GamesBeat

A personalized preview of Grand Theft Auto IV, the big video game of 2008

The video game “Grand Theft Auto IV” is likely to be a cultural, business and technological milestone.

The game targets 18-34-year-old males who are hardcore, or play a lot of games all of the time

I’m on the hardcore fringe, part of the aging male demographic — and so not really part of the target group. I’m also wary of the violence and sexual material for which GTA games are known (more on this in a sec).

So I guess it speaks volumes then that I am ready to play this game. I think GTA IV is going to define state of the art for the leading edge video game business.

In the past, I have drawn the line at playing bad guys in crime games. I just didn’t get a thrill out of playing games where I don’t have much choice but to kill cops and score with prostitutes. I’d rather be a hero, not an anti-hero. Maybe there is a generational gap between people like me — who grew up with the innocence of Pong and graduated to opera of violence in “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” – and those youngsters who grew up with the sex and gritty street violence of the GTA series. In the past GTA games, you could do anything. They had open worlds where you could explore, wander, and discover. But it wasn’t fun unless you were bad. Nolan Bushnell, the father of video games, shares this opinion that video games lost a lot of their audience and innocence when they took a turn toward violence. We can blame Rockstar Games, the company that developed GTA, for being part of an industry where game companies constantly try to one-up each other, resulting in a race toward new lows.

The newest GTA IV game from Take-Two Interactive’s Rockstar could be one of the most controversial of all time, igniting a culture war that will play out in our political campaigns and courtrooms (sites such as GamePolitics.com write about it almost every day). Don’t even think about giving it to your kids unless you think that cold-blooded murder is good for them. Florida attorney Jack Thompson has already succeeded in getting public transit ads for GTA IV pulled in Miami and Chicago. Thompson has battled Take-Two for years on whether its violent games cause school shootings and whether the company intentionally targets its mature content at kids. The company says its games are mature entertainment targeted at adults.

Yet, either because of the controversy or in spite of it all, GTA IV is expected to be one of the best-selling games ever. Game sites such as IGN.com have given GTA IV a perfect 10 out of 10, an unprecedented game rating. On average, GTA IV has scored 99 percent on the Xbox 360 on GameRankings.com, which aggregates critic scores, and a perfect 100 on Metacritics.com. Microsoft’s “Halo 3,” which sold eight million-plus units since the fall, scored 93 percent on GameRankings.com and 94 on Metacritics.com.

The Nintendo Wii has taken the gaming market by storm with its much more casual fare that is fun for families and other gamers to play in a light social setting. GTA IV is more for the lone gamer who plays in the dark. But with sales projections so high, this game is a test as to whether the hardcore gamers — including the aging Pong veterans like me who only have a little time to play — are ready to strap on their six-shooters in such numbers to prove that hardcore gaming is still a mass market.

For business readers, this game is even more interesting because it has sparked a hostile takeover bid by Electronic Arts, which has offered to pay $2 billion for Take-Two. In the first two weeks alone, it could sell 5 million copies at $60 a piece or more on both the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, according to analyst Colin Sebastian of Lazard Capital Management. Worldwide, he expects it to sell 8 million to 12 million. That’s as much as $720 million in sales at retail.

That leaves me in a quandary. Call me high and mighty, but in the past I just didn’t like GTA. I like to play the “good guy,” even though I understand that a whole lot of parents and peace lovers out there feel like there is no such thing in a violent video game. GTA pushes my buttons the way it does with the anti-violence crowd, but for different reasons.

I’ve lost a member of my family to gun violence. It was my one and only brother. And, I tell ya, the experience stinks. It was a long time ago. When that happened, I never really thought I would play violent games again. I was more likely to join the censors, anti-violence child advocates, and lawyers looking to blame school shootings on violent video games. And I remain appalled at the celebration of street violence that brings pain to so many families.

Somehow, though, I started to rebuild barriers in my brain that distinguished between fantasy and reality. I started playing military strategy games, enjoyed real-time strategy games such as “Age of Empires,” where the amount of blood in the game was miniscule and was hardly gratuitous. My tastes evolved as games did. I was enthralled with the march of 3-D graphics in the past decade. Graphics realism seems like it has no bounds, contributing to the rise of companies such as Nvidia and the allure of increasingly realistic 3-D worlds in games like the “Halo” series. I anxiously await the day when you can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Over time, I have retrained my brain to realize that, after all, this is just a game.

The total recovery, or perhaps relapse, of my hardcore gaming habits became complete with the launch of Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare game last fall. The game’s graphics are outstanding and you really get the feeling that you’re part of a crack team cutting down scores of enemies in modern-day landscapes in the Middle East and Russia. Games are almost at the point where we can’t distinguish the realism of the violence and the characters from movies or real life. But the game didn’t make me feel besotted in any way. It was respectful of the sacrifice of soldiers. It had the highest production values I’ve seen in a game. And I still got to play the good guy, saving the world from terrorists. I’ve played little else in the past few months. On multiplayer, I am now a Colonel I rank on Call of Duty 4.

As a gamer, I’ve felt like I have still had some innocence left in me. Sure, I played other gritty crime games — clones of the GTA-style open worlds — where you could do a lot of bad stuff. “Saint’s Row” from THQ was one of those. But I didn’t really enjoy running down innocent civilians with cars, killing prostitutes at point-blank range, or mowing down gang members. It just wasn’t that fun. I wrote about my personal stand on playing only good guys in the past. I articulated it in one of the finest documentaries ever done on video game violence, Spencer Halpin’s “Moral Kombat.” I can deliver a powerful and personal message about video game violence. I don’t belong in either the pro-game or anti-violence camp.

But that brings me to another branch in my emotional evolution as a gamer. Grand Theft Auto IV promises to be such a crowing achievement in video games that I am prepared to play it with the same relish as any 18-year-old kid who doesn’t give a second thought to issues that give me pause (even if I have a sense of guilt because of my personal experience).

I’ve had a preview of this game and it is truly one of the best that I’ve ever seen. I think that, whatever your position on violent games, everybody (old enough) ought to take a look at this game. A while ago, I received a briefing on the Xbox 360 version of GTA IV from Jeronimo Barrera, a heavily tattoed man who is vice president of product development for Rockstar. What I saw knocked through my own personal biases. Visually, the game is stunning. It is set in the fictional Liberty City, which resembles New York city but has a satirical sense of humor in the almost-familiar, but stylistic rendering.

One of the first things I noticed was the streets. They are paved with asphalt that really looks like asphalt, including pot holes, cracks, gray patches and oil slicks. The GTA crew created a graphics engine from scratch for the newest consoles. This world isn’t as big as the previous Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” at least in terms of square miles. But it’s plenty big, as a car drive through the city showed.

“We learned it was not about broadening the worlds but getting to the minutia so that the world comes alive,” Barrera said.

You can see the sheen on a car and watch the shadows the car makes. The cars ahead of you slow down and their brake lights come on. You can watch as characters actually step down from a street curb as they cross the street. They’re not sliding across the ground in some unrealistic shuffle anymore. Objects that collide with each other have real-world physics. The posters on the walls make the city look old and worn. You can see sunsets, rain, dawn, and a variety of weather effects that seem real.

The user interface is more immersive as well. You use a cell phone to stay connected with the characters that you meet. You can get started on any one of 90 different missions when a character gives you a call. You can also access more missions by gaining access to a police computer, where you can look up the address of a criminal and make an unexpected visit. GPS helps you get to destinations faster, minimizing boring driving scenes.

The characters’ faces look real, their muscles move correctly, and their voices are synchronized fairly well with their lip movements. The thanks go in part to a technology from Image Metrics. The artificial intelligence of the characters is expected to be a lot better than in past games. Barrera showed me a scene on a bridge where the player “knee caps” an enemy criminal. The character then tries to stand but can’t. You shoot the character again; he swears at you and he starts to crawl, trying to get away and save his life.

“The characters are embued with self-preservation,” said Barrera.

That’s because Rockstar licensed a technology called “euphoria” from Natural Motion. It’s a smart AI technology as well as a physics system that, coupled with Rockstar’s own RAGE engine, makes non-player characters act and move in a more realistic fashion. The same technology is being used by LucasArts in its upcoming game “Star Wars: The Force Unleashed,” as you can see in this demo. I’d like to see how Rockstar executed on this piece of the game, which makes it more fun and realistic. The enemies that you fight won’t just be stupid automatons, as in most games. It’s clear that some of the best thinking in technology, from animation to physics, is being applied in video game consoles that sport what just a few years back might have been considered supercomputing power.

The combat of the game is a step up from past GTA games. You can now make use of all of those skyscrapers, taking window washing hoists to the top of a building. From there, you can snipe at enemies at a dock. Then you can go there and have an easier time cleaning up the rest of the gang. You can toss grenades and shoot around corners, bringing up the combat of GTA to be on par with other games.

The scenes of the game mix cinematic sequences, where you simply watch a video sequence unfold, with actual game play where you can control the character and move it around with the controller. One scene showed the convincing street dialogue. “You’re cold,” says one character. “You didn’t even fucking blink. I love that.”

I watched another early scene in the game. In it, you could take a girl out on a date to a bowling alley and actually bowl an entire game with her. You take her back to her home, never opening doors for her, but she cheerfully says she will stay in contact with you, as long as you don’t blow her away. There is something funny about this cold-blooded killer taking a girl on a peaceful bowling date. Other games might have ended with that. And perhaps the player would have been better rewarded just to shoot her. But if you keep her alive, you actually see that she comes in useful down the road and introduces a new part of the story.

The last part of what convinces me that this game could be great is its film-like storytelling. The story is about an Eastern European immigrant, Niko Bellic, who survived the wars in Bosnia. He comes to America at the invitation of his cousin, Roman, who exaggerates the attractions of the new world. Other reviewers have noted that this is where the game is at its best. Niko starts taking on hit jobs and other tough-guy crimes so that he can get by, escape his past and make his way up in life. It paints the life of criminals as ugly and does not glorify them in the ways that shallower games have done.

Niko has to make some difficult decisions and live with the consequences. In other words, the Rockstar guys have bent their game in my direction, making a concession that shows they aren’t purely sensationalist. Their characters are three-dimensional. The game itself is not a simple glorification of violence as it shows the corrupting effects of cumulative bad behavior. Such nuances also remind me that it’s not always that easy to distinguish between heroes and villains, a feature of some of the finest video games out there such as Peter Molyneux’s Fable.

“We’ve done more character and story development than in any of our other games,” Barrera said. “There are tens of thousands of lines of a dialogue.”

However, I wouldn’t quite call this the nirvana of games. While the graphics look great, they don’t match the expectations created by the latest special effects in Hollywood movies. Games like Call of Duty 4 that take the gamer down a narrow path should present a better graphical and narrative experience than GTA IV, which has the pitfalls of any game with an open world. It is likely to be easier to get lost, go off the path of a mission, or otherwise become bored in such wide-open spaces.

Rockstar uses the power of the newest technology in the game consoles to deliver a richer experience that leaves room for subtlety. This is one of those games where experiencing it in full is going to be more rewarding than just skipping to the sequences where you can shoot as many people as possible. For the rest of the industry, it means that the company has set a new bar. If your game’s production values aren’t as high, don’t expect to get a good review or good sales. When I mentioned this to another game developer a short time ago, he said, “Oh man, they’ve done it again.” I’m looking forward to playing this game. But I expect that, indeed, Rockstar has pulled off something worthy of the “next generation” moniker. I’ll tell you more once I’ve played it.


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