Feature Article

Grand Theft Auto 4's Open World Is Still Fantastic 10 Years Later

Niko's friends still want to go bowling.

In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV came at a time when open-world games were a dime a dozen. With the open-world framework set by GTA III, where player agency inside a large and expansive setting is given all the focus, Rockstar Games' big return to the criminal underworld of Liberty City had to overcome some high expectations and other competitors that advanced the genre even further. Though GTA IV found remarkable critical and commercial success, many fans found the game's more grounded and subdued tone to be somewhat jarring, especially compared to GTA San Andreas' outlandish, over-the-top campaign.

When you look at GTA IV in the broader sense, it was more interested in immersing players into the atmosphere of Liberty City. With a larger cast of characters, along with several new systems to learn while exploring a more dense city, the new setting offered the most dynamic space in a GTA game at the time. And now celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, we're taking a look back at Rockstar's seminal sequel and how its more realistic take and focus on immersing players into its dense city opened doors for many other open-world games thereafter--setting the stage for Rockstar's biggest success, GTA V.

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As the first GTA game on PS3 and Xbox 360, the developers at Rockstar North opted to switch things up for its return to Liberty City. Powered by the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE for short), which made its debut with the budget-release Rockstar Games Presents: Table Tennis, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first AAA game to use the publisher's new tech. In addition to featuring the Euphoria physics-engine, it offered far more detail in movement and animations, along with stronger visual fidelity and design. This gave the game a drastically different look and feel compared to the previous entries, presenting more detail in geography and aesthetic across the city's various locales across the four boroughs of Liberty City.

While the familiar iconography, social commentary, and open-world action from previous games were still present--albeit in a more subdued light--GTA IV's plot centers around the immigrant experience of Niko Bellic, establishing a fresh start for the series. Traveling from eastern Europe, the Serbian War veteran sought a new life in Liberty City, while also trying to find the man responsible for betraying him many years before. Though GTA III was set in Liberty City, this game's incarnation of the setting was entirely revamped. This put players and Niko Bellic on equal footing, both outsiders to a new setting they had to make their mark in.

GTA IV has its share of high-stakes shootouts and elaborate high-speed chases, including the now-infamous Three Leaf Clover bank heist mission--which went on to serve as the basis for GTA V's heist missions--but it never goes completely beyond the realm of belief. To do so would go counter to the tone of the main story and the style it went for. Respectively, GTA IV forgoes a lot of dumb action in favor of actually getting you to spend time with the many supporting characters in Niko's story.

"Choosing to spend some time with secondary characters leads to some surprising moments of humanity and friendship, which is somewhat unexpected for a GTA game."

Early on, Niko's ne'er-do-well cousin Roman gives him a cellphone, which acts as the game's main communication and contextual gameplay tool. Along with calling in taxies and emergency service vehicles--allowing you to take on side-jobs as a driver or even track down local criminals by hijacking service vehicles--it also opens up relationships with Niko's closest allies. During your off time, you can take part in seemingly frivolous activities, such as going to cabarets, drinking at local bars, or visiting a strip club. Most importantly, you could even take part in a few games of bowling, which turns out to be a favorite among Niko's circle of friends--particularly Roman.

In some cases, characters will contact Niko directly to hang out for happy hour, or for genuine dates with potential love interests. These encounters, while mostly optional, do have some greater payoff, such as extra bodyguards and access to better resources. For instance, Dwayne Forge, a former crime lord and ex-con, will contact players to hang out. Despite having tremendous pull in the criminal underworld, he lives a largely lonesome life in a perpetual state of depression. Hanging out with Dwayne will encourage him to loosen up and open up about his past. Choosing to spend some time with secondary characters leads to some surprising moments of humanity and friendship, which is somewhat unexpected for a GTA game. It turned out that the game wasn't all about mayhem and crime after all. It was refreshing to see your time being rewarded with something cool in a GTA game, without having to fire a single bullet.

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As Niko becomes more accustomed to living in Liberty City, his disdain for American life grows--sharing his thoughts with others about awful US television and the growing influence of social media. The radio stations of Liberty City blare late-2000s music and political commentary, and news stories keep you aware of the local goings-on around town, even referencing your own antics. That's not to say that its commentary is totally on the money, however. Much of the humor and style it tries to play off for laughs hasn't aged all that well--such as scenes with gay stereotypes and off-color racial humor. Granted, GTA has never been totally on the mark with its social critiques, but it does however have a strong sense of time.

Prior to GTA IV, the natural thing for other games to do was to offer more content, more action, and a bigger space to take part in. While other open-world games certainly did that well, such as the GTA clone-turned-full-blown-parody Saints Row, GTA IV focused on offering more active content to dive into. In comparison to San Andreas, the size of Liberty City's four boroughs are smaller, but it's far more dense with activity. Compared to previous games, GTA IV did a far better job of rewarding you for messing around and taking on side activities. Whether it was hanging out with friends or exploring the city to find several unmarked quests that led to some of the game's most humorous and darkest missions, there was an incredible amount of thought placed into the core design of the world and how you could choose to spend your time in it.

GTA IV came at a time when open-world games were increasingly common, and it approached things in a way that made it stand out from the rest. Sometime after GTA IV's launch, Rockstar released two DLC episodes--The Lost and Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony--which introduced new missions and playable events that eventually lightened the tone. Along with offering more extravagant action set-pieces and a larger arsenal of weapons in the style of the previous games, these expansions also offered alternate perspectives to the main story--another aspect further expanded upon in GTA V.

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When looking at Grand Theft Auto IV in the broader picture of the series, the general vibe it tends to give off can make it feel a bit self-serious. Still, there's something endearing--and even commendable--about how Rockstar stuck with it, and showing that you can still have a fun time exploring the city while learning more about the people in it. 10 years later, Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City still features some of the series' finest moments of storytelling. And given that it's coming from a series that focused on tons of dumb moments full of violent nonsense, that's a remarkable achievement in its own right.

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Avatar image for crashchaos
crashchaos

I'm BEGGING for a remastered version for all current consoles (specially the PC version, which badly needs it).

Avatar image for ronaldmcreagan
ronaldmcreagan

@crashchaos: I agree. Would be nice to get a 60FPS remastered version on the consoles and PC. I think it's also time to get the first Red Dead Redemption on the PC.

Avatar image for Torvar72
Torvar72

the game sucked you had your cousin calling you every 5 min and couldn't do anything but cater to his b**ch a@@

Avatar image for spiddyman007
spiddyman007

Where’s my 10th anniversary iOS game

Avatar image for warmblur
warmblur

The first GTA game with satisfying gun fights and melee combat and impressive physics one of my favorite games ever.

Avatar image for Megamoss1984
Megamoss1984

@warmblur: Loved the melee aspect. Was gutted they didn't expand on it in 5. In fact they made it worse...

Avatar image for ECH71
ECH71

Except the main character sucks. Fido was okay b/c he was silent, that made him cool. Trevor Philips is the most fun to play as, but my personal favorite is Tommy Vercetti, because I loved everything about GTA: VC.

Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

I agree. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The only thing I didn't like about it was the walking/aiming controls. I actually liked the driving.

Avatar image for couly
couly

COUSIN LET'S GO BOWLING

Avatar image for deactivated-5bfca40aa8741

GTA IV, till this day, is still the most disappointing game I ever brought in my life. I almost skip on GTA V because I was scared it was going to be as boring as GTA IV. The driving was horrible, the shooting was good, but the missions were so damn repetitive it was too boring.

Avatar image for JimmyCos
JimmyCos

That's why it is the best GTA ever, the plot was amazingly good and dark, the city was dirty, contaminated and dense. There were a lot of things to do everywhere too. Also the roads didn't have magnets for your car, like in GTA V where is nearly impossible to overturn your car, and physics were realistic (except for bikes).

Avatar image for chillingnaire
Chillingnaire

@JimmyCos: plot doesnt make a good game. Best in story, worst of the series in fun and gameplay

Avatar image for JimmyCos
JimmyCos

@chillingnaire: maybe you played it too late. The combat system is still better than 5, shootings and driving were amazing back then, but besides that yeah, san andreas was better

Avatar image for rolento25
Rolento25

@JimmyCos: The physics is my main reason for disliking this game.

Avatar image for indojimbo
IndoJimbo

It wasnt a bad game, but I hated the feel of the driving physics and the stupid annoying dates with friends. Glad they dropped it for GTA V.

Avatar image for ssdd_again
ssdd_again

@indojimbo: They didn't drop it from GTA V.

Avatar image for redhedjack
redhedjack

@indojimbo: While the driving was doable, I agree the more realistic handling wasn't the most fitting choice for GTA's playstyle. Still, I agree with the majority that it's a stellar game.

Avatar image for ExoticCharm
ExoticCharm

Once you play Saints Row 2, all of these other city/crime open-world games pale in comparison.

Avatar image for ronaldmcreagan
ronaldmcreagan

@ExoticCharm: Gotta agree with you on that. Saints Row blows away GTA. Although Gat out Hell was garbage. Agents of Mayhem was also "somewhat" disappointing.

Avatar image for mdinger
mdinger

@ExoticCharm: 100% agree. SR2 is also the best SR (they went way too ott for the sequels imo). Also Sleeping Dogs deserves a shout out.

Avatar image for ronaldmcreagan
ronaldmcreagan

@mdinger: I loved Saints Row 3 & 4. Incredible games. So much variety in both. It never once felt tedious.

Avatar image for mdinger
mdinger

@ronaldmcreagan: Yeah agree both 3 and 4 were also both good games, but I have the fondest memories of SR2 which got the balance of serious and goofy fun just right.

Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

@ExoticCharm: That game is ugly AF. I liked 3.

Avatar image for asnakeneverdies
ASnakeNeverDies

I did not like this game very much.

Avatar image for f1221
F1221

The beginning of the end for the series as far as I'm concerned.

Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

@f1221: WTF LOL

Avatar image for redhedjack
redhedjack

@f1221: Nevermind GTAV being the highest selling piece of entertainment in the past century.

Avatar image for Sindroid
Sindroid

@redhedjack: it is the most profitable game probably in the history of games because Rockstar put so much work into the online part of it. Which is a shame because, for one it did not get any love for having any expansion made for the single player that GTA IV got. I thought the MP was great for a while, but in the end there were nothing else in there but 13 year old playing the game and the updates became to much out of reach for me in terms of cost and grinding. I just did not bother anymore.

Avatar image for redhedjack
redhedjack

@Sindroid: I usually spend a vast majority of my time in GTAV's singleplayer...

Avatar image for decadentdescent
DecadentDescent

@f1221: That would be V.

Avatar image for deactivated-5b2072723fac3

Of all the games they remaster these days, why hasn’t this been one of them?

Avatar image for blibdoolpoolp
Blibdoolpoolp

@kstaggs3: Why would it need to be remastered? Still looks good, and I bet on PC you can mod it for higher-res?

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crashchaos

@blibdoolpoolp: The PC version is one of the worst ports ever. Even on modern PC's the game's FPS is horrible.

Avatar image for superklyph
SuperKlyph

@blibdoolpoolp: It's grainy. Even on PC.

Avatar image for deactivated-5b2072723fac3

@blibdoolpoolp: I want a remaster or hell even a re release for PS4. I don’t have a PC unfortunately

Avatar image for DeFiLeDTitan
DeFiLeDTitan

@kstaggs3: I keep waiting for it to show up on psnow. Rdr is, why won't they do gta4?

Avatar image for deactivated-5b2072723fac3

@DeFiLeDTitan: idk it’s like rockstar has kinda forgotten about it, which is sad because it’s an awesome game.

Avatar image for Random_Matt
Random_Matt

7/10

Weren't great, but fun nevertheless.

Avatar image for deactivated-5b2c8e0382c99

@Random_Matt: Weren’t great? It “were not great?” Wtf? Lol.

Avatar image for donjuancorleone
DonJuanCorleone

Still my favorite GTA.

Avatar image for gamingdevil800
gamingdevil800

Every side character in this called me about going Bowling so I never went bowling lol.

Avatar image for asnakeneverdies
ASnakeNeverDies

@gamingdevil800: How would you go about swinging a bowling ball? I don't think it's possible for your particular configuration. 🎳

Avatar image for gamingdevil800
gamingdevil800

@asnakeneverdies: You obviously didn't watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lQcKiFy_DM

Look at them pro stick skills.

Avatar image for asnakeneverdies
ASnakeNeverDies

@gamingdevil800: Watching that makes me predominantly sad.