Grand Theft Auto IV

This is shaping up to be one of the biggest weeks in entertainment. With the hugely anticipated Iron Man hitting theaters on Friday and possibly the much more anticipated launch of Grand Theft Auto IV hitting consoles this week. It’s expected that both properties will ring up somewhere in the vicinity of $500 million in business combined ($70-$100 mil for Iron Man and $350-$400 mil for GTA IV).

Despite Peter being so sure that the business of one property won’t affect the business of the other, and to be sure I’m tentatively inclined to agree, it’s hard to imagine this type of entertainment bonanza occuring again any time soon.

Still, we’ve seen all we can of Iron Man’s promotional efforts. But for the most part Grand Theft Auto IV has been kept under wraps. Thankfully, the reviews are starting to pour in. IGN says that the game acheives an Oscar-caliber excellence, unseen in a videogame since Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s a long review, but here’s the essential part:

You play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European attempting to escape his past and the horrors of the Bosnian war. He arrives in Liberty City to experience the American dream, only to discover his cousin, Roman, may have fibbed a bit in his tales of success. Starting from nothing, Niko makes a living as a killer and enforcer, a bad-ass foreigner who appears to have no morals. The longer we stay with Niko, the more we see that there is a broken human being inside, one who would give anything to escape the person he once was.

Don’t worry, GTA’s famed over-the-top action and tongue-in-cheek humor are intact, but there is a new level of sophistication in the characters and the game world that raises the story above the norm. As Niko becomes mired in the death throes of American organized crime, he begins to become more self-aware. Niko’s struggles with his ruthless nature never inhibit the gameplay, but instead enhance the emotional gravity of a brilliant storyline. The more absurd the action becomes, the greater we feel the very real pathos of Niko Bellic.

Much of the credit goes to the artists at Rockstar North who created as believable a city as possible. Liberty City is inspired by New York, but not beholden to it. While there are many parallels, Liberty exists in its own universe and rightfully so. Many open-world games have cities that feel as if they existed only from the moment you first turned on your console, but Liberty City looks lived in. It’s an old city and each block has its own vibe and its own history.

Always difficult to pull off is the storyline and the game play environment. Too often, this game franchise is slagged for it’s violence, and yet it’s probably no more violent than other games. It’s just the environment is more realistic than say, a fantasy RPG. Or even a MMORPG. And fantastic violence is okay, or even human on zombie violence is fine, but when it’s human on human violene then somehow you’ve crossed a line. Which is to say, that when it comes to violence in videogames, there is a bit of hypocrisy from the traditional media.

Over at MTV they are less sold on the game than IGN, however, they still admit this is as excellent a videogame you’ll play all year. As if anyone doubted that.

What I haven?t found yet, for better or worse, is a reason to call the game revolutionary.

I haven?t found a reason for it to merit the numerical title that the creators at Rockstar Games say is a signal that a ?GTA? game will leads in directions that others will follow. Such progress is, of course, what ?GTA III? wrought and what, as well-made as they were, ?Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,? ?San Andreas,? and the ?Stories? spin-offs did not.

From what I?ve played so far, I don?t expect ?IV? to trigger an industry transformation. Still, I can?t wait to finish writing this piece so I can go play more, to find out what this game about America has to say and show me next. It?s a compelling piece of work, so much more interesting and well-acted than other games, as is always the case with a ?GTA.?

So will this game be bigger than Iron Man? It’s hard to answer that because in many respects that’s like talking about apples and steaks. Of course, if Iron Man doesn’t delivery the box office expected of it, you’ll be reading a bunch of foolish stories about GTA IV being responsible, never mind that people just aren’t going to the movies like they used to.

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