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The Family Gamer and Grand Theft Auto IV don't necessarily go together. But as many of you have told me on my Twitter feed, this is just the sort of thorny subject you want to hear about. So here I reflect on my first two hours spent in Liberty City and find I am surprised by just how much health and life there is in the place.
There are still a few of us in the wider world who haven't yet dipped out toes into the wonderful playground that is Grand Theft Auto. Some have avoided it because of the negative hype. Some have not felt comfortable playing an 18 cert. game. And some, like me, simply never quite got around to playing it. Granted, amongst my game reviewing fraternity I am something of an oddity. But family life, oh so many other games to enjoy, a mortgage, friends, family, Christmas, Easter, Weddings, Funerals and various other festivals all conspired to keep me from jacking those make believe cars and visiting those virtual hoes.
This time around I was determined not to be behind the pack. I have decided that GTA IV is where I join the rest of the gaming world. It seemed strange holding the game in my hand, how much city real estate and characterisation was somehow electronically packaged into this small 4" by 6" oblong box. It is odd enough that films can pack in three hours of life changing entertainment into their discs, stretch this to the 60 or so hours of GTA IV and the mind boggles.
'Ah, we all do dumb things, that's what makes us human'. This gritty honesty about the human condition seems to be the prerequisite for all that follows, good and bad.
Once the kids (a long way off being 18) were tucked up in bed I grabbed a drink and some snacks, before popping the game into the 360. After some mandatory Xbox whirring and buzzing the game opens with the arrival of our protagonist Niko on a container ship. Credits are creatively placed within this introductory cut-scene. A simple effect that is often seen in movies, but one that lends some much needed weight to the opening moments.
Just as we reach the point where the game's title (GTA IV) rolls onto the screen, we hear a character reassure us by saying 'Ah, we all do dumb things, that's what makes us human'. This gritty honesty about the human condition seems to be the prerequisite for all that follows, good and bad. It's an interesting theme and although more time is needed with the game to be sure, this embracing of human fallibility seems to be the thread that runs through the experience. Liberty City certainly seems to reflect the New York of Paul Haggis' Crash by cataloguing the impact of lives on each other - people making mistakes, getting up and trying to survive.
The titles fade away and the action slickly hands control over to the player. You realise that this opening sequence has all been rendered in real time and looks the same as the rest of the game. As you start to take control of the action the game unfolds and steadily introduces you to the various characters, environments and plot mechanics. There is a pleasing pace to the progress, giving you long enough to orientate yourself without losing the sense of momentum.
GTA doesn't waste too much time getting down to business. Within the first hour I felt like I had a good taste of what was to come. A handful of violent encounters, colourful characters, and some potentially intimate relationships give the newcomer a good sketch of what it means to live in this world. I had read GTA IV's BBFC descriptors on the back of the box and naively thought I could choose to avoid these hardcore elements of the game if I so wished - I could play it my way. But whilst there is likely to be plenty of scope for varying your approach, tactics and ethics, this is still within the confines of the overarching gangster simulation. At the end of the day even the nicest gangster still has to pop a few caps, hit on a few honnies and generally make his presence known, all in the most charming of ways of course.
I hope this doesn't sound like I'm simply being down on the game, but rather this was just the realisation of what sort of game I was playing. For me, time will tell whether GTA manages to deal adequately with the themes it has chosen for itself. Whether it manages to deal with its players in an adult (read: mature rather than pornographic) manner. The choices it poses are certainly engaging and (perhaps more importantly for a game) fun to play.
Alongside all the characterisation, voice work and animation, one particular character stands head and shoulder above the rest. The most impressive, vocal, comely and imaginative persona in the game is the world is Liberty City itself. There has been much talk of a living breathing space in which to play. The good news is that the reality more than lives up to the hype. The combination of believable Non Player Characters (NPCs), the day-night cycles, the stunning architecture and sheer hand crafted attention to detail is just breath taking. Even in my short play time I have some GTA moments stuck in my mind. Turning a corner to discover an airport in the distance with planes landing and taking off. A Bronx-style street with houses and people audibly teeming with life. The sight of the ship that brought Niko here, and the cold dark dock's cape. These are just a few of the gaming memories that no one had pre-planned, memories that organically resulted from my presence in this space. This is a space that, like a woven oriental rug, reflects its humanity through its imperfections as much as its vivid colours and intricate patterns.
I hadn't felt like this playing a game since first getting sucked into Elite on the BBC Micro. That game also created a world full of life in which you could travel, traffic, trade and exist. GTA can do away with a lot of the smoke and mirrors that Braben and co used to fool gamers of the late 80's. They have the horsepower in the machine, and manpower in their teams to flesh out the experience. But strangely I initially felt a little more constrained in GTA. It seemed my only option was to deal dirty, where as in Elite I could choose whether to pursue legal trades. But as I have said above, more play time is needed to see if making it as a cabby in Liberty City is a legitimate way to roll.
Overall I was both perplexed and intrigued by my time so far with GTA IV. But certainly I want to head back to Liberty to play some more. All being well I'll be back here with more Family Gamer thoughts on the big game. Until them catch me on Twitter for up to the minute comments.
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