Tech-heads from way back might remember the theory of the Tetris Offensive. The idea was that the Soviets, bored with the weapons stockpiling and political maneuvering of the Cold War, created Tetris in the mid-’80s as a psychological attack, convinced that a sufficiently engrossing game would leave America unable to mount a defense in the event of an invasion.
Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV hearkens back to those heady days, if only as a reminder of a wholly immersive affair with a lot of Eastern European accents. It’s more than a casual game with a few updates and the occasional Disc Read Error, though—GTAIV is perhaps the first multi-platform release of 2008 to have real “Game of the Year” potential.
Graphically, the GTA series has always been something of a compromise, giving up minor amounts of raw visual detail in favor of packing as much into the overall experience as possible. GTAIV effectively eliminates the graphics gap, improving Liberty City from its comparatively sparse PS2 incarnation to an updated version that goes the extra mile to present a convincingly ugly setting. GTAIV’s Liberty City is a haggard thing, constantly coughing up vileness and lowering its own property values. Traversing its weather-beaten features is like taking a taxi ride across Clint Eastwood’s face.
If Rockstar had only beefed up Liberty City’s looks—well, it would still practically print money, but it wouldn’t be as good. It’s the storyline, that ephemeral non-programmable element, that sets GTAIV apart from the pack of open-world imitators. Playing through GTAIV is like playing a next-gen Choose Your Own Adventure version of a Dostoevsky novel. Niko Bellic, a fresh-off-the-boat Bosnian expatriate, has come to Liberty City to chase the stereotypical American dream, finding (predictably enough) that his immigrant cousin Roman’s stories of prosperity are paper-thin and the American reality has more in common with his regret-ridden European past than he would like. After pulling his cousin’s fat out of the wrong people’s fire, Niko finds himself pitted against every faction of organized crime on the Eastern seaboard that wasn’t wiped out by Daniel Day-Lewis in the mid-19th century.
So it goes, when you’re a veteran of the Bosnian wars with blood on your hands who questions the sanctity of his soul when he’s not counting the ways he knows to kill everyone within sight. Niko maintains the Rockstar tradition of tragic-hero protagonists with that classic combination of loyalty, pride, disregard for the legal system, and a working knowledge of firearms. Far from a sociopath, Niko’s troubles in Liberty City begin when he cares too much about his family and lashes out at a small-time operator, forgetting that the Russian Mob is like unsafe sex—when you screw with one of them, you’re screwing with everyone that one has screwed with.
As controversial as GTAIV’s subject matter can be, the fact that it is still harangued by trigger-happy individuals who decry it as a “murder simulator” in which self-control is a faint memory and punishments are never meted out for crimes committed is frankly a bit baffling. Call me a devil’s advocate on this one, but these people obviously never bothered with GTAIV’s storyline, which in itself is both a litany of slights against its protagonist and a laundry list of examples of his own superhuman levels of restraint. During the course of the game, he is harassed, insulted, berated, and betrayed at every turn. He is belittled for his national heritage. His life is constantly threatened. Everything he comes to care for becomes a target. Poor Niko’s adventures in Liberty City would in any rational universe force him to send a few sedans through a crowded shopping mall. That GTAIV even allows endgame players to function normally is a testament to the fantasy element of the game.
As impressive as the new Liberty City feels, though, a few of the bells and whistles from previous GTAs (most notably from the San Andreas era) were lost during the upgrade. Niko is a fun character to play but, mechanically, he’s less fleshed-out than the protagonists of Rockstar’s last three open-worlders (Bully, The Warriors, and GTA: San Andreas). Niko’s wardrobe is comparatively threadbare, and character upgrades are nonexistent—Niko in a drab suit is functionally the same as Niko in drab dockworker’s garb. Liberty City itself, while more detailed than earlier GTA venues, feels smaller than the sprawling landscapes of previous games. This makes a kind of sense, given the packed-in environment of the real-world Manhattan, but after seeing more or less everything there is to see in a comparatively short amount of time, I’m left wishing that they had thrown in New Jersey for good measure.