Grand Theft Auto IV is a violent, intelligent, profane, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun. It calls to mind a rollicking, adults-only version of Mad magazine featuring Dave Chappelle and Quentin Tarantino, and sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts. It is by far the best game of the series, which made its debut in 1997 and has since sold more than 70 million copies. Grand Theft Auto IV will retail for $60.
Niko Bellic is the player-controlled protagonist this time, and he is one of the most fully realized characters video games have yet produced. A veteran of the Balkan wars and a former human trafficker in the Adriatic, he arrives in Liberty City’s rendition of Brighton Beach at the start of the game to move in with his affable, if naïve, cousin, Roman. Niko expects to find fortune and, just maybe, track down someone who betrayed him long ago. Over the course of the storyline, he discovers that revenge is not always what one expects.
GTA IV recreates New York in remarkable detail (Photo by: Rockstar Games/NYT)
Besides the nuanced Niko, the game is populated by a winsome procession of grifters, hustlers, drug peddlers and other gloriously unrepentent low life, each a caricature less politically correct than the last.
Hardly a demographic escapes skewering. In addition to various Italian and Irish crime families, there are venal Russian gangsters, black crack slingers, argyle-sporting Jamaican potheads, Puerto Rican hoodlums, a corrupt police commissioner, a steroid-addled Brooklyn knucklehead named Brucie Kibbutz and a former Eastern European soldier who has become a twee Upper West Side metrosexual.
The point of the main plot is to guide Niko through the city’s criminal underworld. Gang leaders and thugs set missions for him to complete, and his success moves the story along towards a conclusion that seems as dark as its beginning. But the real star of the game is the city itself. It looks like New York. It sounds like New York. It feels like New York. Liberty City has been so meticulously created it almost even smells like New York. From Brooklyn (called Broker), through Queens (Dukes), the Bronx (Bohan), Manhattan (Algonquin) and an urban slice of New Jersey (Alderney), the game’s streets and alleys ooze a stylized yet unmistakable authenticity.
At least as impressive as the city’s virtual topography is the range of the game’s audio and music production, delivered through an entire dial’s worth of radio stations available in almost any of the dozens of different cars, trucks and motorcycles a player can steal. From the jazz channel (billed as “music from when America was cool”) through the salsa, alt-rock, jazz, metal and multiple reggae and hip-hop stations, Lazlow Jones, Ivan Pavlovich and the rest of Rockstar’s audio team demonstrate a musical erudition beyond anything heard before in a video game. It is not faint praise to point out that at times, simply driving around the city listening to the radio can be as enjoyable as anything the game has to offer.
Grand Theft Auto IV is such an adoring and insightful take on modern America that it almost had to come from somewhere else. The game’s main production studio is in Edinburgh, and Rockstar’s leaders, the brothers Dan and Sam Houser, are British expatriates who moved to New York to indulge their fascination with urban American culture.
It all adds up to a new level of depth for an interactive entertainment experience. I’ve spent almost 60 hours practically sequestered in a (real world) Manhattan hotel room in recent weeks playing through Grand Theft Auto IV’s main storyline, and the game still says I have found only 64% of its content. I won’t ever reach 100%.
But like millions of other players I will happily spend untold hours cruising Liberty City’s bridges and byways, hitting the clubs, grooving to the radio and running from the cops. Even when the real New York City is right outside.
Game: Grand Theft Auto IV
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Price: Rs2,699 (available bundled with the PS3 40 GB for Rs26,990)
Platform: PS3, Xbox 360
©2008/The New York Times
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