Niko Bellic had it all.
The expensive suits, a variety of apartments, a selection of carefully parked vehicles. OK, so he had to deal with the murder of his girlfriend, and he’d failed many, many times in getting revenge for it.
Besides all that, life was good.
And, within the blink of an eye, it was gone.
“Disc unreadable." Despite repeated attempts, my Xbox 360 refused to play the open-world crime fest known as Grand Theft Auto IV any longer. I needed to buy a replacement disc for Niko's life to continue. For various reasons, I ended up buying the game for my PlayStation 3 instead. I started Niko's journey once more from the beginning. Along the way, I got to experience some great moments again and also got to compare my newer journey to my first playthrough in 2008.
I remembered fun missions, clunky controls, great characters, and an ambitious but sometimes dragging storyline.
What I didn't fully appreciate back then was just how wonderfully alive and immersive the title's Liberty City setting is. Traffic clogs the streets. People crowd the pavement and talk to each other. Cars honk and play music.
And, just like in a real city, shit happens.
Players can't be omniscient for a game's world to be believable. In real life, I spend portions of every day failing to make sense of what's happening around me. Liberty City provides that same sense of confusion. Niko turns a corner and sees someone being arrested. For what? No idea. Men fight in the middle of the street without a discernable motive. A man sprints by you. Is he running to or from someone? Or something? In the back of my mind, an annoying voice tries to explain everything away as programming. I ignore it. This is just what life is like in the city.
To fully appreciate a metropolis, you have to explore it. But back in '08 I was a more traditional player, seeing titles as a series of challenges to be completed quickly and efficiently. I've been to New York since then, so maybe that's why I enjoy exploring this digital approximation of the Big Apple. It's gaming as tourism. Regardless, I find this release more fun when I ignore the more game-like parts of it.
To see GTA IV as just a set of missions forces you to experience awkward driving — with irritating traffic jams — and clumsy combat controls. I can accept the weighty vehicle physics as developer Rockstar's attempt to make the game relatively realistic (compared to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). The combat controls, however, stink, any way you look at them.
During gunfights with multiple enemies, the auto-targeting system can go nuts. Sometimes it'll lock on to the guy I'm trying to shoot, then randomly choose another foe. Many times I've used a doorway as cover. Then, as I turned to fire, the auto-target found someone in the periphery of the room and dragged me to a storm of bullets.
GTA's scripting also leaves a lot to be desired. On one mission I chased a guy through a warehouse. He ran up a set of stairs. I fired and hit him five or six times. Showing no apparent damage, he continued his ascent. As Niko stood still and I sat confused, I realized: I had to get to the roof to be able to kill him.
I'm probably more critical of GTA IV over these scripting problems than I am with other offerings. But its world is so much more immersive than others that these fiction-breaking moments are even more disappointing.
At first glance, GTA IV is about an immigrant's attempt at achieving the materialistic American Dream. But the two-fisted wealth-and-success grab is less of a focus than it is in other Grand Theft Auto entries or titles like Scarface: The World Is Yours. Instead, Niko's story is a well-told tale of revenge. He does enjoy the trappings of his advancement through the criminal underworld — real estate, clothes, expensive sniper rifles — but these are side effects of his original goal.
GTA's mainstream image still seems to be centered on the "game where you kill hookers for money" notion. And yes, you can do that, but you don't have to. GTA IV is a game of options. You can kill most people at any time, but you can also go to a comedy club, go bowling, or fly your car off a ramp and into a river. Even the seemingly linear missions occasionally have options, allowing Niko to kill his intended targets or spare their lives (though this feature is sadly underused).
Despite the title's faults, it's still a massive success at times. It's ambitious in both world creation and storytelling, and it mostly succeeds at both.
At one point, I walked down a dark street. Then, I spotted some hookers. Shortly after, I commandeered a car, drove to them, and beeped my horn (I'm somewhat ashamed at my eagerness to do this). I received no response. I drove closer and accidentally hit one of the girls with my car. She ran around my car, dragged me out, and started to punch me.
I sat on the couch at home, finding this chain of events to be hilarious. I ran Niko down the street, and the girl gave chase. I waited to let her hit Niko again (I'm kinky that way). I ran off again, and, this time, I spotted a police patrol car on the corner. I ran to the cops while still being attacked. The coppers jumped out, guns drawn, and arrested my sexy assailant.
Niko walked off, and I continued to giggle. How can you not like a game that allows these kinds of things to happen?
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