Playing: GTA IV (Finally) (Spoiler free)

I've been waiting for this installment in the Grand Theft Auto series for a long time - and longer than most given that I've been embracing the role of diligent student and deliberately not playing it until I finished my big uni assignment for the semester. (Ironically, an assignment all about playing games - oh the torture :)

Anyway, 01.30 yesterday morning saw me typing the final words of my critical reflection of the project and so I trundled into work yesterday morning happy as Leisure Suit Larry to collect my copy of GTA IV from a colleague who had been safe-keeping it for me. (I don't have a whole lot of self control when I'm procrastinating so it seemed like the best idea). Managed to avoid ducking home early (tempting as the prospect was) and after dinner settled in for some quality time in Liberty City.

It's funny the impact that working on my uni assignment has had on me, a large part of it was dissecting FPS games into key elements (which applies equally to any kind of game) and I'd say there were at least a dozen points in the game where I found myself thinking - oh, that's clever, I really like how they've used contextual HUD information there. Fortunately, this wasn't too distracting and just added to my emotional enjoyment of the game as an artifact. (Gaah, stop it. Stop it now brain - you don't have to be smart any more, just shut up and drive :)

I will make use of the Jarvinen model (Jarvinen, 2007) - sorry :) to talk about my initial responses to this game though as it's a good way of covering all the bases.
Jarvinen says that all games - sport, cards, video games etc - need to have at least 7 of these 9 elements - Player, Game Mechanics (what you can do), Components (the things you do stuff to), Game Environment (the playing field), Rule Set, Information (your score, health, etc), Theme (story and style), Interface (controllers etc)and Context (when and where it's played.)

Player: I've just been playing the single-player mode so far - there's so much to see and do (and fortunately I think I've made it through most of the earlier necessary-but-trudging training missions). Given the head start that pretty well every other GTA IV player has had on me, I suspect my early experiences of Multiplayer on Xbox Live will see me getting seriously pwned, but that's ok.

Game Mechanics: As I say, there's already plenty of stuff to see and do in the game. I took a bit of a wander around the space after going through the opening sequence and just tried out the buttons and tooled around. This showed me that you in addition to the usual run/jump/fight/steal cars/drive thing you can pick up small items and throw them.

After a few hours play (during which time more activities get unlocked or explained), I can also shoot, stab, use my mobile phone, use the internet, watch tv, play darts, going bowling , hail a cab, climb fences, catch the train, try on clothes, get a lap-dance and give money to homeless people. I can also get drunk, which hugely affects your ability to walk and drive. This is by far the most impressive and accurate re-creation of the way you see things when drunk that I've ever seen on screen. It captures that hazy, sliding around and lurchy quality to perception in a way that actually made me feel slightly ill.

They've done a lot of work with fighting in this game - it's not just a matter of mashing away at punch and kick buttons until your opponent goes down - you need to intelligently move around and duck, block and time your blows. (Or, you know, just shoot tha mutha uckers)

One thing that surprised me a little bit was the fact that I couldn't swim. Jumped in the river and drowned in seconds. Given that your character (Niko Bellic) just got off the boat after spending 7 months in the merchant navy, this is pretty weird. (Maybe he learns to swim later or something, I don't know)

Components: the objects, the stuff in the game, notably the cars/motorbikes/trucks/etc, the furniture and the other characters. In a word, awesome. None of the other GTA games are set in the present and I've always wondered how modern stuff would look in the game - the design is beautiful and the eye candy is delicious. Something else that I've really appreciated so far is that you don't have to grind through hours of (albeit fun) gameplay before you get to drive cooler and better performing cars. I was hooning around town in a BMW clone and fancy sports cars within an hour or so of starting the game.

Game Environment: The other part of the eye candy is the amazingly detailed and well textured world Rockstar have created for you to freely roam around in. (If you're not aware, GTA IV is set in Liberty City, their version of New York City, which closely mirrors the real thing). So far I've still only wandered around the island on the right and the little one at the top and it is just massive. Very easy to just roam about looking at cool stuff. It does suffer from that sandpit game curse of having most of the doors locked but given the size of the place, it's understandable.

Sound is of course the other big part of the game environment and it is equally kicking. World sounds (cars, people on the street, machinery, etc) are crystal clear and spot on and the in car radio stations (something which has always set the GTA series above the pack) have been cranked up another notch of awesomeness. They cover everything from hardcore metal to smooth jazz, electro, reggae, Russian pop (better than you'd think) and at least another dozen disparate genres. Throw into the mix some hilarious and scathing social commentary via the ads and the conservative shock-jock talk radio and peace-love and mung beans community radio stations and you have aural pleasure.

Rule Set - what you can and can't do and your goals in the game. This is partially tied to physics, partially to story and partially just to good practice. As I've mentioned, you seriously can't swim, unsurprisingly you can't jump down more than a flight of stairs without getting squished, the cars handle more realistically that in previous games (and thus more trickily) and as I've mentioned, your skills totally go to hell when you get drunk.

Oh and you can't jump up on stage in the strip club to dance with the girls - evidently management frown on that and the bouncers will beat you.

Information - points, health, money - all that kind of stuff. It also includes maps, mission briefings, stats and the like. The GTA games provide you with a trainspotterish wealth of information about everything that you have done in the game. The stats section, which tells you everything from the percentage of the game you have completed to how far you have ridden trains to how many car tyres you have shot, spreads to something like 7 different (scrollable) screens.

Of course, none of this is generally mission critical, this stuff is presented through the usual heads up display which gives you your map (which makes use of GPS technology to show you the best routes to take) and your health bar (which is discretely - possibly too discretely as I kept losing track of how badly injured I was - tucked on the side of the circle your map sits in). Other information is displayed depending on whether you need it - if you are carrying a weapon you can see how much ammo you have, if the police are chasing you, you can see your wanted level and when you get or spend some money you get a running tally. If you don't need the information there and then, it's taken off the screen to allow you to enjoy the Liberty City eye candy. Very nice design principle that.

I mentioned that you also get a mobile phone - game characters can call or text you (and you can call them) and it also seems to have an organiser (though this hasn't been activated just yet). When you get shot, you see a blood splatter around the outside of the screen which sends a definite message that you need to not get shot again. There are subtitle options - which I thought I'd find useful in working out what the rasta gangsta was saying, but it turned out to be just as slangy and indecipherable in text as sound.

There is also internet access (though I appear not to have unlocked that in the game in any meaningful way just yet) and if you steal a police car you can access their computer network as well. (Again, not yet unlocked in the story but the fact that you can get to the initial screens - just to get a "network problems" message - offers hints of rewards to come.)

Theme: The story and the style of the game - As I say, I haven't gotten far in to this yet, still working through the getting settled, teaching you how to play the game and use the controls and so on phase at the moment. The gist is that you are Niko Bellic, a Serbian (?) guy who fought in the war, made some bad decisions and has come to the U.S for a fresh start, inspired by the stories of success from his cousin Roman. Roman isn't quite the high flier he has made himself out to be and so the direction we are headed (as with pretty well all the GTA games) is to make it big any way you can.

So far there has been a little bit of trouble with Albanian loan sharks, some dealings with Russian gangsters and the befriending of a rasta gangsta.

In spite of all the hype about "murder simulators" and such, there have been a number of positive behavioural messages subtly slipped into to the game already. You are praised for not driving drunk and taking a cab instead and chided for not calling someone when you have to break a date with them. It doesn't seem possible to make money by beating up/mugging innocent people on the street either (not that I've given this a red hot go) - only bad guys. Fortunately, this hasn't detracted from the game experience, if anything, given a little depth to it.

Interface - the controller. The controls for the Xbox 360 seem to have stayed pretty much the same with a few tweaks and improvements. Automatic targetting and free targetting have both been put on the left trigger (the latter using a half squeeze only). Camera control is ok (and I really like the ability to completely remove the HUD entirely - though maybe this isn't a new thing) but takes a bit of getting used to and it would be nice if it locked onto Niko's back a little more but this is a small quibble. It would be interesting to see what might be done with motion sensitivity in the control system but I'm happy as it is.

Context - when and where you play - not so relevant here - although I can see some potential for creating machinima out of this game (it's just so frackin' pretty), so a PC version would be needed for that. (Coming next year apparently).

So yeah, it's pretty awesome.

(The shots that are littered throughout this post are actual gameplay shots as well, not just prettied up cut-scene animations. This really is what the game looks like. Given the eye-candy, I guess another context aspect would be that it would be even better played on a big kick arse 50 inch plasma tv :)