Every minute I play Grand Theft Auto IV, I feel the need to tack on yet another week’s play in order to review it credibly. That’s not because the basic experience has changed. You still control a hired gun whose main abilities--carjacking, driving, shooting, fighting--are employed to do dirty work for bossy assholes. See? Didn’t need weeks or months to figure that out again.
But what throws me off is the weight. I mean that literally--when you get into a car and try driving crazy-fast like the older games, the result is a swerving, crashy mess. Now, the cars feel heavy. Might seem like an immaterial nitpick, but when your GTA IV hoopty plows into a dumptruck or a few passersby on the sidewalk, there’s a tangible difference in the feeling--the feeling of how it controls, and more importantly, the feeling of what you’re doing.
I’m not saying you’ll go moral and feel awful for driving through the sidewalk (or waiting for paramedics to come to the scene and scream, “Don’t you fucking die on me!”). But game maker Rockstar North changed and rebuilt its crime-spree sandbox to feel heavier and overwhelming, as if the fictional city you’re blazing through has some life. In my one day of play, the little things have already begun to add up in Niko Bellic’s quest for revenge, reward, and a new life. Flip on a TV, and you can watch over an hour of original shows produced in Liberty City about Liberty City; the first time I turned it on, real-life cage-wrestling freak Bas Rutten was there to holler at me. Same with the car radio--surf through dozens of music stations (with DJs like Iggy Pop and Juliette Lewis), then flip to the talk radio stations that mock both the fictional city’s right and the left. You’ll find other real-life cameos here and there, from the blatant (stand-up comedians doing full routines) to the buried (turns out the hot dog vendor’s voiced by Fred Armisen). Then there's the hustle and bustle of the living, breathing city, chattering folks all over the streets, tons of New York-accurate monuments, and on and on and on...
This is a game, though, not YouTube, yet the reason you discover half of these YouTube-worthy moments is because you’re finding them while meeting your cousin at a pool bar, or going out on a date, or helping your Jamaican buddies with errands. The game’s makers have gone on and on about the social system in this game, that they want you to care about the people you’re working with and for. That push means nothing without good writing, so thankfully, what I’ve played so far has passed muster. Think of it more like a TV series than a movie in terms of dialogue, as the writers have hours to build a lot of personalities, and they’ve got a pretty good cast of voice-over actors to tackle the cliché-ridden job with humor and personality. GTA IV’s plot and dialogue won’t dethrone The Godfather or The Sopranos anytime soon, but the stuff at least rises above overblown man-boy fare like Entourage (though that lead largely depends on how much you like hearing Balkan expatriates use the word “titties”).
The nuts-and-bolts mostly get the thumbs-up here. Driving, aiming guns, running around--these central actions all mostly feel improved and fluid, so you won’t get frustrated by figuring out how the hell to do something while five mobsters gun you down. To be fair, I’ve gotten plenty aggravated at a few missions already--I’m no GTA expert, and I’ve always given up on previous GTAs because a random, necessary mission was too unbeatable to be fun for me. But the difficulty, this far in, has been scaled much better for my sensibilities. And if one mission is pissing me off, I can bust out my in-game cell phone and find something else to do right away (or, of course, steal a police car and drive it into the ocean for no good reason...or use its in-dash computer to track down crooks and become, erm, a vigilante).
I still have reservations--will the game wind down after doing the same few steal/kill/drive missions over and over? Will the plot and dialogue weaken and stumble with more brutish, misogynistic stereotypes? But the diversity of this title so far has taken me aback, in stark contrast to the game’s slow, boring tutorial missions, certainly. And the 16-player multiplayer modes are a blast--I’ll dig into those in a proper, finished-the-game review in the next week or so, but suffice it to say, they turned out and then some.
Recommendation: I don’t see this game converting anyone who wasn’t swayed by the old games. The controls are complex enough to keep curious outsiders at bay. And GTA IV teeters between social satire and giddy exploitation far too often to make the cultural dent that other reviewers seem to be hinting at. But the target crowd--and the folks holding their breath before plunging into a new games system--have themselves the absolute pinnacle of bang for the buck.
(Want the game? Enter the contest. You still have until early Friday.)