Aside from contributing to the moral degeneration of the modern world by teaching the children how to jack cars and murder innocent pedestrians (not all of whom are hookers) AND being incredibly fun to play, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has introduced some memorable dudes for our consideration. Due to my initial media-influenced impression that the games involved much more prostitute-slaying than they actually do and frustration with my lack of immediate "driving" ability, I never played more than a few minutes of GTA Vice City and San Andreas at a time. Their protagonists, however, still managed to make an impression on me. Nobody wears a Hawaiian shirt like Tommy Vercetti, and Carl Johnson is fiiiine (especially when the player squeezes in some gym time). I even have a completely mistaken remembrance of a minor Vice City rock star being a hottie because he was voiced by Kevin McKidd and my ex replayed the game while Rome was on HBO. None of these guys, however, convinced me to play the games until I was nudged in the direction of one Niko Bellic.
When Niko first arrives in Liberty City, his fashion sense leaves something to be desired, as does his new home. Far from the mansion and riches his cousin Roman led him to believe waited in the New World, Niko's first apartment is a roach-infested shithole in a city on lockdown under terrorist threat. Like the upstanding, hard-working guy he is, Niko sets out to realize his American Dream by leveraging his skill set — stealing cars and assassinating people. In the course of moving up the career ladder he encounters a host of stereotypes with various problems for him to solve. He makes friends, goes on some internet dates, improves his wardrobe and accommodations (kill Playboy X when offered the choice; that apartment is SICK), and drives a wide variety of stolen cars around the city.
The driving, you guys. THE DRIVING. Since no-effing-body in Liberty City wants to drive themselves to/from/in the midst of nefarious and profitable errands, the responsibility always falls on Niko. Does he even have a driver's license? No matter; the cops don't really care unless you wreck into one of their cars, and if a beat cop happens to have a problem with you commandeering a car in Bohan or wherever, all the better. At least a solid half of the fun in this game comes from running from the cops. All the more so if you're in a minivan. If you can manage to get a 4-star wanted level and steal an FIB Enforcer, you are nigh indestructible. So many cars to steal! You can steal a Mr. Tasty ice cream truck if you want! There's just nothing like a high-speed chase in a slow, top-heavy vehicle playing a tinkly "Ride of the Valkyries" jingle.
As mentioned above, I avoided previous GTAs due to perceived lack of video game driving ability. Let me tell any of you who suffer from the same delusion: get over it and go play this game. Much like Niko's off-the-boat style, I was terrrrrrrible upon starting out. Give it a chance! Within an hour, I was blowing through red lights and racing through the gap between traffic lanes like … a recently immigrated Eastern European guy with a troubled past who's really good with weapons, I guess. And it only gets better from there! All the cars handle differently, which can certainly make a given situation interesting, as do the varying traffic patterns. Many missions require you to chase someone, and it's a bummer to slam into a police car accidentally while trying to catch up to your target. Racing is fun, but outracing the police is much more so. And drunk driving … obviously, drunk driving in real life is a big time NO GO, no way no how, do not risk it ever, people. You know, like killing people. To its credit, GTA IV suggests taking a cab whenever Niko becomes intoxicated (which he never does while on a mission). On the non-mission occasions I have visited a bar and ignored this suggestion Niko has always died horribly (usually with Roman in the car. He must be a bad influence!), but not before I and whoever else is in the room have had an enormous giggle fit over my failed attempts to get from point A to B. There's just something thrilling about "driving" in such a realistic-looking environment in such an impossibly reckless fashion. Exhilarating!
Niko is a responsible, business-minded guy. He's got a fairly cynical outlook due to his experience of war atrocities and subsequent criminal career, but is fiercely loyal to family and a few chosen allies. As his cousin Roman soon discovers, Niko didn't come to Liberty City just to enjoy Roman's lavish promises of riches and beautiful women, but to seek closure for his unit's betrayal and slaughter at some point during the Bosnian War. Unfortunately, life in the U.S. does little to improve his outlook. Money still stems from acts of violence which, while fun for the player, don't thrill Niko. His sought-after revenge (or reprieve) of the man who sold Niko's fellows-at-arms' lives for money doesn't necessarily make Niko feel better about the whole sordid state of affairs. A final choice to compromise his beliefs and make a deal or seek revenge against a hated enemy results in the death of either his cousin (at said cousin's wedding! To his pregnant lady-friend!) or Niko's girlfriend, Kate (also at the wedding). Damn. Niko leaves the game on a dark note, understandably pretty disenchanted with the American Dream.
As for me, I want better things for Niko. I hate that he lost a good woman after taking his revenge, but who knows? Maybe now he can leave his life of crime behind and find a lovely, intelligent blog editor to settle down with.
• Favorite mission giver/friend?
• Favorite girlfriend?
• Favorite mini-game?
• Favorite car?
Jennifer Culp would like to thank her dude for Photoshop assistance, and would also like to own a lime green Peyote coupe.