et­ro­spec­tive: grand theft auto iv

Rock­star got se­ri­ous with GTA IV, and raised the stan­dards of open-world games for­ever

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Sa­muel Roberts

Publisher Rock­star Games / De­vel­oper Rock­star North / for­mat Xbox 360 The strong­est re­minder that GTA IV is now an old game is that Niko Bel­lic’s phone has but­tons on it. Some­how that one de­tail – and the fact his mo­bile can’t ac­cess the in­ter­net – makes this game feel like it came out 10,000 years ago. It’s ac­tu­ally closer to a decade since the re­lease of the first HD GTA, though, and you can sense that in the slightly blurry vis­age of Rock­star’s hy­per de­tailed ver­sion of New York. Like Gears Of War and Obliv­ion, it showed a true gen­er­a­tional leap was hap­pen­ing on 360. GTA IV es­sen­tially ended the era of clones that fol­lowed GTA III, sim­ply be­cause no one else could make an open world that looked and sounded as good as Lib­erty City.

GTA IV is the story of Niko Bel­lic, a Ser­bian war veteran who comes to this place to start a new life. He doesn’t try that hard to stay out of trou­ble, how­ever, and soon he’s pop­ping heads on be­half of Rus­sian gang­sters and his well-mean­ing cousin, Ro­man. While I re­mem­bered Niko as be­ing the re­luc­tant crim­i­nal, a closer ex­am­i­na­tion in most cutscenes sug­gests he en­joys it on some level, or at least un­der­stands it’s what he’s made for, which is ar­guably the real tragedy of the char­ac­ter. It’s a lit­tle earnest as an at­tempt to in­fuse ex­tra drama into the series, but Niko is still a lot eas­ier to like than GTA V’s three pro­tag­o­nists. These sin­cere at­tempts at char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment were cer­tainly not wasted.

While there’s inevitably no happy end­ing for Niko, his is not the only story that GTA IV tells. The game’s bril­liant ex­pan­sion packs, The Lost And Damned and The Bal­lad Of Gay Tony, were way bet­ter value than any­one could re­ally have an­tic­i­pated, pos­si­bly as a re­sult of Mi­crosoft pay­ing a re­ported $50 mil­lion for their tem­po­rary ex­clu­siv­ity. Each in­tro­duces a new pro­tag­o­nist – biker Johnny Kleb­itz and jack-of-all-trades Luis Lopez re­spec­tively – and their in­di­vid­ual eight-hour cam­paigns are un­ques­tion­ably su­pe­rior to GTA IV it­self. Both char­ac­ters had pre­vi­ously ap­peared briefly in GTA IV cutscenes, en­coun­ter­ing Niko Bel­lic, which is a nice con­nec­tion. As a tril­ogy, these sto­ries of­fer a fairly deep por­trayal of Lib­erty City, and likely sowed the seeds for the three playable char­ac­ters idea in GTA V.

Play­ing GTA IV now shows how much Rock­star learned in the 5.5 years lead­ing up to V’s re­lease. This was the first GTA to in­tro­duce cover shoot­ing, since com­bat was the main weak­ness of the orig­i­nal Xbox games. It was a de­cent so­lu­tion for the time, but the gun­play feels out­dated now – it’s not very slick to con­trol, and it was never a match for Gears. The melee fights, where char­ac­ters lu­di­crously dance around each other like they’re two posh English gen­tle­men hav­ing a box­ing match in the 18th cen­tury, aren’t ex­actly Arkham Knight. The driv­ing, mean­while, is a lit­tle too stiff and pun­ish­ing for car chases – GTA V got it just right.

Hell of a town

These signs of age don’t stop GTA IV from be­ing en­joy­able now, though. Re­vis­it­ing it has been ter­rific fun. The story is more daft than se­ri­ous on a mo­ment-to-mo­ment ba­sis, with a vi­brant cast of friends for Niko and a few well-de­vel­oped

“The story holds up pretty well, but it was al­ways Lib­erty City that was the star of Grand Theft Auto IV”

vil­lains. Rock­star brought nar­ra­tive choices to the series for the first time, in­clud­ing a sit­u­a­tion where you de­cide which of your friends live or die. I re­called find­ing these gim­micky but mem­o­rable when I first played GTA IV, but they’re well-done and let the player shape Niko’s moral­ity.

The story holds up pretty well, then, but it was al­ways Lib­erty City that was the star of GTA IV. Rock­star’s ver­sion of New York has golden sun­sets, nu­mer­ous land­marks and no wasted space – it’s a com­pressed and gor­geous en­cap­su­la­tion of the real thing, a de­lib­er­ate move away from the sim­pler-styled sprawl that San An­dreas was. That the de­vel­oper went from the sim­ple char­ac­ter mod­els and card­board-look­ing build­ings of Los San­tos to this rich HD vi­sion of GTA in just over three years is re­mark­able.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit New York, or even if you’re just fa­mil­iar with the place through movies and TV, Rock­star nails the at­mos­phere. Al­go­nquin, its ver­sion of Man­hat­tan, is still GTA’s most daz­zling in­di­vid­ual area: the loom­ing sky­scrapers, the clear artis­tic dif­fer­ences be­tween neigh­bour­hoods and the dizzy­ing lights of Star Junc­tion, its ver­sion of Times Square. There’s nowhere else like New York, and GTA IV repli­cates that feel­ing.

A se­ri­ous man

This wasn’t what ev­ery­one wanted from Rock­star at the time, though, and some of that crit­i­cism was fair. San An­dreas set the ex­pec­ta­tion that ev­ery GTA would go big­ger and sil­lier – GTA IV is set in one big city, rather than an en­tire state. Dick­ing around in Lib­erty City doesn’t have the same dis­pos­able ap­peal that it did in early GTAs. Maybe it’s the in­evitable clash with the story’s tone, but it some­how never feels quite as hi­lar­i­ous to blow up po­lice cars with a rocket launcher, or run down some civil­ians, de­spite the game’s re­al­is­tic physics.

Part of that comes down to no longer hav­ing ac­cess to the same tools, like the katana, flamethrower, jet­pack or mil­i­tary air­craft from past GTAs. Niko’s got a very con­ven­tional set of firearms, and the Molo­tov cock­tail is the only weapon that does any­thing that ex­cit­ing. The DLC episodes sig­nif­i­cantly im­prove that – satchel charges, au­to­matic shot­guns and pipe bombs add some much­needed ex­plo­sive power – and The Bal­lad of Gay Tony brought in a rock­ete­quipped he­li­copter you could nick at any time. But there’s a dis­ap­point­ing sense of re­straint to the arse­nal, a re­sis­tance to lean into the series’ no­to­ri­ous silli­ness that hurts GTA IV a lit­tle bit. They want you to fo­cus on Niko’s story and ex­plor­ing the city, in­stead of, say, at­tack­ing peo­ple with a chain­saw for fun­sies, but hav­ing both would’ve been nice. The largescale silli­ness of GTA V, and even the set piece-y mis­sions of The Bal­lad of Gay Tony sug­gest that Rock­star noted that crit­i­cism.

The de­vel­oper earned the right to its grand story of an im­mi­grant com­ing to Amer­ica, though, and the tonal shift that was re­quired to tell it was a brave choice of di­rec­tion. The set­ting is built for this pur­pose: GTA IV’s Lib­erty City feels less like a play­ground than past GTAs, and more like a liv­ing city to be ab­sorbed into.

Rock­star even ex­per­i­mented with a friend sys­tem, where Niko’s pals will

call up to hang out. This has been widely mocked for how fre­quently friends will call up ask­ing to go bowl­ing, or to go for a he­li­copter ride, and it’s jus­ti­fied – they’re way too needy. It’s the only idea GTA IV has that doesn’t work what­so­ever, although if you’re par­tic­u­larly at­tached to one or more of them, there are some neat lit­tle bits of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion to be un­cov­ered. That said, their re­moval in GTA V was mer­ci­ful.

Filler or thriller?

GTA IV takes a while to get go­ing, and the way a long tu­to­rial is em­bed­ded into the open­ing four or so hours tests your pa­tience, espe­cially if it’s your sec­ond or third playthrough. The truly great mis­sions are buried slightly too deep into the story, but they’re worth the wait. ‘Three Leaf Clover’ is un­doubt­edly the most fa­mous one, a tense bank rob­bery in­volv­ing the bick­er­ing McReary broth­ers that es­ca­lates into a pro­longed fire­fight with the law, both on the streets out­side and in the sub­way. This un­sur­pris­ingly be­came the model for GTA V’s heist mis­sions.

Once the story moves to Al­go­nquin, the qual­ity of mis­sions gen­er­ally im­proves. An­other favourite is ‘Fi­nal In­ter­view’, where you pre­tend to go for a job at a law firm to re­trieve some com­pro­mis­ing files for a cor­rupt po­lice of­fi­cer, be­fore killing your tar­get half­way through the in­ter­view. In ‘Pa­per Trail’, you take part in a he­li­copter chase while your friend Lit­tle Ja­cob shoots rock­ets at the chop­per in front of you, while fly­ing over the streets of Al­go­nquin. The for­mer shows how a clever nar­ra­tive hook can make a GTA mis­sion mem­o­rable, while the lat­ter demon­strates the im­pact the back­drop of Lib­erty City has in lift­ing what would oth­er­wise be a quite ba­sic set-piece.

GTA IV’s cam­paign is too long, and it’s de­ter­mined to end on a dour note no mat­ter what choices you make. The DLC episodes of­fer a lighter epi­logue, though. Their sto­ries just aren’t as heavy, and be­ing shorter means less room for filler mis­sions. Johnny Kleb­itz is the clos­est GTA has got to a proper good guy hero, since his main con­cerns are keep­ing his biker gang to­gether and his sort-of­girl­friend, Ash­ley, from over­dos­ing. He’s still a killer, but he’s oth­er­wise so like­able that Rock­star had to have Trevor kill him in GTA V. The Lost and Damned lets you cruise through the streets in biker for­ma­tion with other mem­bers of the Lost, which is a cool way of un­der­lin­ing his al­ter­nate per­spec­tive of Lib­erty City.

The Bal­lad of Gay Tony, mean­while, of­fers a more friv­o­lous and for­get­table story. Yet this episode is best cel­e­brated for how much it changed GTA IV: base jump­ing is rein­tro­duced, with para­chutes. Triathlons come back, com­plete with ni­trous-pow­ered cars. As men­tioned, new weapons are thrown into the game, and it con­tains some of the best GTA mis­sions ever, like ‘For The Man Who Has Ev­ery­thing’, where you fend off en­croach­ing he­li­copters while on the back of a mov­ing train with an au­to­matic shot­gun.

Col­lec­tively, the main game and its ex­tra chap­ters man­aged to ma­ture GTA while even­tu­ally re­dis­cov­er­ing the player-driven chaos that peo­ple longed for from San An­dreas. It’s slightly rough to play now, and only in­fre­quently ex­cites as a shooter, yet the city aside, its story sur­pris­ingly re­mains one of its main at­trac­tions.

Rock­star’s next at­tempt at a more cred­i­ble tale in a real-feel­ing world was the West­ern sand­box game Red Dead Re­demp­tion, and they clearly ben­e­fit­ted from this first ef­fort. There are ob­vi­ous par­al­lels be­tween Niko Bel­lic and John Marston: nei­ther can truly es­cape their old lives in an Amer­ica where some­one else is al­ways call­ing the shots. GTA IV is not ex­actly Mad Men when it comes to the­matic sub­stance, then, but for an open-world game where you can fire sub­ma­chine guns at cop cars while lis­ten­ing to Rod Stew­art, it more than holds its own.

Above It’s a lit­tle blurry next to GTA V, but the love that went into mak­ing this city is bloody ob­vi­ous.

Above It’s not as silly as San An­dreas, but this is an ex­tra­or­di­nary set­ting.

Above The cops are easy to evade in GTA

IV, but pretty pow­er­ful in a straight fire­fight. Be­low GTA On­line de­buted in GTA IV in rough but ex­cit­ing form.

More great fea­tures at games­radar.com/ oxm

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