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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Some GTA IV Mechanics In Brief

One thing that keeps impressing me about Rockstar is their ability to evolve their GTA franchise by removing old mechanics, adding new ones and updating some that remain. While this was certainly notable with San Andreas (and not nearly as much with the various side stories, with GTA IV they've taken the game to a whole new paradigm.

The next gen graphics, for instance, allow the game to have a more "realistic" feel. Powerups no longer float and rotate (as they have in about 80% of every 3D game to come before) - but sit and glow on the ground. The mission markers no longer glow with huge circles but rather small yellow errors. And of course, we have the waypoint path finder - which marks the "shortest legal path" between you and your driving goal.

And oddly, except for that last one, these are probably the least successful updates in the game. It's nearly impossible to distinguish weapons until you've picked them up and it's much easier to miss the mission markers from a distance now.

Of course we have next gen hardware now which means we get next gen physics now. This is easily my favorite as launching a SUV over a railing, rolling three cars over as you careen and then bouncing off a building is fun.

Anyone who just read that and thought "what's fun about a car accident simulator" - wait til the end.

With the new physics we also get more complicated driving mechanics. Keep cars from fishtailing and turning at high speeds certainly takes more practice than any previous edition of the game but in the long run I'm willing to put it down as a plus. Car chases remind me of the classic Driver chases more than any game thus far.

The new wanted systems has gotten a lot of talk at first blush. What's interesting I think is that for all the changes - the end result is about the same. Sure, you can avoid one star easily by driving real fast in a straight line. Is that any different than just being able to jump into a pizza joint? One star was always a joke to shake off, and two stars not much more so. Avoiding three stars and above can be a subgame on its own, as it should be.

We also get the most vastly expanded set of combat controls in the history of the franchise. Niko is far more capable of using cover, blind firing, moving and aiming, aiming at body parts, etc., than any of his predecessors. The end result here is that Niko feels a lot more the badass everyone seems willing to hire.

And everyone wants a piece of Niko. While typing this, The Girl got three text messages and two phone calls. The whole social networking can be overbearing at times (Roman especially seems to enjoy calling when you're in the middle of a high speed chase) - but also quite hilarious. Just watching how different character react to getting drunk with Niko is a comedy show on its own.

The fact that Niko can then turn around and drive drunk has turned the "murder simulator" fight into "drunk driving simulator" fight (partly because I think people outside the gaming culture are realizing the joke that Jack Thompson really is as a lawyer and "expert"). The thing is that this argument is just as ignorant as the previous one. The game doesn't reward you for driving drunk any more than it rewards you for flipping cars over or running down pedestrians. The fact that you can do something in a game doesn't mean that the game encourages, trains or gives you point for doing it. Especially in a game like GTA IV where you can do all those thing and pick up a hooker without it having anything to do with the main game itself.

In this way, GTA IV resembles its protagonist Niko Bellic - who in the words of his cousin is a "miserable sociopath". You can bring your ethics to the table if you want, but they're just your ethics and the game doesn't really give a damn. It didn't ask you to bring anything at all. But if you do so, make sure you take everything into account. Like that the game warns you about driving drunk, that you can take a cab and even a miserable sociopath like Niko seems to remember helmet laws for the most part. The truth is that the detractors of the game seem mostly to wring their hands over the fact that the game doesn't punish you enough for these acts - but unable to verbalize in any way that doesn't make them look ridiculous that what they want is a big alert window saying "Driving Drunk Is Bad".

If playing a PSA was in any way fun, I might even see their point. But it isn't, and I don't. Being a miserable sociopath, on the other hand, clearly has some entertainment value because otherwise GTA IV wouldn't have the financial pull of Fort Knox.

And more to the point - no GTA game has ever harmed anyone. Sorry there, BatJack, but you had your day (days in fact) to prove your point and now you're getting disbarred. This case is closed and it's time to move on.

To finish up that note though, I think Niko might be the best character the series has ever produced. CJ from San Andreas was something of a hip hop action hero. Despite being a thug, thief and overall gang lord - you still got the impression the CJ loved his mom, hung with his homies and was generally a good guy with which you could share a forty.

Niko, on the other hand, is a broken down soldier who thinks everything is crap and meets his enemies and friends the same sly grin that insists he could snap you in half. Roman pegs him - he is a miserable sociopath but in being so it makes him feel more realistic and three dimensional than a lot of previous entries into the field. Niko has a past and that past clearly haunts him even when he's not talking about it.

Time to go - The Girl just lifted an armored van to take Little Jacob home again. She might just have to call that lawyer chick for a favor again before the day is through.