There are two ways to play a "Grand Theft Auto" game: following the rules or not following them.
On Wednesday morning at the headquarters of Rockstar Games, we took Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers in hand and spent two hours with "Grand Theft Auto IV," trying both. The result: a better understanding of what "GTA" rendered on cutting-edge video game hardware feels like and how it might impact fans and nonfans of the series in a whole new way.
"Grand Theft Auto IV" is only six weeks away from release, but only recently have the developers at Rockstar let reporters get their hands on the game. During MTV News' session, we explored the depths of the game's missions and the randomness of simulated city life that makes every tour of a Rockstar gaming metropolis a sandstorm of surprises.
We flew helicopters, we returned an in-game text message on our cell phone, we crashed lots of cars, we wondered if the game's version of the Statue of Liberty was supposed to look like Hillary Clinton (not intentional, Rockstar says), and we earned a five-star wanted rating on the series' newly expanded six-star police-alertness meter.
First we followed rules, or at least tried to. A Rockstar rep working the MTV News demo turned the lights out and loaded a two-week-old build of the Xbox 360 version of the game, displaying it on a large flat-panel TV. He used a developer cheat to warp the game's protagonist, immigrant Niko Bellic, to a mission called "Jamaican Heat." This mission is available early in the game and involves Bellic escorting a gun dealing Rastafarian named Little Jacob to a drug deal gone bad.
These "GTA" games are certainly still not for kids. Little Jacob names the drugs he likes. The game's improved aiming controls offer smooth, precise techniques for shooting enemies in any body part. The radio stations still lampoon current events and skewer sacred cows. As ever, "GTA" is a crime story, unapologetically profane, irreverently sarcastic.
Following the rules had us pursuing a few more "GTA IV" missions, one involving a shoot-out in a brownstone in the game's stand-in for Brooklyn, another a shoot-out at a dock, and another that wasn't a shoot-out. This last mission, named "Call and Collect," featured Niko helping a dirty cop by shaking down a blackmailer. We did this — almost — without firing a shot, relying instead on the power of cell phone technology. The blackmailer was hanging out near a fountain in a small park, though the game didn't indicate exactly which person milling about in that area was him. Instead, Niko received a text message on his ever-available cell phone. With a few presses of the controller, we could call the texted number, causing the blackmailer's phone to ring. Once the call commenced, the goal was to walk Niko through a crowd of people, looking and listening for someone talking on their cell phone. We heard him first and eventually stood face to face, with Niko's and the blackmailer's phones to their ears, their voices echoing through the phones and the virtual thin air. The blackmailer almost ran. Niko's gun stopped him. And then Niko ran from the cops. Mission just about complete.
While we followed the rules of these missions, it became clear that Rockstar has tried to make "GTA IV" feel like less of a video game, a change that will likely excite fans and further horrify the series' critics. Shooting a policeman, a criminal or a civilian will cause them to tumble with convincing physics. Shot people look hurt. Cars handle more realistically and more distinctly, depending on the type, making driving feel more true to life. The improved physics and animation make the game feel more real, the player's actions more fraught with consequence. We stole a car, tried to evade police and fishtailed through an innocent crowd. Our car was damaged. The cops swarmed. And so while trying to drive up a hill, our vehicle simply stalled. The police won that one. When we stole a motorcycle in another mission, we were arrested immediately, without a shot being fired.
"GTA IV" has been designed with the intention to strip away a lot of its predecessors' video-gameness. Extra guns and health packs don't float a few inches above the ground, waiting to be walked through. They lie on flat surfaces, waiting to be picked up. A Rockstar rep told MTV News that the developers didn't even want those found items to glow, as they do now, because that's not realistic. But a concession was made so players could more easily identify what they could and should try to grab in this world.
"GTA IV" felt less like a video game because there is no "Mission Complete" graphical flourish as there had been in old games, just a brief instrumental riff to indicate a job's successful finish. Icons in the upper-right corner of the screen still display the player's equipped weapon and money, but they are reduced in size, subdued to blacks, grays and whites, doing as little as possible to distract the player's eyes.
In its missions, the game feels less like a game and more like interactive drama. It's a playable crime story, doing what it feels it should. Get in a car and the GPS system maps you to a destination — and, if you're in the right car or turn the option on in the game's pause menu, it talks you there as well. There's less getting lost, less struggling with the controls, less frustration, at least as judged by a two-hour session.
When the game still feels like a game, however, is when the rules aren't followed. That's the way that so many people play "GTA," when the games become a glorified "Pac-Man," a sandbox for mayhem or interactive Keystone Cops-style slapstick, pick your metaphor. The Rockstar rep had suggested the missions but humored our dalliances, which broke any illusions of this being completely hard-boiled fiction. We spotted an old roller-coaster and sprinted to its crest, then tumbled down its steepest drop. We sprinted on foot uncommonly fast, tiring less quickly than "San Andreas"' protagonist CJ, feeling like a bit of a superman. We took a helicopter for a joyride, in this case, in the PS3 build, traversing the city with haste, thrusting with the R2 button, rudder-turning with L1 and R1. The scenery was viewable from an optional in-cockpit, first-person view, the densely detailed Liberty City rolling by so quickly underneath that it's little wonder that the private jets parked at the game's airport are not usable. They'd be too fast for this game's amount of real estate. Mostly we used the helicopter to land on skyscrapers and in busy intersections, the rotor blades magically hurting no one — not the least of whom Niko, despite what would probably be classified as hard landings. This is not the way a real world would work, and that's a good thing.
Off its rails, the game can be cartoonish. We stood Niko at the foot of Liberty City's Statue of Happiness and fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the statue, sending tourists fleeing and denting the statue not a bit. A tourist had dropped a jug of milk and a loaf of bread. A policeman, sensing cause for alarm, approached and dodged a few shots of the RPG right in his direction. He had a gut but was nimble, and he had a backup fleet of choppers and, across the waterway, armored vans and SWAT teams to back him up, an imbalanced cartoon dynamic of cops vs. robber that saw justice again prevail.
As absurd as some of the moments in our session with the game could be, though, it was clear that "GTA IV" presents a more convincing world than its predecessors did. It presents a place less riddled with imperfect game design and awkward controls, replaced with improved technology and handling. The game lets the content — not the struggle to maneuver through that content — arrest the player's attention. It's a realer "GTA." Is it also a game? Of course. Is it still "just" a game? That depends on your perspective and what your hopes are for how something like this might impact those who play it.
"GTA IV" will be released for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on April 29.
(On a more personal note to Rockstar: Our subways in the real New York City aren't dingy and graffiti-covered anymore. And the building where this story was filed houses MTV, not Music Entertainment TV, aka Me TV. What exactly is "GTA IV" trying to imply?)
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