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New 'Grand Theft Auto' Centers on Immigrant

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The new Grand Theft Auto game comes out today. Brian Crecente of the gaming site Kotaku reveals what's up with the newest installment of a blockbuster series. This one's set in Liberty City, a place much like New York.


OK, 1,151 people, 173 cars stolen, one helicopter stolen, 98 fires started. That's a lot of mayhem.


Was that your weekend, Rachel?

MARTIN: Yeah. That's what I did over the weekend. No! But that's what our next guest, Brian Crecente, did in five days of playing "Grand Theft Auto IV," the new Rockstar Games vid out on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 today.

It's likely to be the best-selling game of the year with some estimating - so much money involved in this, 400 million dollars in sales in its first week, that's what people are guessing. Reigning down terror on all that is good and pure in the virtual world is all part of a day's work as managing editor of the uber-popular Kotaku. And Brian Crecente is here to tell us all about "GTA4." Hey, Brian.

Mr. BRIAN CRECENTE (Managing Editor, Kotaku): Hey. How's it going?

MARTIN: It goes well. So, this is the latest game in the "GTA" series. These games are always - there's a strong narrative to all of them. In the new one, the player assumes the character of Niko, who's a new immigrant arriving in a very close approximation to New York City known as Liberty City. Before we get your take on this, let's let Niko introduce himself.

(Soundbite of video game "Grand Theft Auto IV")

Mr. MICHAEL HOLLICK: (As Niko Bellic): Life is complicated. I killed people, smuggled people, sold people. Perhaps here things will be different.

MARTIN: So, that's the setup with this whole saga. Niko has come to America trying to get away from his life of crime. What happens? What is Niko supposed to do?

Mr. CRECENTE: Well, I don't want to give away the entire story, but Niko comes to America, and as you said, he tries to start afresh, and that doesn't quite work out for him mostly because of his cousin, who has sort of exaggerated how good life is in America.

And so, it's sort of like a once-upon-a-time-in-America-type story where you have this immigrant coming to the U.S. He tries to start over, and then he gets sucked back into this life of crime and sort of struggles to find his way both through that and through some - another plot point that I really can't tell you about.

MARTIN: OK. No, we don't want any spoilers. So, as we said, the game takes place in what seems to be like New York, and you say in your review in the Rocky Mountain News that "GTA4," quote, "feels more like an experience or a place rather than a videogame." Explain that.

Mr. CRECENTE: Yeah. It's really amazing. I mean, the developers spent a lot of time writing a story for people to go through, but what makes "Grand Theft Auto IV" so amazing is that you don't have to stay on that path that they created for you.

Instead, you can just go out and explore this city that is just thriving. I mean, there are radio stations with DJs and talk-show hosts. There are televisions you can sit down and watch with original programming. You can walk into a comedy club and actually see comedy acts.

MARTIN: Can I ask you?

Mr. CRECENTE: They have, like, their own fake Internet where you can go and go onto what is their Craigslist or try to get dates. It's amazing.

MARTIN: OK. I'm going to ask what is I'm sure a very stupid question, but as a novice in this world, do you - when I think about a video game, I think about acquiring points or trying to win something. I mean, do you - how do you advance through this game, when you're just going, oh, here's an Internet cafe, I'll sit here, or here's a strip club I'll go into? Are you advancing through anything?

Mr. CRECENTE: Yeah. You know, that's what's sort of fascinating and what was interesting about my five days with the game. What I had to do was try to get through that narrative part, because I wanted to see how the story unfolded. And so you can advance through that and what you sort of do - sort of the connection to that is your cell phone. So you have these friends that you meet and these acquaintances and relatives that you have in New York City.

And you contact them either by going to where they live or where they hang out or by calling them on the cell phone. And they give you what are essentially missions, but they're sort of snippets of this story, and by completing these things, it progresses the story. But what's sort of neat is it blurs that line between what you're creating and what the game has already created, so you don't have to follow that story.

You can - you know, when someone calls you because they want you to do something, you can say, no, I don't want to do it and continue on your way, you know, watching TV or doing other things. So, that's sort of one of the really neat things that there is no defined - you know, now you're playing the game that we want you play and now you're playing your own game. It sort of blurs.

MARTIN: And is that different than earlier "GTAs"?

Mr. CRECENTE: I think it's better than earlier "GTAs." I mean, all the "GTAs" - all the main ones have done that. This is actually the ninth, even though it's called "GTA4," which is in and of itself kind of confusing.

But all of the games have had this sort of sandbox game-play element to it, but this one, and with the introduction of the cell phone, I think, has done a much better job of sort of getting rid of that line between what you're doing and what they, you know, may want you to do.

MARTIN: Hey, Brian, can I ask you a favor?


MARTIN: I want more details on your five-day exploration of this game. Can you stick around for just a minute after the break?

Mr. CRECENTE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: OK, great. We are talking with Brian Crecente. He is reviewing "Grand Theft Auto IV" for us, and we're going to finish our conversation when we come back. We're also going to have a special appearance. The Roots are going to be in studio to talk about their new album. That's all coming up on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. Don't go away.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Hi. Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We're on digital, FM, Sirius Satellite Radio, online at Researchers have even found us frozen in a cave in Canada. I'm Mike Pesca.

MARTIN: And I'm Rachel Martin. We are finishing up our conversation with Brian Crecente. He is managing editor of the gaming site Kotaku. What are we talking about? Well, we're talking about the release of "GTA4," "Grand Theft Auto IV," and Brian, I need to hear about this marathon experience. Like, you spent five days playing this game.

This is all because a previous edition, "GTA: San Andreas," became notorious for the fact that there was this big leak, and now the company is doing everything it can, Rockstar, to take extra precautions to make sure that there are no leaks. Tell us a little bit about the conditions under which you got to play this game.

Mr. CRECENTE: Sure. And I do have to mention one funny thing - well, not funny for Rockstar. The game - this game actually was leaked, as well, a week before the game came out.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

Mr. CRECENTE: So, it didn't work.

MARTIN: The best laid plans of mice and men.

Mr. CRECENTE: But what they did was, essentially, I flew out to San Francisco on my own dime and paid for a hotel, and they set up in that room a large TV and a console with an early - well, the finished version of the game, but one that wasn't a retail version, and the console had a special thing you had to plug into it to make sure the game would work. And what they told me was I could - you know, I could leave whenever I wanted, which was nice to hear.

MARTIN: You weren't trapped there!

Mr. CRECENTE: Yeah. It was very nice of them, and that if I left, I had to take this thing with me, which is essentially like a key. Because if someone had come in and stolen the game without this little device, they wouldn't be able to play it. And so then I spent five days - pretty much all my time during those five days playing the game, trying to get through just this plot, which was at the end, I think it was 35 hours of game play, and only...

MARTIN: You are...

Mr. CRECENTE: And only 67 percent of the game was done.

MARTIN: You are a dedicated man. So, at the end of this experience, Brian, what is your review of this game?

Mr. CRECENTE: Oh. It's superb. It's not without its minor flaws, but I think what it does is it shows that first you can have a meaningful story and struggle or bring up things like someone struggling with questions of ethics or morality, but it also shows that you can give control over to the gamer and not ruin that experience. I mean, it doesn't have to be totally created by the development studio to be a fantastic game.

MARTIN: Well, Brian, thank you for enduring those five days. Again, a man who's very dedicated to his work, we appreciate it and thanks for being here. Brian Crecente is the managing editor of the gaming site Kotaku. We appreciate it, Brian.

Mr. CRECENTE: Thank you.

PESCA: I mean, hey, you got to steal cars and go into strip clubs. It's not that tough.

MARTIN: What's not to love? We do not endorse either of those things here on the Bryant Park Project.

PESCA: Except on video games.

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