‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ the ultimate gang flick

Owen Sound Sun Times (On)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Gamers across North America are donning Niko Bellic’s shoes and entering the criminal underworld (and hopefully setting aside some time to see “Iron Man”).

Rockstar North’s opus, “Grand Theft Auto IV” finally launched for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

GTA IV is getting near perfect review scores from publication after publication. It is hailed as the pinnacle of the series, the best open world game yet created and yes, it really is amazing, but, as usual, not free of controversy. MADD has called it out as endorsing drunk driving, for example.

What makes the GTA series and No. 4 in particular so controversial, yet so compelling?

The games have you playing a central character in a gangster story. You have the central role and with a large, open world to explore and a host of supporting characters, you try to make your way up the criminal food chain.

The games excel at storytelling and creating a believable, interactive world. To do this they contain violence and coarse language. No one would believe you were really a gangster if you didn’t cuss and arm yourself.

The games do allow you to turn your weapons on the law and innocent bystanders, though this is never necessary to progress the plot. It does, however, add to the immersion in the game world.

The games play out like an extended gang flick, a well written, compelling, engrossing gang flick.

GTA has always been aimed at adults, even when very few games were. The problem is that video games are still seen to be for kids and, as such, the controversy surrounding the GTA series revolves around children playing it. Like many other forms of media, video games aimed explicitly at a mature gaming audience exist, just like “R” rated movies exist.

The video game industry and game retailers have become quite proactive in keeping mature (M) rated games out of the hands of minors and GTA games are always rated M. Earlier GTA games came at a time when the ratings system was still developing and did invariably get sold to minors. Since then enforcement of ESRB video game ratings has become much stricter. All games have ratings and most retailers ID when selling M rated games to minors (and all are encouraged to do so).

Since developers and retailers are making efforts to tell consumers and parents about the content of video games, it leaves the consumers themselves to be the ones to make the final decisions. Parents need to be aware of mature video games and make efforts to keep them away from children.

Games cater to every age group. GTA caters to adults. If children are being exposed to it, it is no longer the game developer’s fault.

So I’m old enough to play GTA IV. What’s so good about it?

It basically ups the ante for every aspect of the game – better graphics, better gameplay and a more immersive world, everything fans could ask for.

You play Niko Bellic, a recent immigrant from an Eastern European country who turns to crime to make ends meet. Niko and all the characters he meets are well animated and well voiced and you progress through a living, breathing city. You have a main story to follow, which amounts to about a 30-hour gangster movie, but you can explore the city and find things to do. Why not try bowling or pool? Hop online and find a date and take her to the cabaret. It’s all possible.

What makes GTA IV so compelling is the complete package. Rockstar has improved on previous games by giving players more side missions as well as improving character AI and vehicle physics. This new iteration of an already great franchise really pushes gaming as an art form forward.

If you don’t want to climb the criminal food chain, or are put off by the violence, then avoid the game, but for those who want a taste, GTA IV has it all in spades.

But what if you’re like me, lacking a PS3 or an Xbox 360 (I’ve only played GTA IV at a friend’s house) but want to get in on the GTA action? Earlier versions of GTA can be had for $10-$20 on PC, PS2, PSP, and original Xbox. I personally recommend Grand Theft Auto: Vice City if you find yourself without GTA IV.

It takes place in Vice City, a fictional version of Miami. It’s got great characters, fun missions and lots to do. It’s just not as advanced at GTA IV, but at $10 its well worth looking into.

Calen Henry is a fourth-year student of Japanese studies and multimedia at McMaster University. He grew up in Owen Sound, has been a gamer since childhood and is also interested in music and film.

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