"Life is complicated.
I killed people. Smuggled people. Sold people.
Perhaps here, things will be different."
These words, tellingly and optimistically spoken by Grand Theft Auto IV's protagonist, Niko Bellic, don't just speak of a tarnished soul that sees opportunity in a new city. They point directly towards the future of this series.
Like Bellic, Grand Theft Auto is traveling to a place where many people have gone to find the so-called "American Dream." Some people call it the Capital of the World. Others have learned that it is the City That Never Sleeps. No matter what you call it, New York City is a place where anything can happen. It is the biggest stage in the world, and the perfect place to usher in the next step for the series.
This new entry marks a number of dramatic changes for the series, but it isn't Grand Theft Auto merging with the real world. New York City doesn't exist in this universe, and it likely never will. The Big Apple is simply being used as an inspirational blueprint for the re-creation of Liberty City, a place some gamers have goten to know better than their hometowns. While the original Liberty City took many visual cues from New York City, this dramatic reinvention of the fictional metropolis seeks to capture the feel of the world's greatest city like never before.
Despite its incredibly large stature, the next installment in the series has remained one of the best kept secrets in the world. Rumors have swirled and speculation has been raised, but nothing that you've heard or read is even close to the truth. Some people thought Grand Theft Auto IV was going to be become a massively multiplayer experience; others were certain the game would take place across the entire world. A few misinformed souls even thought the next iteration would be set in space. The truth of the matter, however, is that's it's going back to the city that made the series a phenomenon.
The new Liberty City is a bustling metropolis that is dense on the streets and intimidating vertically. Many of New York City's iconic sights find new homes here, and may look strikingly similar, but are twisted to fit into the Grand Theft Auto world. The MetLife building now bears the name Getalife, the Statue of Liberty is now the Statue of Happiness, and DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is called BOABO (Beneath the Offramp of the Algonquin Bridge Overpass).
"We live here," notes the game's vice president of creative Dan Houser. "We've been here for a number of years. Even the guys in Scotland spend lots of time here with us. It was an environment we felt had never been done to the level we were envisioning it in a video game. From looking at all the locations, this was the one that really stood out to us, and really had that impact. It has all of these iconic things that couldn't put into a game before."
Within Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar North has recreated four of the five boroughs that make up New York City, as well as a section of New Jersey. It's a smaller geographical mass than San Andreas, but not an inch of this world is wasted or dedicated to vast stretches of country or desert. It's a tightly packed metropolis that captures the eye with its decades of world-class architecture, sunblocking towers, and extraordinary walks of life. In the GTA universe, Brooklyn has been transformed to Broker, Manhattan has mutated into Algonquin, Queens is now Dukes, The Bronx is Bohan, and New Jersey has become Alderney.
"It's not the full city," injects Houser. "It's an approximation thereof. We make a city that feels like the real thing, but is perfectly tuned for gameplay in the broadest sense. The world is not designed to be a video game. We are trying to make a video game that feels like the world, but still plays like a video game."
The design of the city and the missions that unfold within it are designed hand-in-hand and complement each other perfectly. Everything in thi world is here for a reason, wheather it's directly tied to gameplay or simply there to create atmosphere.
"We are trying to give the city next-generation life. Trying to give it the feeling of being there. The feeling of - which to us is always a big part of a Grand Theft Auto game - walking the streets or driving them slowly, watching the life go by, trying to make that a lot more engaging." says Houser. "We are trying to make this something that is more fun, more believable, more alive it's ever been. That's something we've done a huge amount of work on. To give lots of varied behaviors to the pedestrians, make them more context sensitive, more dependant on the environment. Something that we've done bits of in the past, and really blow that out. When you see the streets, and see that this peron's smoking, another person is on the phone, and this other person is sitting on the bench, it looks amazing. It feels a lot more real than just a lot of people walking down the street."
THE HUSTLE & BUSTLE OF A THRIVING METROPOLIS
The city is brought to life with an amazing level of realism. Sunlight glistens beautifully off of glasswork, illuminates the intricate detailing of century old brick, and even reveals just how realistic an ordinary bag of trash can look. As the sun begins to set, the city takes on a whole different appearance. Buildings that were once eye-popping attractions slowly become ominous obelisks. As any New Yorker will tell you, there's a big difference between New York during the day and New York at night. Liberty City will perfectly capture this quality.
Even the texturing of the Algonquin streets, which are filled with crater-like potholes and occasional glimpses of the brick used in a world gone by, are greatly varied in design and something that you can't take your eye from. The visual makeup of the city was something we could capture real well and really understand the minute aspects of its personality," adds Houser." Trying to put that into a video game is something that we think is unique to the video game medium. It was a way that we could capture some aspects of the experience of living here that you couldn't put into a film, you couldn't put into a TV show, and you couldn't put into a book - because you are actually wandering about and meeting some of the freaks that you meet on the streets here. And that's what it's all about - meeting the same kind of freaks you'd meet on the streets, the angry yuppies you'd me there. A big part of New York life is walking around the streets and meeting lunatics. That's something we definitely tried to put into the game. We are trying to give it that life and difference between the neighborhoods and the difference between the kinds of people. We are trying to capture that Capital of the World aspect of New York. There are lots of non-American characters in the game."
One of these foreigners is Niko Bellic. His home is in Eastern Europe, and he likely may never have traveled to Liberty City if it wasn't for his cousin Roman. With life not working out in the homeland, " Bellic turns up in Liberty City because he's been receiving e-mails from his cousin Roman, that read like: 'I live this amazing life, it's the American Dream come true. I have two womean. I have four hot tubs. I have fifteen sports cars,'" Houser elaborates. "And [Bellic] believes it." His bid to flee his past for what he thought would be the greener pastures of America couldn't be further from the truth. Roman has been lying to him. He isn't rich. He isn't popular. And he's actually in a load of trouble. He lied to his cousin to hide his own failures in life.
While he may make you contemplate strangling your own flesh and blood, Roman is the only person that you know in America. He serves as one of your main friends, motivations, and connections at the start of the game. Unlike San Andreas, players won't get a chance to see Bellic in his homeland. You will see his life unfold from the moment that he steps into Liberty City. And given Roman's situation, you have your work cut out for you right off the bat.
"Roman is heavily in debt. Lots of criminals are trying to get heavy with him," comments Houser. "Niko is a tough character. Roman is more of a friendly buffoon. He needs your support, and equally Roman is a high energy optimist that will try to make things happen. It seems like a good dynamic, but they are constantly bickering. Early on it seems like your motiation is to simply make a go of it in a new world, and then we discover, as the game unfolds, that maybe Niko has been avoiding other problems at home."
JUST ANOTHER ORDINARY DAY
The demo we were fortunate enough to see, running on an Xbox 360, begins with Bellic standing inside of the taxi depot that Roman runs out of the borough of Broker in a converted industrial garage. The game's newfound graphical muscle dances across the screen. Roman's desk is cluttered with garbage and paperwork, the walls desperately need a new coat of paint, and the windows of the depot appear to never have been cleaned. The sun is shining brightly outside, but you wouldn't know it from the light that is passing through the windows - a dirty, yellowish hue that barely gives off enough illumination for operations to be conducted. The only life that this office has is a radio belting out music in ear-piercing mono, and Bellic, standing tall, confident, and ready for action.
While Bellic could do his cousin a favor by tidying up the place, he has other business to take care of. As he leaves the office, you feel the weight behind each step he makes. Variation in the terrain are met with realistic changes in the walking animation. As Bellic turns and maneuvers his body in different ways on his walk, you can see that his movements are fueled by an incredible physics engine.
"The physics are going to be pretty amazing," Houser interjects. "We are trying, like all things with this game, to push the physics forward. Physics is an area where games can get much better. If you are into third-person action games, physics need to be amazing. The feeling of controlling your character needs to be amazing. The feeling of running around that environment, climbing over things, needs to be a lot more than it has been. The animations can't feel canned and predictable. One of our biggest goals early in development is that it should feel different than any other game. It shouldn't 'Oh here's a really good looking, but stiff character.'"
Bellic is anything but stiff, and it would appear that he isn't the most sensitive or honest lad around, either. His walk concludes at a brownstone. Despite the two people - friens, possible neighbors - having a conversation on the stoop next door, Bellic pushes the door open - again a motion fueled by the sense of weight and a realistic accompanying animation. It becomes obvious that this isn't Bellic's house as he quickly clings to a wall and pulls out a pistol. One quick look around the corner reveals that the living room, furnished in '70s browns and greens, is not occupied. Bellic slowly slides, into the room with his pistol drawn high and pointed to a well-lit kitchen. With one leg stepping over the other in a strafin motion, he then sees that the kitchen is clear as well. There's nobody in this small house. The urgency in his steps intensifies, and he pushes his way through the back door.
Once one the street, he makes a beeline for a parked car - a beatifully detailed and finely polished red four-door that appears to be the primary mode of transportation for one of Broker's successful families. Instead of trying the handle to see if the car is unlocked, Bellic smashes the window with his elbow. The glass thumbles on the street and seat as Bellic unlocks the door from the inside. A master of hotwiring, he has the car roaring in a second flat. As he drives to his next destination, Houser points out that all the vehicles in the game also feature new physics. The camera angle behind the car is noticeably closer than it has been in any other Grand Theft Auto. Not only does this bring out better detail in the vehicles, it allows the player to see more of the verticality of the city.
After fussing with the radio stations and finding a calming melody for his drive, Bellic cautiously navigates a section of the BOABO, arriving at a dockside area with an amazing view of downtown Liberty and its skyline. At the dock, the squawks of pigeons and the rustling waves drown out the horns and chatter of the city's residents, and you can alsmost sense that Bellic is calmed by the change in scenery. After walking directly over to the water, which looks completely lifelike, he puts a leg up onto a broken concrete wall and pulls out his cell phone. This action brings up a magnified view of the phone onto the HUD. The options are Phonebook, Messages, Organizer and Camera. After selecting Phonebook, Bellic is faced ith another set of options: City Contact, Docks Friends, and Cab Contact. We're not sure who Bellic ends up calling, but after a brief conversation, he informers the man on the other end of the line to meet him at the docks.
A NEW LEVEL OF FREEDOM
"In all previous GTA games you might have felt like a slave," opines Houser. "You are ordered by people to do things. Now, there's still going to be an element of that because you are an underling that people tell what to do for large parts of the game, but you can also choose how you want to spend your time. I want to hang out with him and her. I want to go and see this guy because he always has fun things to do. Call him up and maybe you can hang with him. Maybe he'll answer. That's a fun way of navigating the story and navigating the world and your time in it. You have a lot of choice over what you want to do."
Storytelling is a huge focus in this next installment, and it will be reflected through the various ways you can interact with the city and its denizens. According to Houser, Rockstar North is giving people more freedom, more choice, and more sense of control over their destiny. The game still fllows a narrative path, but it's quite different in its structure. "The story is told in a number of different ways, " adds Houser. "But we've tried to replicate as many ways possible that you engage with people. There's talking [in person], cell phones, and a bunch of other ways of giving the player information. We are trying to use that kind of stuff to give you back story or front story, or to explain character motivation."
"You still meet people, get missions by them, do the missions, and if you do well they will help you. Or they may stab you in the back. We tried to provide more diversity to the missions. We tried to provide certain choices about the missions. We've tried to give branches that maybe give you a critical choice, new ways of interacting with characters, and new ways of interacting with the world. It's a different kind of experience".
In previous Grand Theft Auto titles, the goal was always very clear cut. You start out small and work your way up to the top. Bellic's story isn't a rags-to-riches tale, nor is it rags-to-rags. It's rags to somewhere in between - leaving a world of imagination as to where his actions will bring him - especially with Rockstar hinting heavily at the idea of players plotting their own destiny. When asked about this, Houser points out that "you are just one fish in the big pond of other fish. New York motivation isn't just about turning up here and becoming the king. That's an impossible goal."
Over the last console generation, Grand Theft Auto has become a series of period pieces. Vice City was set in the '80s, and San Andreas took place in the '90s. Not since GTA III, a game also featuring Liberty City, has Rockstar North approached a contemporary piece. In Grand Theft Auto IV, we are stepping into Liberty City as seen in 2007. It's a bigger city, and a different age. These are both things that could have a huge effect on the way that you approach your criminal activities.
"From conversations we had with a lot of crime experts and a lot of ex-policeman, we learned that it's very hard to be a criminl nowadays," Houser says with a smile. "The glory days of that stuff are over. That was something that we definitely tried to capture in the story and the experience of the game. People are constantly getting arrested. The police are a heavy presence."
MORE THAN YOU WOULD EXPECT
In terms of scale, this GTA experience shouldn't be much different than San Andreas'. The only noticeable difference is that players won't be able to pilot airplanes. "There are no planes, because it's just a city." adds Houser. "Apart from the fact that [the vehicles] are similar. We want want it to feel realistic and gritty. [Bellic] is not going to be riding a unicycle or rollerblading. We are giving choice and variety that feels right for that character. We're not suddenly saying that there are no motorbikes. We are keeping all of that stuff. It's the same range and diversity that we had, but to fit the character."
Speaking of elements of the game that bring out the realism of the character, Houser admits that Rockstar North is approaching the recruitment of voice actors in a different way. Reading between the lines, this likely means less familiar voices, and more voices that fit the desired attitude of the characters. Bellic's Eastern European accent fits his gritty exterior, and the chatter heard in the streets just screams New York.
The same thought process is being applied to the soundtrack and radio stations. "We've raided the past heavily." Houser admits. "We are going to get some great music that works with the 2007 Liberty City. We've set the benchmark for game soundtracks in the past, and I don't think we've been surpassed in that; I think we've done some really amazing stuff. I think we are going to do something wicked this time. We're pretty confident on that. It's a great way of giving you, the player, part of the experience in a way that no other medium can. You can have songs that fit your mood. I want this music to be hardcore because I am in a hardcore mood. Going out for a date with a girl, so I need something more romantic. We pick tracks that fit the tempo of the game. It's not a pedal-to-the-metal racing game. It's an urban cruising gangster game. We pick music that we think works with that kind of experience. It's got to be of a certain tempo or a certain feel no matter what genre it's in. The debate that goes into every single track you would no believe. There are a large number of music fans that pick this stuff."
With more realistic tones accompanying the visuals, it's easy to think that this GTA experience will abandon the series' trademark humor for more serious content. It will certainly feel like more of a realistic experience, but the humor will still be fully intact. Whether you are listening to advertisements on the radio, hear someone mumble something on the street, or read a billboard, Liberty City will still be a wild place. The same team, with the same sense of humor, is bringing this game to life.
This is something that even now, Houser finds amazing. "Some people talk about it like it's a franchise. I think of it as a series of games made by the same people. Since GTA III, we still have exactly the same people. We've added some great people on top of that, but it's the same two lead programmers, same physics guy, same producer, same audio guys, same designers. They are all in place. No one's left.
"That's what is so exciting. And what's been such a great experience for everyone involved in working on these games is that we managed to develop it as a core group together. We havent lost any of the key talent. They've added great people in there. That kind of consistency has given everyone confidence in working with each other, and an understanding of what we are trying to do, and an ambition that I don't think is matched anywhere else. Where people come and people go, and the franchise lives on. The franchise is the people who make this game - it's this core group of people. I think that's something that sets us apart from a lot of places."
It's that and the fact that the team is trying things that no one has with video games. Grand Theft Auto brought new definition to the action genre, and showed us that not every decision that the player makes has to be linear and tied to a path. With Grand Theft Auto IV, the team is finding new ways to approach storytelling, movement, and the level of interaction the player has within the world. This tight-knit team continues to improve with each new product it touches. Some of the content is amusing, like being able to call a woman for a date. And some of its achievements simply blow your mind, such as its load times. After an initial loading sequence, the game will never load again - even when you transition between interior and exterior locations.
Rather than outsourcing the technology that Rockstar North utilizes, Rockstar as a whole has set up a studio of programmers in San Diego that does nothing but work on the company's propietary technologies. The engine of note is called R.A.G.E. (Rockstar Advanced Game Engine). You already got a brief taste of it with Table Tennis, and will get a much larger dose when Grand Theft Auto IV hits the streets on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 16.
Both versions of the game will likely be identical, but Rockstar has confirmed that downloadable content will be exclusive to the Xbox 360 version. This content is said to be sizeable, and when asked about whether or not we would see this impressive new take on Liberty City living on past one game Houser grins and says one thing: "episodic content."
Like all of the Grand Theft Autos that have come before this one, the experience is largely for the single player. The game will have multiplayer, however. "Yes, there will be some." Houser comments. "It's not going to be a massively multiplayer online game, but we are trying to make something that is interesting, fun, and progressive, and goes nicely alongside the single-player game."
It's been in development for over three years, and Houser isn't shy about admitting that this has been a lengthy experience already. "We knew to do something at this scale would take a very long time. Just to make the graphics like that is very time consuming. The assets are big and heavy."
Whether it changes the face of gaming again like it did in the previous generation remains to be seen, but Rockstar North knows exactly where this series needs to go next, and is running that extra mile to get it there and make it a new experience yet again.
Houser equates the leap that this installment is making to that which the series made between Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto III. This is a huge step to make - something that we really haven't witnessed yet on the next-generation machines.
"Everyone always says, 'Books tell you something, movies show you something'. [That is why games] were more interesting." says Houser. "And that was why games were going to take over. Games let you be somewhere. That's an amazing quality. That is something you just can't get from any other medium. The chance to exist in this fantasy world, be it Liberty City, be it Mars, or wherever, I think is a really interesting side of what games are going to offer as an artistic medium. What we tried to do this time was massively enhance the experience of being there. Completely transform it so that the way the story unfolds, the way you deal with characters, the way the world behaves, the things that you can do, all of them give you this reason why you might want to be there and this sensation of living in this world."