I was treated to a detailed preview of a full mission in the latest preview build of Rockstar's magnum opus, Grand Theft Auto IV
at the company’s swanky London offices recently, with the particular demo on show entitled, for reasons that soon become a little clearer, 'Small fish in a big pond'.
See if you can spot the key word in that first sentence. That’s correct: treated
“When the guys up at Rockstar North set out to create GTA IV
, their ambition was to try to make the defining next-generation action adventure game and to try to set the standard for what a true high definition experience might be, and hopefully you’ll get an understanding today of some of the fundamental changes that have been made to the franchise,” a Rockstar rep told me as I settled in for the show and tell session.
Rockstar’s demo room set-up (and hospitality) is nothing less than impeccable, though one really would expect nothing less for what is arguably the biggest videogame releasing in 2007. Can GTA IV
live up to the massive hype and frighteningly high levels of expectation amongst the series' millions of fans worldwide? Read on to find out the answer to this million dollar question.
The game has been put together by pretty much the same team that made all the previous GTA
games, which Rockstar likes to think gives the series a consistency that is unrivaled by any other games publishers. “It’s really only now, what with the next gen technology and our internally developed RAGE engine that the guys can achieve what they have always dreamed of achieving with the Grand Theft Auto
series,” I am informed. Come on then. Let’s have it!
Firstly, why ‘small fish in a big pond’? The title of the demo refers to the fact that, just as in real-world NYC, thousands of different stories unfold in Liberty City on a daily basis, and the demo that I am about to witness is merely one character's experience of a mere handful of the multiple possible tales unfolding at any given time. If I was a postmodern literary theorist I would probably say something along the lines of "there are multiple strands of narrative that intertwine and connect to make up the metanarrative that is Liberty City."
Thankfully, I'm not a literary theorist though. What I can
say with conviction is that the game looks remarkably good and the (almost anal) attention to detail and overall production values really are top-notch. Admittedly, there is still some work to be done on the textures, the AI, the character models, the streaming and so on – but bear in mind that they are still over three months away from release, so these are just minor tidying-up jobs. The bulk of the game is finished and in place.
First impression? The in-game music is phenomenal. I'm very fussy about music and every single tune I heard in GTA IV
made me grin, tap my toes and almost involuntarily sway in time to the beat. However, the music is currently all what Rockstar term ‘placeholder’ (which basically means they are still in the throes of sorting out the licensing and deciding what the final music in the game is going to be). So, I annoyingly cannot really go into much detail as to exactly what tracks will be playing on the various in-game radio stations as you cruise the streets of Liberty City. Suffice to say, if fifty percent of the tunes I heard while watching this demo make it into the final version of the game, then it is going to be by far the best soundtrack of any videogame ever made. Promise.
As with past versions of the game, we probably won’t actually find out what the final list of tunes are until after GTA IV
's release, as Rockstar likes to treat gamers to finding out these things for themselves as they get sucked into the game. SPOnG respects this, as we know what a thrill it can be to make such discoveries as you sink into the experience. And, conversely, there is something about knowing every
aspect of a game before release that spoils the experience itself. What I can say is that the in-game tunes I heard were heavily reggae/funk/dub-oriented, though perhaps that's because the producer demo'ing the game had a preference for a particular station.
Back to the game, the demo kicks off in Star Junction, Liberty City’s version of Time Square, one of the most iconic and widely-recognised cityscapes in the world. The Xbox 360 version of the game that I was viewing (not to mention the orgasmatronically-sized HD telly) really does do it justice. You want immersion? You got it from the get go. Motherfucker.
It’s just a regular day in the life of your character, the shady Niko Bellic, as the story of his life of casual crime in the new world of Liberty City unfolds. Bellic’s ‘friendly’ cop, Officer Francis McReary, seemingly has some dirt on Niko, and as such has been getting Niko to run favours for him. One of these favours is that dodgy cop McReary wants Niko to infiltrate the law firm, 'Goldberg, Ligner, and Shyster' to kill the head honcho lawyer and retrieve some dodgy paperwork on a case that McReary is involved in.
First things first though, Niko’s not (yet) packing heat and needs to get tooled up, so he pulls out his cell-phone and makes a call to Little Jacob, the Jamaican gun dealer based in the Rotterdam Hill neighbourhood over in Algonquin (Liberty City’s version of Manhattan island). Liberty City’s other boroughs include Dukes (Queens), Bowen (The Bronx), Broker (Brooklyn) and Alderney (based on parts of New Jersey).
Every street on the immense in-game map has also been named, for the first time ever in a GTA
game. And yep, you read the above right, Niko just pulls out his mobile phone and calls up his gun dealer! Just like you would really, should you be a criminally-minded fresh-off-the-boat eastern European immigrant on the make in NYC!
“The phone is emblematic of some of the fundamental changes in the game,” the Rockstar rep informs me. “GTA has always been about non-linear gameplay, freedom of choice and whatnot, the phone just extends this concept… it's also an interface that 99.9% of the population is familiar with, it blurs the line between everyday and life in the game quite nicely.”
A nice PR quote of course, but it’s also totally true. The addition of the mobile phone as a key interface with which Niko keeps in touch with his contacts (or ignores certain people, should you so wish) really adds a new level of depth and realism to the gameplay. It’s also used as Niko’s camera, his personal organiser and to send and receive SMS text messages. Rockstar’s guy also tell me that they are going to use the phone to channel the multiplayer features into the game – although they remain fairly tight-lipped at this stage as to exactly how that is going to work.
Our man Niko soon manages to score some serious automatic weaponry by doing a dodgy deal with Little Jacob from the back of a car trunk. Scoring weapons is not as straightforward as it has been in previous games – with no AmmuNation stores this time around - they’re much more of a precious commodity that you have to learn how to acquire. You come to know your trusted contacts well (and they, you) and you will soon end up buying guns from survival nuts out in Alderney as well as from dodgy geezers such as Little Jacob. And as you progress into the game, you come to realise that building up trust amongst your growing 'inner circle' of contacts really is your key to success.