Does GTA IV Deserve Game of the Year?
Rockstar's urban crime epic is on a spree of its own, stealing awards from some of the industry's many year-end celebrations of video game excellence. Whether or not you think Grand Theft Auto IV is "stealing" these awards depends on your perspective on the game: GTA IV has proven to be one of the most polarizing titles to arrive in a good long while. There are those who praise it for innovative features like its friend system, realistic car handling, and gritty "coming to America" story. Then there are those who condemn the game for exactly the same reasons. For now these squabbles seem to be limited to online message forums, but there is a large and vociferous minority that thinks GTA IV does not deserve to be crowned "Game of the Year".
Whatever the hardcore fanbase thinks of the title in online forums, the mainstream press still appears to be enamored with Sam Houser’s controversial magnum opus (at least until the next installment comes out). Last night at the Video Game Awards, Grand Theft Auto IV took “Game of the Year” as well as “Best Action/Adventure Game”.
A crime spree is halted too soon by the police in Grand Theft Auto IV.
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The case against:
To be crowned “Game or the Year” takes a special kind of quality that few games possess. The Game of the Year is a title that is not only innovative and technologically marvelous, but also fun. The game must also be unique enough to be memorable and addictive enough to keep gamers and journalists talking about it throughout the year. Is Grand Theft Auto IV all of these things? Arguably not.
First of all, there are those who say that GTA IV not only fails to innovate, but that it actually takes a step backward from GTA III San Andreas. Where San Andreas pointed the way toward total customizability of the main character, in GTA IV we get a protagonist who is mostly static, and who resolutely refuses to be altered by the player in any meaningful way.
In terms of gameplay, many new ideas seem cribbed from other games, while some throwbacks (like lack of a checkpoint system) annoyingly persist. The cover-and-shoot system works well, although it is not quite as perfect as the one found in Gears of War. Many missions consist of nothing more than “Go there. Shoot that Guy. Come Back.”
Gone are many of the gameplay fillers that hardcore fans seem to have grown fond of over the years: The so-called “R3” missions that sent the player putting out fires, chasing down criminals and driving an unwieldy ambulance against impossible time limits. There is, critics argue, not much left to do once the main quest is finished.
The case for:
Given the quite glaring shortcomings outlined above, how is it that Grand Theft Auto IV has managed to take top awards away from other competent releases this year? The only way that GTA IV could sweep so many awards is if the judges are collectively blind, or if the game is somehow more than the sum of its parts.
It is possible to argue that the latter is true in the case of Grand Theft Auto IV. Simply looking at each of the gameplay elements that either succeed or fail on their own does not due justice to what is, ultimately, a cohesive and powerfully immersive experience. Grand Theft Auto IV is a mature game that is targeted at adults – not only because of the amount of violence contained within, but because the themes that it addresses are not the usual adolescent action-game fare.
What makes Grand Theft Auto IV different from anything that has come before? First of all, the attention to detail that spans every square inch of a lovingly recreated New York City has no parallel in the history of gaming. From community organizers in the Bronx to the Russian immigrant milieu of Brooklyn, every character in the game inhabits a space that resonates with our real-world experiences.
New York City comes to life in GTA IV.
The principal protagonist in the game is a tragic antihero who has more in common with literary figures out of Dostoyevsky or James Joyce than he does with other video game characters. During the course of the game, players develop a relationship with Niko that is unusual for an action title. We might not always understand Niko’s actions, but we are able to empathize with him and the other characters that populate the game world in a deeper way than we have before in a game of this nature. For a genre that usually awards wanton killing, the game surprises us by making us consider the effects of our actions and the hopelessness of our character’s position in the world before pulling the trigger.
Grand theft Auto IV also perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 2008 America. Political arguments about immigration, security, and the meaning of the American dream permeate this game. By making the familiar unfamiliar, the development team at Rockstar have used the video game medium to cast a mirror back on American society in a way that no other game in memory has done. For transcending the tired old debate about videogames-as-art once and for all, Grand Theft Auto IV and its creators soundly deserve their pile of “Game of the Year” awards.