The delays are done, and the official release date is etched in stone. Fans who have been waiting patiently for the next game in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series have mere months of thumb twiddling left to do. The problem is we’ve been fed the kool-aid, and everyone has decided that IV is the second coming of III. If we lived in a land of magical fairies who granted our wishes that would be spectacular. But reality has to hit at some point, and I’m betting on April 29th there are going to be a lot of people who stroll down the streets of Liberty City once again and think: “Hey, this seems familiar. Like I’ve done this in a lower resolution at some point.”

I’m not going to bother going into whether the GTA games are good. There’s no need to get into something so pedestrian as qualifying the value of a nearly decade old game. If you aren’t a fan of the sand box style games, you still have to respect the place Grand Theft Auto III holds in the revolution of game design. I’ll fight any man to the death – or maybe just to the hurt feelings – on the abysmal experience that is sitting through Citizen Kane. The film is still a marvel of cinematography and visual story telling. It is the same for GTA III, a game that is as important to gaming as it is fun for those who spent 70+ hours in Liberty City.

When Grand Theft Auto III released in 2001 DMA Design (later Rockstar North) unleashed on the world a visceral experience. But that did not jive with what you had been hearing about this huge game. And even as you played through it just didn’t seem possible to make players feel limitless, while at the same time telling a story. The sand box nature of GTA III isn’t special because your nameless criminal self was able to shake down a gang boss or run over annoying pedestrians depending on his mood. Games before and after have given players similar options. The design of the world and gameplay in GTA III was an integral part to the sand box experience. And thus drove the story that was encased within.

What GTA III had going for it from the outset was a way to tell a narrative that didn’t involve forcing a player down any specific avenue. You had the option to experience the game as you saw fit, and DMA Design knew exactly how to focus your attention when needed. To this day the Grand Theft Auto series is a prime example on how to handle cut-scenes. The player is given just enough information to care a bit more about the characters and be inspired to move forward. But you’re not inundated with flash and awe. When you finish a cut scene in GTA there’s a feeling of renewed purpose, but no anxious desire to hit the next checkpoint. It’s a beautiful thing that can’t be duplicated by the sequel.

For Grand Theft Auto IV to hope for a comparison in narrative delivery it needs to step up the gameplay. This past year Portal proved that a game can be story driven with the delivery device being gameplay. From what’s been shown of GTA IV Rockstar hasn’t upped the game in the slightest. We’ll get more film style cut scenes that will impress many people. But at the end of the experience nothing new will have been gained. GTA IV should revolutionize epic story based on gameplay mechanics. Rather than being told how horrible a crime boss is, how about letting the player experience it? I envision a stroll with a lovely lady who I am escorting home. When she finds out that our destination is the local gang boss’s headquarters she could struggle, and then I would have to lead her down the street by holding her hand. Gently – or roughly depending on how the player chooses to have the scene unfold – taking the woman to the destination using an unseen minigame function using the thumb sticks. And please no quick time events with this stuff.

Even graphically GTA IV is looking like a clone of III. This time around Rockstar is not using a middleware solution, but the graphical fidelity of GTA IV just doesn’t quite match the other AAA games out in today’s market. In the end this hardly matters, as was proven by the brilliance of III, but it’s another check on the long list of reminiscing.

No, for me the real problem is it all feels like another iteration of GTA III. Almost as if we should be looking forward to Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Redux instead of Grand Theft Auto IV. Producers for the game have talked about “shocking” the industry with insane amounts of content and crazy things available to do in the game. That’s all fine, but heaping more content into the sand box doesn’t make a pail castle any better than it was seven years ago.

We’re now a little over two months away from release and what we’ve been shown has indicated a game nearly identical in feel and structure to Grand Theft Auto III. Hints that the shooting might be improved (it certainly can’t be worse) are nice, but ultimately mean little. That’s a refinement, not a revolution. And if you’re going to come out swinging the big stick as gaming’s prophet to the masses, then you better have something under your robe besides an old stone tablet with seven-year-old game design ideas.

Grand Theft Auto IV is an attempt to fix some of the problems of its predecessor, with none of the balls to the wall design philosophy from before. More of the same is what I expect on April 29th. And I already anticipate enjoying the game far more than the disappointment that was San Andreas, I just wish to be inspired by what might be the biggest game of 2008.

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