Monday morning will bring a barrage of excitement across the nation. We will collectively drag our selves through the day. Be it a day at work, a day at university or college – perhaps one or two through school (tut tut, GTA V is an ’18’ rated game), we will all have our eyes on the clock as the day ticks down the seconds to midnight.
Today though, is Sunday. A day of quiet reflection, rest and recuperation. So, our advice is get a cup of tea, maybe a second breakfast, post-lunch snack or some supper (depending what time of day it is when you’re reading this) – and join us on the penultimate stop on our Grand Theft Auto retrospective. As we bring you, almost up to date, with 2008’s Grand Theft Auto IV.
In 2008, the world had moved on. In the four years since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, three new home consoles had been released and we were firmly into a new generation of gaming. It was a new era in gaming. A new era in life. Certainly for me, I had left behind the midnight launches and fancy-dress madness of the games retail industry and gotten myself a job as a teacher (inspiring young minds, instead of corrupting them with video games). So when GTA IV was announced and released I reveled in turning up to the midnight launch at my local store, flaunting the game along with my freedom to play it while THOSE suckers had to work! (Of course, they had no idea that I had to go straight home to bed because April 29th, 2008 was another bloody Tuesday launch and I had to be up early to get into school. Despite what you may think, teachers tend to turn up at least an hour before the kids and leave roughly two hours after the kids go home – but that’s another rant for another time).
I spent all that Tuesday at work thinking I must be a grown up now? I’d acquired a career, a wife, we were thinking about children… I had none of these things when San Andreas dropped in 2004. It was with some trepidation, when I eventually got home from work and slipped the game into my PS3. I started thinking, maybe I’m ‘too mature’ to play GTA now? I needn’t have worried though, as it seemed Grand Theft Auto IV had matured along with me!?
A much darker, grittier game than any of the previous games, GTA IV cast you as Niko Bellic – a veteran of a non-descript Eastern European war. Though he’s only travelled to Liberty City in search of someone, he quickly becomes embroiled in a world of guns, crime, gangs and corruption. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some larger than life characters, but they stand out in contrast to the more ‘realistic’ portrayal of most of the game’s key characters. Like CJ in San Andreas, Niko doesn’t necessarily come looking for trouble, but can certainly handle himself when (again like CJ) his useless brother, Roman, drags him into the middle of it!
A lot of the staple elements of the GTA series were in here. Car theft, gang warfare, romancing ladies, working your way up the crime ladder via main story missions and entertaining yourself with a plethora of side quests (from taxi-driver to street racer to Casanova, to taking Roman to the strip club or bowling – there was plenty to occupy Niko in Liberty City). However, the RPG style character developments that had bogged down some of the San Andreas game play had been removed. You could dress Niko as you saw fit by buying up clothes from the city stores, but you no longer HAD to exercise him at the gym to keep him from getting fat. They stripped the game back a bit from San Andreas, arguably too far. Some critics feeling that there wasn’t actually that much to keep them interested beyond the story – which was a rare thing for the GTA universe.
One thing critics did agree on was the game looked gorgeous. Dark and gritty yes, but having made the leap to High Definition, the game world looked amazing. And locations looked very recognisable as the city on which it was based, New York, particularly in the ‘Algonquin’ part of the map which stands in for Manhattan (the game also has ‘Broker’ stand in for Brooklyn, ‘Bohan’ for the Bronx, ‘Dukes’ for Queens and ‘Alderney’ for New Jersey). The city looks fantastic and is very atmospheric.
Another thing that Rockstar introduced with GTA IV is player choice. In amongst the scripted missions, there are moments the player must choose a path (usually a ‘kill’ or ‘let go’ type situation). These seem quite superficial at first, but do influence the game’s path massively towards the end, especially for the supporting cast. I won’t spoil anything here, as readers should find this out first hand where possible.
Perhaps due to the unusual nature of the press / publisher relationship surrounding GTA IV at the time (very few review copies were sent out before release, but big media publications were invited to play the game behind closed doors), the critical success of GTA IV was an unusual tale in itself. Despite reviewers having a very limited time with the game (arguably BECAUSE they had limited time with the game), GTA IV was a huge critical success at first. One of the highest rated games of all time. It scored in the high 90s across the board, got a number of 10/10 scores from various publications (apart from a weaker showing on the PC version, which still scored well). The press called it a ‘console defining title’, the New York Times went one further, describing it as:
violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun”
However, as time progressed and people spent more and more time with the game, criticism that hadn’t been apparent at first started to come to light. Admittedly, most of the negativity came from disgruntled fans – but even some critics started to feel there was validity to the claims being made. Even IGN’s Hilary Goldstein, who had originally awarded the game a rare 10/10, recently said in a podcast that he no longer felt the ’10’ was justified (chalking the original score down to limited play time).
One of the biggest issues with the game was the revamped cover and shooting systems. At first, they felt revolutionary as they were so different to San Andreas, but after a while and in the context of other PS3 or Xbox 360 games of the time, people realised that they were a little clunky and awkward. Other criticism was thrown at the game’s lack of content. CJ in San Andreas had tons of exploration rewarded, hidden packages, collectibles that bolstered his luck at the casinos, a whole underwater (if poorly textured) world to explore and different fighting styles to learn. Niko, by comparison, had very little to do outside of missions. The city, for some players, became dull very quickly because of this. There was very little incentive to explore (not ‘LA Noire’ bad, but not up to the high expectations San Andreas had created).
It didn’t stop there either, the distinct lack of pushbikes and planes also frustrated some fans as these had become incredibly popular in San Andreas (the pushbike pilgrimage up ‘Mount Chiliad’ was a very popular way to spend your time in GTA: San Andreas). To be fair, the removal of planes from a game based, primarily, in a game world representing Manhattan was probably a very wise choice from Rockstar! Finally, a lack of options when it came to customising the character of Niko Bellic upset a good number of GTA fans. The feeling was that everyone had their own ‘CJ’ in San Andreas (clothes, hair, facial hair, bling, glasses etc. All fully customisable), whereas we were all stuck with the same Niko, love him or hate him.
Small things really, but when put together, there was a small sense of disappointment in the aftermath of all the GTA IV praise.
An area that GTA IV didn’t disappoint was in it’s controversy. Jack Thompson reared his ugly head once more to denounce the game, attempted to block sales of Grand Theft Auto IV and branded it a ‘murder simulator.’ It was also reported in Metro magazine that Jack Thompson had written a letter to the mother of Strauss Zelnick, Director of Take Two Interactive, in which he declared:
The pornography and violence that your son trafficks in is the kind of stuff that most mothers would be ashamed to see their son putting into the hands of other mothers’ children”
Possibly the harshest criticism anyone related to the games has received and launched at Zelnick’s mother!
Rockstar also managed to upset New York officials who were decidedly upset that New York had been chosen for the game’s setting and that it ‘did not reflect the cities crime levels accurately.’ No shit Sherlock. Maybe that’s because it is a video game?
The story that seemed to grab the attention of the press both sides of the Atlantic was the outraged Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). They were appalled that in a game that offered players such wide ranging freedom to play how they wished, allowed the players to drink digital alcohol and then get behind of the wheel of a car. Rockstar were, once more, under the microscope, slammed and condemned for encouraging young players to drink and drive…
Clearly, no-one throwing this dirt around had ever played the game. For starters, Niko actually says ‘I don’t think I should be driving’ if you try to get behind the wheel while inebriated. If you persist and jump in a car anyway (this is a free-roaming, open world game that puts choices in the hands of the player after all), the car is utterly uncontrollable. What’s more should you drive near the police while drunk, you’ll be instantly arrested! At no point does the game encourage you to drive drunk – AND it punished you if you do it through your own choice!
The madness didn’t stop there either. In 2009 two expansion packs were released for GTA IV for the Xbox 360 (the pair were released as a double pack for PS3 and PC in 2010). One of these, called GTA: Lost and Damned, upset Common Sense Media (among others) who claimed the game was “more controversial than its predecessors”. The reason being, the game featured full frontal male nudity (which, as everyone one knows, is much worse than female nudity because…. er… um… we’ll get back to you). Its true, male nudity is rare in games, but does that really mean it just shouldn’t feature? Male nudity is rare in movies, but it’s there and people stopped losing their minds over that years ago. Why is it that anything that appears in video-games seems to set the clock back a decade or two?
Anyway, Rockstar have thus far weathered the perpetual storm of controversy pretty well. Perhaps upping the ante from game to game is a good way of making each game’s predecessors look more agreeable? We’ll be examining exactly how we think GTA V will go about courting controversial issues to make full frontal male nudity seem irrelevant by comparison. And if rumors are to be believed, this should certainly be the case!
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us is the finest game ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @vigilantesanta.