PREVIEW: Grand Theft Auto IV

GTA IV 6

When the trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV was released back in March, confused argument briefly flared around the game’s location – was it GTAIII’s Liberty City or real-world New York?

The answer, of course, is that it’s both, a fictional cloak of convenience for a town that in detail and spirit already looks far closer to the Big Apple than any more nominally accurate videogame rendering has managed in the past.

The second question, an obsession for GTA fans ever since Vice City took them back to the cold glamour of 1980s late-night TV, is somewhat trickier: when is it? It has a straightforward answer – GTAIV is set in the present day – but it’s a disingenuous one, because this Liberty isn’t present-day New York. Giuliani never got elected here, the crime crackdown and economic boom never happened; maybe its World Trade Center equivalent was destroyed, or maybe it was never built.

It’s a scruffy, oppressive and dangerous town, and it has a late-20th-century timelessness about it. During a brief but very impressive demo that takes us on a stroll and cruise around Brooklyn (sorry, Broker), our placeholder pop-cultural compass – the car radio – evokes vintage psychedelia and soul as well as brash ’90s Eurotrash pop.

For a moment, the litter-strewn streets are made to look like something from a 1970s blaxploitation flick. But the truth is, such media pointers no longer have the relevance they once did. GTAIV isn’t a snapshot of an era any more, or a medley of movie references. Its inspiration and raison d’être are no more nor less than the city itself.

A playground of similar scope to San Andreas, Liberty City will be much more densely packed, and with more of a vertical dimension (beyond the helicopters you’ll be able to use). Climbing a telegraph pole may be a rather blunt way of demonstrating it, but adding that kind of elevation could be key in turning it from a pop-up street map into a real town.

Just as key as the astonishingly convincing street life – the crawling, honking traffic, the dulled boom of passing car stereos, the pedestrians who mill, smoke, chat on the phone, and react in panic to a gun being pulled. This being GTA, detail isn’t just about appearance or even interactivity, it’s about behaviour.

And if one detail of GTA IV is telling, it comes during the series’ signature activity – stealing a car. Approaching a parked vehicle, eastern European hardman Niko Bellic doesn’t just yank the door open, jump in and drive off – he smashes the window to gain access, and has to hotwire it to start the engine. It may be a mere animation flourish, but it speaks volumes. A world that looks real also needs to feel real, and GTA’s cartoonish excess – and, perhaps, some of its freewheeling spontaneity – has had to be reeled in.

The visual treatment is grittier, more sober, more adult, and there’s every indication that the action and story will follow suit – although Rockstar is keen to stress that the series’ sense of humour has not been lost. Niko’s journey won’t take him to Tony Montana highs of wealth and influence; this, we’re told, will be a game of survival rather than supremacy, where he’ll climb the criminal ranks but only so far, and his past as a human trafficker will eventually catch up with him.

It’s still fundamentally going to follow an American Dream archetype, but it will be the story of the immigrant’s struggle to find a place, rather than the lurid fantasy of the poor man turned king of the world. Indeed, the empty promise with which Niko is lured to Liberty – cousin Roman’s tales of a high life of two women, four hot tubs and 15 cars – almost sounds like a parody of the story arcs of GTAs past.

This GTA is starting to sound like a surprisingly human creation, and Rockstar confirms this with an assertion that managing relationships with people will form a much more significant part of this game, and will be vital to progress. It’s not known if the mobile phone featured prominently in the demo will play a part in this, but it seems likely. The importance of a sense of family, loyalty and community to Niko is stressed, something that Rockstar North began to develop in San Andreas, and that marks another step away from the lone loose cannon model the series has thrived on.

Niko’s body shape may not change – Rockstar is retreating from San Andreas’ roleplaying peccadillos, fearing they might detract from the crafted strength of Niko’s character – but this, we’re promised, will be a world where your actions have consequences, a world that bites back. And that is what is at once the most thrilling and the most worrying thing about GTAIV. If narrative credibility rules out absurdities like the jetpack, and interactive credibility curtails players’ sociopathic rampages, then could the sheer, lunatic freedom that made GTA the defining videogame series of the last generation be under threat?

GTAIV is, from one perspective, in danger of taking itself too seriously. But the corollary is the outrageously exciting prospect of anyone taking the construction of a videogame world this seriously at all, let alone a developer as gifted and influential as Rockstar North. Even just breathing in the scant PR fumes Rockstar is allowing to escape at present – a hint here, a suggestion there – is intoxicating. The subtle, humane ambition of the plot only adds to the bold, superhuman ambition of creating a virtual city this lifelike, with this much scope for complexity. Even if the unthinkable happens and the game itself falls short, the signs are that the new Liberty City will be an unforgettable creation, and a worthy tribute to the spectacle, diversity and dynamism of its inspiration.