illegal alien who's smuggled into Liberty City from his native Serbia aboard a freighter in the dead of night. His goal is apparently to live the American Dream, courtesy of the supposed riches of his immigrant cousin Roman Bellic. Of course, Niko soon discovers that Roman's tales of mansions and three-ways with hot American girls with big, round titties (a recurring theme) are complete crap. In actuality, he's a cowardly gambling-addicted idiot who's running a cab company and is constantly running from the loan sharks he's screwed over.
Feel of the game is similar to both San Andreas and Vice City, and sort of merges the two. Aside from the "immigrant experience" stuff, the opening hours of play roll out a lot like the previous two GTAs. Roman sets you up with a safehouse and you begin climbing the criminal ladder by taking part in story missions like driving thugs around town, beating up Albanian goons threatening your cousin, and so on. All of the RPG stats introduced in San Andreas have been ditched, although you can still regain health by chowing down at fast-food joints like Cluckin' Bell and Burger Shot, or by grabbing a hot dog from street vendors. Clothing options from Vice City have been ported over almost intact, so you can throw on funky togs to impress the ladies. Missions still let you fly planes and choppers, but the James Bond nonsense that San Andreas got into involving Harriers and jetpacks has been mostly tossed in favor of doing ever-crazier things with cars and motorcycles.
Core GTA fans will probably be happy about these developments, as I heard nothing but complaints about some of the San Andreas role-playing, particularly the work-out and eating necessary to attract women. But I really missed the RPG elements from San Andreas. I found that they really helped me identify with CJ, and felt that they would have let me identify more with Roman, who came off more as a movie protagonist I was watching than a character I was living.