Review of Grand Theft Auto IV Video Game

May 13, 2008 – An honest review of this new video game, as well as its relationship to our society and its macro trends.

By The Cerebral Aesthetic Vagabond

I feel so overwhelmed by the ominous news these days that I need to take a break and write about something a little less serious. It’s odd that I feel compelled to write about something as seemingly frivolous as a video game, but this particular video game has great cultural significance. I can picture future archaeologists digging a copy of the game out of the rubble of our erstwhile civilization and putting it on display in a museum.

Consider that the game’s release was eagerly anticipated by millions of people around the world, myself included; that people camped out overnight in order to buy a copy of the game on the day of its release; that at least one person was beaten and robbed of his copy of the game; that an Internet service provider reported a huge surge of activity on its network related to playing the game online. All this within two weeks of the game’s release! Time will tell, but I predict that the game will be among the best selling games of all time.

When I bought a copy of the game at the store a week after its release, they insisted on hand carrying it from the electronics department up to the cash register at the front of the store, supposedly “for my protection.” Yeah, right, for my protection. What they really meant is that the game was in such demand that they were afraid that people might try to steal it from the store, which I think is further evidence of its significance as a cultural artifact.

Many people who consider themselves “progressive” would recoil at the thought of anyone deriving enjoyment from video games, let alone another so-called “progressive” – myself – discussing them in a philosophical and respectful manner. One thing I’ve discovered in the last few years is that many “progressives” are not really very progressive at all. On the contrary, they are just as narrow-minded and rigid as the “conservatives” that they rail against.

I’m not the least bit ashamed to reveal that I play video games. I also read a great deal, write some, spend a lot of time working on my house and yard, cook, exercise, work, and learn new skills.

Grand Theft Auto Series

I’m going to dispense with the tedium of prefixing each game’s title with Grand Theft Auto or GTA. The four games I’m going to talk about are Grand Theft Auto III (or simply III), Grand Theft Auto Vice City (Vice City), Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (San Andreas), and finally Grand Theft Auto IV (or simply IV).

I first started playing video games in 2005, thanks to my cousin’s enthusiasm for video games, which rubbed off on me. Prior to that, and even though I had never played video games, I dismissed them as gratuitously violent, with no redeeming value. Since then, however, I’ve found them to be amazing alternate universes, simulated worlds in which one can escape reality. In a sense, video games are like interactive movies. Movies are a form of escapism from reality; video games are similar, except that in video games one can participate. Of course, many video games contain violence. In some games, such as fighting and war games, violence is the focal point of the games. In the games I like, including the Grand Theft Auto series, violence is incidental. Some of the missions require the use of violence, but many of the missions can be completed without resorting to violence at all. Would I recommend these games for immature youngsters? No! While I possess the maturity to distinguish between the game and reality, I do think these games can give immature minds the wrong idea that problems can be solved with violence. I think it’s also possible that these games might inure an immature mind to violence, making life seem less precious. The considerable freedom afforded by these games includes the freedom to engage in violent behavior. So while violence is not the focus of the games, it is present and available.

Having played III, Vice City, and San Andreas probably five times each since 2005, I was eagerly looking forward to the release of IV. In fact, I even bought an Xbox 360 in part to play that game and purchased the game itself a mere one week after its release.

What do I like about the game series?

So What About IV?

In a nutshell, I don’t like the game. Sure, the graphics are incredibly realistic, and the simulation of physics is awesome. But this latest game is a sharp departure from the other three, down a dark and ominous path.

As one who greatly enjoys the other three games, I’ve tried mightily to like IV, having played it now for about a week, trying to avoid drawing a premature conclusion about it. Nevertheless, I just don’t like the game. It’s simply not fun like the others are. Playing IV is a chore.

The game has a dark, oppressive ambiance. The graphics have a monochromatic gray pallor, almost devoid of color. Among the things I like about Vice City and San Andreas is their vibrant, inviting color. The “color” of IV is downright depressing, even after cranking up the brightness level of the display to the maximum.

The game field of IV is cold, sterile, grim, gritty, and gray, comprised almost entirely of steel and concrete, which is not all that surprising since it’s modeled after New York City. Nevertheless, the Gothic ambiance of IV is dramatically less inviting than the diverse and colorful terrain of San Andreas. I think San Andreas has the most appealing game field of all four games. It features the gritty ghetto terrain of Los Angeles, the upscale urban terrain of San Francisco, the nouveau flashiness of Las Vegas, as well as deserts, beaches, forests, mountains, and waterways, all in vibrant colors. It is sheer pleasure to fly around the game field of San Andreas and enjoy the scenery.

In some ways, IV has come full circle since III. It has not only returned to Liberty City, where III was based, but IV has assumed the dark, cold ambiance of III and considerably exceeded it.

Then there are the characters. The main character in IV is an unsavory fellow named Niko, and he’s the most appealing character in the game! The other characters are even more unsavory! That is in marked contrast to San Andreas, in which the main character, Carl, was highly likable. Even the main character in Vice City, Tommy, was a charming fellow in a roguish sort of way. The main character in III actually had no persona whatsoever.

I cannot fault the realism of the main character in IV any more than I can fault the realism of the story or the graphics or the physics. About the best thing I can say about IV is that it is highly realistic. Unfortunately, such exceptional realism is what I dislike about the game! I play video games to escape reality, so why do I want to enter an alternate world that is a close replica of the one I actually live in? I like the unrealistic way that automobiles and aircraft handle in the other games. In IV the cars handle very realistically, which is actually not fun. I like the absurd story lines and the caricatures that pass for human beings in the other games. In IV, the main character is a burned out, war-weary, ex-soldier, inured to death and destruction, almost depleted of his humanity, who carries out his missions remorselessly, robotically. Hello?! There are too many such people prowling our real world today! I hardly need to suffer such people in a video game that’s supposed to be my escape from reality.

At first, the stunning graphics quality and realism drew me into the game, but they were not sufficient to retain my interest in the absence of an appealing story and likable characters. Like a movie that’s conceived as a venue in which to show off a bunch of special effects and stunts, with a plot tacked on as an afterthought, IV possesses great graphics and realistic physics, but otherwise lacks appeal.

Unlike the preceding games, the missions in IV are not particularly imaginative or humorous, they are boring, lifeless chores.

In the preceding three games, the characters spoke easy to understand American English (call me a chauvinist, but I am an American). In IV the characters speak English with thick accents, making them difficult to understand. I had to turn on the subtitles in order to understand the dialog. The difficulty in understanding the characters further diminishes the pleasure of playing the game as well as my developing any sort of identity with the characters.

In the other games, there is an assortment of pleasant music to listen to. In IV the music is harsh and assaulting, so much so that I’ve taken to turning off the music in the game and listening to my own music on a standalone CD player!

Then there are the “hidden packages.” All of the games have contained hidden packages. As the player finds these hidden packages he is rewarded, primarily with weapons. In all the previous games, the hidden packages were inanimate objects floating in midair. The player would simply walk up to the hidden package to collect it. In San Andreas one of the collections of hidden packages, “tags,” suggested an ominous new trend. To collect tags in San Andreas the player had to spray paint over them, applying his own gang’s mark. While still relatively benign, this new method of collecting hidden packages marked a turning point from the simple collecting of inanimate objects to committing petty crime in order to collect the tags. In fact, the criminal nature of “tagging” in San Andreas is underscored by the fact that if a cop sees the player doing it, the player’s criminal wanted level is increased. IV takes the collection of hidden packages a step further down the path of darkness. In IV, the hidden packages are pigeons, and to collect them the player must shoot them, as in kill them. I did this once to find out what would happen and was so taken aback that I vowed not to do it again. When I shot the pigeon it exploded into a cloud of feathers and a message appeared on the screen saying something like, “199 more rats with wings remaining.” While my revulsion to killing the pigeons partly emanates from my fondness for the birds (which are also known as Rock Doves), it has more to do with the transformation of a formerly benign activity, the collecting of inanimate objects, into a murderous activity.

So in summary, IV is cold, colorless, unsavory, hard, and mean, a marked departure from the whimsy and lightheartedness of the preceding games. It seems that IV has adopted the very character that critics have long unfairly applied to the earlier games.

What Does IV Say About Our Society?

To me, IV is a significant departure from the other three games, a perversion. I find my observation especially interesting after having read the book Political Ponerology, by Andrzej M. Lobaczewski, because according to him, in a society that’s in the grip of pathocracy eventually everything becomes perverted; what was once abnormal becomes normal, and vice-versa. The transformation of a fun game into a reflection of our evil world is thus almost predictable. Worse, what was once an entertaining game has perhaps become an insidious tool for propagating the evil that’s consuming society. It seems to me that IV is both a reflection of western civilization’s turn down the path of darkness in recent years as well as an instrument facilitating and hastening our progress along that path of darkness.

I wonder if any other people who enjoyed the previous games had the same reaction toward IV as I did. Do other people truly like the game or are they obligingly and uncritically playing the game merely because it’s the next in the series?

Although at least one game-related web site gave IV a preposterous rating of 10 (out of a maximum of 10), I have no intention of continuing to play the game and can’t wait to get it out of my possession. The game is like a black hole in my psyche, a life-sucking entity that I do not enjoy playing.

The End