I have recently been playing Grand Theft Auto IV, the most eagerly awaited entry in a long running franchise that started out back in the day on PC and Playstation, with the top down, crudely designed GTA 1 & 2, where you could piss in the street, and go on killing sprees. Thankfully the template has been refined considerably over the years, coming into its own with the exemplary GTA 3 on PS2 which saw the franchise go 3D for the first time, and brought a phenomena to the games industry, bold enough to still be as violent and outrageous as before, but with plenty of brains behind the comic-book violence to make it a very memorable experience. Later came the acclaimed Vice City, bringing 80’s nostalgia and references to Scarface et al into the mix, that although lacking the grand scope of ‘3’ had enough of its own personality to stand out. Then of course we got San Andreas, to this day still the largest most ambitious entry in the franchise, with added RPG elements and a massive 3 city structure not yet bettered.
GTA IV however is a very different beast. More glossy and big budget, like a Hollywood thriller directed by Michael Mann, but thankfully with plenty of the series old tongue-in-cheek humour and outrageous violence so to not alienate fans. Niko Bellick is certainly the series most well realised character, and the cast itself is a huge leap from games gone by, with voice acting to match. Now for some reason GTA IV has come in for a bit of a mixed critical reception, and I suppose the realistic style of the city (modelled as in GTA 3 on New York) may limit the potential for mayhem and stunts that has been a series stable-mate for years, but I personally still have fun speeding through the streets on the fastest bike I can find, mowing down pedestrians, out running the cops and causing chaos. The missions are a little repetitive, agreed (but then again they always were) but the characters on show make up for much of the tedium. They are certainly a lot less annoying than before.
Now lets add the brilliance of the next-gen graphics, the weather effects, the details, the enemy (or NPC) intelligence (Police will chase criminals around regardless of what you are doing, and arrest them before your very eyes – very cool), yet the ambulances aren’t as clever as in San Andreas (they some how just turn up, and no longer resuscitate someone you’ve just shot or bludgeoned in the street – odd). The social element is also there to add some realism that you aren’t just in a mission-following-mission game, but a living ‘world’ where you do much of the things you may do in the real world, such as going out and getting drunk, playing darts, going on dates and getting laid. Yes this all seems a little pointless, but its all there to add to the whole experience, and hey – you don’t have to do any of it if you don’t want to.
That is why GTA is so attractive to me, as I can play it as a mission based action game with a good story, good controls, interesting characters etc, or I can just drive about, and get any work-related stress out of my system by going on a killing spree ending up in a shoot out with the ‘law.
GTA is unrivalled. No copy-cat game really seems to capture its heart, no matter how similar they might seem on the surface, they can’t emulate the humour or the intelligence so obviously available from the series developer’s Rockstar North. So back off Driver, Saints Row etc…leave this stuff to the guys who do it best. Long live GTA!