Friday, May 9, 2008

Grand Theft Auto grows up

Grand Theft Auto grows up
Peter Hartlaub
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV: Action game. Publisher: Rockstar Games. Developer: Rockstar North. (For Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. $59.99. ESRB Rating: Mature.)

Cultural revolution often comes from seemingly imperfect people and unpopular places.

The most influential athlete was labeled a draft dodger. The man who helped bring rock 'n' roll to the mainstream grew a huge gut, wore sequined jumpsuits and then died in the bathroom. One of this country's greatest defenders of free speech was dismissed as just a pornographer. But Muhammad Ali, Elvis and even Larry Flynt are remembered for their contributions - just as one day, the makers of Grand Theft Auto will be known as more than peddlers of video game sex and violence.

The latest entry in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, isn't just a fun piece of entertainment. The game, which will be released today, is a step forward for the industry - doing almost as much for storytelling in video games as Grand Theft Auto III did to spark an era of free-roaming, nonlinear gameplay.

GTA IV is visually sharp, with a level of detail that makes New York stand-in Liberty City more fully realized than any other video game world I've seen. But it's the surprising amount of pathos that makes the game such a ground-breaking title. Just as Clint Eastwood did with the Western "Unforgiven," the developers at Rockstar Games North immerse the audience in their familiar world of violence and depravity and then turn the tables, adding an element of cold reality to a genre that had been previously entrenched in fantasy.

The previous two entries in the series - GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas - were smirking, action-packed hybrids of films by Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino, combining gritty violence with a knowing hipness. GTA IV still has a lot of humor, but the plot seems more like a good Martin Scorsese epic - sort of a modern-day "Gangs of New York," with elements of "The Departed" and "Taxi Driver" mixed in.

You're Niko Bellic, an immigrant from a war-torn Eastern European country, who arrives in America to find that his cousin Roman's tales of owning sports cars and condos and dating gorgeous women are lies. Niko settles into Roman's dumpy crash pad next to the subway, and gets drawn into an underworld of organized crime.

Falstaffian overtones

From the beginning, GTA IV has an edgy, unsettling tone that was mostly missing from previous games. The cousin character, who would have been a goofball played for laughs in an earlier Grand Theft Auto, has a pathetic vibe, with a false confidence that doesn't hide the fact that he's a tragedy waiting to happen. He's somewhere between the Falstaff character from Shakespeare and Namond from the fourth season of "The Wire."

The game reveals its true motivations a few hours into the action, on a dock at the edge of Liberty City, after a brutal (but deserved) murder. Niko gives a powerful soliloquy that reveals a large chunk of his past, and some previously unknown reasons for his coming to America. The scene is cut cinematically, lit by the moon, with the city's vast skyline looming ghostlike in the background. From there, it's clear where the game is going: Niko may have a dead soul, but his experiences have heightened his sense of right and wrong. He's a modern-day Tom Joad.

The amount of mayhem and carnage in GTA IV is about the same as in the two previous games, but it seems as if there's less - in part because Niko isn't just a mindless instigator, and in part because there's so much more to do in this game.

When the pedestrians, cars and buildings became repetitive in GTA: Vice City, released in 2002, it was always tempting to get bored, steal a cop car and end up in your own North Hollywood shootout. There are 10 times as many distractions in GTA IV, including working cell phones, televisions that can flip channels and the Liberty City version of the Internet. This time, the mundane is just as interesting as the more unsavory elements of the game.

How detailed is Liberty City? Bump into a sedan in the nice part of town, and a car alarm will go off. Go on a date wearing the same clothes you wore the last time you took a girlfriend out, and she'll make a snide comment about your wardrobe choice. Pick up a pot-smoking Jamaican friend, and small wisps of smoke will filter out the window as you drive around. Flies buzz convincingly around garbage bins, and food wrappers dance in the wind. The subway works, and the radio gives you almost as many choices as you'll get in real life, with each broadcast specific to the goings-on in Liberty City.

The new technology within the game adds to the depth of the story. The cell phones don't just make accepting new missions quicker - chatting on them during a drive through traffic can quietly flush out a character's backstory. When you go on a date to a nightclub, you get to see a real performance. (Reportedly there are acts by Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams, which we haven't discovered yet.) And the more time you spend with certain inhabitants of Liberty City, the more they're likely to help you in the future - whether it's a friend who has access to guns or a love interest with talents in other areas. (Most of the "romance" that we saw happened offscreen, except for the moaning.)

If there's a problem with the GTA IV, it's the new combat controls, which make fighting, shooting and driving a little more complicated and challenging than in previous games. The fisticuffs in particular are kind of wonky, and something as simple as climbing a ladder might take a minute to figure out. But a new in-game engine that makes your computer-controlled enemies much smarter more than makes up for the learning curve. GTA IV also has a new online multiplayer mode, which we didn't have time to sample before deadline.

Only for the mature

As for the controversies, all the consumer really needs to know is that this game has a Mature rating, and should no more end up in the hands of your 10-year-old than a triple feature of "Mean Streets," "Showgirls" and "Last House on the Left."

But take solace, parents and grandparents of gamers - no matter what you hear on the cable talk shows in the next few days, Grand Theft Auto IV is not a sign of the apocalypse.

It was once annoying to hear the more extreme detractors blather about Grand Theft Auto, speaking with authority when they so clearly had never played the game. (As it was with previous GTA franchises, critics this time around are hyper-focusing on one new feature - the ability to drive drunk - as if that's the sole purpose of the game, instead of one tiny detail that contributes to the overall realism.)

Now it's almost fun to hear the criticism. This is one of the better crime dramas that you're going to experience in any media - movies, TV and theater included. Someday pretty much everyone is going to figure that out.

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