‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ — Impressions Of An Impressive First Seven Hours

Seven hours into “Grand Theft Auto IV,” I can confirm that the game is an evolution of the world’s most notorious video game franchise.

It bears none of the design flaws of its predecessors and smartly enhances many of their core qualities. And it’s full of interesting things to do (as I’ve just begun to note in this list).

What I haven’t found yet, for better or worse, is a reason to call the game revolutionary.

I haven’t found a reason for it to merit the numerical title that the creators at Rockstar Games say is a signal that a “GTA” game will leads in directions that others will follow. Such progress is, of course, what “GTA III” wrought and what, as well-made as they were, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” “San Andreas,” and the “Stories” spin-offs did not.

From what I’ve played so far, I don’t expect “IV” to trigger an industry transformation. Still, I can’t wait to finish writing this piece so I can go play more, to find out what this game about America has to say and show me next. It’s a compelling piece of work, so much more interesting and well-acted than other games, as is always the case with a “GTA.”

Here are my main impressions virtually spoiler-free (unless you mind knowing where the first seven hours of the game mostly takes place and how the basic mechanics work.)

“GTA” In My Neighborhood

I’ve spent as much of this weekend as possible playing “GTA: IV,” in what I imagine are stranger circumstances than anyone else who has obtained an early copy of the game.

I am playing the game in my apartment in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, essentially the same neighborhood where “GTA IV” protagonist Niko Bellic is based. For seven hours I have primarily spent Niko’s time in west Brooklyn – called Broker in the game – visiting his cousin’s taxi shop which sits across the street from the same Navy yards that are at the end of the street on which I live. Half of the time I’ve put Niko behind the wheel of a car, I’ve driven past a traffic circle, a grand arch and a massive library, all of which are all spitting images of the Grand Army Plaza location that is a 10 minute walk from my house. I walk around the circle often; I use that library.

“GTA IV” feels like it’s happening right outside my front door, because, basically, it is.

Broker is my Brooklyn. The people look the same. The sidewalks are crowded with same stuff. We don’t have an elevated train here and not as many hot dog vendors per neighborhood, but we do have as many trash cans, parked cars and people walking around carrying coffee cups. The attention to details is astounding. (They even got the price of gas right!) The facades of the building are perfect, a smorgasbord of signs of all shapes and sizes, mostly in gaudy, cheap fonts. The terrain is dingy. The human activity is lively.

Minor Annoyances Only

Watch any video clip of the game (including our own) and you’ll see immediately how better-looking this game is than previous “GTA”s. The game’s Liberty City is a stunning achievement of video game architecture and urban planning. Cars and people, too, are rendered with detail and care, animated with nuances that make all of their maneuvering a pleasure to manipulate. Driving into a newspaper vending machine and watching papers fly proves to be as interesting as knocking a man off a ledge or getting run over by a police car. Stuff didn’t move in games like this before.

The game comes fully loaded. It has the “GTA” checklist: a full bandwidth of radio stations, a full squad of cops ready to chase trouble, an eccentric group of people – mostly men so far – to take missions from, a gun shop, clothing stores, motorcycles, a day-night cycle with patches of rain, and arteries clogged with cars. A new lock-on analog-stick targeting system works better than the “San Andreas” scheme. A new cover system mostly sticks Niko to the right stuff. The addition of a cell phone and an in-game Internet promise room for innovation, but in the first seven hours haven’t radically changed the proven “GTA” formula yet.

Functionally, there is little to complain about. Problems? In seven hours I encountered very little. The classic hip-hop station seems to over-play a song by the Group Home. I triggered one bug that had the girl I was dating in the game repeatedly exit Niko’s car each time he drove her within a block of where they were going for a night out. Maybe he smelled? The game’s auto-save, which activates at the end of each mission (finally!), allowed me to salvage a functional run of the game and then progress without the same dating glitch woes.

Seven hours of any previous “GTA” produced plenty of controller aggravations, save-point complaints, difficulty spikes and other grievances. Seven hours of this “GTA” has produced an almost perfectly smooth experience. This is “GTA” without the old nagging issues.

“GTA IV” Vs. “Super Mario Galaxy”

As perfected as this “GTA” is, I must admit that I spent a good deal of Saturday tempted to return to playing “Super Mario Galaxy.” I had not finished Nintendo’s game, but was close. For at least one hour, I gave in. Such behavior is a ridiculous inversion of priorities, I know. To have a copy of “IV” and not spend all my gaming time playing it could be considered warped. But I trust my gut, and I believe my yearning for “Galaxy” says something about how “IV” is hitting me and how it may affect other veteran “GTA” players.

What I think brought me back to “Galaxy” was a desire to play – as in, to be playful. “Grand Theft Auto” games have long encouraged playfulness as well, an indulgence of the big-city sandbox that’s ready to be tossed with a good car chase or the hell-raising use of a rocket-launcher. The new “GTA” has that same sandbox and a new, improved area-based police alert system. But it doesn’t present anything radically new for that sandbox in these opening hours. “San Andreas” swiftly introduced the idea of gangs for some squad-based sandbox mayhem. Before that, “GTA III” and “Vice City” simply and purely enticed players to take advantage of the ability to ignore storylines and cause chaos in three dimensions. I can tell that the sandbox works in “GTA IV,” but it’s not calling out to me to play in it. The novelty that’s to be found in this game, as far as I can tell, appears to be in its narrative. That’s what’s new. The sandbox feels entirely familiar, and therefore, when I’m getting antsy to just be playful I wind up thinking of going to another “Galaxy.”

I don’t think the single-player sandbox is a bust in “GTA IV.” I don’t think it’s going to suffer if it doesn’t provide more than what previous “GTA” sandboxes offered. Instead, I have a hunch that the real breakthrough for this game is the way the sandbox extends online, into a multiplayer experience. This is something I’ve barely been able to experience thanks to a prohibition by Rockstar and Microsoft that has prevented me from going online with the game yet. But it is the online play — activated at any moment from Niko’s cell phone — that I think will satisfy my yearning to be playful in Liberty City. It’s what will make the sandbox game feel new all over again. I had a taste of online multiplayer at Rockstar’s offices during a demo a couple of weeks ago. And the ability to play in the sandbox with a group of people did feel fresh and fun.

Why At 9:24AM, April 27, I Still Prefer “San Andreas”

I’m confident I’ve been playing the best-made “GTA” this weekend. I’m not sure, yet, if it’s the best one, if it will be my favorite. I like Niko. I like that this game is as much about America as the PlayStation 2 games, even more explicitly this time. It’s not clear just in the way the game satirizes so much of our culture (see a list of targets here) but in the earnest words of characters who are trying to make sense of what the opportunity to live in the United States means. What does being here really enable you to do? How does the sales pitch for America square with the reality? I’m eager for the game to explore more of that, to proceed beyond the promising first act restlessness of newly-immigrated Niko and his boastful yet desperate cousin.

What I don’t yet feel is a care for Niko the way I cared about CJ in “San Andreas.” CJ was a younger man, closer to my age. He was, at least initially, a bit less prone to violence than the average gaming hero. I could relate to him better. The way he related to the world – at a distance, wryly observant, yet emotionally invested in his family – felt compelling and distinct. Niko, though more menacing than CJ, seems otherwise so similar to the “San Andreas” protagonist – he too is wryly observant, emotionally invested in his family – that what had felt in the previous console game like character feels in this game like a trapping of the game’s system. Perhaps because “GTA” lead characters need to be versatile avatars for the players they get lower-key personalities, ones that, in relief, best showcase the eccentricities of the people they take missions from.

Like CJ, Niko feels like he is led by circumstance and fate. And to feel such similarities between the two characters tilts my bias toward the original article rather than the new man following similar footsteps. Niko may break out still, and become his own man. I’m happily playing more to see if that proves to be. There are hints. But in this early going he is more familiar than expected.

“San Andreas” had a powerful first act that established a status quo and then obliterated it. Seven hours in, “GTA IV” is either having a slower, steadier first act or we’ve moved to the second in a subtler way. This game is quieter. I respect that. “IV” has not gripped me as swiftly. Nevertheless, it has all of the potential of the city I live in and that the game is based on.

I’m eager to play more and watch this game evolve, whether it shakes up the industry or not.