Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Review - Grand Theft Auto IV

It’s said that William James never really knew what to do with his life because he had the unfortunate ability to see the myriad possibilities of existence. Every day a human is confronted with thousands of choices and yet most of the time we just go for the same choices over and over: the innate conservatism of the human comes forward and, afraid of change, we do what is comfortable and easy. James was able to see the choices that his life offered both short-term and long-term, and so struggled to make decisions; every choice seemed as amenable to him as any other. Eventually he became known as a philosopher but despite that classification he flailed about a fair bit, writing on topics as diverse as theology and psychology.

This kind of constant unlimited freedom is what becomes apparent after playing some ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’. The huge sprawling living game-world is rivalled in its realism and complexity only by actual real life. It’s like being thrown into an only slightly exaggerated version of New York City and the feeling of freedom is palpable. Racing, eating, drinking, driving, shooting, darts, bowling, pool, watching TV, watching a show, helicopter flying, following the storyline, dating, surfing the internet, exploring, sight-seeing: they’re just some of the things you’re free to do. If you want to be a violent sociopath - as the media believes the game will make you - then feel free to hang out at the subway station and push pedestrians in front of oncoming trains. Alternatively if you want to settle down as an unlicensed New York cabbie and watch TV with your girlfriend in the evenings, go ahead.

While the über-realistic city is the real draw, everything else in the game is polished to a shine. There’s such complexity in everything, from the internet sites to the radio stations: the game feels... complete. The physics engine that runs things in the background is superb as well; when it’s doing its job you don’t even notice ie. when you’re hurtling down the freeway with the police behind you and your car slams into the divider, propelling your car into a spin through the air and smashing every window. It’s all portrayed as perfectly as in any big-budget movie (I’m looking at you, ‘Die Hard’!). The car crashes and the driving feel more authentic than in previous GTA iterations. This authenticity unfortunately means that most of the cars have poor sluggish handling, a fact most readily apparent whenever you’re on a timed mission.

The characters and the story are great as well. I personally haven’t got far enough into the story to comment on it as a narrative but it’s off to a good start and while not all the twists thus far were unexpected, they’ve been entertaining enough. As far as characters go, it’s the usual GTA menagerie of freaks and dregs of society – they all have some eccentric personality quirk and are all larger-than-life. Being a completist, I feel compelled to unlock all my ‘friends’ special abilities (mobile gun stores, chopper rides, etc.) and so I sort of resent having to spend time with them and play numerous games of pool and darts. But, like I say, the freedom of the game is such that you don’t have to call your friends at all if you don’t want to.

All in all, it’s a game that would have petrified poor William James. The amount of choice and freedom in such a vivid metropolis can be terrifying and it presents to the unwary player Sartre’s existentialist feelings of anguish, abandonment and despair. But in the end, like Sartre’s edict, it forces a person to choose and thus ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ provides a good example of existentialism as a ‘way of life’ philosophy. As for me, between GTA IV and exam revision, all my free time is swirling into these twin black holes and I stand helpless to resist.

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