It’s been over 4 years since GTA IV was released. In gaming, 4 years is a long, long time. Since Niko Bellic first arrived on our screens, we’ve seen Skyrim’s rise to role playing dominance, experienced the end of Commander Shepherd’s three part journey and, thanks to Saints Row 3, accepted that whacking goons with giant purple dildos is now genre norm. Now that GTA V’s release date has been tentatively pencilled in for Q2 2013, it seems the right time to sit down and take a good look at what Rockstar might be doing behind the scenes, and what they could learn from the reaction to their 2008 masterpiece.
Grand Theft Auto games live and die by their main characters, and Niko Bellic personified everything that gamers loved, and in a few cases loathed, about GTA IV. The Eastern European had the eccentric streak that Rockstar are so famous for injecting into their protagonists, but he felt, in many ways, more human than his free-roaming predecessors: more charismatic Jon Marston than crude Carl Johnson, the anti-hero of San Andreas.
This attempt to make gamers engage with the game’s main character ultimately paid off. Review scores rampaged off the charts, sales soared and critics swooned at the developer’s grittier, more down-to-earth take on the open world sandbox. Rockstar would be stupid to scrap this approach, but they must be careful that they don’t rock the boat too hard.
Amongst the praises that critics sung there were a few bung notes from some corners of the gaming community, claiming that Niko (and the game as a whole) was a little too serious, and lacked that flagrant disregard for everyone and everything around him that has made the previous protagonists so memorable. It’s not surprising given the series origins: you can see how those who crave a return to the days of pure top down carnage might be put off by the increasingly serious direction that Rockstar have starting steering their sizeable ship in.
These views were from a small minority and to my mind, Rockstar got the balance just about right. If you wanted, you could still go on an RPG fuelled rampage through Liberty City’s streets, toss a few grenades on the subway system and head off to the airport to crash biplanes into unsuspecting pedestrians, but you also got a sense of involvement that GTA games had previously failed to illicit.
GTA V should look to emulate its older brother in this respect, but the devs must make sure that that trademark sense of fun and freedom still dominates. They’d do well to remember that, at its core, GTA is a series about wallowing in the crude and tasteless aspects of life: hijacking cars from unsuspecting civilians before promptly reversing over their protesting forms is the norm, and stopping traffic in the middle of the road just so that you can start a unconventional bonfire is almost a cornerstone of the game (it seems oh so brutal when you start to write it down). They must make sure that their main character, whoever that may be, doesn’t get in the way of that.
That said, don’t get dragged into the view that a simple re-skinning of GTA IV will suffice to abate the gaming world’s growing lust for open world mayhem. Rockstar needs a dash of innovation, and they need it badly. GTA IV’s overall genius masked many frustrating game mechanics: wonky shooting and dodgy driving could be easily forgiven – the dominant view seemed to be – because the game was just that good. But in today’s market, that’s not going to be good enough. Any missteps from Rockstar are bound to be seized upon by critics looking for any signs of weakness, so they must make sure they are steady on their feet. This will involve a robust, exhaustive examination of every aspect of their game.
Along with general improvements to certain aspects of the game this examination would surely, and critically, involve a revamping of the GTA IV’s online mode. It was horrendously implemented, laggy and, awkwardly, only accessible through the game’s single player mode. On paper, GTA games provide the perfect environment for multiplayer madness, but Rockstar’s one attempt to actualise this potential failed. However, Red Dead Redemption has shown that Rockstar has learnt its lessons, and so we can reasonably expect a similarly slick, stylish and downright enjoyable multiplayer mode this time around.
With the amount of time Rockstar have spent ushering their next baby into the world, it would be a great surprise to me if we saw any un-ironed kinks in GTA V’s long, drawn out development chain. Rockstar will have listened to fans: they will have identified the cracks formed by previous mistakes, and poured their resources in. Simply put, GTA V is something to get excited about. Rockstar could make millions by producing San Andreas HD, but we can expect a lot more than that, I hope: we can look forward to a game that wows us with its innovation but comforts us with its familiarity – one that long standing fans and newcomers can enjoy with equal satisfaction.