As was already discussed on this podcast, I wasn’t too impressed by Grand Theft Auto IV. I’ve played most of the Grand Theft Auto games since Grand Theft Auto 2 on the PC and enjoyed seeing the constant advancement of the core gameplay mechanics. This peaked with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas on the PlayStation 2. In that game freedom and fun reigned supreme and it was just as enjoyable to play as it was to sit with a friend and see what they would do. It might be that an epic police chase that started with accidentally running over a pedestrian and then was taken out of the city, through forest and desert until it ended with your fighter jet being shot out of the sky. The scope of the fun in that game was magnificent.But this article isn’t about comparing San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s about comparing another Rockstar game, Canis Canem Edit with Grand Theft Auto IV.
But before I get into the meat of this article I’d like to start with a bit of a tangent. I really have to admire the fact that Rockstar gave one of their games this obscure sounding Latin name. The Grand Theft Auto games had made the transition into 3D with huge success, but the release of their video game adaptation of The Warriors also proved they could make a good game that wasn’t a Grand Theft Auto title. With that much reputation, Rockstar could afford to call their game Canis Canem Edit – which translates to “Dog Eat Dog.” Yet the game was only known by this name in certain territories. In Australia the game was Canis Canem Edit, but in America the game was Bully, which I feel is an unfortunate case of underestimating the intelligence of their American audience. When the game was re-released for both the Wii and the Xbox 360 the game was universally packaged as Bully: Scholarship Edition. Thus that’s why I’ve gone to the effort of ‘correcting’ the slip cover of my copy of the game. Inicidentally,I picked the game up not too long after shelving Grand Theft Auto IV.
So why did I stop playing Grand Theft Auto IV? There were a number of reasons: aside from the Russian radio station the soundtrack wasn’t that great, the story of Niko struggling to get away from his violent past was at complete odds with the violent gameplay, the game mission kept forcing me to kill characters that I didn’t want to kill, all the other characters were repulsive and I wanted to kill them but the game wouldn’t let me, the missions were endless variations of just shooting and/or driving, the gunplay was clunky and it was a chore to fight people, I was playing Metal Gear Solid 3 at the same time which melded gunplay and close-quarters combat awesomely and the game was step forward in graphics, but a step backwards in freedom and fun, having cut out the planes, character stats, character customisation and wilderness areas so successfully introduced in San Andreas. There’s probably a few other key turn-offs, but it all added up to me not having fun with the game. At that point there was no point in playing any further.
Fast forward a month or so and I had started playing Canis Canem Edit – another Rockstar game, but one developed by a different Rockstar studio; Grand Theft Auto IV was by Rockstar North and Canis Canem Edit was originally developed by Rockstar Vancouver. In Canis Canem Edit you play as Jimmy Hopkins, a teenager who has been sent to a boarding school. From the opening cutscene you sympathise with Jimmy as you see his mother swoon over her new boyfriend while both of them be unnecessarily vindictive to Jimmy. While Jimmy has an attitude problem, you totally get that he’s the result of poor parenting – but that he’s also cleverer than people give him credit for. The game is actually surprisingly similar to Grand Theft Auto. It’s a sandbox game set in a school (and the nearby town) as opposed to a city, there’s a host of weird and colourful characters, you have a bunch of both story missions and side missions, there are factions of sub-cultures instead of gangs and both games give you the tools to be destructive and break the rules – but let’s you decide just how crazy you want to be. But what’s really crazy is the comparison that can be drawn between the bullies of Canis Canem Edit and the gangsters of Grand Theft Auto. I’m not of a fan of gangster and crime games and films because I usually find the dangers and penalties of being a gangster outweigh the rewards and taint the usefulness of them. What’s the point of having all that money if you have to deal the threat of arrest or death? So for me, I found that a lot of the bullies of Canis Canem Edit could well be what the gangsters of Grand Theft Auto were like as teenagers. When you look at it that way, just about all of these characters have the same traits of being narcissistic, morally corrupt, immature and pull crazy stunts only to get screwed by the consequences. Viewing Canis Canem Edit as a parody of gangsters and their inherent immaturity I found myself enjoying characters I might not normally like.
Canis Canem Edit also had a solid combat system that was so sorely lacking in Grand Theft Auto IV. If you’ve got four guys around you in GTA IV you had to turn and face each opponent one by one while everyone else is shooting at you. You’ll take a lot of damage because there was no easy way to deal with enemies at close range. The only thing the combat system in GTA IV was made was for taking cover and firing – something which Gears Of War did first and much better. Meanwhile in Canis Canem Edit if you’re surrounded by four guys, there’s a whole bunch of ways you can take them on. You could throw a stink bomb at the first two guys and then grab the next closest opponent and throw him down to the ground, leaving you with the chance to start laying in some punches on the forth dude. Here the fight becomes a dynamic encounter where you’re juggling how many opponents your facing, constantly trying to use your inventory, range of fighting moves and the environment to your advantage. And if someone tries to start a fight with you, you even had the option to dissuade them, sometimes by apologising or sometimes by giving them a firm shove and telling them to get lose – one of many skills you can upgrade by going to classes.
You’re at a boarding school, so you’re meant to be spending your time learning. Canis Canem Edits makes use of timetable system similar to Prison Of War. (Did anyone else play that game? Some tough AI aside, it was a pretty cool stealth game.) Anyway, in Canis Canem Edit you have a morning classes, a lunchbreak and an afternoon class each day – plus a curfew at night. Outside of class and curfew your time is your own – but inside those times you’ll be hunted by any prefects, teachers or police that spot you. In Grand Theft Auto IV I found the game turned into monotony. Though the game still offered the freedom to do side missions or just explore the city, eventually it seemed to lose any sense or drive or purpose. The story failed to hook me so there was no interest in seeing it progress. As fascinating as it was to see a city brought to life in such believable detail with people behaving and doing their own thing – there just wasn’t enough bait to sustain interest. The timetable system of Canis Canem Edit kept the game in a state of predictable flux. Once classes were done for the day you had a period of several hours (in game hours mind – it wasn’t real time) that was perfect for getting stuck into missions or doing your own thing. But during class time it became a juggling act of doing missions, exploring and attending class. Class attendance was made desirable by having each class be a mini-game that built up your characters abilities that would come in handy as the game progressed. Math was a series of quickfire sums, chemistry had Parapa The Rapper style timed button presses, English had word finding puzzles and so on. Some of these classes were more fun or held better rewards, so sometimes you’d be on your way to a mission but then turn around and head to class because going to school might actually hold greater rewards
Yet Canis Canem Edit was far form perfect. It was fun and a much better than GTA IV, but it too was eventually taken out of my Xbox 360 and shelved. I didn’t finish the game and I have no intention of going back into that world. I’ve had my fun and my fill of it. While the characters of Canis Canem Edit are an amusing parody of the gangsters of Grand Theft Auto, there are also many that ask you to do absolutely reprehensible acts. There’s the gym teacher who gets you to steal underwear from the girls dorm. There’s the cafeteria lady who you help drug a teacher so she can trick/force him to have sex with her. Then there’s the drunken hobo Santa who doesn’t ask you to do anything nearly as bad – but he’s just freaking creepy. These’s characters are meant to cross the line and they’re brilliantly created and caricatured – but there’s only so much time you can spend with these people.
The other point that finally turned me off from this game was a problem that plagues pretty much ever single Rockstar game: that pretty much everything you’ll do for the whole game happens in the first hour or so. Past that it’s the same thing. From Grand Theft Auto to The Warriors to Canis Canem Edit. There’s no arcs or raising the bar as you’ll see in games such as Half-Life 2 and Portal. What really made me realise this in Canis Canem Edit was when I got caught skipping class and was sent to the principals office to be lectured before having to serve my punishment. In this case, it was a mini-game in which you had to run around the yard shovelling all the big mounds of snow. While it was a neat idea to integrate a punishment system instead of just respawning the character, this punishment mini-game was all too similar to the classes and even some of the main story missions you do. Essentially the tasks in the game are all too micro: go buy chocolates for this girl, egg these houses, beat up this bully ect.
I definitely don’t regret spending my money on these games as I did have fun with them. Canis Canem Edit took me back in time to high school and gave me the freedom to either pursue classes or raise hell. Grand Theft Auto IV had it’s moments too – most of them playing online multiplayer. Plus I did pre-order GTA IV so the security box that came as part of the pre-order goodies bag has actually been really useful – if a tad on the expensive side.
EPILOGUE: Over a year later I pick up Grand Theft Auto IV for the third time so see if I’ll like it any better after having revisted GTA: San Andreas on the PlayStation 2. After about an hour everything started to click. I began appreciating the focus on being at street level and all the details I could find there. I figured out combat and found new characters I identified with. While I still recognise all the above flaws…for some reason they no longer stand in the way of my enjoyment from the game. Awesome.