Grand Theft Auto IV: A brutal new world

By: Brian Crecente

Expectations run high as the latest iteration of the famous – sometimes infamous – Grand Theft Auto hits stores on Tuesday, promising to deliver more than 50 hours inside the game’s gritty city of organized crime.

It’s been nearly four years since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas started its climb toward becoming one of the best-selling titles of all time, and its fans have been waiting nearly that long for a return visit to the fictionalized New York City and all the carjackings, shootings and wild rides that unfold along its streets.

But the real killing likely will be at the cash register, where industry insiders think Grand Theft Auto IV could approach half a billion dollars in sales in the first week alone.

With that much on the line, developer Rockstar is very protective of its baby, as it should be: Less than a week before San Andreas was set to hit shelves in 2004, someone stole a copy and posted the entire game and manual, and even the cover art, on the Internet for anyone to take.

Since then Rockstar has refused to send out an early code of the game, instead inviting journalists to come to New York or other locations to play through the lengthy title under a watchful eye.

Last week I flew to San Francisco and spent five days in a hotel playing the game eight to 11 hours a day, often without a break, as I strove to get a handle on a game that is more virtual reality than plaything.

While I managed to avoid video-game Stockholm syndrome, I still built up a nasty GTA habit that days later left me jonesing for another dose – even just a five-minute taste – of the game.

Monday, 10:08 a.m.

It’s like watching the opening of a movie. I sit back on the couch, lay the Xbox 360 controller by my side and take in the opening cinematics of the game. The credits pop up as part of the scenery, blending into the backdrop as Niko, the game’s anti-hero, hustles about a merchant marine ship coasting into the harbor of Grand Theft Auto’s New York City, known in the game as Liberty City.

The pacing of the introduction, a story-driven cut-scene that takes control away from the gamer, forces you to pay attention to what matters most to Rockstar: the story. It also helps me notice little things, such as the game’s stunning graphics, the use of camera angle, the sheer level of detail in this city that Niko and I are about to explore.

Fresh off the boat, the game smoothly pushes me through a number of short training missions, cleverly disguised as important parts of the story- line. I learn to walk around, to drive a car, to interact with people (violently and not), to shop for clothes and even to use my cell phone, which is used to find missions, to talk to the people I meet in the game and to track my progress.

Within the first 10 minutes of the game I’m brought to my cousins and then to my apartment. There’s a television here, a working television with literally hours of shows to watch. There’s also a bed. To save I must sleep, pushing the game’s world ahead by six hours.

Monday, 5:45 p.m.

It is raining. Niko stands on the rooftop of a cabaret in Liberty City’s Broker borough. At his feet lies the body of a man he once considered his friend. I’ve just killed the man. The rain falls in sheets, blurring the hard lines of the nearby buildings that crowd the cabaret.

It’s been five hours, one iced tea and a room-service cheeseburger since I put my life aside to drop into GTA, and I’ve left the couch just once – to open the door for my cheeseburger. Seventeen days have passed inside the game, and the running, the driving, the world seen through the 47-inch window of an LCD has, at times, left me feeling motion-sick. But it’s moments like this one – where I stand on the precipice of an in-game cabaret full of intricate details – that keep me anchored inside the hotel room.

As I stand there, I marvel at the world, knowing that if I took the time I would be able to go into many of those buildings and drive any of those cars on the bridge. I watch as blinking lights approach and become airplanes. The rain slows and then stops. The lights around me bloom into halos of humidity. The city looks like a steaming jungle.

I turn and walk back down the fire escape, back to my cousin and the dirty business at hand. I still have another 21/2 hours of game play before calling it a night.

Tuesday, 7:25 a.m.

I roll out of bed, brush my teeth and check my cell phone . . . in the real world, not the GTA one. But in the game, my day starts pretty much the same, just no fresh breath.

In Liberty City, much of your day-to-day interaction is done through your e-mail and cell phone. Sure, I can drive across town to talk to Rasta pothead Jacob, or ex-con Dwayne or corrupt cop Frankie, but it’s easier to pick up my cell phone and call them.

And these guys aren’t just way points to the end of the game; they’re resources, friends. Sure, you have to help them out, often by shooting people or blowing things up, but that’s not enough. You also have to hang out with them, take them out for drinks, to eat, to play darts, go bowling, shoot some pool. If you don’t do enough they start to get surly, ignore your calls, cut you off.

Keep them happy and you get things. Like Brucie, the juiced-up bodybuilder, who’ll let you take his helicopter for a spin. Jacob? He will deliver guns to you, curbside. Dwayne brings along a posse to help you on more difficult assignments.

It’s ironic that a game that today sucked up more than 11 hours of my day, cutting me off from real-world friends and family, is so concerned about relationships.

I end up playing the game 11 hours straight today. No breaks. I wrap things up and go to dinner in the hotel lobby. I’m now 34.74 percent through the game.

Wednesday, 12:44 p.m.

I’m drunk. Not really drunk, but drunk in the game. I just took Kate, a friend of a friend, on a date. We went to a neighborhood bar and had too much to drink. Now I need to take her home, trying to impress her and walk a straight line. The camera drifts back and forth, swaying wildly with each step. The controller vibrates occasionally, and when I try to walk it’s as if I can really only control my upper body. My legs go in odd directions while I try to push myself toward the door. Kate doesn’t notice; she seems worse off than I. We finally make it to a cab, but only after I fall down a few times.

By the time we arrive home, the world is blurred, the fringes so muddled they’re almost translucent, the people and places leaking color until all that’s left of my world is grey and streaked. It is, I notice, very similar to what things felt like at the real hotel bar last night, after I grabbed some drinks, maybe too many drinks, before returning to my room to sleep, then play.

Thursday, 11:21 a.m.

The thing about Grand Theft Auto IV is that it feels more like an experience, a place, than a video game. Niko’s Liberty City isn’t just a virtual city where you play through a single experience, like reading a book or watching a movie. You don’t hop from mission to mission or plot point to plot point. In Liberty City, you live and the missions sort of pop up. Niko, my Niko, is dating someone, but there’s this other woman he’s more interested in. He has four apartments, a closet full of clothes. He has to stop by his place to check on things. His cell phone is ringing constantly and it’s not just the story calling. Friends want to get together to play pool or darts; they want to go out drinking.

The missions feel alive, too, when I accept them.

Now, I’m dressed up like a doctor, preparing to go to a hospital and do some very un-doctor-like things. I’m having to replay this mission because one of the cops stationed at the doors to the emergency room did something very smart: He recognized me. It didn’t matter that I had changed into scrubs; he knew who I was and wasn’t about to let me through the door.

Times like these it feels like this is a world – not a game – I’m playing.

Thursday, 2:15 p.m.

I’m walking down the street. The sun is out. It’s a nice day. Sitting at the curb is a white Rolls Royce, behind it another and another and another. This happens in the game when the console doesn’t have enough muscle power to keep drawing different cars. It panics and starts duplicating what you’ve already seen. My character has been at intersections filled with minivans or taxi cabs, each identical.

But this time they are Rolls Royces – and I’m actually not in the game, but taking a break, walking outside my hotel in San Francisco. Funny how that happens, after playing a game almost nonstop for days, you begin to see reflections of the virtual world in the real one. I fight off the urge to throw my elbow into the passenger window of that first gleaming white car and walk on to lunch.

Thursday, 5:35 p.m.

I was convinced that the game would end by lunchtime today, but lunch – a late lunch – came and went. Now, after taking a break to wander around San Francisco for an hour, I’m back in the room, back on my couch, sitting feet away from the television, playing through the culmination of four days of gaming.

When it comes, the ending is a bittersweet moment, and not just because of the story. It’s as if the sun is setting on a world of my creation; my time in Liberty City is just about wrapped up. But that’s the thing about Grand Theft Auto: That’s not really true.

After playing in Niko’s Liberty City for 35 hours, 48 minutes and 37 seconds (once for nearly 11 hours without a break), after killing 1,151 people, watching 122 cut scenes and stealing 173 cars, I have only done 63 percent of the things you can do in the game. That’s just over half of the experiences that GTA offers. Things like helicopter flights, becoming a cab driver, a bounty hunter, a delivery man, remain untouched. And I haven’t even begun to play with other gamers online.

Friday, 8:07 a.m.

Niko’s cell phone rings. I’m a little startled. Moments earlier I was watching the game’s credits, lengthy credits. They scroll up the screen as a montage of Liberty City flows by, music playing. It’s like watching the ending of a movie, a really, really long movie.

So this, when I should be getting up from my seat, brushing the popcorn from my pants and quietly sliding the half-empty soda cup to the sticky floor. But, instead, I’ve returned to the world of my fictional life.

It’s as if I’m getting to see what happens after the movie ends. In fact, it’s exactly that.

I answer the phone and get a nasty reminder that in Niko’s world, not only do things not turn out as expected, but the tragedy of his life and of his months in the big city have other, more tragic and lasting consequences, which he and I will have to live with as we continue to explore.

In Grand Theft Auto IV the story isn’t just an amalgam of cut scenes and cleverly written dialogue, it’s the experiences I create, too. It’s now, watching Niko stand, his shoulders slumped, that the depth of this game finally hits me.

Niko’s journey, the one crafted by Rockstar, may have ended, but Niko’s adventures in the story I am creating have just begun.

WHAT A WEEK

What did Brian Crecente accomplish while sequestered for five days in a hotel with Grand Theft Auto IV? Plenty. A breakdown by the numbers:

  • 35:48:37 Total time Crecente played the game
  • 127 Days passed in the game
  • 63 Percent of game completed
  • 94 Missions passed
  • 1,151 People killed
  • 173 Cars stolen
  • 15 Bikes stolen
  • 5 Boats stolen
  • 1 Helicopters stolen
  • 198 People run down
  • 98 Fires started
  • 80 Criminals killed
  • 798 Times thrown from a vehicle

This story originally appeared in The Rocky Mountain News on April 24, 2008.

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