My last post stemming from my visit last week to Rockstar Games HQ is a personal one. In it, I shall relate my reaction to the discovery that "Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned" will be largely set in the one area of "Grand Theft Auto IV" that I disliked -- and what a Rockstar developer told me to lift my spirits.
Next month's "Grand Theft Auto IV" episode/expansion, "The Lost and Damned," has plenty to please the "GTA" gamer: a new character, new missions, new gameplay elements, new music and new in-game TV shows.
But for certain "GTA IV" gamers, like me, it also has something potentially bad: a focus on the 'GTA IV" region of Alderney, the Rockstar Games version of New Jersey.
Let it be clear that I was born in New Jersey, in Freehold to be specific, also the birthplace of that Jersey icon Bruce Springsteen. I have nothing against the state.
Let it also be clear that I played through the storyline of "GTA IV," and found much to like in Niko Bellic's adventures through Rockstar's renditions of New York's regions of Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan. But the game's long final act in Aldereney, which set Niko on mission after mission for various mobsters, felt unfocused, generic and repetitive.
Aldereney contained the fields of factories and suburban mansions that are sewn across New Jersey's landscape. It's terrain was distinct. But it contained none of my favorite missions and today is responsible for none of the fond memories I can recall of my dozens of hours with "GTA IV."
I had found Alderney dull and a downer. I found it so much so that I wondered if the feeling was intended Perhaps Rockstar was recreating a life path of so many New Yorkers who find excitement in New York City, a crescendo to their lives, before retiring to a sleepier existence across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Despite all the mob missions, so much of Alderney's landscape had even gone unused in "GTA IV." Those factories served few purposes. A waterfront district was good for launching cars into the river but otherwise easily ignored. A small downtown was little more than scenery through which to drive.
Was there potential untapped?
"This fulfills all of that," Jeronimo Barrera, vice president of product development at Rockstar told me last week, the "this" in his sentence being "the Lost and Damned." Barrera didn't protest my complaints about Alderney but instead said this new episode -- this adventure of Johnny Klebitz and the motorcycle gang the Lost -- would prove the region's worth.
His words weren't going to convince me as much as would the richness of what he let me play. I wielded the an Xbox 360 controller and saw a region suddenly rich with biker gangs, highway chases, and a not-yet-fully-explained hangout where the Lost can participate in mini-games like arm wrestling, a place where they can bond.
There's something Barrera said at the end of his demonstration that made me optimistic about Alderney's potential. It was something he said about the act of making "GTA" games: "We don't build cities to look like game levels… we build them to look like real places and put games in them."
Alderney never failed for me as a place in "GTA IV." It just hasn't had a game set in it yet that I've enjoyed. But with an open mind, I'll give "Lost and Damned" the chance to do Alderney right and to give my home state a game of its own that I can think of fondly. Jersey could use a good game.