A Brilliant Satire Wrapped in an Ingenious Crime Story Inside an Interactive Masterpiece
In Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV, Liberty City lives like Frankenstein's monster, a concrete- and billboard-plastered jungle sparked to life and spoiling for a fight around any street corner. Come ready, come wary, come emotionally steeled: It's Liberty City as you've never seen a fully interactive metropolis before. The ninth iteration in Rockstar's acclaimed--albeit controversial--series uses its astonishing $100 million budget so effectively, in fact, that it's difficult to imagine this deluxe sandbox and crime spree simulator being a single penny better. Grand Theft Auto IV--Platform: Xbox 360, PS3; Developer: Rockstar; Publisher: Take 2; ESRB Rating: Mature; PCW Score: 100. --Matt Peckham
Just Some Good Ol' Boys
Most of what you do in GTA IV still boils down to hustling jobs; stealing cars, trucks, and motorbikes of all makes and sizes; chasing and frequently stabbing, beating, or shooting enemies by land, sea, and air; and evading the law (only when you're caught, of course). Missions cluster in twos and threes and usually come through a convenient pop-up cell phone, as do calls, contacts, text messages, and plenty of bling-tones if you have the money and inclination to buy upgrades around the city. The phone lets you manually dial outbound, as well, which allows you to call numbers cleverly strewn on or around signs and on Web sites in Internet cafes sprinkled throughout the city--you can even dial 911 to summon a police car for help or just to engage in a little extrabrazen car thievery. Lining up money jobs through the phone is a snap, too, once you work yourself into the good graces of employers, who will send you on missions ranging from taxiing patrons and jacking vehicles to intimidating the stubborn or just plain stupid--and even pulling off the occasional hired assassination.
I'm Niko From the Block
Being Niko Bellic--the East European illegal immigrant you play for the game's duration--is like performing a frantic tarantella with fate. He's a soft-spoken tough guy able to kiss or kill on a dime. His early jaunts, where he almost innocently intimidates or roughs up Liberty City's delinquent payees, quickly devolve into a violent scrabble through a bullet-filled, thug-fouled, cacophonous urban labyrinth in search of money, sex, and respect. And, when all of those evaporate (as we know they ultimately must), he looks for a sense of identity, place, and belonging. Niko clambers off an industrial freighter in Liberty City's harbor as the game's opening credits roll, wearing his ideals carefully under his sleeve. But he quickly gets embroiled in escalating feudal battles between warring powers, becoming their cat's-paw, until he's forced to take matters in hand and come to grips with his own sordid history.
You Want This One, or Is It My Turn?
Once you ease into the the new controls for shooting and driving--they tend to feel a little wobbly at first if you're a series old-timer--Niko walks, jogs, sprints, springs, swims, shimmies along ledges, and scrambles over walls like a well-oiled and appropriately rag-doll-slack killing machine. Working out the timing and sequencing of his punches and kicks comes quickly, as does manipulating his considerable arsenal of knives, bats, Glocks, sniper rifles, Uzis, shotguns, rocket-launchers, Molotov cocktails, and much more. Improvising off the stick-to-cover-and-shoot scheme found in games such as Gears of War, GTA IV lets Niko press against and slide laterally around objects, peeking out to free-aim fire, lock on to body segments (legs, torso, head), or, in heavily suppressed situations, fire blind. All told, the gunplay is dramatically more organic and tactically satisfying than it ever was in prior installments of the series.
As I was exiting the rathole of a safehouse run by Niko Bellic's brother Roman, someone outside muttered, "We don't want you in this country." That was all I needed to raise Niko's fists in anger and get myself booked minutes into the game. Jostle the natives, and they'll bark out protests, swear like sailors, strut and angle their way into your face, and sling ethnic slurs like motormouth xenophobes. If Liberty City is mostly Manhattan through a fishbowl, it's certainly an edgier, shorter-fused version. Cheers to Rockstar for deepening the social subtext--your immigrant background and occupational history factor hugely in escalating plot points as the story accelerates toward its epic two-way conclusion.
A Doughnut a Day Keeps the Boys in Blue at Bay
Let's say everything you know about Grand Theft Auto is wrong. Humor me for a moment. Remember the scene in "Kill Bill Vol. 2," the one where David Carradine tells Uma Thurman that Clark Kent is the costume that Superman--an alien--wears to blend in with humans? That that's how Superman views us? "Clark Kent," says Carradine, with obvious relish, "is Superman's critique on the whole human race." Sort of the way GTA IV, the quintessential version of Rockstar's sandbox crime opus, is less the lurid celebration of homicidal tendencies the mainstream media sophomorically reduces it to, than a deeply satirical commentary on and critique of contemporary American society by legal aliens (British expats) Dan and Sam Houser. To that end, you can almost hear the Houser brothers reacting to all their sanctimonious finger-wagging critics by saying something like "If you refuse to gaze into the satire, the satire still gazes (smugly) into you."
Large and in Charge, and the Satire Runs Wild
You can't swing a rocket launcher (or toss a driver out of a moving vehicle) without striking the burlesque in this epic allegory about opportunity and alienation. It's in everything from the hours of new television programming you can watch at leisure, from shows like "Republican Space Rangers" ("Don't worry 'bout collateral damage!") to the brilliant documentary cable spoof, "A History of Liberty." It's in shops with names like Bean Machine ("All Beans Lovingly Picked by Children in Central America") and fast-food dives like Burger Shot, with its 6-pound "heart-stopper" burger. You see it in the simpering smile on the aquamarine face of Liberty City's Statue of Liberty analogue, coffee cup upthrust in lieu of a torch. You even spot it in Serbian protagonist and Bosnian war vet Niko Bellic's preliminary choice of hats (American baseball cap or Soviet military winter hat). You can't walk, sprint, or drunkenly teeter an inch--or steal a vehicle, shoot someone, park a truck loaded with dynamite in a warehouse and trigger the bomb--without tripping, tumbling, and ultimately getting tangled in GTA IV's endlessly clever caricature of modern society.
I Told You, I Get to Drive This Time
It's tough to assess the intelligence of GTA IV's enemies comprehensively, since you can outsmart some opponents easily enough by waiting for them to break cover or dumbly expose a limb, letting you shave slivers of health, one at a time, from their circular health meters. On the other hand, occasionally you'll spot an enemy doing something inexplicably intelligent, like hugging cover responsibly under heavy fire or after losing half his health, at which point extraction can be tougher than burning out ticks. Frequently you're also deposited in situations pitting you against a dozen gunmen, or forcing you to attack in adverse circumstances (while moving on foot or in a vehicle), which more than offsets any accidental or intentional emasculation of the AI. Regarding friendlies, I've read complaints about the partner AI "breaking." For instance, your pals refuse to follow you through a doorway. That never happened to me. My guys were always solid backups, and the only thing I had to make sure of was that Niko provided sufficient cover when his compadres would on occasion elect to rush oncoming or enfilade fire to break an obvious stalemate.
Catch Me If You Can
The Liberty City police aren't what they used to be--or at least they aren't as aggressive about chasing you down at the lower one- or two-star notoriety levels. Once you've been made stealing cars, skipping tolls, charging barriers, or (inadvertently) ramming police cruisers, you have to make your way past a radar search radius that shifts according to your proximity and visibility to the nearest law enforcement. Then, once you're clear, you must wait a half dozen seconds without being spotted to shrug off your "wanted" status. The cops move half as fast (or maybe the AI navigates GTA IV's environments half as effectively?) and don't toss up roadblocks as often, and your new GPS system lets you spot patrol cars or on-foot officers, making evasion almost too easy (until helicopters get involved at three stars and up, of course). Given the story's considerable length, the size of the city, and the fact that you can't save during missions, Rockstar probably nixed clingier cops, who might have frustrated gamers stuck between save points and dying repeatedly because of police interference. You can get plenty of action from the cops anyway, simply by strolling past initially blocked-off bridge barriers, which immediately blasts your "wanted" level to the maximum six stars ("suicide by cop").
Shattered Glass and Plastic, or NRA Party Confetti?
Between car heists and semiautomatic melee, every bruiser needs a place to kick it and do a little online dating. To that end, the Internet plays a major role in Liberty City, and it's surprisingly less a novelty than a convenient, even--dare I say--addictive necessity. Once you're set with an online account, you can visit Internet cafes around the city to check and autoreply to e-mail, snag extra for-cash work, scan the news (everything from the TV to the radio to the faux blogs online), and, if you're so inclined, surf hundreds (and who knows, possibly even thousands) of pages of HTML parody. At one point Niko even has to pose on one of Liberty City's matchmaking sites as a man-seeking-man, to lure a gay hooligan to a not-so-friendly meet-and-greet.
One If by Taxi, Two If by Motorbike
Confession: I had only dabbled in the Grand Theft Auto games before GTA IV, racing helter-skelter through the storied streets of Liberty City in fits and starts. I quickly wearied of the bipedal synthetics replicated en masse and sent marching like cut-and-pastes out of someone's future-fantasy battle CGI. That's still largely the case with GTA IV, where for all the hundreds of actors that Rockstar brought in to voice Liberty City's populace, citizens are still more "shove or coldcock" targets than individuals (to be fair, random chatter is much diversified). If you opt to wander, you won't find the city noticeably split along factional lines, either. And the game won't let you wander for long, what with phone calls and messages interrupting you constantly and threatening to downgrade your relationships if you don't respond in kind. While the sense of rival powers jockeying for territory and commerce comes with your work, Liberty City itself remains factionally static, meaning that you're not likely to bump into random hostile thugs on enemy streets unless they're a plot point. EA's "The Godfather" games took a half-hearted stab at making Mario Puzo's New York City factionally dynamic, so it's too bad that Rockstar wasn't able or willing to one-up those games and make the city feel truly alive. On the other hand, GTA IV's intertwining main and side story threads take such precedence that you rarely have time to notice just how little changes in the city itself.
Whereas Grand Theft Auto III tended to preen over its outdoor areas, GTA IV invades the great indoors, comprehensively redecorating the interiors of Liberty City cabarets, strip clubs, taxi offices, apartments, gun shops, beer gardens, bowling alleys, art galleries, and more. Cruise the city, and you'll still note a preponderance of buildings with impenetrable facades and disappointingly blurry textures with illegible text, but--on the whole--the sense of standing in a living city with distinctive locations and aesthetics is the strongest it has ever been in an urban simulation. You'll also spend a fair amount of time climbing around or on top of various city structures. At one point, for instance, you have to run a hair-raising rooftop gauntlet, climbing a half dozen floors within a building before popping out on top some five or six stories up. You then spring from building to building in pursuit of your quarry, and cling precariously to jutting odds and ends to survive nearly impossible leaps. Once you've completed your task, stick around for the view, especially at dawn or dusk--the game's manipulation of lighting is so good, it's heart-stopping.
Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe
Hopping online is as easy as cell-phoning your way out of a solo game and into ranked or casual Liberty City-live meet-ups. In addition to conventional deathmatch modes and predictable two- to eight-player tourneys in which you'll have to competitively steal, escort, or kill for profit, GTA IV introduces clever alternatives like Cops n' Crooks, a team-based brawl wherein the "cops" try to thwart the "crooks" attempting to get their boss to an extraction point. Or try GTA Race, an any-way-you-like hot-footer that's about getting from A to Z using vehicles or weapons at hand. And you can even partially counter my criticism of Liberty City's factional superficiality in Turf War, which sets two teams scrambling to hold select areas of a map for as long as possible. Its Free Mode, though, is probably the future of this game, with all of its vast, untapped potential--if you're willing to put together a disciplined group and pre-stage things such as weapons, vehicles, and positions, the possibilities for play-style innovators are virtually limitless.
I Love a Rainy Night
Liberty City does for contemporary cities what Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion did for medieval fantasyscapes. Between the city's poshest gated communities and grimiest industrial haunts, though, it's really the little things that stand out. It's the guy standing on the corner who hands you a Ben Franklin while coked out of his mind and sharing like a socialist. It's pulling 100 miles an hour down Shoreside Lift Bridge with Pete Townshend and company stomping out "The Seeker" on LRR 97.8 Liberty Rock Radio. It's cruising police scanners in stolen cop cars for info on potential targets--even yourself. And it's the way the camera lens beads up when you pull it south in a downpour, and your field of view fishbowls as if to reach out and embrace the panoramic skyline. Since we're talking a smidgen about visuals, I know that some of you won't sleep without a verdict on versions, so here's mine: Pick the Xbox 360 for crisper edges and less saturated colors, but choose the PS3 version for an overall smoother and more color-rich (but noticeably blurrier) look. Also, Microsoft wants you to think that the 360 version is getting content that the PS3 won't, but my guess is that Sony has its own expanded-content plans waiting quietly in the wings--so be wary about picking a version on that basis alone.
Sniper on the Edge of Forever
To this day, Grand Theft Auto seems almost like a serendipitous fluke to me, a fascinating but improbable tale of two incredibly ambitious brothers almost stumbling into their third-in-sequence megahit by tapping a niche free-form legacy reaching back to David Braben and Ian Bell's seminal 1984 space-trading game, Elite. How Grand Theft Auto morphed from a plotless arcade racer (originally dubbed "Race N Chase") about stealing and selling cars for profit into an epic crime drama, with all the moral subtext of a Coppola or Scorsese blockbuster, is one for the history books. It's also a series that has managed to galvanize--and, in some cases, rabidly polarize--people over the ethical legitimacy of its violent and sexually explicit content, which to be fair is probably tamer than a lot of HBO dramas and comedy acts. Wherever you stand, you have to admire the brass of the Houser brothers, from GTA IV's opening nose-thumbing BDSM clips or Niko's requesting sex by asking his girlfriend Michelle for "hot coffee," to the pumped-up TV show "The Men's Room with Bas and Jeremy." "Come to Liberty City," teases Bas Rutten (voiced by the actual superbuff Dutch martial artist) at one point, "and you can get strong in this weak world."