By Don Spencer
It has been almost a decade since we were treated to a fresh entry in the universally adored and controversial Grand Theft Auto series. Still we have no trailer, no teaser, not even a logo. Come on Rockstar, give us something to work with here.
As the painfully slow journey towards Grand Theft Auto 6 continues, we look back at what many consider to be the greatest open world game of all time – Grand Theft Auto IV.
Warning; spoilers ahead
Fresh off the Boat
The first star of the show is our protagonist, Niko Bellic- A Serbian immigrant whose mission is twofold – to search for a better life in America, and to hunt down the man who savagely betrayed his military unit a decade earlier.
Niko is by far the most complex, endearing, and in many ways, most tragic character in the Grand Theft Auto series. Niko is haunted by the terrible war crimes he witnessed back home, as well as the aforementioned betrayal which led to the death of his friends.
To be certain, Niko is a killer, and is clearly able to carry out whatever is asked of him be it robbery, kidnapping or straight up murder. That is not to say that Niko is without conscience, as he promised himself he would not commit such acts in this new and mysterious city. There are multiple instances where the player is given the choice to spare the lives of your targets, which lends a welcome moral nuance to the usual unhinged slaughter.
We also see a delicate and caring side of Niko. His crimes are a means to freedom from the tyranny of those he has been caught up with, and he clearly takes no pleasure in the life he is leading and would much sooner settle down in the company of friends and love interests. We see a glimpse of this in the option to pursue dating partners and leisure activities with Liberty City’s various miscreants. After all, who can forget the immortalised meme of ‘Cousin, let’s go bowling!’
NYCer than the Real Thing
Niko’s search brings him to Liberty City, which is Rockstar’s spectacular take on New York. From the mean streets of The Bronx to the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan, the player is given more than just a flavour of New York and its many moods. Despite it not being Rockstar’s first visit to LC, it feels like a truly new experience in comparison to the much smaller and less detailed version realised in GTA III.
Real life locations such as the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building and Central Park are on display for exploration and utilised in story locations, which sometimes border on uncanny valley. This was not only an achievement from a visual point of view, but from every angle. Stop for a moment in Star Junction (Times Square) and hear the hum of the subway grates, the roar of the traffic and the passing conversation of NPC’s and appreciate the detail. Rockstar’s team spent many months on location to capture the essence of the city, and the results are a living testament to that.
The areas of the city lend themselves to the story spectacularly well, which is what makes GTA IV the most cohesive of all the series. Petty loan sharks are dealt with in Broker (Brooklyn), whilst millionaires and federal agents pursue you in Algonquin (Manhattan) and Sopranos style mobsters are ever present in Alderney (New Jersey).
Overall, the authentic and immersive realisation of the Big Apple is a monolithic feat that was not matched until the release of Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018 (also by Rockstar), which captured the Wild West in detail still unmatched to this day.
Niko’s search for a better life and for his target are both met with disappointment to begin with, as Niko learns that his cousin Roman’s tales of riches and luxury are a fabrication, and that his situation is potentially fatal if the wrong people get their way.
Grand Theft Auto IV’s story is a contemplation on the American dream, and the dark underbelly destined for those that fall short. As soon as he arrives in America, Niko is forced into a world of crime in order to protect his family, despite said family being a drunken, gambling addicted liability.
Through the catalyst of his cousin’s situation, Niko meets spectacularly bizarre and animated characters, including a stoner Jamaican gun runner, a steroid junkie car mechanic and a deluded community outreach worker to name just a few. The manner in which the characters are interwoven throughout the tale gives Grand Theft Auto IV the quality of a living, breathing narrative ecosystem.
Grand Theft Auto has always been known for its satirical and comical tone. And whilst Liberty City is not short of humour or freakish characters, the mood in this entry was far grittier and darker than any of the preceding or following titles. Yes, we still have overly eccentric radio hosts and cheap gags on billboards, but the overarching backstory behind Niko is bleak and every mission feels meaningful in pursuit of what he is looking for.
The mission designs themselves are gritty, and whilst we are treated to a few Blockbuster style movie stunts, many of the missions are low key murder jobs. Get instructions, drive to location, shoot target in face. This gives it not only a dark mood but a more grounded and realistic one too, and the washed out art style affords GTA IV a unique and memorable atmosphere to boot.
On top of an already wonderful story, GTA IV went on to bring us episodic expansion packs The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. The former explores the biker-gang bruiser Johnny Kleibitz and his dealings with the internal chaos and downward spiral of his fraternity. The Ballad of Gay Tony examines Luis Lopez and the dynamic with his boss Tony, who owns a nightclub in Alongquin which is falling into debt and chaos.
Each of these expansion packs allows for a return to LC with a different flavour, including improved driving mechanics, new interiors to explore and even ties up a couple of loose ends from the main story. Each character is featured in each realisation of the story at some point, which demonstrates the consistent lore that Rockstar have dyed into the game.
Despite the weight of expectation following the iconic San Andreas and Vice City entries to the series, Grand Theft Auto IV marked itself as not only a gaming masterpiece but also that of the world of storytelling. GTA IV did not reach the online heights of it’s follow up, Grand Theft Auto V, but its story mode was, and always will be, truly singular in its delivery.
Whilst 14 years have passed, the game stands up to scrutiny even by today’s standards, and we hope that one day we see a remaster of Grand Theft Auto IV, so it can be experienced once again with a breath of new life.
Words: Don S