As one of my friends observed, “It is a very brave or very stupid man that gives his wife Grand Theft Auto 4 for her birthday.” However, that is precisely what my husband did several weeks ago. It turned out better than you might think. Of all my gifts, it is probably the one to have seen the most use. Just not by me. Since this game includes not only first person shooter elements but also a heavy driving element, my complete ineptitude with both genres meant I enjoyed this game in an observational manner. Although I did insist on being the first one to play it, since technically it is my present. It took me all of thirty seconds to sigh in resignation and hand the controller off to my husband.
For the three of you who don’t know, the Grand Theft Auto franchise is about stealing cars and causing mayhem (not necessarily in that order). In fact, this particular installment places much more emphasis on the mayhem. While there are missions about stealing cars and street racing, they are just a small part of the whole. For the most part, you need to steal cars in order to make your way to various locations throughout the city to commit other, more lucrative crimes. This game also contains a heavy story element. You are Nico Bellic, a recent generic Eastern European immigrant to Liberty City (aka New York). You used to be a soldier and have joined your cousin in the United States to seek your fortune and to tie up loose ends from the (vague and unspecified) war. You quickly become embroiled in the underworld making connections with the Russian mafia, a Jamaican who is only understandable about twenty five percent of the time, and a family of violent Irishmen to name but a few. Soon you also start doing favors for a secret branch of the military. I have no idea how it ends, actually. The world is so large and the gameplay so deep that my husband has yet to finish the game.
The most interesting aspect of the game (at least to me) is relationships you have to develop with other characters in the game. It starts off simply with your cousin Roman and the girl he has set you up with, Michelle. You can hit the strip club with Roman or play a game of darts. Or you can take Michelle to a nice restaurant (or a not so nice one if you haven’t opened up the Manhattan area yet) and then bowling. There are mini-games to accompany each of these activities, although the lap dance one isn’t so great. Eventually though maintaining good relationships with everyone can become a bit of a hassle. Soon there are seven or eight people clamoring for you attention while all you want to do is finish clearing out a warehouse full of drug dealers and make off with their cocaine. But hey let me put down everything I’m doing so I can take you out to a bar.
As far as I can tell from my thirty seconds of play time, the controls work well. I’m sure driving all over the city from job to job does get a little tedious after a while too. And the camera phone missions can be incredibly annoying. But these are all minor inconveniences in a game that works really well. And if you look closely, the artificial intelligence can provide you with a few laughs. It’s been tweaked such that people drive badly on purpose, to provide you with the real New York City experience. The result is that you’ll come across cars with dents in them from accidents that occurred no where near you. And it’s completely understandable how these accidents happen. I decided to attempt driving by all the standard traffic laws, just like in real life. That is when I discovered that the cars in front of you don’t move when the traffic light turns green. They just sit there, so you have no choice but to drive recklessly. But none of that tops when my husband was driving around Liberty City’s airport (he has yet to steal a 747, sadly) and attracted the notice of a police helicopter. All he was doing was driving around on the runways, not even shooting, and the helicopter just plunges out of the sky crashing rather spectacularly onto the tarmac. We couldn’t stop giggling for five minutes after that.
I am obviously not the best person to judge whether this game is worth purchasing, but I still feel confident that I can recommend it to others. The story is compelling, the characters interesting, and the explosions satisfying. If this is the kind of game you enjoy and excel at, you probably already own a copy. And for those “coordination challenged” individuals such as myself I suggest that you find someone with a copy and watch them play. It’s surprisingly entertaining and television has gone into reruns for the summer so it’s not like there’ll be anything better on.
This columnist would love to hear your thoughts on her work. All glowing praise should be sent to her via the link on our 'About Us' page. Hate mail on the other hand, should be directed to Jack Thompson, exactly where it belongs.