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A Llberty City state of mind

By Staff | May 6, 2008

by Ben Spanner

There he was, hanging onto a grated outcropping high above the swarming city street. I had furiously chased this snitch across the island’s borough, through a building and up nine flights of stairs. With no place to go, he tripped and I’m standing over him. The orders came to whack him and I approached.

And that’s when “Grand Theft Auto IV” became the best game in the next-gen era.

Popping up on screen was a simple option. Press X to kick out his fingers and watch him fall, or A to pull him up. Morality choices are commonplace in the world of gaming today, but this was Grand Theft Auto. Things weren’t supposed to happen like this, right?

Wrong. So, so wrong.

Welcome to Liberty City, USA. Based upon, and sometimes a carbon copy of, New York City, you enter the harbor as Niko Bellic; an Eastern European immigrant. Fantasizing a new life for himself in America and fed extravagant lies from his cousin Roman, Niko plants his foot down on American soil and you take it from there.

The city is majestic. On every corner someone is having their own conversation, vendors are selling city hot dogs, and cops are eating donuts. The city becomes a character in this in-depth story. It’s streets are alive and you become a part of it. Unlike other GTA titles, IV let’s you know that while you play as Niko Bellic, the city is your greatest friend or enemy. It has nuance attached to everything, from the new police system to the seamless transitions between walking on the street to walking into a building. The world of GTA has changed and it is so much better for it.

Technically speaking, the euphoria engine is a breath of fresh air. If you “accidentally” run over someone while chasing down a bad guy, their body reacts realistically. People jump out of the way in natural motion and cap one in a guy’s leg and he’ll reach for it. Every motion is reaction based with no motion identical to the last.

 You walk the streets off the boat not unlike your previous situation, a poor immigrant looking for work. Your missions are GTA standard from an on-looker’s perspective. Make a contact, visit that contact, do a job. The job’s are also standard from the on-looker’s perspective. Find some guy that’s doing something wrong, chase him down, give him a pair of concrete shoes.

The first thing you’ll learn is that your phone is your key to everything. Since IV is not a period piece and exists as close as possible to the year 2008, mission objectives and equipment have updated themselves accordingly. You make this contact and all of a sudden you have his/her number and can call them for jobs or just to hang out. Which brings me to the next new important part of GTA — friendships.

The friendships you acquire through GTA are not crucial to finishing the game, but are extremely advantageous. For example, do enough good things for your cousin Roman, and you’ll be able to use his special ability, which is to call for a free cab ride anywhere in the city. Special abilities come in handy and can be accessed through a phone call. Need a boost of health in a firefight? Call Little Jacob for discounted weapons any time, or the Irish mobster for a car bomb, whatever suits your fancy. The more your court these friendships, the easier it will be to take down some of the harder missions as you progress through the story line. The process takes time but is well worth it.

Now you may fear that I’m sensationalizing this experience — that this game is nothing more than zooming around the streets, killing and stealing. And I want to set the record straight once and for all, right now.

There’s a shit-ton of that.

No, I’m kidding (partly). What makes IV the best in the franchise is the weight in every decision. The story, worthy of the likes of a feature film and twice as good as any crime movie to hit theaters since “The Godfather,” is intoxicating. Your choices have a personal affect in the game and the dialogue that springs from it is incredible. Combined with excellent voice acting and great visuals, “GTA IV” is a true cinematic experience.

Niko Bellic will jump into monologues about the war he just came from, the horrible things he did, and his desire to rid himself of those actions. You feel for the main character more than any other GTA title, and look upon him with pity instead of as a killer. This is not GTA III when you stepped into the city with no real direction. This is not GTA San Andreas with chaos everywhere. This is a real city with real problems that Niko Bellic has to fix. It just so happens that you can fix the problems with a shotgun.

Contact Ben at bspanner@graffitiwv.com