NEW YORK — "Grand Theft Auto IV" will be the biggest entertainment experience of the year and make its players feel like immigrants newly arrived in America, according to a developer working on the game.
After showcasing a nearly complete version of "Grand Theft Auto IV" on the Xbox 360 to MTV News for an hour and a half earlier this week, Rockstar Games Vice President of Product Development Jeronimo Barrera talked about how delays have shaped "GTA IV," how the game handles sex and violence this time around, and more.
"I don't see anything being bigger in 2008 in any entertainment," Barrera said as he sat on a black couch in Rockstar's demo room, proudly sporting a white T-shirt with a large "IV" printed on the front. "We think it's that big, and we just have to get the word out."
What Barrera and the development team that handles the game in New York and in Scotland-based Rockstar North are promising is the king of open-world games. Rockstar Games popularized the go-anywhere, do-anything open-world genre with "Grand Theft Auto III" in 2001. This new game is intended to be the next leap. "We don't want anybody else to raise the bar for a genre that we created and that everybody else ripped off," Barrera said. "So we definitely want to shock not just the players, but the industry. I'm not talking about shock value. I'm talking about just how big it is and just how many crazy, bananas things you can do in the game."
"GTA IV" was initially going to make its splash in 2007, when it was scheduled for an October release. Thursday (January 24) morning, Rockstar announced a new release date of April 29. And the delay, Barrera said, makes the game stronger. "We wanted the time, and I think we made the right choice. It was very difficult to make the choice because everybody wanted it. But we thought, you know, what with that extra bit of time, it's just going to be that much better and there will be more systems out."
"GTA" games haven't missed their announced release dates before. When the delay was announced in August, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick told investors that "the reason it is being delayed is almost strictly technological problems — not problems, but challenges." Barrera offered a little more detail to MTV News this week: "It's really no surprise to anybody that the PS3 was definitely a contributing factor to that. Now, we're neck and neck. That's not an issue anymore. But back then that was something we were taking into account. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the PS3 version. It's awesome. They're both identical."
(PlayStation 3 owners may feel that Barrera's comments get them out of the woods, but some Xbox 360 owners have had a tech concern of their own. In a follow-up to MTV News' interview with Barrera, a Rockstar rep alleviated the concern, stating that the Xbox 360 version of the game, as occasionally had been rumored, will not require a hard drive.)
The portions of the game that Barrera and a controller-wielding Rockstar spokesperson demonstrated for MTV News earlier this week looked and appeared to play like earlier "GTA" games but with significantly refined controls and graphics. Nevertheless, Barrera said that much hasn't been shown and that the creators' goal is to hit players with "surprise after surprise."
This is a different kind of "GTA," he said. "This is the story of an immigrant, and we feel that this world is so real and has so many details that you are the immigrant. The player is the immigrant. So you're kind of coasting along with [protagonist] Niko [Belic] in sort of a way that hasn't been done before in our games. The pacing is different. We're not giving any of that away yet, but it definitely sets up the story and the mood ... in terms of the choreography and the flow of this game, I think there's something really special there that we haven't quite done with other games that I think are going to surprise a lot of people."
But for gamers who only want to cause havoc, the game will offer that and the standard amount of weapon-unlock cheat codes.
What about sex? For better or worse, the biggest surprise to many people about the most recent console installment in the series, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," was the unfinished interactive sex scenes left deep within the code of the game discs and accessible to hackers. That's not coming back for the new game. "Are we going to have a 'Hot Coffee' situation?" Barrera asked aloud. "Absolutely not." But the game will have romance. Unlike Rockstar's recent schoolyard game, "Bully," the main male character won't be able to get involved with other guys, but straight relationships will continue. "Yeah, you can go on dates," Barrera said. "Obviously it's a mature title and there's human relations. That's a natural thing."
Violence in the game may feel a little different this time. "The way that we're telling it takes a different tone," Barrera said. "Niko's background is that he comes from a war-torn country. And he's brought over with the American dream. But it ends up being almost as violent as a war-torn country. There's a bit of message going on in there." The game will be as violent or nonviolent as the player wishes to make it, he said, though there was no indication in the demo that the game could be played without killing anyone. What Barrera did indicate, though, is that the game's developers have heard the players who complained that recent "GTA" games didn't allow the same freedom to problem-solve in different ways that the earlier installments in the series did. "The missions you saw today were pretty straightforward action missions, but there are some missions that have half-a-dozen ways to beat it."
Barrera wouldn't talk about the game's multiplayer modes, its music or the planned downloadable bonus content for the Xbox 360 version. Much of the game just isn't being shown. He did shoot down the prospect of a free trial version of the game: "We usually don't do demo." And while not offering an estimated length to the game, he said, "I find this game — because of the detail and trying to explore every single bit — that this is a much richer experience than anything we've done in the past." He said the new game has been designed with at least one eye on the message boards and other fan reaction. Rockstar is aiming to please and to keep its fans busy. "People are going to play this game for a long, long time," Barrera said.
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