Saturday, 21 January 2012

Return to Liberty City

After a recent interlude with one of its many imitators, it's time to return to, and drink deeply from, the wellspring of video game criminality, Grand Theft Auto. And no less than a double bill this time: The Lost and Damned (TLAD) and The Ballad of Gay Tony (TBOGT).

Both new "episodes" take the player back to the mean streets of Liberty City, and back to some of the familiar characters and events from the superlative GTA IV. But in both the action shifts sideways to new player characters (PCs) that come from different backgrounds and have different motivations to GTA IV's memorable Niko Bellic. He brought a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant's perspective to the byzantine metropolis, and a hope that "maybe here things will be different", but this time the PCs are a lot more familiar with Liberty City's heights ... and its depths.

In TLAD, the player takes the role of Johnny Klebitz, acting president of the Lost MC, a motorcycle gang with a sideline in drug dealing. Having brokered a truce with a rival motorcycle gang, and gotten the Lost MC onto a solid and safe criminal footing, Johnny finds himself having to deal with the fallout brought about by the release from prison of Billy, president of the club. Not content with the peaceful criminality that Johnny has carefully built up for the Lost MC, Billy quickly sets about re-establishing enmity between the gangs, threatening the livelihoods, and the lives, of Johnny's Lost MC brothers.

Meanwhile, in TBOGT, the player inhabits the designer shoes of Luis Lopez, right-hand man to Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince, owner of Liberty City's hottest straight and gay nightclubs. But the entertainment business isn't booming, and a series of bad decisions by a drug-addled Tony puts the clubs in hock to some less than pleasant gangsters keen to muscle Tony, and Luis, out of the picture. Further brushes with brutal Russian mobsters ups the ante, leaving Luis with a sizeable mess to clear up if he and Tony aren't to wind up whacked.

After quite a run of lesser GTA wannabe titles (Just Cause, Saints Row 2, The Saboteur; and also the FPS-fusion Far Cry 2), it's great to be back in Liberty City. And both TLAD and TBOGT are basically very enjoyable returns to it.

Bar an extended introduction to LC's motorcycle gang subculture, which previously just existed to serve up occasional, generic goons, TLAD doesn't introduce a whole lot of new material to the GTA universe. But it still tells an enjoyable story of conflict between (MC gang) brothers, one whose outcome has a predictable tragic arc, and it does so well - not that this comes as a huge surprise given GTA IV's storytelling. By giving Johnny a better grip on his handlebars than Niko seemed capable of managing, it does also - finally - make motorcycles a viable form of transport to travel across LC - in GTA IV they were basically deathtraps.

However, TBOGT is definitely the pick of the two episodes. While it benefits immediately from a somewhat longer campaign, it introduces a lot more new content - characters, storylines and weapons - and has much more variety in Luis' various missions. And it definitely captures some of the outlandish criminal fun that was present in (the epic) GTA San Andreas but which was strangely absent in GTA IV. So as well as having an assassination mission that includes base-jumping, an in-the-air theft of an armoured car, and an explosive final mission that culminates in jumping from a motorcycle onto a (soon-to-explode) plane, Luis even steals a moving subway train straight off the tracks. Ridiculous, but brilliant fun.

In passing, I just have to note that TBOGT, for all of the homophobic abuse that is hurled at its eponymous NPC, Gay Tony, is a strangely progressive title. It presents a gay man in a major role as a successful, albeit currently drug-addled, nightclub owner and mover-and-shaker, one that inspires a lot of loyalty from his right-hand man, Luis. He is, to be sure, still a stereotype, but the game's writers bend over backwards to present him and, by extension, his lifestyle, as acceptable and normal. Well, at least relative to other titles. I was actually very pleasantly surprised at how sensitively the friendship between Tony and Luis is played out in what's usually a brash medium that's more comfortable confirming negative stereotypes. We're not talking a treatment here that's comparable to what occurs in novels, or even films, but TBOGT does a commendable job of realistically presenting both the homophobia of everyday life alongside a complete acceptance of so-called "alternative" lifestyles.

Changing tack completely, one jarring feature of both titles is how the storylines paint both player characters as essentially "good guys", but then insist on them committing acts that completely erode this perception. For instance, Johnny is shown as having actively reached out to rival gangs to calm things down and remove the violence from his drug dealing, an equilibrium that is upset by the reappearance of Billy. Similarly, Luis has had a spell in prison in his past which he regularly talks about as a formative experience and a significant turning point in his life. But both PCs seem to completely forget all about this when gameplay sets in, and both wind up doing things that are seriously at odds with the stories that Johnny and Luis tell about themselves in cutscenes and dialogue. I was actually disappointed that there wasn't any way of acting on either Johnny's or Luis' better impulses during play. That said, this is a failing that repeats from earlier GTA titles where characters who ostensibly appear principled still seem to wind up engaged in no end of sociopathic violence.

Another significant failing in both episodes, and, again, in GTA more generally, is that, no matter how sophisticated the overarching storyline or characters, the player is not allowed to resolve things in any way other than violently. GTA IV allowed the player a few binary decision points where a choice had to be made, but these only had minor consequences in terms of gameplay, even where they had quite significant consequences for in the wider storyline. Furthermore, there's just nothing like the openness of the storyline that's available in the likes of Fallout 3. While, yes, there are still some fundamental limitations there too, the developers have clearly gone out of their way to leave things as open as possible. For any given mission, there are usually numerous possible routes towards one of several outcomes - and violence is not the only solution. This widening gap between GTA's quite sophisticated storylines, which aspire to be realistic and open, and the actual lack of realism and openness, is something that the series needs to invest in to stay relevant.

To be fair, rival GTA titles (as well as the likes of the hallowed Half-Life) are similarly lacklustre in these departments. Their worlds are increasingly sophisticated and detailed, but the options available for players to navigate them are disappointingly thin on the ground. So for players that are familiar with more open worlds, such as that of Fallout (and, as I understand it, there are plenty of others), GTA is looking increasingly creaky - even if it is still a lot of fun. And I mean a lot of fun.

So, overall, I still love GTA. But I just wish it would spread its wings a bit more and give me more control in its worlds. Roll on Grand Theft Auto V ...

No comments: