Welcome to Late to the Party, a new feature where one of our writers takes a trip down memory lane to experience a game for the first time. Can a game stand up without the hype and fanfare of its release? This week, content editor Dom dives into the world of GTA IV.
So yeah, as the title suggests, I’m a little late to this party. Back in 2008, when everyone was literally frothing at the unmentionables about Rockstar’s new Grand Theft Auto game, I couldn’t be less bothered. I hadn’t played the game, but a mixture of abject poverty (read: university) and a general aversion to the ‘in thing’ led my attention elsewhere.
Going mental with a rocket launcher
Like a lot of gamers, I remember a certain game or franchise for a sense of fun that’s easily lost these days of cinematic visuals and blockbuster budgets. I used to play GTA 3 or Vice City for hours after a mission, smashing into a traffic jam at top speed or turning on the all weapons cheat and seeing how long I could survive (for ages, by the way).
But something about the new GTA felt far removed from that sense of cartoon-ish lunacy. GTA had moved on, and I hadn’t. Of course, Saints Row came along and filled that gap, but we’ve all got an almost subconscious loyalty to certain brands that lead us to judge them even harsher than others.
Boom goes the dynamite
And then it just clicked. Just like that.
Suddenly I GOT what Rockstar were trying to do. GTA IV is a game that’s just as much about a sense of reserve as it is a sense of destructive madness. It’s a game with a desire to retain its sense of style and character. Giving Nico a rocket launcher from the off would have been fun, but his (and your) journey would have been robbed of its much-needed tension.
In Sleeping Dogs and Wheelman you can lean out of your car mid-chase and shoot the tires of a pursing police car, sending the hapless copper into a death spiral. Those games do have their tough moments, but too much power ultimately robbed them of any true sense of presence within a hierarchy. The player was king, almost from the off. In GTA IV you start out with nothing; you start out AS nothing. You get a pistol and a few rubbish cars. The areas you start in are murky and beaten-down, as are the people who inhabit its streets.
A sense of style, a sense of restraint
Then you get your first glimpse of Algonquin, with it’s New York style neon signs and bustling atmosphere. The constrictive streets are gone in place of grandeur and verticality. It’s a masterful sense of breathing space that signals a change in the games direction. Suddenly all the grimy darkness of those first five or six hours makes a great deal of sense.
The sense of restrain that Rockstar use in GTA IV really hit me after a few hours playtime. I’d just chased down and spared a NPC in one of the many mini-choices you’re given throughout the game. With a call made the mission was over; job done. Thing was, the chase had been across some night-time rooftops, leaping across buildings here and there. Only now I was stuck on a roof. I was almost going to leap off, thinking “Hey, I’ll just pull my parachute before I hit the ground”. Then I realised I didn’t have a parachute and a grappling gun. I had a pistol and a questionable Eastern European accent. It was an odd eye opener that only served to draw me further into the realm of Liberty City.
An emotional response
I didn’t think I’d care about the characters of GTA IV either. I’ve never had that much of an emotional attachment to any of the characters of from previous Grand Theft Auto games (but on the other hand, I absolutely loved the characters in Red Dead Redemption and Bully). But something about the grey-scale of the GTA IV cast touched a nerve.
Case in point: later on in the game you have to choose between killing two characters. Let’s call them P & D. P wants D dead because he thinks his old mentor wants his territory back. D wants P dead because he knows the young upstart doesn’t want the ex-con stealing his share of the pie. When it came down to making the choice I simply rolled up to the nearest one of the two and did what needed to be done. Turns out it was D. D lived in a squalid multi-storey, unlike Ps plush studio apartment. When I kicked the door in and starting firing my shotgun, there wasn’t an army of gang bangers flying at me. Nope, just one guy was there to back up D. He didn’t have an assault rifle or a shotgun. He had a baseball bat. So I just blew him away with a single shot. When I found D cowering in his kitchen he wasn’t firing a pistol at my head, he was shaking in the corner, the words “What are you doing, son?” tumbling from his mouth as I ended his role in the game.
I instantly regretted my decision. I wanted to go back and replay my actions but the game had already autosaved. The decision had been made, D was dead. It was a eye-opening revelation. This game, this five-year old game from another era in this generation, had managed to get to me in a way few other games do.
Still rolling in Liberty City
The longer I spend in Liberty City, the more I can see the nuances you only find if you delve deep enough into the world the devs have crafted. Mail boxes that explode with letters if you hit them, phone apps that let you identify the song on the radio you like the sound of. While GTA IV doesn’t quite have the sense of wild grandeur that Red Dead Redemption does, it’s charming in a way that’s neither over-bearing or needy. Liberty City feels like the kind of place that would keep turning, even if you weren’t there.
And now, as I blaze my way out the Bank of Liberty, a bag of cash strapped to my back and an assault rifle roaring in my hands, I realise I’m in GTA IV for the long haul. Damn you Rockstar, it took you five years, but you got me in the end. Now, bring on San Andreas.
Dom writes words about them there vidja gaymez. You can follow him on Twitter, if you’re that way inclined, @furianreseigh. Check out the recent three part character trailer for the next installment in the GTA franchise, GTA V!