Grand Theft Auto IV
Platform: PS3 (also on XBOX 360)
Unlike my previous game review, I certainly don’t have to tell you what Grand Theft Auto IV is. At least, I assume I don’t… so I won’t. Grand Theft Auto III is pretty much the reason I bought my PS2, and I’ve been a fervent fan of the series since I played the original game on my computer back in my junior year of high school. Then, a couple of years ago (my goodness, it’s been so long), a teaser trailer was released to the world for the mysterious new game in the series – GTA IV:
My mouth, very literally, dropped open and my eyes grew wide as I watched that first trailer. I watched it over, and over, and over. “Perhaps here, things will be different.” In August of this year, I finally bought myself a PS3, and found out exactly how different things really were.
Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail in order to sell you on the game based on its technicalities, because plenty of reviews have already done that (and much earlier than me, too). I do want to point out a few highlights, though. The game is visually beautiful. God bless this new generation of video game systems, because the stunning textures and animation they allow really give games like GTA IV the environment they deserve. Just as important is the ability for a new level in the entertaining and intricate detail in the gameplay, itself. Whether it’s the variety of characters roaming the street, or the fact that shooting a cop-out of a helicopter with auto-aim allows me to follow his body as it falls to the ground, I could give you hundreds of reasons why I loved playing this game. Again, though, I won’t (though I’ll certainly tell you all about it if you ask). No, the main reason I even want to write a review on this game, years after it first came out, is the story. My goodness… the story.
I won’t go into specifics here, because I know a couple of fellas who are still working through the game, but from the very first day, I was amazed with the storyline. While the satire and fun of the previous installments are still there, GTA IV is in a very different world. The main character, Niko Bellic, is more than a gun for hire (GTA III) or someone who builds an empire (Vice City and San Andreas). His character is much more rounded than that, as are the characters around him. I have heard complaints about this game being dull and boring, that the lead character isn’t as dynamic as someone like Tommy Vercetti from Vice City. No, he certainly isn’t… but I found him a heck of a lot more interesting. Niko is a character who, like in any good dramatic story, arcs. He is a killer, he is a miserable person – but it affects him. Revenge is a long-running theme in this game, as are things like the value of the American dream, and being presented with choices in the game as to which direction to guide the main character make it that much more involving. I’m not going to say exactly how the game ends (head down below the spoiler point for that), but as I wrapped up the final story missions late this past Sunday night, I was amazed. It wasn’t the graphics or the gameplay details. It wasn’t a massive finale that GTA games are known for. I was amazed because, while I’d noticed it throughout playing the game, the Grand Theft Auto series had grown up.
The ending to GTA IV is somber, bitter-sweet, poignant, and thought-provoking. That’s right… I just used all of those words to describe a game which is just as well-known for killing hookers and shooting rockets at pedestrians. As the final credits began to roll, I set my controller down and whispered, out loud, “Wow.” I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am extremely excited about Rockstar’s new direction for their flagship series. They have created a story that really hits home the point which I feel they’ve been hinting at and trying to make for years. Just as Christopher Nolan created a Batman franchise that I consider “my” Batman, Grand Theft Auto IV is “my” GTA game. I still love the others, and I’ll most likely love whatever they do next, because Rockstar prides itself on constant innovation, but I’m now excited about the series for very different reasons than ever before. I honestly never thought a GTA game would reach this type of level, in terms of story and beauty, and that makes me even more interested in seeing what they do next.
As The Joker said in The Dark Knight, “You’ve changed things… forever.” Grand Theft Auto IV is an immensely fun game, it has a dash of realism but a healthy dose of silliness, and I’ll be glad to return to the world to cause some hilarious chaos after the stirred up emotional sediment of the ending settles again, but, for me, my expectations have changed for good. In ways I’ll talk about in more detail below, GTA IV didn’t necessarily give me what I hoped for, but it gave me what I never realized I wanted. As was the title of that first teaser trailer, things will be different.
They certainly are.
Grade: A+ (as if that’s even necessary and isn’t obvious)
Warning: There be spoilers below…
Kate. Kate Mc-FREAKIN-Reary. She broke my heart. Not sure what I’m talking about? Let me inform you.
Throughout the game, the player is presented with choices. In certain situations, Niko can either let a specific person live or opt to kill them instead, and other times, he has to choose between killing one person or another. These are not generally black-and-white decisions (beyond the fact that killing is bad), so the decisions are made depending on which type of character the player wants Niko to be. Another option in the game is the choice of expanding relationships with other characters. There are girls to date, friendships to maintain, but none of it is necessary for the story to continue on. Kate McRreary is one of these characters.
She is the sister of a criminal Niko gets involved with, and they hit it off as friends – though there is an obvious attraction from the very first time they meet. The key is that the player is offered the choice whether or not they’d like to get to know her further, or whether or not she’s simply a background character. I, of course, chose to pursue it. Unlike the tramp/traitor Niko first dates, Kate doesn’t take the relationship out of the platonic state in which it is established, but I didn’t care. Throughout the deep storyline, Niko is continually struggling with the life he has led until now… and the one he continues to lead as he keeps being placed into situations where his previous life as a killer comes out as a necessity for survival. Over the many “dates” I took Kate on with Niko, however, the two characters formed a bond. Kate is part of a family of criminals, though she’s rather innocent, herself. To Niko, and for me as a player, a relationship with her exemplified a light at the end of the tunnel. I had become fully immersed in the world of Liberty City, and mutually invested in Niko’s story. As I would for a character in a movie, I wanted good things for him, and Kate was one of them. In spite of the crappy life he’d led, I hoped for something more.
Near the end of the game, Niko runs a mission which ends at an old abandoned mansion outside of the city. It looked like, if it had been fixed up, it would be really nice – the kind of place a GTA character might obtain after they complete the game, wink wink. It even had a row of garages in the same style that the old games once had. I thought, perhaps, this is where things might end for Niko. Again, I had a hope that his story might find him settling into a decent life, and that this would be his reward. And, though I had a feeling things might go south, I would have loved for Kate to stay a part of his life, as well. I didn’t get my wish.
The second to last “mission” begins with a choice. Niko can either try to deal with a dirty Russian who has screwed him over before, at the insistence of an Italian mafioso, or he can reject the Italian’s demand and just go kill the Russian in revenge. Niko calls Kate and his cousin, Roman, to ask their advice. Roman suggests he take the money and give up on revenge, and while Kate doesn’t know about the possibility of murder, she says she’d be disappointed in Niko for giving in on his principles. I had previously chosen for Niko to take a route of grace, in a prior decision of taking revenge, but I figured – Kate wouldn’t like Niko anymore, and even beyond that.. the Russian was a freaking snake. I went for revenge.
So, I killed the Russian, but there were no end credits. That made me nervous. The next day was Roman’s wedding. That made me really, freaking nervous. So, the next day, after wandering the streets all night, I took Niko to pick up Kate and took her to the chapel. As I drove, Kate and Niko talked about things (as they always did), and got to a point where they pretty much confirmed that they should be more than just friends. I was no longer nervous… I knew. I knew that something bad was coming.
After the wedding, ala The Godfather Part III, the Italian mobster I’d screwed over does a drive-by and kills Kate on the steps of the church. It’s all done very well, as Niko is completely devastated. The scene cuts, and Niko wakes up in a safehouse… no longer wearing the suit I had him in for the wedding, but in the original clothes he got off the boat in from the beginning of the game. I almost cheered at the brilliance. Niko’s potential hope was seemingly dashed as Kate’s bloody corpse hit the church stairs, and to see him, very literally in terms of his clothing, return to exactly where he started, really put a strong emotional cap on his attempted journey. Now, of course, Niko went for revenge on the Italian mobster, and it was a fantastic and fun shootout/chase mission, but unlike the other GTA endings, this time it wasn’t satisfying. This had nothing to do with the gameplay or story, I’m talking about from the character’s point of view. As the final cutscene played, I realized that this game was not what I had come to expect from the GTA series – it was a tragedy. This is out of context, but someone posted the PC version of the ending, credits included, on YouTube. I’ll do better to show, than attempt to tell:
I was gutted. It was an amazing end, an ending I never would have imagined Rockstar putting onto a freaking GTA game, but there it was. The character’s story ends with a poignant commentary on crime, revenge, the American dream… on everything. During the beautiful 20 minutes of credits, I took in the songs (the upbeat and charming “New York Groove” by Hello brought a much-needed smile to my face) and let the vibe settle. As a movie that toys with a person’s emotions, I was honestly very much in shock. I held it together, though, after all.. it’s only a game. Of course, then the credits stopped.
As Niko stood there, alone at the base of the Statue in the rain, I realized that I didn’t feel like running him around to shoot people or steal cars. Not right now. He received a couple of phone calls, one in which his cousin Roman tells us his new bride is pregnant “and if it’s a girl we’ll name her Kate.” That one got to me. That really got to me. Yes, it’s a game, but my goodness what a game. I was so touched and affected by the whole experience that I wanted to share that here. I was distracted by some other work yesterday and today, but I’ve made it a point to get this online as soon as I could. Maybe it’s more for me, but I needed to get it out there, so that I could move on. I later found out that if I had chosen to deal with the Russian it’s Roman who would have died, and Kate wouldn’t have talked with me anymore anyway, so I’m glad I made the choice that I did. With the upcoming Rockstar game Red Dead Redemption, I now realize that there is the possibility for it to have a less-than-cheery ending… and I think that uncertainty, from a game company whose products I love, is absolutely exciting. As a man who loves games, I am thrilled beyond words to have this new world in which a GTA game can bring me close to tears.
As I said before, more than ever, I really can’t wait to see where Rockstar goes next with Grand Theft Auto… and I’m not just talking about the city location, either.
“Perhaps here, things will be different.” My friend, I had no idea just how true that statement would be.