Jun 12, 2008


gta-iv1 Having been an Xbox and Sega console owner over the last 7 years or so I’ve never actually played Grand Theft Auto. And that wasn’t a big problem for me because the concept of GTA – gangsters, carjacking, rap, etc – are of little interest to me. And even though the game garnered a lot of praise I just couldn’t fathom the interest in the game.

The row of offices on my side of the building is lined with ex-PS2 owners and rabid GTA fanatics. I generally think of GTA fans as being more of a college group but this group of well educated professionals demanded I buy GTA IV when it came out.

So I bought the game. Initially my reservations were confirmed. It was a little slow and uninteresting. But after about 1 hour of game play it was clear that GTA is a wholly unique gaming experience. By the end I was so sucked in that marital strife was becoming an issue.

GTA is a thoroughly absorbing and unique game that has a reputation that doesn’t do it justice. GTA has very little to do with the gangsters, drug running, and rap. It has everything to do with social commentary on America – both positive and negative. It’s not coincidental that this kind insightful commentary could only be pulled off by a foreigner. The two main brothers in charge of GTA are both English. I think it requires someone with an outside eye to pull this kind of feat off.

Having not understood the attraction to the game, let me try to explain it for others who were as skeptical as me.

  1. The vastness of Liberty City. In most video games you ‘live’ in a big world, but you don’t experience that vastness. You live in compartmentalized spot of the universe at any give time. In GTA you can literally see the entire gaming world before you (especially if you are up in a helicopter). This creates an immersion and reality that I’ve not felt in other games. And it’s hard to explain. When you first fire up the chopper and lift off it is an overwhelming experience.
  2. Freedom. The vastness coupled with the nonlinearity of much of the game makes it feel like real life. You have options. You can do this or that. You can go here or there. This is a sort of ‘second life’ except you aren’t interacting with real people. You can go eat. You can change clothes. You can call people on your cell phone. You can change the radio station in your car. You can go on dates. You can go see a comedy show…
  3. Storyline. Granted it’s not Academy Award material but you care or exhibit interest in almost all the characters. They are multidimensional flawed characters. They are well acted. Especially Niko, the protagonist you play. You want to know a little bit more about each person as the game goes on.
  4. New York. If you live in or have often visited New York, then Liberty City will feel like home. But it’s not an exact replica and that’s important because it makes the city familiar but unique. DUMBO, where I live, is BOABO. The layout is different but it’s unmistakably DUMBO. Manhattan is Algonquin. The Empire State building is there but called Rotterdam Tower. There’s something appealing about tooling around a city you live in or know.
  5. okeefe Graphics. A lot of people complain about GTA graphics. In one sense they are weak compared to games like Gears of War. But in another sense they are better. In the same way that Georgia O’Keefe has captured the essence of the Brooklyn Bridge better than a photo can, GTA captures the essence of New York better than a hyper realistic version of New York would. Liberty City is beautiful. At times I will stop driving to see the sun go down over the Brooklyn Bridge (er, Broker Bridge). With less intense graphics comes an increase in variability. The imperfections in the city are everywhere. Each block looks like it’s designed by a separate designer. Trash cans, advertisements, imperfections in the sidewalks and roads. The way the road glistens when it rains. All these little design flourishes make the graphics more real than if they just added pixel resolution.
  6. Humor – It’s everywhere in the game and yet subtle like a Spinal Tap movie. Unless you are consciously observant you’ll not notice the the Statue of Happiness (Liberty) is actually holding a coffee cup rather than a torch. One of the characters, Little Jacob, has such a deep Caribbean accent peppered with so much street lingo that he is simply incomprehensible. Niko, to make you feel better, is equally baffled by his dialogue. And there are some inside jokes too. Entry into the Holland Tunnel equivalent from the Jersey side is a nightmare. As you approach the entrance 20 cars beat you to it and jam up the whole road. Just like in real life.
  7. Attention to Detail. Sometimes it is ridiculous. A really bad car will backfire. Not once per minute as if driven by some algorithm. Once per your whole time playing the game. Airplanes occasionally show up in the sky. The cabbie in front of you will toss something out of his window. People are muttering funny things as you walk by them. It all adds to the immersive quality of the game.
  8. Music. There are tons of radio stations as you drive around. And for the most part they are all good. I’ve found about 20-30 artists/songs that I need to check out. There is something so wonderful about cruising up the West Side Highway in a convertible with Global Communication blasting out of the radio.

What is perhaps most perplexing about GTA is that there aren’t more copycats of this setup. I don’t mean copying the gangster theme. This platform lends itself to many different types of games. I could see an “Indiana Jones” version where you are immersed in a world based on Cairo or a sci-fi version where you are immersed in some futuristic city. I don’t know why Take Two or other gaming companies haven’t explored these ideas.

At any rate I’m eagerly awaiting the downloadable content for the Xbox and for the next version many years from now.

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