Free Content: The Death of Capitalism or the Nurturing of Community?

Commentary

Xbox Live has blossomed into a full-fledged marketplace for downloadable games, expansion packs, movie rentals, TV show purchases, and thousands of worthless jpegs. Much of this content is considered “Premium” and has a cost attached to it in the form of Microsoft points. Anyone who has purchased content on Live knows that the dollar-to-points conversion scale is absurd, the purchasable quantities are deviously mismatched with typical costs of downloads, and much of the content feels unreasonably expensive. While these are all valid issues, none are as problematic as the content that started it all – the expansion packs available for most online games.

The horror, the horror. (Okay I’ll admit I usually like this place)

Since Xbox Live’s humble beginnings five years ago, downloadable maps (multiplayer arenas) have been a mainstay of the service. Most of them have come at a premium price, a price which has made a sharp increase as of late. It’s not something I have a problem with – developers should get paid for their work and they’re free to price them however they want – but the problem is that they never have any say.

In early 2007, Gears of War developer Epic pushed for the release of free expansion content for their title. Microsoft denied them, eventually coming to a compromise: the content would be free after three months. Valve, another big name, has released several free expansions to their popular PC title Team Fortress 2, yet there’s no sign of the content on the 360 version. Valve’s mission statement calls for additional content to be free, saying it should encourage more people to buy the game and build the community, not nickel-and-dime existing customers. Thus far, there’s been little news on any developments in the matter.

With the huge success of Halo, including 2007’s Halo 3, series creator Bungie has dealt with the issues of pricing new content and contending with MS longer than any other developer. With two map pack releases and the recent freebie Cold Storage (a remake of Halo 1’s Chill Out), Bungie has kept busy and vocal about the state of its content. It has stated it doesn’t want to charge for content. Microsoft’s stance is that offering free content devalues any similar content that isn’t free. In past releases, they came to the same compromise Epic made for Gears of War, charging for map packs in the first three months. Microsoft made their money off of early adopters and Bungie’s community wasn’t indefinitely fractured between haves and have-nots. Ultimately, it’s not a terrible situation, and after three months everyone is satisfied.

But what happens when the premium period for content never ends? In the case of Halo 3, where its convenient matchmaking system automatically finds opponents and selects a map for you, the premium content is rarely seen. In order for a map to be played, all players in the 2-16 player matches must have downloaded the map, and it must be selected by matchmaking among the full set of maps. In my experience, I have never played a premium map in these conditions. Once the maps are free, Bungie requires them for matchmaking, and they come up far more often. But, with the newest premium offering, the “Legendary Map Pack”, there are no plans to make it free.

One of Bungie’s new, beautiful maps that you may never see in matchmaking.

This is Microsoft’s call – as stated in the recent Bungie podcast, MS wanted to experiment in offering the content at a discount rather than free. This puts Bungie in the difficult position of deciding if and when they’ll require the Legendary map pack for matchmaking. Further escalating the situation, Microsoft would not allow Bungie to release Cold Storage for free without requiring that you already purchased the Legendary map pack to play it in matchmaking.

Through these methods, Microsoft is needlessly complicating things and splintering the Halo 3 community. They are creating ill will towards the brand, the Xbox 360, and the Xbox Live service. Worst of all they are leaving Bungie to clean up the mess. Along with the release of the free map, Bungie also released a new video explaining the requirements to play the map online. Needless to say, they were nearly as confused as we are about the situation.

Bungie’s Shishka and Luke Smith (Actual Photo)

Microsoft’s business model calls for profit in nearly all aspects of the Xbox Live service. They charge a subscription fee, charge for content, charge developers to release content, and more. On paper it’s an appealing model, but it’s clear they are shitting on their customers and the developers who toil for years on these games just to make a quick buck. How much longer can Microsoft laugh in the face of developers who try to support their fans? How much longer will we all blindly support it before we speak up?

Die Brettspiel Zusammenfassung!

Triple Review!

Fine German engineering. We find it in automobiles, pork products, and board games. Yes, board games. Forget Monopoly, Battleship, Chutes & Ladders, and Mall Madness, because for the last decade or so, Germany has been home to some of the world’s finest board games. Now, thanks to the popularity of online gaming, three of Germany’s best strategy board games are available Xbox Live Arcade.

Settlers of Catan

Catan is easily one of the best board games ever, and the translation to XBLA is impeccable. Catan is unique in that it does not have a solid board, rather, hexagonal tiles are arranged randomly to form the play area. After placing their initial settlements and roads, players begin rolling dice to collect resources, allowing the development of more settlements, roads, cities, or special cards. The dice rolls create probability rather than blind chance. For instance, building a settlement on a hexagon labeled “6” or “8” is helpful, because they’re the numbers most likely to appear when rolling two dice. Conveniently, these probabilities are clearly labeled on the tiles for the statistically challenged.

Strategy, or being an asshole, means making solid trades with other players, taking the best settlements, and catching others off guard with your winning move. Trading is one aspect of the game that could have been lost in translation, as a live game usually involves lots of communication. In the XBLA version, a simple and clear trading screen is supplemented by voice chat. When you’re feeling antisocial, the trade screen works alone as well – it makes Catan a great game for human competition, without all that annoying human trash-talking.

If there’s one flaw with Catan on a TV screen, it’s that the game can’t be played as a party game. Seeing other’s hands would ruin the flow of the game. But get a good group of players online, especially friends you enjoy chatting with, and Catan on XBLA is every bit as fun as its cardboard counterpart.

Ticket to Ride

The latest board game translation on XBLA, Ticket to Ride, provides a fast-paced, strategic, and deceivingly simple experience. It also offers some of the most epic asshole opportunities in strategy board games. Believe me, tears will be shed.

Up to five players compete on a map of the United States, with colored train routes connecting major cities. The rules are simple – each turn, you may take one of three actions: draw train cards, draw destination cards, or claim a route. Train cards are traded in for the actual trains used to claim routes. Destination cards require you to complete a route for bonus points, but you lose points if you fail to complete them by the end of the game. The trick in Ticket to Ride is being discrete about your plans. Revealing your intentions opens you up to dastardly maneuvers like being blocked from your vital routes.

Having never played the actual board game, I’m finding Ticket to Ride to be the most fun of the three to play online. Games are quick, addicting, and the competition is stiff. In the beginning you’ll probably lose a lot, but once you embrace the role of a slimy train baron and start ruining everyone else’s day, you’ll be hooked.

Carcassonne

Carcassonne is a bit of a mystery to me. It’s not that I don’t understand the game, but calculating who won seems like a nightmare. Luckily, it’s all automated on the Xbox Live Arcade version. Unfortunately, Carcassonne failed to grab me in the way Catan and Ticket to Ride did.

Over the course of the game, players take turns placing square tiles and claiming structures, roads, and farmland. Connecting similar tiles creates larger, more valuable areas. Much of this is left up to chance; the tiles are drawn from a deck and there are many different shapes. Strategy is relegated to moment-to-moment tile placement, while any planning is stifled by high levels of randomness. The best strategies seem to involve limiting other players rather than accomplishing anything grand for yourself. The end result is a game that can seem haphazard and unfulfilling.

I do have to give credit where credit is due. The quality of production is there. I’d imagine the automatic score keeping makes it a replacement of the physical board game for some. Not only that, but unlike Catan, Carcassonne allows local multiplayer, allowing 4 players to duke it out on one couch. With that said, it’s not a bad game, but a lot more is left to chance compared to Catan and Ticket to Ride, a style of game design I find as appealing as random battles in Japanese RPGs.

Roogoo is Not a Knock-off Brand of Italian Sauce

Review

I face an upward battle here – convincing you that Roogoo for Xbox Live Arcade is worth your time and not an insipid, preschool edu-game. Roogoo’s core gameplay is painfully simple; colored shapes fall from the sky while you rotate platforms ensuring the shapes fall through appropriately shaped holes. You may recall doing something like this when you were about four.

I imagine this game exists through some elaborate bet. A developer came into work one day with blocks from his daughter’s preschool, set them on the conference table and said, “$20 to anyone who can make a fun game out of this!” The solution? Pile on the gimmicks and turn up the difficulty through the roof.

Yep, this is Roogoo in a nutshell.

The trial download doesn’t help, taking you through the tutorial levels and doing little to prove the game’s depth. After the tutorial, the challenge is always just enough to keep things interesting. The game throws evil bears, spinning platforms, trap doors, and even ninjas in your path. As time goes on it combines each of these elements. Guiding a large stack of blocks through four or five platforms, having them pulled up two levels by bats, stacking more blocks to bypass the bats, and then finally losing the whole stack to a closed trap door is one of the more frustrating experiences in gaming. I’m reminded of platform games where you must traverse a multilevel tower, only to miss a simple jump and fall all the way to the bottom.

And this is Roogoo just being nuts.

These tense moments are what make Roogoo great. When you do make it by the skin of your teeth it’s quite satisfying. The game constantly pushes you to stay focused. Stacks must be made larger to progress and since a single mistake can kill an entire stack, the tension builds with each step through a puzzle. My heart was racing by the end of many puzzles, giving way to some euphoric relief and a desire to move to the next challenge.

A few challenges, scattered at random throughout the list, cause major roadblocks. This uneven difficulty is poor design, a danger to controllers and any objects in the vicinity, but ultimately not game-ruining. If things ever get too tough you can drop it down a notch to “casual” difficulty. Though, as the kind of masochist who takes a reasonable challenge in stride, I found some of the really crazy moments in this 45-level gauntlet exciting and addicting.

I did find two issues particularly frustrating; poor color contrast and sloppy collision detection on spinning platforms. For the most part, these issues are relegated to a small portion of levels. The color issues are early on, in the snow levels where the cursor telling you where the blocks will land blends in with the snow. Thankfully, later levels offer much more contrast. Spinning platforms come up a lot later on, and on several occasions I lost a rather large stack to what looked like a well-timed drop. If you’re extra careful in these sections you shouldn’t have a problem.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse: ninjas in hell.

Roogoo is not going to turn heads or even be remembered a few weeks from now. It has a few quirks, the graphics are nothing special, and the online matchmaking is already a ghost town. However, it is a solid puzzle game, offering up a unique combination of shape/color matching and twitch gameplay. There are better puzzle games out there, but for those looking for something short, tough, and satisfying that they can finish in a couple days, it’s hard to go wrong dropping $10 on Roogoo.

This is What Space Invaders Looked Like When Your Parents Dropped Acid

Review

Space Invaders EXtremeAs an ignorant youngin’ raised on Nintendo and Sega, the original Space Invaders is nearly meaningless to me. I’ve played it before, years later with the wonders of downloading and emulators. It was one of the first space shooters, the 1980’s Ikaruga. Few games from that era age well, and Space Invaders is certainly a relic. Now we have Space Invaders Extreme for the PSP and DS, a sensory overload that our generation can appreciate, and a bastardization of the original to old people everywhere. Like an old rock star dragged out of retirement, pumped full of psychedelic drugs, and thrown in a studio with today’s hottest producer, it’s questionable whether Space Invaders Extreme will be a hit for nostalgists or newbies.

Space Invaders actionThis is your game. This is your game on drugs.

My step-mother is only 11 years my senior, but old enough to reminisce about the days of Atari and Colecovision. She was initially excited to hear I’d been playing an updated Space Invaders, but found the game to be too flashy and over the top. It’s true, Space Invaders Extreme not only packs trippy music and graphics, but also features more complicated gameplay. While a single anecdote from an admitted non-gamer isn’t gospel, the game clearly detaches itself from the original’s humble trappings.

The look of the game is clearly influenced by any of Q Entertainment’s games. The uniquely synesthesiac stylings of Rez, Lumines, and Every Extend Extra are ripped off wholesale in Space Invaders. Sound effects double as musical cues for the pulsing electronic music while a cryptic video plays in the background. Overall it lacks the punch of those other games, cheapening the style and coming off as a poseur. It’s not like Q is the sole proprietor of the style either – Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe is one example of music-infused graphics done right. In Space Giraffe the rainbow of waveforms served to make you think differently about how visuals and sound interact. In Extreme, the visuals accomplish little more than obscure bullets, getting you killed.
Comparison, Rez, Lumines, Space Girraffe, Every Extend ExtraClockwise from Top-Left: Rez, Lumines, Space Giraffe, Every Extend Extra

The original Space Invaders is the granddaddy of the shoot ’em up genre, the very first horizontal space shooter. Its influences are seen today in more modern shooters such as Ikaruga, Mars Matrix, and DoDonPachi. It’s sad then that Space Invaders Extreme does little more than borrow elements from those games. Color-coded enemies (the basis of Ikaruga) dole out a selection of powered up guns including an oversized laser beam (as seen in DoDonPachi). The scoring system is needlessly complicated, piling on layers of requirements for high score potential. Shooting four invaders of the same color, followed by four of a different color, releases a multi-colored UFO. Hitting that UFO as it passes jarringly tosses you into a bonus round in which one of several different mini-games must be completed within the time limit. Success in the bonus round throws you back into the main game, except in a limited “Fever Time” mode with a special weapon. Hitting white UFOs during “Fever Time” gives you a “Jackpot”.
Space Invaders Fever TimeFEVER TIME, BABY!!!

I’m reminded of a recent reimagining of an old school classic, Pacman Championship Edition. Pacman C.E. was such a brilliant game because it took the original concept and improved upon it. Extreme merely complicates the original, with the aforementioned scoring system, branching level paths, and new enemies doing nothing to improve upon the core gameplay. It can also be punishingly hard. Some enemies, when shot, zip down to the bottom of the screen and instantly kill you at any distance. Between this and the noisy graphics, expect many cheap deaths.

Space Invaders ExtremeSometimes the invaders change colors. I forgot why.

There’s something to be said for the simplicity of older games. There’s also something to be said for the polish and style in modern day games. Space Invaders Extreme is a barely passable attempt to walk the line between both. It’s by no means a terrible game, it just fails to accomplish anything a retro remake should set out to do.

Violent, Demeaning Good Time Looking for Horny, 13-18 Year Old Boys

Review

Ninja Gaiden 2I couldn’t really tell you what happened in the first Ninja Gaiden on Xbox. Events transpired that let us in on the disturbed psyche of (soon to be former) Team Ninja leader and pock-marked pretend rock star Tomonobu Itagaki. As if the shameless Dead or Alive series didn’t say enough about his stance on women, Ninja Gaiden showcased its leather-clad heroione, Rachel, by spitting her out of a giant vagina with tentacles.

Ninja Gaiden II begins in similar fashion, with a new female character in peril, Sonia. Again dressed in some kind of bondage garb, she one-ups Rachel with the biggest, most absurdly bouncy breasts outside of hentai games. In every moment she graces the screen, her boobs are jiggling around like some kind of perpetual motion machine. If real world physics worked that way, we could probably end world hunger with giant heaving tits.

Tomonobu ItagakiThe face of genius, or sexual harassment?

You play as the last descendent of the Hayabusa ninja clan, Ryu Hayabusa – out to save the world from some demons known as Greater Fiends. It harks back to a time when all game stories were conceived by horny fifteen year olds embodied in shut-in, nerdy twenty-somethings. Not that much has changed, but at least we have our Bioshocks and Portals to look to with some semblance of pride. Ninja Gaiden II evokes the aesthetics of a Rob Liefeld comic, or an episode of Power Rangers combined with gallons of blood.

Bad guys, like the giant werewolf king (aptly named Volf – seriously), flex giant muscles and call out for worthy opponents in guttural, poorly-written exclamations. Alexei, the requisite effeminate demon (this is a Japanese game, after all) asserts his manhood by stroking the Statue of Liberty, and later, dressing Sonia in the slave outfit from Return of the Jedi. Unlike Star Wars‘ Princess Leia, a strong female character in an unfortunate situation, Sonia is essentially worthless. Yes, she carries a rocket launcher, flies a bad ass G.I. Joe-style helicopter, and carries her absurd twin melons with aplomb, but she requires constant rescuing and breaks up one of the most intense fights in the game. By the end, it’s no surprise Ryu is giving her that “get back in the kitchen” glare.

While the person responsible for this embarrassing storytelling should be ashamed, it was clear the designers decided to have fun with it. The plot is so ridiculous already, so why not make ten-foot-tall cyclops zombies with pants made of skulls, equipped with a cannonball firing left arm, and a chainsaw for a right arm? Bruce Campbell would be proud. More importantly, the greatest enemy design in the history of gaming is featured: utility belt-wearing ninja dogs who toss exploding knives from their mouths.

Dismemberment PlanRated M for malpractice.

The environments follow suit: a futuristic Tokyo features pagodas atop skyscrapers, a deserted Times Square gets all the proportions wrong, a cave troll wrecks the Brooklyn Bridge, and it’s all topped off with a truckload of alternately slimy and fiery demon realms. Ultimately, it’s all just there to look pretty, and it succeeds. There’s little in the way of backtracking, platforming, or puzzles in Ninja Gaiden II. It’s a step up from the previous game, which felt pretentious whenever it threw in a puzzle or had you exploring large cities for clues. In a game like Bioshock, exploring every nook and cranny of the environment is a joy, because the story is well-told and the environments inform the plot. Here, the world serves as little more than a backdrop for your endless decapitations – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Which finally brings us to the essence of Ninja Gaiden II: combat. NGII triumphs above all its absurdity as the ultimate action game. Games like God of War are wonderfully flashy but boil down to little more than swinging some sharp things around, watching blood fly everywhere, and then playing Parappa the Rapper for 10 seconds while the game fellates itself. Here you are engaged, fighting for your life. Every move you make matters, every inch you gain on an enemy is earned, and the game is hard. The brilliance of it is that you will be punished over and over, yet compelled to come back for more. Rarely is luck or random chance rewarded, nor are enemies cheap if you know how to approach them. Finish this game and then return to even the most frustrating previous encounter and it will most likely be a breeze. That’s good game design in its purest form.

Ryu Hayabusa, PodiatristYes, that’s some dude’s foot.

While the circumstances of NGII’s mass eviscerations are forgettable, the framing will ultimately push the audience into the love-it or hate-it camps. The camera can indeed be a pain, just as it was in the Xbox original. It’s made worse here by the sheer size of many of the combat scenarios. While you’re being mobbed by twenty ninjas, magicians, dogs, demons, or giant spiders, the camera seems more intent on showing you with the nearest enemies and little else. All the while, soldiers fire rockets at you from off-screen. I found it to be a bit of a bother, but with time it can be mastered, just as the combat itself can. The sound design, enemy patterns, and the inherent rhythm of attacks in the game, all help to provide a clear picture when the camera doesn’t do the best job. Still, some will find the camera to be a deal breaker, and while I feel they should get over it, try out the demo first if you’re concerned.

For all of it’s dumb moments, childish art direction, and heaving bosoms, Ninja Gaiden II tosses in more than equal portions of intense combat, deep tactics, and rewarding challenges. It’s questionable who exactly the full product is marketed towards. If anything, it nails the “teenage boys whose parents don’t know what they’re playing” demographic perfectly. I’m not really sure I can get behind that, but I can’t really stop playing this game either way.

Da Nu Rubik’s Cube, Dropped by Emcee Escher

Review

EchochromeAs a portable piracy box, the PSP is unmatched. As a legitimate game platform it lands somewhere between the Atari Lynx and Game Boy Micro. Sure, for me, even as a dedicated Lumines II box it’s one of my favorite consoles, but it’s hard to deny how much better the PSP could be. Along comes Echochrome, less a compelling game and more a tease at what the PSP could eventually become, a portable equivalent of Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade style services.

Echochrome is a puzzler in which you navigate an art studio figure along a series of platforms in something reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s Relativity. Perspective is everything in this game, and thoughtful camera manipulation is the key to success. Funny how much time we spend wrestling with camera controls in 3D games; now we have an entire game based around the concept. Not that it’s the first, or the last. Crush was released not to long ago for the PSP and featured similar concepts, and Fez, an upcoming game, also shares the idea of manipulating perspective to navigate the world. With Crush long forgotten and Fez still a mystery, Echochrome currently has the spotlight.

Unfortunately, while Echochrome is a novel concept, looks and sounds like nothing before it, and is generally entertaining for a while, it falters in two key aspects necessary for an addicting puzzle game: consistency and control. The rules of this world are boggling; occluding an object means it doesn’t exist, your avatar moves through the air on a two dimensional plane – landing on objects in the foreground or background, and if a gap in two paths is closed from your perspective it becomes closed in the game world. Everything revolves around how the world looks from the camera perspective – at least that’s the idea.

Echochrome level on PSPMind the Gap

The biggest problem is that the game doesn’t follow its own rules. Falling through holes and jumping are usually the biggest culprits here, as I usually wasn’t very confident of where I would land. On occasion I’d connect two platforms, yet my avatar wouldn’t cross them, or he’d even cross over clear boundaries as if they weren’t there. When jumping it wasn’t always clear which way the figure would walk once it landed, sometimes going right for a hole like a mindless lemming. Guessing which way they would walk was especially problematic when connecting two parallel platforms into one large platform.

Echochrome fallThis doesn’t go as planned.

Due to all these oddities I found myself constantly making fine adjustments with the camera and jamming on the triangle button to start and stop my character. The complete lack of precision made the experience feel sloppy, a nail in the coffin for a puzzle game. It’s not completely game-breaking, as I did have fun with it in the beginning. However, as the novelty wore off and the puzzles became more demanding I felt as if I was slogging along with little desire to continue. If they’d just cleaned up the bugs and given the player more control the game could have been a masterpiece.

As it stands it’s nice to play a puzzle or two every once in a while. The possibilities are endless; it includes a simple level editor and regular puzzle packs are released online, so if you do end up addicted there’s plenty to justify dropping ten bucks on it. I will say the editor is a little confusing, and if you don’t plan ahead you may run into some issues. Good luck deleting anything, for example; chances are you’ll take a few other things with it.

Custom LevelI’d mastered the editor at this point.

I want to support this game as it’s potentially a milestone for the PSP. It’s one of the first small, cheap, downloadable PSP games on the Playstation Network service, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future. An easily accessible download service on the handheld itself (via wireless), with a selection a smaller games like Zuma, Pacman C.E., and Geometry Wars would ruin my wallet. I can’t with confidence tell you you should run to your computer or PS3 now and purchase Echochrome. However, there’s a demo available, so I highly suggest you check it out, and if it seems fun then I can at least promise you’ll get your ten dollars worth.

Grand Theme Auto: ’08s Biggest Game Has Something to Say

Commentary

In 2000, Sega released Shenmue on an unprecedented 70 million dollar budget for the Sega Dreamcast. Set in Yokosuka, Japan, the developers set out to put the player in a living, breathing recreation of small town life in the 1980s. While the story was pulled along through encounters with seedy fellows and the mystery of who killed your father, much of the game was spent working odd jobs, making acquaintances, playing parlor games, and talking to sailors. It was one of the first games of its kind, and while the resulting gameplay was boring more often than not and the big budget production was ultimately a sales disaster, the immersion in the world was unparalleled. In the eight years since Shenmue’s release, few games have matched that sense of place, that feeling of being somewhere that could be real. With the arrival of Grand Theft Auto IV we have a game that does for New York City what Shenmue did for Yokosuka and a thought-provoking social commentary and morality play to boot.

Like Shenmue, GTAIV presents its world not as a stone-cold accurate rendition of its base city, but as a world that nails so much of the aesthetics of the real thing that any geometric inaccuracies are moot. The infamous skyline looms in the distance in the initial hours of the game and when Algonquin, Liberty City’s rendition of Manhattan, becomes available the trek across the bridge as the towering skyscrapers approach and nearly swallow you whole is nearly as awe-inspiring as the real thing. And it’s not just those big moments that define the game and its world. On the contrary, it’s the little touches that continually caught me off guard.

The minute details of our reality that Rockstar has brought into GTAIV can be easy to take for granted, but there are moments that hit so close to everyday life that I found myself stopping and wondering if I’d imagined them. You’ll simply accept many of its touches like potholes, garbage in the water at Coney Island, dead leaves collecting in the side streets, and the ambient noise which is constant in all but the most remote areas; all elements that subconsciously immerse you in the world. Then a moment will come along that’s a little too real. Cars clink and clank as they settle and cool down when you leave them. Phone signal is lost in tunnels and the radio makes that bip bip-bip-bip bip-bip-bip interference noise just before you get a phone call. A wild throw in bowling will send your ball into the opposite lane (something I’ve experienced in a real alley).

It’s not to say the game is truly realistic. All of those details are at odds with the total disregard for traffic laws and wanton destruction you eventually cause. When you’re flying over the city firing rockets out the side hatch of a helicopter you won’t be thinking about how true-to-life it all is. No one is going to claim that GTAIV is a life simulator, but the downtime between missions can be entirely pedestrian. Even the opening missions border on mundane, a chance Rockstar took that paid off, drawing attention to all the elements of the world that set it apart from nearly any game before it. It was several missions into the game before I’d even fired a gun, and by then I’d already gone on a date, received a text message, watched TV, and got completely wasted, taking a taxi home.

The networked lifestyle you take on becomes one of the major themes of the game. While all of our technological advances have been slowly fed to us to the point where managing friendships over the internet is the standard, GTAIV is the first game to simulate it. With a fully functional cell phone, internet, email, TV, and radio, you forge friendships, relationships, and memorable events for the first time in a game, and it puts a little perspective on things. The absurdity of buying ring tones from your favorite in-game TV show, setting up online dates, and replying to emails from mom in a game made me realize how much we take it all for granted in real life.

Just as Shenmue was about life in the 80s (in Japan, anyway), GTAIV is about life now. All these immersive elements come together to tell a story with resonance. While the protagonist, Nico Bellic, is fresh off the boat in search of the American dream, a story that’s become timeless, his path is certainly modern. When pushed to kill off a character I’d grown to like, after the deed had been done I stopped at an internet cafe and found an unread email from them, saying how glad they were I’d helped them out and suggesting we hang out soon. I wanted to try out the online dating site in the game, and when I picked up the girl I felt bad that I’d turned Nico into a murderer and a cheater, having a girlfriend at the time. Experimenting further I picked up one of the series’ infamous prostitutes, selected from three different “services” and watched with shame as the dialogue and animation was much more graphic than the hilarious car bouncing (with the two parties sitting quietly in their respective seats) I was used to from previous GTAs.

It’s that detachment from everything that made the previous Grand Theft Autos nothing more than a violent playground for me, but here all your actions carry a little more weight. Even driving, which was so stylized in previous games and much more realistic here, can say something about a person. While I never followed traffic laws, I made a point to never run over innocent pedestrians, and I almost always paid the bridge tolls. At the same time, when it came to the so-called bad guys I found myself to be ruthlessly opportunistic. A dirty cop asked me to take down a local dealer, and rather than meet him face-to-face I blew his head off with a sniper rifle from across the street and ran off on a motorbike. I later found out if I’d gone and talked to him I could have worked things out more peacefully.

You can’t always feel bad though, as the game pushes Nico as a character as much as you are his puppet master. He’s one of gaming’s strongest protagonists, with a story to be told and moral compass all his own. When forced to kill one key player or another, there is no option to let them sort it out themselves, or kill both. Take that as limited game design or keeping the plot to only two possible paths, but I saw it as part of Nico’s character. He’s a soldier, he’s given a mission, and he carries it out. The option of sparing both of their lives was never there for him.

The limited freedom of choice, the realistic world juxtaposed with excessive violence, and the borderline misogyny (a topic for another article entirely) threaten to tear down the whole thing. Ultimately, Rockstar strikes a balance and it all comes together. Few games (and almost no action games) push you to think about the world, or even about yourself, and when games stop simply being about rules or beating an opponent, it’s the ones that make you reflect that will ultimately matter. It’s weird to say all this about Grand Theft Auto, but in this newest version it’s true. And while Shenmue’s living, breathing world was an inspiration for GTAIV, GTAIV will surely be an inspiration for an even more memorable game. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years.

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato