Games 5/7/08: Grand Theft Auto IV, Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys

Grand Theft Auto IV
For: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)

Contrary to legend, “Grand Theft Auto IV” isn’t the greatest invention since the wheel. It is, in fact, simply another “Grand Theft Auto” game.

That development probably stands to disappoint those bitten by impossibly high levels of pre-release hype. For the rest of us, though, the news couldn’t be better.

For starters, “GTA4” neutralizes most of the previous games’ most glaring problem spots. The once-terrible hand-to-hand combat is now tolerably useful, and the addition of manual shooting controls (along with a semi-decent cover system that becomes useful with practice) allows the game to throw more sophisticated combat missions at you. GPS technology and the vast availability of cabs make it extremely easy to get around Liberty City, and tying the entire interface into your cell phone is both elegant and startlingly convenient. This is, by a mile, the most accessible “GTA” game to date.

The technical improvements represent another vast leap forward. The aging “GTA3” engine gives way to an open world, brazenly modeled after New York City, that’s exponentially more alive than before. “GTA4” is no visual prize pig up close, but it’s a gorgeous game in motion, and the game-wide infusion of physics — which affects everything from people’s movements to how cars handle to the level of havoc you can wreak should you so please — adds a huge layer of realism to a city that already breathes with or without your involvement.

No “GTA4” review can pass without mention of the series’ first foray into online multiplayer. That it works at all is something of a minor surprise. That it’s as fun and feature-rich as it is, however, is a complete shock. Rockstar covered most every base, tossing deathmatch, team, objective-based and even co-op modes into the mix. All modes, including a free mode with no objectives, support up to 16 players and access to as large or small a portion of Liberty City as you wish to have open. Most impressively, the game doesn’t gimp the city in any way during these modes. Liberty City remains every bit as alive here as in any other portion of the game.

All that said, the best thing about “GTA4” is the same exact thing that made its predecessors so extraordinary. Rockstar has consistently gone the extra mile when it comes to character and story design, and the saga of Niko Bellic, fresh off the boat from the Eastern Bloc, represents its most stunning achievement yet.

Niko himself is an incredibly rich antihero, and more than any game before it, “GTA4” gives you moral freedom to toe the line or tear it asunder. The cast with whom he weaves this 30-plus-hour epic receives the same level of storytelling care. More than mere Hollywood quality, “GTA4’s” story may be the most engaging piece of entertainment — movies and television included — to grace your small screen all year. In terms of videogame storytelling, it’s on another plane entirely.

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Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys
For: Nintendo DS
From: InLight Entertainment/Ignition Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, crude humor, mild cartoon violence)

“Teenage Zombies: Invasion of the Alien Brain Thingys” seems determined, unlike the vast majority of third-party Nintendo DS games, to march to its own beat. The wordy title alludes to that, and the storyline, which boasts both a funny, original premise and a sweet animated graphic novel style, drops further hints.

But “Thingys” really wears its style on its sleeve during the tutorial phase, which is presented in tandem with the game’s first level and features dialogue boxes you literally have to climb on to advance. “Thingys” puts you in control of three swappable teenage zombies, and learning how to use their special abilities by climbing aboard the text boxes that teach you these techniques is, in addition to efficient, a pretty funny harbinger of what (hopefully) is to come.

Unfortunately, all that ambition levels off a bit once the tutorial ends and all the requisite introductions are made.

“Thingys” does some cool things with its three-character premise, and some of the levels, which require you to regularly swap between zombies in order to best utilize each character’s special traits and move forward, are designed well. But the game grows only so challenging, and it isn’t long before you start to sense the developers had some good ideas but held back so as not to overwhelm younger players who might be drawn in by the game’s cartoony visual style.

Some repetition also kicks in as the game goes on: Levels often offer a single means of advancement, and once it becomes second nature that you need X ability to get past obstacle Y, things feel a little too mindless.

All that remains, then, is the combat, but the flimsy fighting controls are where “Thingys” stumbles hardest. They simply lack the precision and proper collision detection they needed to feel even a little satisfying. A few brain-based mini-game challenges break up the action, but only one (which is best left unspoiled due to its ties to the storyline) really stands out as anything beyond a fleeting diversion.

Ultimately, “Thingys” works best as a gateway game for kids who want to play something that wasn’t completely lobotomized for their consumption. It’s not incredibly brilliant, but it isn’t your typical piece of Nickelodeon-licensed garbage by a long shot, either. The rest of us, meanwhile, can wait and hope for a sequel that takes these clever ideas and gives them the intellectual oomph they’re clearly capable of achieving.