Life is complicated. I've killed people... smuggled people... sold people. Perhaps here, things will be different," muses Nikolai 'Niko' Bellic over GTA IV's opening credits. Of course, this being GTA we - the player - know differently. Before the climax is reached, some thirty hours later, both the innocent and guilty will die. A storm is rolling into Liberty City from the Balkans, and it can only end one way... or can it?
All things considered, GTA IV is a particularly tricky beast to approach from a journalistic point of view. Do we plunge headlong into specifics and potentially ruin the manifold surprises coming your way? (Not to mention incurring the wrath of Rockstar, who are desperate to keep their opus firmly under wraps until launch day.) Don't worry, though: because GTA IV is just so... dazzling we wouldn't wish spoilers on our worst enemy - and a videogame this singularly perfect is best left experienced by oneself. So (and it's killing us to do this because it's like being entrusted with the biggest secret in the world) we're going to focus on why buying Grand Theft Auto IV could well be the most impor-tant gaming decision you'll ever make...
Narratively, the mobster/revenge rich plot shines, with Rockstar impresario and writer Dan Houser surpassing even the hitherto unparalleled brilliance of his Vice City. As a thinly disguised satire, it's not so much a sideswipe at American culture as a full-on demolition job this time round. Our poor Yank cousins get it in the neck from every angle; the American Dream, the cult of celebrity, the war on terror, corrupt politicians, sexual deviants. It'll certainly be interesting to see how the US reacts to certain portions of the material, but from a purely British point of view, GTA IV is a glorious, missile-guided piss-take that consistently hits the funny bone.
Yet in Niko, IV also possesses perhaps the most singularly memorable, human protagonist ever committed to disc. He's a stone cold killer with a conscience. A sarcastic and savvy anti-hero who's often impossible to read. "I'm just trying to make the right decisions," he deliberates at one point. And, despite his flaws, his brutal history, we genuinely believe him. Against all odds, we end up rooting for Niko and his old fashioned, pragmatic sense of 'justice' in the twisted, amoral world of Liberty City. Surely GTA IV is also the most compelling reason yet for videogames to be recognised in some capacity at the Oscars; forget Daniel Day Lewis, whichever mystery man (again, curiously Rockstar isn't telling) is behind Niko's vocal talent deserves the Best Actor gong. No question.
Perhaps Niko's inherent genius resides in the fact that he's a strong enough personality to constantly captivate us, but also sympathetic enough that we see the story through his eyes and feel what he feels. In short, we become Niko. It's some achievement. Houser's brilliant script rarely descends into cliché, being by turns breathtakingly poignant, darkly humorous, uproariously politically incorrect and eyebrow-raisingly controversial. Certainly, when you end up unwittingly snorting Pepsi through your nostrils after laughing so much, you realise you're in the presence of rare writing talent indeed.
East is East
Being so deep, GTA IV isn't simply about East meets West; even our former Soviet comrades are busy arguing amongst themselves. Take womanising psychopath Vlad, the first local mobster Niko encounters. He patronises our hero constantly, branding him a "Balkan yokel" and a "peasant". In Liberty City, even your countrymen are out to stab you in the back.