Grand Theft Auto IV is surprisingly — and subtly — enjoyable.
Screenshot courtesy Rockstar Games I’ll just get this up front: I enormously enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV.
But here’s the thing: It’s kind of hard to explain why.
There’s no single thing to point to — no must-see scene, no gotta-do moment of gameplay, no deliriously fun weapon. No, the game’s pleasures come in weird, subtle, unexpected moments.
Let me give you an example. At one point, I was having a typically thuggish day: I’d killed a few drug dealers with a semiautomatic, and while trying to flee, whoops — I accidentally rear-ended a cop car. Then it was a car chase, all wailing sirens and shrieking pedestrians diving out of the way, before totaling my SUV in a brutal collision and escaping on foot. A total Hillary Clinton nightmare, in other words.
I finally escaped by ducking into a subway station, and while catching my breath, I decided to explore a bit. That’s when I stumbled upon a lovely piece of artwork: A huge mosaic of a subway train on the second level. It looked precisely like the mosaics you see in the New York City subway, except even more ambitious and gorgeous. And I was thinking, “Man, who put this thing here? Who thinks of this stuff?”
Well, Rockstar Games did. The Rockstar developers are utterly in love with the idea of the American city: the riot of decay and grandeur, the garish commercialism, the violence and beauty, the architectural delights hidden in every corner. With GTA IV, Rockstar has produced an ode to urban life. Which is to say, they’re not really giving you a game to play with — they’re giving you a city.
Rockstar invented the sandbox game, and with this GTA, it has pretty much perfected it. As with previous games in the series, you play as a minor thug climbing the crime ladder by fulfilling missions. But you can totally ignore the missions and simply go exploring, eavesdropping or conducting physics experiments by jumping motorcycles off rooftops.
Since this version of Liberty City is modeled loosely on New York City, the game is satisfying merely as a driving sim — you can spend hours cruising around and admiring the garish fluorescence of Times Square, the corroded projects of the Bronx, the Russian mob scene flourishing beneath the rattling subway tracks of lower Brooklyn (neighborhoods that in the game are dubbed, respectively, Algonquin, Bohan and Broker).
The attention to street-culture detail is obsessive, practically Sistine. Each street corner is a piece of randomly generated theater: Primly dressed art students wander around with portfolio cases, homeless crack addicts mutter to themselves as they brush past hipster dudes toting Starbuckian sleeves of coffee. Like all the in-game voice acting, the ambient dialogue is both superbly acted and super weird. (“I forgot to tell you, I need more socks. They are all fucked!” brayed a Russian émigré into his mobile phone as I wandered by.)
This is the same self-regulating anarchy that inspired Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
So you could just street-watch. But once you engage the main “story,” the plot line is so appealing that it’s hard to stop. In GTA IV you play as Niko Bellic, a just-off-the-boat Serbian immigrant who is scarred by his experience in the Balkan wars. You’re nursing some secrets, yet trying to start new. Starting new isn’t easy, because you’re immediately trying to pay off your ne’er-do-well cousin’s debts, which means doing the bidding of various low-fi gangsters. Soon you’re hip-deep in intrigue — whacking drug dealers, stealing contraband and generally breaking the hell out of the law.
The game isn’t a celebration of gangster life. GTA never was; for all their bad-boy reputation, Rockstar’s designers are adept satirists of American excess. Indeed, they pretty much share Charles Dickens’ moral view, wherein those in the big city who gain power are inevitably corrupted by it. (I nearly drove off the road several times while shaking with laughter at the parodies of right-wing talk radio — complete with incoherent, anti-immigrant nativists, slavishly pro-government commentators on the Weasel News network and ads for “baby buying” services.)
GTA IV‘s men are filled with sexist bluster — particularly when women aren’t around — and the Russian and Balkan gangsters are sloppy psychological messes, often because they spent time in war prisons abroad. (Rockstar’s choice of Eastern European mobsters for this game, actually, adds a nice frisson, because this is the one criminal class left in America that hasn’t been glamorized: They’re simply scary as shit, in real life as in the game.)
Interestingly, Niko is the most likable hero in the GTA series. He’s a curiously cordial dating partner — and you’ll go on a lot of dates. Indeed, in a Hollywood-like cellphone irony, your girlfriend will often call to chat while you’re in the middle of a gunfight or car chase.
The game also lets you exercise a bit of your own moral code when you’re given a few key opportunities to disobey your gangster bosses. (I chose to set free someone I’d been given a contract to kill, on the promise that he leave town — though I’m wondering if that decision will come back to haunt me as I continue to play.)
As for the game’s controls? Very little is new, but it’s all improved. Executing your missions is more fun than in any GTA game before, because Rockstar has neatly tweaked some of the mechanics that annoyed many lightweight players like me in the past. You’re much more accurate with your gun early on (a fact cleverly explained by Niko’s status as a war veteran), and each time you fail a mission, you’re given an option to immediately replay it, which speeds up the game immeasurably.
In previous games, the complexity of GTA‘s cities often left you maddeningly lost during time-sensitive missions. This time, an in-game GPS service highlights the fastest route to drive — a trick that Rockstar copied from Saints Row, a game that itself was a copy of Grand Theft Auto. My one serious quibble with the gameplay is that the cars still control like tanks, and the camera hovers far too low on the hood, frequently obstructing your view unless you constantly fiddle with it.
Perhaps the best improvement of all, though, is that Rockstar has reined itself in. Those who played the most recent title in the series — San Andreas — confronted a game so sprawling that no normal earthling could finish it (not even a friend of mine who was confined to bed with a broken leg for three weeks could go all the way). But judging by my progress, you could get through GTA IV in about 50 hours, doable for an adult who goes to a job and occasionally showers.
Yet I may never finish the game. In a city this vibrant, it’s hard to stop getting distracted. At one point, I finished a mission on the top floor of a decrepit apartment filled with crack-addled occupants. I started to head back downstairs to my car, then wondered: “Hey, what’s up on the roof?”
So I headed up and, sure enough, it was a spectacular view: corroded water towers dotting the rooftops, bits of weather-beaten graffiti on the masonry, the distant hum and honk of pissed-off drivers below. Broken and beaten yet flailing onward: That’s the world of Grand Theft Auto.
What a wonderfully seedy world it is.
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Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to Wired and New York magazines. Look for more of Clive’s observations on his blog, collision detection.