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GTA IV: The New Hope

Author: Huwston
Thursday, 24 April 2008

It’s not often the 3D World editorial team get jealous of one of our writers, but when Huwston got an exclusive chance to preview Grand Theft Auto IV last week, we cried a little inside. Then drowned our sorrows with a scotch or three.

Whether or not you are a gamer, you cannot deny that what Rockstar Games produce is art. The release of Grand Theft Auto IV on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this week ushers in a new era of entertainment (sometimes called digital entertainment) that satisfies interests both small and large in art, drama, technology, music and writing. Extrapolating on the open world mechanics of previous editions, indeed, using them as a base, GTA IV’s main man Niko Bellic has the world of Liberty City in his hands. An East European immigrant, Bellic’s wide-eyed arrival is a clever introduction to the city “where the American Dream comes to die” and the methods of socially getting around are incredibly lifelike.

Much in modern life you live out of your phone, building on a phonebook as you meet people and maintaining relationships in between missions by calling your homies to drink, party, hang out etc. It’s indeed a rich social network with some incredible voice characterisation by a closely guarded discover-it-yourself cast.

To give you an idea of the scale of the importance of gaming in today’s marketplace, they’re outselling major label musicians and big budget Hollywood flicks combined. It is even proposed this week’s release of the game is going to take a big chunk out of box office takings across the world. Advertisers look to the entertainment industry and particularly gaming more and more as a way of reaching a consumer in their personal space. Luckily for us, the people at Rockstar have a pretty acute sense of all that is hip and have surprised us in the past with their phonebook of friends like Cheech Marin, Samuel L Jackson, west coast hip hop radio pioneer Julio G, Parliament’s George Clinton, Henry Fonda and many more. It’s not surprising that Ricky Gervais contributes brand new material as the stand-up in the comedy club. And let’s not get started on the clerks at Cluckin Bell or the hilariously named TW@ internet cafes. Closer to this mag’s heart, François K has his own ‘proper’ dance music radio station Electro Choc.

Those famous radio stations have always felt innovative, however thanks to new technology, GTA IV’s online content includes a music shop where you can buy your favourite tunes from the game online. In an interview with Rockstar Games president Sam Houser talked about how his father was a booker for legendary London jazz venue Ronny Scott’s and directed the jazz channel, which certainly makes it feel even more like New York City. That’s one of the many examples of the team’s finger-on-the-pulse approach to their work.

In GTA IV, experience is king. Everything about the game is sophisticated, from the storyline, to the graphics, voice characterisation, combat mechanics and so on, to the point where hardcore fans were concerned the newest instalment would lose it cheekiness. In a world where everything is on offer, there are still a lot of consequences for your actions – especially post 9/11 – which means carjacking is harder, fear of foreigners is prominent and drink driving is virtually impossible.

Rockstar president Sam Houser also mentions in his interview that it was expected that the company had achieved everything they had set out to achieve, ie to become the biggest game franchise in existence, but the team keep pushing themselves creatively. Following up San Andreas seemed a nightmare, but a new challenge was indeed set.

“With the new hardware it set a new kind of expectation: people are really going to expect something bloody cool and very progressive and very evolved from anything that’s gone before in a big way,” Houser says.

Protagonist Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City following advice from his kin about cars, women and money, however his story develops and involves a mysterious figure he is trying to track down. Surviving a post-communist regime, Bellic is hardened by past atrocities and this human back-story makes the gamer’s relationship with him and the scum who surround him paramount. In the past, the Italian American mobster has been done. The cockney gangster is so 1990s. The franchise’s past protagonist in San Andreas was a black man, to which the company bizarrely received feedback on, to which Houser says loosely, “If you don’t think he should be black we don’t want you buying our game”, so this is again Rockstar breaking the mould from traditional heroes.

Utilising the Euphoria gaming engine (GTA IV is one of the first games to use this technology), the expression and depth of movement in characters is truly breathtaking. Lip synching, walking up stairs, smoking, mist, sunlight shimmering off the ocean and the Times Square-like area are all a feast for the senses. All of this combines to make it Liberty a city of believable individuals. Whilst action is key to the storyline, there seems less emphasis on blood and gore. Sure, your combat options are plentiful but when you can literally cruise around town in the back of taxi all day listening to François K’s latest selection, blowing stuff up just becomes another thing on the ‘to do’ list. And try bringing down Johnny Law with a rocket launcher and surviving it in this edition – just try it.

In his interview with Sam Houser basically explains that the challenge has been set by what’s genuinely classified ‘entertainment’ these day. He uses an example familiar to all New Yorkers; that seeing planes flying into buildings outside your apartment window made the Bruckheimer experience redundant. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure element that captures your imagination more than anything else and even though we only got an hour on the game, the possibilities seem endless.

There’s also downloadable content on the Xbox 360 versions (also planned for the PS3 version) and an online club of sorts that allows people to tally up records and scores and earn bragging rights on really uber-nerdy things like ‘Most distance swum’ and all of the little eccentricities you thought you only played out on your own. Therein lies the beauty of the GTA experience.

Hit me on my beeper for the next few weeks, I’ll be out of action in the real world and deep within a place called Liberty City.

WHAT: Grand Theft Auto IV for Xbox 360/PlayStation 3
WHEN: Out today (28 April)