It was ten years ago that I did two things for the first time in my life that I have never done since. The first, I booked a day off work to coincide with the release of a new game and the second, I attended a midnight launch. To some this might seem like an odd thing to do, but I imagine most people reading this have been there, done that, bought and in some instances worn the merchandise.
The game that caused me to take these drastic steps was non-other than Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA IV) by Rockstar. I always try to avoid the hype train with games, but when the game in question was going to be the latest entry in the widely successful GTA series it was one train I felt compelled to board. After the mammoth success of the GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas during the sixth generation of consoles the franchise had not only become a recognisable and controversial brand, but a highly selling series one too. The series selling 60 million copies between Playsation 2 (PS2) and Xbox during the sixth generation. Like the latest Marvel, Star Wars or James Bond film, GTA was now immortalised as an event. The annual success of each new game would pave the way for the annualisation of future franchises like Call of Duty and Assassins Creed.
The new game would take the best elements from the PS2 / Xbox era, marry it with a new engine, high definition graphics and give players a chance to return to the most famous city in gaming; Liberty City. Rockstar would allow the game to percolate in an attempt to create the definitive GTA experience. They released mood trailers months apart to whet our appetites giving gamers a glimpse into what the upcoming entry had to offer. The initial reveal introduced a new protagonist; Niko “perhaps here things will be different” Bellic who seeks to leave his criminal past behind and start anew in Liberty City. While the American Dream is high on trope-scale, it does seem fitting; a new console, a new game, a new protagonist, a new start. Only time would tell how truly different things would be.
At my local Game I waited patiently to collect my reserve copy for the midnight launch on 29th April 2008, enjoying the carnival atmosphere with fellow gamers keen to get home and delve into Rockstar’s latest offering. When I finally returned home in the early hours of the morning I booted up the game, my excitement levels were at fever pitch. After the initial opening cutscene I guided the new protagonist to his cousins Roman’s apartment. That night I played for a little bit more, slowly exploring the reimagined Liberty City. The original belief that Niko was in Liberty City to live the American Dream is proven not to be the case, as we find out he was betrayed by a fellow army colleague during the Yugoslav Wars and is seeking revenge for this deception.
The character of Niko is well written and performed, his deeply harrowing backstory rooted in the Yugoslav Wars of 1990s Europe is handed with care throughout. His actions and need for closure leave him with little choice but to flee to Liberty City in order to end his misery and pain. The ensemble cast, the sights and sounds of Liberty City and the mission variety would lead GTA IV to top games charts for many months, with the game selling north of 25 million copies worldwide. Despite the technical advancements of the seventh generation of consoles; the graphical advances and richly detailed open world, I found myself losing interest in Niko’s journey. I became increasingly irritated by the constant calls from Niko’s friends, interrupting the ebb and flow of the experience with requests for bowling and drinking activities. Despite the innovations over previous titles, I felt that the game had not reached the heady heights of previous GTA games. Perhaps the game could never live up to the enormous hype, my disappointment being a by-product of unrealistic expectations. My Stockholm syndrome-like tendencies with regard to ‘hype’ would return for the 2015 release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but that is a story for another time.
Fast forward ten years and I have just returned home after collecting a second hand Playstation 3 (PS3) with Red Dead Redemption for a steal at only £40. In the days that followed I pick up the Metal Gear Solid HD collection, Max Payne 3 and after listening to Cane and Rinse No.75 (again) I decide that another trip to Liberty City is required. Like Niko I too have unfinished business to attend to.
The return to the sixth generation of consoles was a consequence of the ever-increasing sameness of current gen fodder. The advances in graphical fidelity this generation can’t be denied. Gone are the various shades of brown of the PS3 and Xbox360 era and instead our eyes are awash with the colour palette of 1080P, HDR and 4K visuals. In unison we all find ourselves as the gaming equivalent of Alice walking through the door of Wonderland to bask in the pixelated perfection of Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and Assassins Creed: Origins. But something is increasingly evident even as I not only play these games and watch trailers for upcoming titles, these titles all feel, look and play like a ‘modded’ version of each other. From the position of the camera, the HUD set-up, the movement of the protagonist, it is like I am playing the same game over-and-over-again, simply reskinned.
Having listened to enough retrospective reviews of games I have played, it was time for me to relive my past experiences and see if an older, wiser me (ha!) would have a different perspective. I loaded my pristine copy of GTA IV and like Niko I waited to see what Liberty City had in store for me. Immediately I was transported back to 2008 when Michael Hunter’s ‘The Soviet Connection’ theme kicks in. I marvel at the opening scenes; the camera direction, the creative use of credit font, the perfect synthesis of music score and the unfolding drama. Rockstar have always been masterful in setting the tone in the opening moments of their games, GTA IV is no exception. Crime, sexual perversion, PTSD, immigration and cultural identity are all touched on in under ten minutes.
This is no mean feat, most narrative driven games can barely deliver one theme with competence, let alone several within the time it takes to boil an egg. After I reunite with my inebriated cousin Roman and call him out for forgetting his mother tongue, I hop behind the wheel of his car and drive to my new residence. Despite a decade away these early hours in GTA IV are very vivid in my memory, intrinsically linked to the uniqueness of its purchase.
Despite this familiarity, it is like I am playing the game for the first time. The impact I should have felt then is being felt now. Returning to these early hours in Liberty City so many years later make me appreciate the ambition of Rockstar and their attention to detail in their latest playground. Whether it is the smoke emanating from sewer grates in the road, flies circling overflowing rubbish bins in side streets, or the sound design with pedestrians offering their two cents and the different soundtracks being played by passing vehicles, the city is living breathing organism.
The urban design of this opening island is impressive. The architecture of the Broker and Dukes is well researched, capturing the urban landscapes of Brooklyn and Queens. Despite having never visited either, with only tv and film as my frame of reference as I amble around the brownstone terraced homes and low-rise apartment blocks I am overcome with a feeling of the strangely familiar.
As I reach Algonquin, the game’s version of Manhattan, and it is here that the game really takes off. The island is laid out more in the form of a grid structure, less organic and earthy than Dukes, Broker and Bohan and is enveloped in by an over-engineered network of roads. Some of the open greenspace in Algonquin does offer an escape from the claustrophobic architecture of the city skyline. I lose myself as I explore the sights and sounds of Easton (East Village), Purgatory (Hell’s Kitchen) The Triangle (Midtown Manhattan) and Star Junction (Times Square). Like a tourist I am constantly refreshing my map to find my way. But much like any time spent in a new environment, after a short while I find myself recognising landmarks, Star Junction, Middle Park (Central Park) and Rotterdam Tower (Empire State Building). These icons become wayfinding tools in this congested metropolis acting as a calming reassurance in the fast-paced nature of life in Liberty City.
The sights, sounds and smells of Liberty City (Rockstar Games) Picture via: @davidrushe
The inclusion of a choice system in the game giving players the ability to decide the destiny of several non-playable characters during the story is a welcome addition. Players can choose the fate of key characters such as; Playboy X, Dwayne, Clarence, Francis, Derrick or Ivan, making me feel like I partaking in an open world Telltale Games experience. The outcome of these decisions do not hinder the development of the story, they have no impact on trophies or achievements, instead they make me feel that I truly am Niko.
My agency in opting to retain whatever empathy is left in Niko’s soul could not be underestimated. It is at this point in my time in Algoquin that I embark on the infamous bank job; ‘Three Leaf Clover’ with my latest crime buddy; Packie McReary and his extended crime family. It is the most sophisticated mission by far within the game. The structure of the mission and actions required in carrying out the robbery of the Bank of Liberty are a wonderful example of Rockstar balance the choreographed set pieces and the creative thinking of the player engagement in the open world sandbox to accomplish the mission.
It is the stand-out mission in the game, mature, well designed, overflowing with humour of writers Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries and is unlike the game’s other fetch quest-like missions. The success of ‘Three Leaf Clover’ would form the foundation for the structure of missions in GTA V.
The standout ‘Three Leaf Clover’ mission with Niko and the McReary family (Rockstar Games) Picture via: @davidrushe
The final area to unlock in the game is Alderny City. It is the game’s attempt to represent New Jersey. By my reckoning its inclusion is a step-to-far taken by the developer. Given the real-world proximity of New York and New Jersey I understand the urge to include it, but the final land mass you unlock doesn’t introduce anything we haven’t already seen earlier in the game. While the Alderny State Correctional Facility features in the development of the end game narrative, and the surrounding Actor Industrial Park features in a few missions, it is at this juncture where the games pacing starts to slow. Alderny City, like many of the latter missions is filler.
Rockstar should have focused the player’s freedom to the boroughs of Bohan, Broker, Dukes and Algonquin. These locations are very detailed environment with a real sense of life and vibrancy, Alderny adds nothing to the wonderful recipe that Rockstar prepared for us to consume. Instead its inclusion is the equivalent of one side-dish too many ordered, with only a few bites taken and little flavour, the dish like me is left to go cold.
While Alderny doesn’t ruin my experience completely, it does detract from what was a wonderful re-experience for me. In most open world games, fatigue usually kicks in somewhere within the midgame experience. Attempting to strike a balance in progressing the story and allowing the open world toolbox to test the limits of the player’s imagination, is one that no developer in my experience has perfected to date. Ubisoft have in recent years created many wonderful open world environments; The Division, numerous Assassins Creed and Far Cry titles coming closer and closer to striking this elusive balance. But Ubisoft’s obsession with their icon, collectable and side-quest filled maps is their ultimate undoing.
The strongest selling point of any open world design is one where player agency is held supreme, but this lack of linearity and developer led curation is also its biggest weakness. In the context of GTA IV the inclusion of Alderny flips this on its head, the feeling of fatigue for me crept in as the game approaches what should be the most anticipated part of the game, the conclusion.
As the game begins to conclude Niko’s traitor is exposed. I opt to spare the life of Darko Brevic, Niko’s former army colleague of who betrayed him and his unit by accepting $1000 for their lives in order to feed Darko’s drug addiction. When I confronted Darko I found a man forever tormented by both his demons of substance abuse and the guilt of his actions. In choosing to spare his life I believed it was the right thing to do.
Having spent tens of hours with Niko I realised that despite with his inherent darkness and rage, his compassion for his cousin was evidence of empathy. Whatever goodness remained in this flawed person was worth salvaging. To kill Darko would not change Niko’s past, instead his present and future would be forever tainted by murdering his former colleague. My brief time with Darko confirmed this was the right route to take as it was not my place to punish his actions, his miserable existence was punishment enough.
The final act of the game was once again to give Niko the choice in how to deal the with second antagonist of the game, Jimmy Pegorino. Unlike my decision to take the high road with Darko, I opted to take the ‘Revenge’ path with Jimmy instead of taking the ‘Deal’. This was in part formed by my memory of the previous playthrough in 2008 and how ‘Revenge’ would see a happy ending for the much maligned Roman. The consequence of this action would see Niko’s date Kate McReary (Packie’s sister) being gunned down outside the church immediately after Roman and Malarie’s nuptials. I choose the lesser of two evils. After I complete my final mission and the credits role I find myself marooned on Happiness Island (Ellis Island) in the shadow of the Statue of Happiness (Statue of Liberty) and I feel that I have given Niko a chance to be finally be at peace.
Revenge a dish best served with an AK47 (Rockstar Games) Picture via: @davidrushe
As the sun begins to set I look back to the artificially lit skyline of Algonquin, like Niko, I too am at peace. My return to Liberty City after all this time has given me a newfound perspective and appreciation for this place. My view of this flawed creation is ultimately renewed by the goodness deep within and much like life itself, the empathy I preserved in Niko offers hope.
I can now say with great certainty, that this time, things were different.