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Review by: David Laprad
Published: May 5, 1998
Film director Sam Peckinpah made movies that explored the pervasiveness of violence in human nature. Motion pictures like Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch contend we have an essential need for violence that supersedes ideological boundaries. Given the right circumstances, even the most pacifistic individual is capable of taking a human life. For me, the right circumstances include gratuitous computer-based carnage. In real life, I advocate non-violence; however, my computer gaming persona is more intense, and I derive profound pleasure from playing violent games. One moment, an enemy is thinking about home and family, the next his thoughts are reduced to virtual gray matter slickering down the bullet-marked wall behind his air conditioned cranium. You may call it sick; I call it catharsis, a purification of my cabalistic psyche.
Given what I have stated, is it possible for a game to go too far in its depiction of human brutality? Perhaps, though despite the controversy surrounding several current titles, nothing on the market approaches the intangible edge of good taste. Concerned parents and assorted lawmakers who reside apart from the electronic gaming culture are understandably shocked when they hear a game allows players to go “postal” and unleash a fury of maniacal violence on innocent NPCs. Unfortunately, the issue is often taken to the extreme by high-minded moralists, who frequently attempt to demonize game violence and blame it for the ills of Western Civilization. For instance, as I write, politicians in Florida are attempting to pass legislation to prohibit the public display of violent games. Once again, they are citing debatable scientific studies and generating plenty of media attention, like a pestering child who will not be quiet and go to sleep. Ironically, those of us who play games are hard pressed to take the cartoon worlds and unrealistic bloodletting seriously. Like acerbic books, films, and music, the violence engages our passive imaginations, but little else.
Still, morally questionable material invariably initiates a firestorm of blunted controversy. The most recent title to raise the ire of the watchdogs is Grand Theft Auto, a game that gleefully embraces excessive violence. This title has run the gamut of contention, including being out-and-out banned in several countries. Of course, this is good news for game players. Never before has a game dressed itself in blood, bullets, and gratuitous destruction with such aplomb and brazen self-assurance. Make no mistake: This outlandish, tongue-in-cheek slap in the face of the censors is for mature adults only, the kind that enjoy driving at high rates of speed through urban jungles, running drugs, evading the police, and pumping bullets into innocent pedestrians. If this sounds like fun, remember gameplay, which I will discuss later, remains the most important consideration.
The goal of the game is simple: Work your way up the ladder of an organized crime syndicate by committing various felonies and other sundry crimes for the higher-ups. The game employs a top-down view and a zooming camera that closes in on the action, and dramatically pulls back when you speed down a long stretch of road; this allows you to focus on a small scene and survey a larger expanse when navigating the streets. To earn cash and make points with the bosses, you steal cars, run drugs, smoke gun-toting members of opposing gangs, and more. Without a doubt, this game will bring out the Keyser Soze in everyone. Once you have earned enough money, you move up in the underworld to the next, more difficult stage.
The game is set within a variety of teeming metropolitan regions based on real cities, including Miami, New York and San Francisco. Arguably, the most brilliant aspect of the game is the detail of the cities. The game is immense; combined, the maps accommodate thousands of miles of road. Additionally, the cities have been rendered with an impressive amount of detail. This includes tall buildings, ornate streets, train trestles, bridges, and more. Roads and sidewalks are packed with vehicles and pedestrians, and there is not one motionless scene in the game. Commuters hop on and off monorails, traffic stops at red lights, and emergency services respond to distress calls. The effect of racing under a speeding monorail, or dashing through a well-populated park, scattering beatniks and hippies, is magnificent.
The game generates gritty, smog-ridden municipalities that are convincingly alive. For example, if you hit a pedestrian, an ambulance will arrive on the scene moments later. Target the ambulance with your weapon of choice and it will explode. Soon after, a fire truck will appear to extinguish the flames. Of course, any criminal worth his or her salt will steal the fire truck and hasten down Main Street, pretending to be Nicolas Cage in Con Air. The freedom you have is absolute; there are literally no bounds placed on how you earn cash. You can shunt cars, mow down pedestrians, and produce the kind of aimless destruction that makes crime lords smile with pride and the law snarl with purpose. The game is so open-ended, you are not required to complete the missions. You can ravish through the game like Sherman on a march, stealing vehicles for ten dollars and killing innocents for a hundred, though it is doubtful you will ever collect the one million dollars required to advance before your lives run out.
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