Online Play Kicks Grand Theft Auto IV Into Overdrive
Multiplayer missions provide unexpected and seemingly endless ways to experience Liberty City.
Liberty City has always been a strangely lonely place.
Sure, there have always been plenty of virtual citizens in the various Grand Theft Auto cities crafted by Rockstar Games. You were constantly running into caustic gangsters, cynical cops and old folks with walkers who dove out of the way when you rolled up on the sidewalk.
But there were never any other real people there -- no live humans. In meatspace terms, when you played GTA, you played alone. It was always a single-player game: no multiplayer mode, and not even an option to engage in co-op thuggery alongside a friend.
When you think about it, this is superweird. The first GTA debuted in 2001, right around the time that games were moving aggressively online. We were constantly told that artificial-intelligence characters were too stilted -- that the only way to have realistic, unpredictable play was to let gamers engage with other folks online. Hey, Halo proved that online play could extend the shelf life of a console game for, like, 19 years or something, right?
Yet GTA remained stubbornly, even defiantly, single-player. It was as if the Rockstar designers were so proud of their painstakingly crafted metropolises that they didn't want any other messy, mostly-big-bags-of-water humans in there screwing things up.
Until GTA IV arrived -- and Liberty City went online. So I duly logged in, wondering, What the heck is this going to be like? Do I need other people in here? Do I want other people in here?
It turns out that I do, and I do. For my first game, I headed into Hangman's Noose mode, where you team up with other players to accomplish a mission -- in this case, meeting up with a crime boss at the airport and keeping the cops away from him.
It felt like being in a Twilight Zone version of Grand Theft Auto. Everything was the same, but ... different. Much as aficionados of multiplayer gaming would have predicted, my teammates pulled off some hilariously unexpected moves: They'd drive in more spastic or more cunningly accurate patterns than I'd ever seen -- or attempted -- inside the game; they'd perform seemingly kamikaze moves with an AK-47 that the artificial intelligence would never have dared.
Better yet, multiplayer missions give you some subtle yet fascinating new ways to experience the city. At one point, two partners and I piled into a Ferrari while another of my teammates raced across the city. Since I didn't have to drive, I was able to enjoy some sightseeing -- zooming my camera around to different, Hollywood-like angles -- that was never possible when I was the one steering.
The sheer scale of Liberty City makes for online console play that's far more open-ended than anything I'd ever before seen. Most console multiplayer gaming takes place on fairly small maps. But with the mission modes of GTA IV, you're given a really big chunk of sandbox to play in, so there are seemingly zillions of different ways your teammates can accomplish a mission.
This leads to some quite funny incidents. During one mission, one of my partners and I arrived at a waterfront checkpoint -- him in a battered van, me in a sports car. We got out of our vehicles wondering, Hey, where's the third member of our team? So we stood around for two or three minutes, puzzled, admiring the morning sunshine. Suddenly, off in the distance, we saw a car racing toward us. It was a cop car -- and it was on fire. Our third team member emerged triumphantly. I'm still wondering what the hell happened to him.
There are 15 different modes of online play, most of which are pretty good. One clear winner is GTA Race, which blends car racing with combat: You can assault one another's vehicles, and even carjack one another. The result is exquisite madness, with drivers jumping out of wrecked compact cars and in 18-wheel trucks, then tearing off down crowded sidewalks while followed by lowriders hurling Molotov cocktails. If, like me, you're a subpar driver, you can simply abandon the goal and become a machine of revenge -- setting up a roadblock, waiting for other drivers to approach, then blasting them to pieces. This is food for the soul.
Other modes, however, are more of a letdown. I found the death-match games underwhelming, in part because GTA's targeting system isn't very fluid, but also because the maps weren't well designed. They possess few of the nooks and crannies you get in a great Call of Duty or Halo map.
Overall, though, GTA IV will make you glad that Rockstar finally let other people into Grand Theft Auto's world. This city's big enough for the both of us.
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Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive's observations on his blog, collision detection.