Can "Grand Theft Auto IV" get any bigger?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I don't think "GTA 4" is big enough. Let me explain why.
The latest "Grand Theft Auto" arrived at our house -- thanks to an Amazon pre-order -- early this week and, needless to say, it has had a profound effect upon our household.
My younger son Tim ordered it with his own money, so it is officially his (yeah, parents, go ahead and try to ban it -- your kids have probably already seen the entire game, without you knowing it, via YouTube screen grabs). But that hasn't kept Tad from hectoring his little brother every 20 minutes for a chance to play it .
Meanwhile, Tim has already managed on two separate days to get himself into that bloody-eyed, stiff-legged zombie state that comes from staring at a TV screen too long with an Xbox 360 controller in your hand. I've already taken the game away from him twice -- that's in two days, mind you -- and made him do his homework, eat, sleep, breathe, etc.
Frankly, it's hard to blame him … and I don't even like video games. But even to a nongamer, "GTA 4" is simply dazzling. And scary.
First the bad news (or good, depending upon whether you are younger than 25 or older): "GTA 4," like its predecessors, is basically the devil's spawn. As with the "GTA San Andreas," "Vice City," etc., your character is essentially a homicidal sociopath, illegal immigrant Niko Bellic, running amok and slaughtering, robbing or hijacking people across a noir-meets-'70s grimy urban landscape.
Last time it was gangbangers; this time you are an Eastern European thug. As usual, there are some missions you need to complete, but it is also likely that you'll mostly just drive around randomly offing people and getting into shootouts with cops.
Now that the cheat codes have already been published online -- boy, was that fast -- most players will simply amp up their firepower to grenade launchers and shoulder-mounted missiles and start destroying police cars, helicopters, small buildings, etc.
In other words, if you're concerned about the effects of video games on the future of civilization, or if you're convinced that violent games are the direct cause of Columbines, "Grand Theft Auto IV" will confirm all of your worst fears. It will be your new poster child.
Now the good news.
First, though the "GTA 4" is as brutal, remorseless and violent as its predecessors, it is somehow less violent. Not to be too callous about the whole thing, but when you shoot somebody in the head, the whole projectile blood and brains thing seems far less vivid than in, say, "GTA San Andreas."
And though I have only seen a fraction of this virtual landscape so far, "GTA 4" also doesn't seem as sexualized as its predecessors. That's not to say it isn't as crude as ever, but the sun-washed Land o'Hookers that was the last few games has been toned down into something darker and more obsessed.
OK, so that's not exactly good news -- more like a relief -- but this is: Visually, "GTA 4" is just about the most extraordinary virtual world I've ever seen. Even jaded old gamer Tad just sat and stared at the screen, exclaiming over and over, "Look at that! Look at that! These graphics are unbelievable."
And I can only agree. "GTA 4" is a stunning reminder of the sheer power of Moore's Law. It has been 3½ years since the introduction of "GTA 3 Vice City," itself a landmark in gamer graphics, yet "GTA 4" makes its precursor look positively crude by comparison.