This week, Grand Theft Auto IV.
About a million years ago, a company called DMA Design created Grand Theft Auto and discovered that the combination of controversy, wacky humour, and vehicular homicide was a lucrative one indeed. So they made a whole bunch of sequels, threw some TVs out of some hotel windows, and changed their name to Rockstar, in a slightly overcompensatory effort to make us forget that they made Lemmings. Not that there was anything wrong with Lemmings, at least not until the franchise was rigourously milked to its last sour, lumpy dribbles. Thankfully, GTA's teats seem to be remaining plump and fresh for now, with the fourth installment, or at least the fourth one with a number on the end. Apparently, thematic indulgences like Vice City and San Andreas don't count, indicating that Rockstar subscribes to the "because I say so" school of sequel numbering, also known as the Resident Evil method.
This year's morally flexible everyman is Niko Bellic, an Eastern European mercenary who was last seen helping overthrow the Combine in Half-Life 2 and who arrives as a penniless immigrant in Liberty City. As is always the case with this series, Niko must reach the top by climbing up a big pile of stolen cars, bodies, and escort missions. After a couple of jobs in which I drove my friends around and took one of them bowling, I embraced my new country by buying a baseball cap and some sneakers, deep-throating a hot dog, and slumping in front of some blisteringly awful television for a few in-game hours. It was at more or less this point that I thought to myself, "Hang on, am I playing Grand Theft Auto, or Grand Theft Normal Boring Life? What's next, the 'write a letter to your mum' mission?" So I immediately ran outside, jacked a car, and plowed through two mailboxes and an accountant. Instantly, the nearby policeman, who was clearly as impatient for this as I was, spat out masticated doughnut and gave chase. "Now we're getting back to what GTA is all about," I thought, as I turned into a pedestrian precinct, the background wailing of sirens adding a melodious backing to the rhythmic snaps of pelvises shattering against my radiator.
Unfortunately, while steel lampposts snap off their housing when anything heavier than a kitten leans on them, Mother Nature continues to outdo human technology. My rampage was brought to an abrupt end by the world's toughest poplar tree, causing Niko to go hurtling through the windscreen in a manner as wincingly painful as it was fucking awesome. But I was desperately attempting to restart the twisted metal salad that used to be my car when I realised I couldn't hear sirens anymore. Yes, it seems now you can shake your wanted level pretty much just by driving away really fast, which you'd think the police would be prepared for. Lose your pursuers, take a few turnings, and bingo - Niko Bellic, model citizen. It makes sense in theory, but I felt somehow defeated, as I sulkily went back to my cousin for more escort jobs.
Once you inevitably grow tired of the sandbox mayhem and start on the mission paths, you'll find that GTA IV is initially about as fast-paced as a Jacob Bronowski documentary playing at half speed. The first hundredweight of missions are virtually all tutorials, which highlights the inherent problem with incorporating so many different gameplay elements that you need to spend half the game explaining the bloody things. You have to learn how to drive cars, how to drive trucks, how to drive geese, how to use your phone, TV, Internet, how to fist fight, how to gun fight, how to shoot from cover, how to shoot from the back of a giant Tyrannosaurus. The game doesn't really kick in for me until you get to the second safehouse, and that's easily 5 to 10 hours of gameplay (depending on how sandbox-happy you are), so this is a game that requires a time commitment, and I mean a big one. If you have a day job, I recommend sticking a pillow up your jumper and claiming maternity leave.
Once it gets going, though, it's a roller coaster thrill ride - a roller coaster that stops dead every now and again like it's run by British Rail. I'm not sold on the TV channels, because unlike the radio stations, they can't be heard while driving, and hence come across as the game trying to distract you from actually playing it, like it's got confidence issues or something. Then there's the mechanic wherein you keep friendly with characters by taking them out drinking and to shows and shit. I'm not sure what, if anything, it's all in aid of, but what with most people in the GTA universe committing three murders before breakfast, I've been trying to stay friendly with everyone I can. And what that entails is, between every mission, I have to give someone a call, drive over to their place, pick them up, drive them somewhere else, pretend to enjoy myself for half an hour, then drive them back. It's just an irritating mindless chore; it's like we're getting off the roller coaster every five minutes to touch up the paint work.
GTA I was so wacky, it was practically set in Toon Town, and as recently as Vice City the feel was still exaggerated and colourful. Since then, though, the series has taken a right turn at the corner of Gritty and Realism, which I'm not convinced is the best direction for it. As seems to be common with the current generation, "realism" means the graphics look like I'm viewing them through a used coffee filter. What isn't brown is grey, and what isn't grey is too dark to make out. I thank Christ for the automatic lock-on in the firefights, because all the enemies are indistinct dark blobs in an indistinct-dark-blob factory. The driving feels more realistic, but, with that, slower and heavier, with all my attempts at handbrake turns resulting in spinning out like a merry-go-round. And by the way, avoid the PS3 version, because those marshmallow shoulder triggers certainly don't help, and the Sixaxis is, as always, about as much use as smashing your hand between two bricks.
But I think my biggest disappointment is that we're back in dreary old surrogate New York again, because all the way back to the GTA: London expansion pack, a lot of the appeal of the series has been the transplantation of the wacky gun fun into new settings like Vice City and San Andreas. Don't get me wrong; strip away the ancillary bullshit, and GTA IV is really good. I mean, I'm going to play with it some more after I've finished reviewing, and that's fucking unprecedented, but frankly, I'm going to reserve my enthusiasm for when they announce Grand Theft Biggleswade.
Systematically alienating every kind of fanboy: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Incidentally I'm appearing at a panel at Game On in Melbourne this weekend so come along if you want to see my stammering, nervous, much less funny unscripted self
Just so we're clear I am never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever going to review Mario Kart Wii