Xbox 360, Playstation 3, $59.99
Let's get one important thing out of the way: Everything you've heard is true. Grand Theft Auto IV is an absolutely amazing game. Beyond the detail in which Liberty City has been mapped to cop the actual Big Apple, beyond the ways in which the game's a pitch-perfect (and pitch-black) satire of American culture.
It's a sharper critique than just about anything outside of The Simpsons. The game's tortured protagonist isn't a cookie-cutter cartoon killer, but a man with a past and a conscience who ends up having to deal with the consequences of harrowing decisions made along the way to discovering his blood-soaked American Dream.
Developer Rockstar led the vanguard when it came to giving us this kind of thing, a virtual playground where gamers were finally free to do what we wanted, from pursuing every last in-game mission to scoring health from prostitutes, aimlessly driving around the city and listening to right-wing radio stations, or becoming an ambulance driver. Violence makes headlines, but there were always consequences — sometimes they were as simple as adding another star to your badass rating and bringing a few more battalions of law enforcement down on your head, but there were always consequences.
You'd think Rockstar would be to gaming what Steve Jobs is to online music consumption — the Moses who led us all to the promised land. Outside hardcore gaming circles, nothing could be further from the truth. Rockstar has done its share to damage the evolution of gaming.
Of games Rockstar has released in the last decade, most have ignited controversy and calls for content- and sales-restriction legislation. You could chalk it up to yet another way in which M-rated games are treated differently from the R-rated movies with which they're so often lumped together. But it doesn't have to be this way, and Rockstar's partially to blame.
Look at it this way: When Mel Gibson releases The Passion of the Christ, and in so doing, offends 99.9 percent of the Jewish faith, it's Gibson who has to field questions like "are you an Anti-Semite?" When the media question the violent elements in Grand Theft Auto IV, though, it's gaming culture that takes the verbal bullet. Rockstar isn't damaged. Gaming is.
Most non-gamers don't even know who the hell Rockstar even is — almost to a person, the friends with whom I discussed this column before writing it thought I was referring to EA's Rock Band. Meanwhile, the developer goes about its business, quietly laughing its way to millions in sales. They assumed no responsibility for — and in fact, scarcely even acknowledged — the furor over the Hot Coffee debacle, Manhunt or Manhunt 2. At this point, you begin to wonder why parent groups even bother calling them out.
Recall the smaller furor that erupted when the media picked up on the fact that in Bioshock, a game that shares no small amount of free-form game-design elements with GTAIV, you're forced to choose between killing Little Sisters for ADAM or releasing them for a lesser reward. (Sample media headline: "Game encourages killing children!") Ken Levine, the outspoken artistic director of 2K Boston, was right there to explain how the sisters fit into the context of the game, and as the guy who helmed the project, his perspective carried a ton of credibility. As a result, the media doesn't talk about banning Bioshock as a "murder simulator" the way they do with Grand Theft Auto IV.
Yeah, I suppose asking a developer to engage in a discussion about its product is a tall order, kinda like asking parents to be responsible for making sure their 10-year-olds aren't playing M-rated video games. But as a gamer, I don't care if the cake is a lie — I want to have it and eat it, too. Grand Theft Auto IV ought to have been first and foremost a high-water mark for gaming, a celebration of the heights the medium can achieve.
Instead, it's another round of controversy, another chance to point up the yawning canyon between gamers and the rest of society. As long as that canyon exists, we can rightfully enjoy the hell out of a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, but there'll never be true happiness, within Liberty City or without.