Summary: Brett's still not quite done with Grand Theft Auto. See what's bugging him here!
But it wasn't so much the fact that Tommy was killing a woman as much as he was killing, well, anybody without any reference to scruples or setting up justification for the assassination by making the woman evil incarnate. This payphone murder for something like $200 really hammered home Rockstar's go-nihilistic-or-go-home philosophy, and made it clear to me that videogames would never be the same again. There were no attempts to soften what good old Tommy got up to on the Ocean Boulevard strip, making the game's brutality freeing and honest. For the first time, I felt like I was playing a totally adult game where zero concessions were made for kiddies.
I haven't felt quite the same way about any of Vice City's successors. While I'm still a capital-F GTA Fanboy, both of the major sequels in San Andreas and GTA IV have left me a teensy bit flat, as have the two PSP games, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. All of the games hooked me in one way or another, and I don't regret playing them in the least. San Andreas is still probably my number-two favorite game of all time next to Vice City, and I spent so many hours with Liberty City Stories on the PSP that I have the wrists of a porn-addicted septuagenarian.
Still, each of the GTA games after Vice City has gotten progressively more genteel. Well, at least as genteel as games about carjacking and killing for fun and profit can ever be. San Andreas gave us a hero we could almost admire in CJ. Just about every criminal act he committed had some sort of silver lining. Even his most Vercetti-like act--burying a construction worker alive in a porta-potty--was done in defense of his sister's honor. In the end, CJ wound up playing 007 for James Woods and then freeing his neighborhood from crack. Tommy, on the other hand, would have likely shot Woods in the face instead of flying that Harrier and helped cook up the crack in the kitchen of his Starfish Island mansion.
Same deal with both Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories. The former had you playing Toni Cipriani, a generic mobster who seemed to only kill even worse goombahs with vowels at the end of their last names; the latter saw you guiding Vic Vance, who was more of a plain old wannabe drug dealer than a hardened sociopath you could really grow to love. Both were all about the same dastardly deeds, although they took the edge off every atrocity by making the victims much worse than the protagonists. Just about everybody that you offed absopositively deserved to die. Horribly.
While this is a tremendous achievement in design, and certainly the best game released in the past few years, all of the self-consciously artistic and moralistic trappings of the script make the game feel, well, somewhat like a poseur at times. It's like Rockstar is trying to provide built-in excuses for the violence, all ready-made for the inevitable moment where company reps fend off howls of protest from the usual suspects like Jack Thompson on network news shows in the US.
In short, I didn't have nearly as much fun with GTA IV as I did with its predecessors. Vice City and even San Andreas to a large extent were so outrageous that anybody sane couldn't take them as anything but R-rated cartoons. Everything was just so over-the-top that even the biggest atrocities played out like a bloodier take on Foghorn Leghorn dropping an anvil on that hound dog. GTA IV, on the other hand, was awfully hard to laugh at. Niko is such a realistic hard-ass that I almost wanted to cover my eyes during some of his up-close-and-personal kills.
So where I could laugh my ass off at Tommy Vercetti running down an innocent woman racing around squealing for help in Vice City, in GTA IV I had a hell of a time pulling the trigger even when executing a scummy Russian mobster. There were funny moments in the game, but they came almost entirely through blatant comic relief like the "wild and crazy guys" stuff with the Bellic brothers. Missions themselves, were most often deadly serious, and really let you get into the head of Niko Bellic, a place that was a lot scarier than Vercetti's cartoon Scarface.
With all that said, I can't say that I'm totally disappointed in GTA IV. Adding morality and a more lifelike story is a natural progression that was probably necessary to keep the series vibrant for the increasingly sophisticated gaming audience. Also, I'm not sure I would have been all that happy with a next-gen take on Vice City, or even San Andreas. Rockstar pretty much did that formula to death through a whopping five games that recycled a lot of the same gameplay concepts.
Still, I'm kind of sad that the GTA I used to know has faded away. I'll always have Vice City for a replay whenever I have the urge to kill without conscience. But I'll still forever miss the cartoon violence without consequences that was so freeing when I first donned the rolled-up suit jackets of Tommy Vercetti back in 2002.
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