Opinion: Grand Theft Auto has a social conscience

Grand Theft Auto has a social conscience (no, really!)

I bought GTA IV a couple of days ago. I know, I know – I’m behind the times and even followup the Ballad Of Gay Tony has been out for ages, but better late than never, right? Besides, I was busy playing Fallout 3 for the longest time, I didn’t really have room in my life for another free-form behemoth of a title, but I’ve caught up now. I’ve only been playing it a couple of days and while early impressions are great, there is one side of the game that feels slightly alien to me: realism.

More realism, Sir? I'm not sure - I'll tell you later...

This is insanely realistic for a Grand Theft Auto title, even more so than the dark and grimy look at nineties LA that was San Andreas, and that has both high and low points to it. Firstly the game looks great, especially in 1080p on my 360, but I’m finding that hard to get to grips with, in the same way that Fallout 3 somehow managed to almost perfectly capture the brown-ness of nuclear apocalypse. It looks wonderfully real, but that means (for example) I’m really struggling to drive under the overhead metro tracks in Liberty City – first it’s too dark and you can’t pick out obstacles, then you burst out into the sunlight and can’t see anything at all. Rockstar deserve a round of applause for the dynamic and incredible visuals, but this is just a bit annoying. Secondly, driving is kind of hard anyway – maybe it’s because I’m used to playing all the previous 3D GTA efforts on PC with WSAD and mouse-look, but I’m finding the cars hard to control to varying degrees. In San Andreas you start the game in the darkest depths of ‘the hood’ and to be frank, your BMX push-bike is faster than most of the cars you can find on those streets. The best car you can get your hands on at that stage is either a rusty two-door ghetto-mobile or a slower-than-hell pickup truck, so you’re eased into driving in cars that really aren’t too hard to handle. Within five minutes of playing GTA IV I’d stolen (after setting off the alarm because all cars aren’t just ‘open’ any more – another added layer of realism) what is for all intents and purposes a Mercedes SLK, taken it for a spin (quite literally – trying to turn even slightly while flooring the accelerator in this car leads to graceless pirouettes and dead pedestrians) before picking up some unwanted police presence and, in trying to escape, front-ending a tree and flying thirty feet through the windscreen. Reality hurts.

I honestly do commend Rockstar for their commitment to realism in GTA IV and I’m sure once I ‘get my eye in’ with visuals and driving I’ll be just as good as I ever was, but it’s certainly taking some getting used to after the wide, traffic-light roads and easy-to-handle cars of previous titles. It’s possible though, that in making their latest incarnation more realistic they’ve also gone some way to address the apparent lack of morals and sense of consequence that anti-gaming lobbyists always level at the series. If you try to steal a car the alarm will go off (and the police will come). If you attack someone and don’t kill them before they have chance to get back up they will attempt to beat the hell out of you (and the police will come). If you do have a head-on collision while doing 150 in a stolen car you will go through the windscreen (and if you don’t die, the police will come). And best of all, if you do drive drunk you will not only get a headache from the twisty, churny visuals, you will suffer the aforementioned head-on collision (and the police will come).

Maybe it won’t ruin young minds the world over after all, and for those of you who like to play the part of Mrs Lovejoy from the Simpsons (“won’t somebody please think of the children!”) stop buying it for your kids. After the furore following underage sales of GTA: Vice City, for the release of GTA: San Andreas game shops (the big chains in particular) started requesting ID on age-restricted purchases, in much the same way supermarkets do with alcohol. The only way underage children can now get their grubby paws on these games is if someone plays the part of the bigger boy outside the off-licence and buys it for them. And if you let your kids shop online with your credit card, then you’ve only your own stupidity to blame.

Please, just try to enjoy it – it’s entertainment, not the devil (we all know Fußball is in fact the devil, Bobby Boucher).