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Citizen Kane? Or ‘Citizen You’?

Grand Theft Auto IV  puts the player behind the wheel
By MITCH KRPATA  |  May 15, 2008
4.0 4.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV | for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Developed by Rockstar North | Published by Rockstar Games
When video-game reviewers are casting about for ways to explain games to a general audience, we inevitably end up comparing them to movies. Everybody watches films and understands the shorthand of that medium. It’s tempting to talk about Grand Theft Auto IV the same way — in terms of its narrative experience. And maybe that’s why reviewers are reaching for Godfather and Citizen Kane comparisons in their superlatives. Grand Theft Auto IV is a crime story, a revenge saga, and a rough-edged satire of the American Dream. For stretches of gameplay, you’re a passive observer to cinematic sequences that feature a cavalcade of wacky supporting characters. But to look at Grand Theft Auto IV solely through this lens is to miss the most crucial aspect of its identity. Anyone who wants to know what makes a video game a video game — what makes it different from movies, television, books — can find the answer in Grand Theft Auto IV. In a non-narrative sense, the Citizen Kane comparison may still be apt. That film represented the movies’ coming of age — the point when they ceased to be filmed versions of stage plays and asserted their identity in a language all their own. In the same way, GTA is, for better and worse, definitive.

At their core, games are about choice. A game gives you a goal and the tools to accomplish it, but the path is up to the player. Some games give you more latitude than others. In Super Mario Bros., you can choose to hop over the first goomba you encounter, or you can squash it, but every player has to make Mario scurry from left to right to reach the end of the level. In Grand Theft Auto IV, the limits are so broad that it feels as if there were none at all. Your character can drive cars, fly helicopters, and commandeer boats. He can make friends and enemies. He can cause mayhem or be a (mostly) law-abiding citizen. Although they’ll hit the same touchstones along the way, no two players will have the same experience.

The massive setting, a dead ringer for New York called Liberty City, ensures that they won’t. Liberty City lives and breathes, its streets abuzz with traffic and pedestrians. Standing on the sidewalk for a moment, you’ll see a businessman on a cellphone hurry past, head down, jabbering about a pending deal. Across the street, a preacher holds a Bible in one hand while barking the Gospel at no one in particular. Walk down the sidewalk and you’ll see folks using ATMs, grabbing a snack at a hot-dog cart, even running from the law. The virtual world isn’t perfect: buildings tend to pop into view as you drive, and sometimes the random events muddle into an unrealistic mess. Even so, Liberty City crackles with vitality. Most video-game character interactions are scripted. The unpredictable elements of Grand Theft Auto are what give it its unique appeal.

Into this world steps Niko Bellic, a man running from a checkered past in Eastern Europe. Having been lured to Liberty City by his cousin Roman, who promises easy money, fast cars, and loose women, Niko finds instead a hardscrabble life as bleak as the one he thought he was leaving behind. Roman, a good-hearted lowlife who owes money all across town, lives in a roach-infested studio in a neighborhood that resembles Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. Because Niko needs money, and because his cousin has made some dangerous enemies, he quickly finds himself on the wrong side of the law.

Niko is a more sympathetic and layered protagonist than has yet appeared in the Grand Theft Auto series. His crimes seem born of necessity, not ambition or greed. He is polite to ordinary citizens, even occasionally apologizing when requisitioning someone’s car. Much of his depth comes from the relationships he forges — that is, the ones you choose. Niko befriends several characters who are willing to help him out if he treats them well. In practice, that means calling up chums on an in-game cellphone to go bowling or visit a comedy club. Each non-player character has his or her own proclivities, and the situations play out accordingly.

Even when the game prompts you to advance the story line, player preference is a key component. Several missions give you the choice of having Niko kill someone or show mercy. In one story thread, Niko must choose between two acquaintances; killing neither is not an option. It’s a difficult decision for you as well as for him. You get the impression that Niko would be happy never picking up a weapon again — which is the one choice the world will not grant him.

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  Topics: Videogames , Grand Theft Auto IV , Culture and Lifestyle , Games ,  More more >
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