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 dudebropartyyo

Still better than V. Much much better story, dark and gritty. Bunch of better game mechanics as well.

Avatar image for analgrin

@dudebropartyyo: Those "friends" constantly phoning though. Annoying or what!?

Avatar image for dudebropartyyo

@analgrin: Kind of like real life isnt it. i'd rather have that than so many things in GTA V hah

Avatar image for rupanka801

The best GTA is vice city...in my opinion.

Avatar image for craigtl

@rupanka801: Vice city was awesome but if you are going to go back to that gen I dont see how it compares to San Andreas. They outdid themselves with that one.

Avatar image for hughesyboozy

I wish Microsoft would give this the 4K treatment like they did with Red Dead Redemption.

Avatar image for craigtl

@hughesyboozy: I was thinking the exact same thing. I am playing through RDR right now to relive the story and it looks amazing enhanced. They should totally enhance GTA IV

Avatar image for superklyph

@hughesyboozy: I would love that for all of the Xbox/Xbox 360 Rockstar games.

Avatar image for twogirlsonecub

@hughesyboozy: And put a 30 frame rate cap on it because even on X1X it's still all over the place, even if thankfully it's above 30 most of the time. Best case would be for R* to do a remaster.

Avatar image for michael-ibbett

The best thing about the game was learning how everything came to together in the final heist with the other 2 POV's with the DLC. I dont know any other game that's done that.

Avatar image for nikolistary

@michael-ibbett: Half Life did with Blue Shift and Opposing Force. Look it up

Avatar image for nsa_protocol44

He was the Balkan stereotype kinda guy. I liked him as a virtual guy, in really life his life counterparts not soo much, scum.

Avatar image for g4m1ngon

meh, never finished it. Graphics were too yellow too blurry ugly.

Avatar image for R4gn4r0k

One of the best open worlds ever created

GTA IV is just a really great GTA

Avatar image for johno357

Better than 5. Except its too dark.

Avatar image for deactivated-5c1c32e0b8cc8

Grand Theft Auto IV will forever be my favorite in the series. GTA V is a joke. Horrible characters in V. Hate the story.

Avatar image for twogirlsonecub

@jayskoon93: Plus the gameplay is far worse. The dumbed down physics, the insane travel time from start of mission to destination, the throw as much fodder at you as possible gunfights really ruined GTA V. GTA IV's average gun fight might have had like 5 enemies but every shot felt great and every kill felt rewarding. In GTA V guns felt like peashooters.

Avatar image for deactivated-5c1c32e0b8cc8

@twogirlsonecub: Yeah, definitely! You're right. GTA V doesn't FEEL good. It's so light everywhere. Guns don't have any umph to them, characters all feel super twitchy, cars have no weight to them at all. Plus, the game is just too "bright" in every sense of the word. For a crime game with all sorts of violence and stuff, it was just happy and sunshine everywhere. GTA IV was dark and heavy and you really felt like you were in a crime world.

Avatar image for dashaka

@jayskoon93: I can take or leave the story, but the gameplay was more fun IMO. GTA 5s story was funny and nuts in some places which I liked though. Both fantastic games in their own ways.

Avatar image for stuff238

GTA4 had the worst story in the franchise. It was too boring and super serious.

The 2 Single Player DLC were awesome though. The Ballad Of Gay Tony was hilarious and I laughed so hard because they used the F word every 2 seconds. This came out before the whole SJW craze.

Avatar image for uninspiredcup

Saints Row 3 was better.

Avatar image for banhammer

@uninspiredcup: saints row 2 was the last good one, it became extremely dumb after that. we wanted a better gta and we got it in part 2....why in gods name they chose to go the overly comical route ill never understand. i got it on sale for 5 bucks and even then felt ripped off. it just wasnt saints row anymore

Avatar image for uninspiredcup

@banhammer: Fun fact: Saints Row was always dumb

Avatar image for banhammer

@uninspiredcup: i get it, but atleast up until 2 it was fun and not geared toward the adam sandler crowd. 1 and 2 had great elements they threw away for the rest of the series.

Avatar image for stuff238

@uninspiredcup: SR3+4+Gat are some of the funnest games I have ever played. Amazing games. I hope they make another one.

I just bought Agents of Mayhem but Have not played it yet. I am sure it will tide me over though.

Avatar image for Karjah

Honestly I found it was so out if date and not even close to as much fun as saints row 2.

No Roman I don't want to go to titty bar with you for the 12th time cousin.

I played it through to the end but the game really just made me appreciate the more goofy over the top saints row more.

Avatar image for banhammer

@Karjah: SR2 is my favorite of the series. was better than gta 4 for me. gta 4 tried to be a playable crime documentary it was so serious

Avatar image for 59Hertz

Yet for some strange reason it also had the best physics and euphoria play. When people didn't just get up and run full speed when shot in the leg like GTA 5 etc.

Avatar image for johno357

@59Hertz: i was so dissapointed with 5 because of that. Gta 4 has funnyer moments

Avatar image for jinzo9988

This was my least favorite of the series personally. I disliked almost all the characters in the game which made it tough to enjoy the story.

Avatar image for nikolistary

@jinzo9988: Same here. It was like walking down seaside heights new jersey and seeing a bunch of eastern European douchebags who just arrived in the country and you think to yourself "Hey I wanna know everything about these guys and their shitty annoying friends and family!"

That's GTA 4.

Gimme cool ass Tommy Vercetti who never questioned his criminality.

Avatar image for gotrekfabian

Why all the article bumping GameSpot? This is one of the reasons the site is failing. Couple that with no new articles on the weekend when most people have time to browse their favourite site and you can see why your business is not the behemoth it once was.


Avatar image for Franzkill

Would be nice for this and GTA V to get an X patch just like with Read Dead Redemption!

Avatar image for somebodyweird

I did not like this game at first. I played it after GTA V, and didn't expect it to be serious. The missions were repetitive, lacked variety, had no checkpoints, and felt too scripted. I also found the characters uninteresting. I actually gave up on this game less than halfway through, and did not return to it until after a year.

When I returned, I just kept playing it for the sake of finishing it. What I did not expect was that, I was getting kind of familiar with the city, the music, and Niko's voice. Suddenly, I fell in love with it. And I loved Niko more after finishing the story.

Now I'm playing it for the 2nd time, and I'm enjoying it so much more. Also, I like pools, Roman, Packie, and Bernie.

Avatar image for jtsice

I loved the story but overall there was two things that killed my enjoyment of it. First, while I love for things to be as realistic as possible and they did a great job at it how dark it was at night made it impossible to do anything. For example the mission "Shadow" made it so that I always had to do it during the day. Even driving with headlights didn't help.

That brings me to the other issue. The driving mechanics were horrible. No matter how much I tried to get used to it or practice I could not get the car to make a single turn without crashing into a pole or building. With driving being a large part of the game it was a nightmare.

Avatar image for KILLEDbCRITICAL

@jtsice: The game has a brightness AND a contrast slider in the menu.

The driving mechanics are fine, sure it has a learning curve but it works perfectly and it has a very satisfying feeling to it when you master it, unless you suck badly at the game.

Avatar image for Smosh150

@KILLEDbCRITICAL: Never really understood why people found driving to be so difficult in GTA IV. It should be pretty common sense stuff anyway. The first mission was plenty enough to get the hang of at least the type of car you were driving. There were obviously things that you had to learn later such as high speed handling though.

Hell, I struggled with GTA V's driving far more than GTA IV's driving. Five's arcade driving was just something where you have to throw out actual driving knowledge to get used to some arbitrarily defined physics system. Wasn't too hard either, but still.

Edit: Just realized, this comment is really old. Why does Gamespot resurrect old articles like this?

Avatar image for KILLEDbCRITICAL

One of my favorites of all the Rockstar masterpieces and Nico Bellic is the funniest mofo i ever witnessed in a video game, the guy just cracked me up non stop.

Avatar image for nsignific

Best GTA car phsyics in the entire series. So sad they neutered them for 5.

Avatar image for twogirlsonecub

@nsignific: Best physics in general. GTA 5 felt like playing with cardboard after this game. The "heavy" feeling people complain about comes mostly from the massive amounts of input lag. That's about the only thing GTA V has on IV, the improved aiming and controls. I really wish R* would remaster this one with the same amount of care that they remastered GTA V.

Avatar image for asmoddeuss

The PC version was backstab for PC gamer, and on top of that, this is the worst GTA game ever.

Avatar image for iX-gamer

worst game of the franchise

Avatar image for phillybro806

@iX-gamer: obviously you haven't played GTA 1, GTA 2, and GTA London.

Avatar image for vega2505

I hated GTA 4...Saints Row 2 was the GTA game that I always wanted, then they went and screwed their own series by making it stupid and dumbing the character creation and outfits down.

Avatar image for ThePlantain

Unfortunately, I gave up on GTA4 because the driving and shooting mechanics were bad. I also got bored of the story early on. The music was cool though.

Avatar image for UrbanMessiah

@ThePlantain: The driving mechanics are divisive as hell...you either love 'em or hate 'em. Frankly, I'm in the same category as you; I hated the driving in GTA 4. I don't want supposedly "realistic" driving (it really wasn't), I want driving that makes it easier to pull off Hollywood stunt driver type maneuvers like GTA 5 had.

Avatar image for bullsharktestosterone

why hasn't this game been remastered, or at least, re-released for PS4 (and maybe Switch now too)?

Avatar image for Franzkill

@bullsharktestosterone: The PC version still holds up coupled with some decent mods too.