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Then & Now: Grand Theft Auto IV

See how Grand Theft Auto has evolved through GTAIII, Vice City, San Andreas, and GTAIV.


Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series has changed greatly since the franchise first arrived in 1997 as an urban-themed action game with an overhead camera. The first game did well enough to merit a couple of expansion packs and a sequel, but GTA didn't transform into the game we know today until the franchise made its way to the PlayStation 2 with Grand Theft Auto III, which took the 2D game into a 3D world filled with interactive elements. GTAIII immediately dominated what we now recognize as the open-ended sandbox gameplay style, which lets players interact and experiment with the people, places, and modes of transportation present in the game's world simulation.

We decided to compare GTAIII, GTA: Vice City, GTA: San Andreas, and GTAIV for this graphics comparison. All four games have a 3D world and follow the open-ended gameplay now standard in the series. The graphics only improved incrementally over the first three games, which were largely bound by the PlayStation 2's graphics capabilities, but they made a dramatic leap in GTAIV, which uses a new game engine to take advantage of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360's graphics power. Note that some of the GTAIV shots will appear slightly fuzzy due to the game's daylight postprocessing effects.

The People

Your character and people on the street comprise the bulk of the character models you encounter in each game. The graphics quality didn't improve much over the first three games, but Rockstar made up for it by adding more character models and giving the main character more customization options in each sequel. Characters became much more lifelike in GTAIV thanks to the advanced game engine and the new consoles.

Main Character

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The main character evolved from a nameless protagonist in GTAIII to Tommy Vercetti in Vice City, C.J. in San Andreas, and, finally, Niko Bellic in GTAIV. You don't have the ability to turn around the character to face the camera until San Andreas, so we sneaked in a cutscene image for Tommy and a side-view shot for the GTAIII protagonist.


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The citizen graphics don't change that much between GTAIII and Vice City before getting photo-textured faces in San Andreas. The GTAIV characters all have defined facial features and perfectly modeled clothing. The pedestrians have also become much more talkative and emotive in the new game. You'll find yourself stopping to eavesdrop on them while completing missions throughout the city.


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Vagrants, much like other random pedestrians, often function as driving targets in GTA. However, seeing characters like this poor guy trying to keep warm in front of a drum barrel really humanizes them, making us all the more uncomfortable when we have to run them over if and when they get in the way.

Women of the Night

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It's no secret that the general GTA population includes its fair share of streetwalkers. The prostitutes in the older games were pretty easy to spot, but they didn't really reflect their real-world analogs until the later games. Let's face it: Girls walking the street aren't exactly Emperor's Club VIP material.

The Cities

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The GTA games have all had draw distance limitations and an abrupt level of detail transitions, but pop-in has become less of a problem over time, and gone are the days when incoming vehicles first appear as smudged boxes only to sharpen up as they get closer. Textures look great near and far. We were particularly impressed with how detailed Staunton Island looks when viewed from Portland Island.

The Environment

The GTA world environment includes mostly urban areas with a touch of nature here and there with beaches in Vice City and rural areas in San Andreas. GTAIV has upgraded all the in-game environments with more polygons, higher-resolution graphics, and incredible lighting.


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This Times Square-like Star Junction area from GTAIV isn't exactly the 3D "lighting" we're talking about, but we were impressed with how realistic the game looks in comparison to a similar area in GTAIII. Las Venturas has a passable Vegas strip, but it's still not close to the graphics in GTAIV.


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Lifelike streets aren't just asphalt roads with concrete sidewalks. The streets in the older GTA games have pedestrians and the odd mailbox or fire hydrant, but GTAIV's streets come to life with all sorts of physics-enabled debris including boxes, garbage bags, dumpsters, newspaper stands, trash cans, and random litter.


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The bridge comparisons show off GTAIV's postprocessing effects and graphical detail levels. As with the other GTA games, GTAIV invents an excuse to prevent you from crossing bridges into advanced areas early in the game. This time it's the threat of terrorism that keeps you out of Staunton Island.


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Sunsets in GTAIV bathe the city in a warm, red light. Sure beats lens flare, the killer graphics effect from the PS2. Cities in some of the past GTA games don't look that great at a distance because there are invisible buildings waiting to pop-in, but you can now see the entire city from a helicopter in GTAIV.


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Grand Theft Auto has always had terrible, cardboardlike trees built with flat, intersecting texture slices. We were surprised to see that the shrubbery hasn't changed much in GTAIV aside from using a higher-resolution texture and more slices to create more complex plant sculptures.


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GTAIV has beautiful water that throws off great reflections and reacts realistically as you move through it. Water became less deadly in San Andreas, when your character finally learned how to swim. Falling into the water was instant death in GTAIII and Vice City.

The Civil Service

Grand Theft Auto wouldn't be the same without its army of police, fire, and emergency service workers. We devoted an entire section of this feature to the fine people and vehicles that will interfere with, respond to, and sometimes even aid you during the game.


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The police force cuts that real American cities are seeing haven't yet made it to Liberty City. It seems as though there's almost always a policeman nearby when yet another careless pedestrian jumps in front of your car. GTAIV's policemen now come armed with coffee cups and hats that seem to fly off at every opportunity.

Police Cars

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The boxy patrol cruisers from GTAIII, Vice City, and San Andreas now look like real patrol cars in GTAIV. Finishing the Crime and Punishment mission in GTAIV will give you access to the game's optional police missions. You'll be able to complete vigilante tasks or hunt down "most wanted" criminals around the city.

Police Department

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All buildings in GTAIV, including the police stations, feature higher-resolution textures and realistic lighting.

Fire Engines

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The fire engine was the easiest vehicle to find in GTAIV. You can now request fire department assistance by calling 911 from your cell phone in-game. The water hose could also work as a fun, nonlethal weapon for those pacifist players trying to beat the game with the least amount of bloodshed.


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The ambulance comparison shots here illustrate how much extra detail each GTAIV vehicle has compared to past games. We have some bad news for all of the aspiring EMS medics out there: Unlike past GTA games, GTAIV doesn't have any optional ambulance missions.

The Places

Shops and services have evolved quite a bit in the Grand Theft Auto series. Some businesses such as fast food restaurants have flourished while others such as Ammu-Nation have disappeared. Other places of interest present in all the games include the docks and the airport.


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Ammu-Nation has finally followed through on its going-out-of-business threats in GTAIV. Niko has to make new contacts and find underground markets to pick up his weaponry in Liberty City. You'll also be able to set up deliveries once you build up a relationship with one particular contact.

Pay 'N' Spray

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Using a paint shop to evade police has become slightly more difficult in GTAIV. You can still lose your wanted level by getting your car repainted, but the shops won't do the work if the cops see you enter the garage.

Fast Food

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The fast food restaurant has grown into an important part of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. GTAIII started off with a few Punk Noodle and Bolt Burger facades, but you couldn't actually go inside one until Vice City brought us Well Stacked Pizza walk-in restaurants and Burger Shot at the mall food court. Cluckin' Bell and Burger Shot became much more important when eating became a game mechanic in San Andreas.

The Docks

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You can't have a Grand Theft Auto game without a visit to the docks. If there's one thing we've learned from playing GTA, it's that crime always follows container ships.


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Francis International Airport returns in Grand Theft Auto IV, but racing through the airport isn't as easy as it used to be. Getting near the runway will get you an instant wanted level in the post-9/11 Liberty City.

The Vehicles

Several types of vehicles appear in all four modern GTA console games. All the GTAIV vehicles look incredible compared to their past counterparts. We take a look at a few of them here to show you how the graphics have changed from game to game.

Commercial Trucks

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Commercial trucks have come a long way since the Triad Fish Trucks in GTAIII. They're not a top choice for automobile elitists, but sometimes you have to make concessions if you're stuck in an industrial area without a ride.


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We originally planned on getting a Rhino tank for this spot, but couldn't get one to appear in GTAIV even after spending 15 minutes trolling around Staunton Island with six wanted stars.


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You'll get the ability to call taxis to ferry Niko around the city fairly early in GTAIV. The best part is that you can use the taxi to get to your destination almost instantly. The rides are expensive when you're just starting out, but you'll be taking cabs everywhere when the money starts rolling in. The Crazy Taxi-like missions are no longer in the game, but we won't miss that one particular fare who wants to go to that out-of-the-way place all the way across the map.


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The Stallion is one of the first sports cars that you encounter in all of the GTA console games, which also means that it's one of the first cars you steal and immediately drop when something better rolls by. Who hasn't abandoned a Stallion to jack an Infernus?

Vehicle Damage

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Vehicle damage is much more realistic in GTAIV. The individual car panels, lights, and tires can all sustain localized damage, which can cause the vehicle to slow down or even list to one side. Cars can also take engine damage that will make the vehicle impossible to start.

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