Thursday, June 12, 2008

VG Review: 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

Rockstar, for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, rated M for Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol), $59.99.

I wouldn't call myself a "Grand Theft Auto" expert.

Still, I'm familiar enough with the series that, a few minutes into the newest sequel, "Grand Theft Auto IV," I knew how to steal a car. You just walk up to the automobile, push a button and throw the current driver out. Easy, right?

Seconds after trying it, however, the driver grabbed me by the shirt, pulled me back out of the car, got back in and sped off, cursing me all the way.

Clearly, the game was warning me: Stay on your toes.

It's those little details and unexpected twists that make "Grand Theft Auto IV" such a fantastic game. While it doesn't necessarily offer any new surprises in game play, it's a much richer and
involving experience than any of the previous games in the series, featuring a compelling story line, complex characters and an expansive, detailed city.

The city is what you'll notice once you pop the game in. It's hard not to be impressed with the detail that Rockstar brought to the table, creating a virtual rendition of New York called Liberty
City. Walking along its streets, there is the distinct sensation that you are a part of a fully realized world, right down to the pigeons and hot dog vendors.

But what's really impressive is the game's plot. In the past, the story and paper-thin characters have been among the weaker aspects of the series. I know plenty of folks, including myself, who gave up on the main story halfway through "Vice City" and decided to try out side missions or wreck havoc in general.

Not so here.

Niko Bellic is one of the most interesting and fully realized characters I've witnessed in a video game. With his loping gait and hang-dog expression, you feel an empathy for him that's impossible to achieve with, say, Mario.

Bellic arrives in the U.S. hoping to put his ugly past (he did bad things during an unnamed war in an Eastern European country) behind him. Quickly though, he finds himself embroiled in shady

A central difference between Niko and past "GTA" characters is you can sense that while he's not afraid of getting his hands dirty, he takes no joy in it, either. The result is that the game's violence carries more emotional weight than it has in the past.

Matched with that drama (and at times at odds with it) is the series' usual smart-aleck satire. Sly jabs at America's rampant consumerism abound. The Statue of Liberty, for example, has been renamed the "Statue of Happiness," and holds a coffee cup instead of a torch.

In fact, it's quite possible to see the game as a stinging commentary on the modern immigrant experience. To acquire the American dream now, Rockstar seems to be saying, means clawing your way to the top in pursuit of meaningless wealth and power.

Do I need to underline the fact that this game should be kept as far away from kids as possible? I'd no sooner put this in the hands of my children than I would a DVD of "Scarface," and I would hope most responsible parents would do the same.

I could go on for pages describing the wealth of cars, missions, multiplayer games, radio stations -- god, the radio stations! There's enough quality music here to fill several box sets, with everything from Fela Kuti to John Coltrane to Queen.

At one point I took on a mission to "deal with" my boss's daughter's unwanted boyfriend. I stepped into my car, "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy came on the radio and my heart skipped a beat.

Ah, Liberty City. It was good to be back.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


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