GTA IV- Deadly serious fun

By Peter Griffin

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If there's a Godfather-like quality to the rise of Niko Bellic, the emigre gangster at the centre of Grand Theft Auto IV, the seedy world he inhabits borrows more from The Sopranos.

Sure, there are the explosive scenes of old-school Mafioso violence - execution-style killings and full-pitch street battles straight out of Michael Mann's bank heist classic Heat.

But like Tony Soprano, Bellic also goes clothes shopping, hangs out in strip clubs and spends a lot of time in his car driving around town on small-time criminal errands.

"The only thing big about your life is the cockroaches," Bellic tells his flaky cousin Roman soon after stepping off the boat from some unspecified Eastern European state.

Against it all there's a strained dialogue running between Niko and Roman, the sort of banter we've heard before from Tony Soprano and his nephew, Christopher, over the bar of the Bada Bing strip club.

Along with the violence, there's social satire leaking out of every pore, the radio stations filled with angry talkback chatter and adverts for self-enhancing drugs, the cynical quips from random pedestrians, billboards that force you to do a double take.

All of this has existed in previous versions of Grand Theft Auto, which took aim at conservatives and liberals alike, but it gets an update to reflect the preoccupations of the day - terrorism, technology and racial tension among them.

In other words, Grand Theft Auto is an amalgam of the best of what cinema and TV has portrayed of the American gangster pursuing his own warped version of the American Dream, ingeniously adapted for the tricky video game format. No wonder it's so popular - the previous instalments have sold 70 million copies.

But none of it would work were it not for the technical brilliance of the game. While it started off as a thrilling if visually unspectacular 2D offering in 1997, Grand Theft Auto's attitude was in place from day one.

It went 3D and moved the point of view to the third person in 2001 with Grand Theft Auto III and flourished as its developers created an open map that allowed gamers a level of freedom to roam previously unseen in video games.

That free reign offered to gamers reaches its zenith in IV's Liberty City, an intricately detailed urban environment modelled on New York and the largest map GTA players have yet navigated.

Playing as Bellic you become slave to your every whim. If you want to rampage around the city causing mayhem you can. If you'd rather cruise around flicking between radio stations, collecting caches of guns and going on dates, feel free.

But the story always carries you along despite the diversions. You want to know if Bellic will build the new life he wants, become a crime kingpin or fester with the loan sharks and drug dealers.

The success with which Grand Theft Auto creates an authentic world makes the violence all the more jarring when it comes. This is dark, gritty stuff. But it's also laced with an irony - somewhere in the game you'll find a Ricky Gervais avatar doing a stand-up routine and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld voicing a radio DJ - which helps it succeed where other equally violent games haven't.

- NZ Herald

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