GTA IV: Rockstar’s series grows up a bit

by Carolyn Petit

By this point, so massive has been the level of exposure to the Grand Theft Auto games in our culture, you’re probably either a fan of Rockstar’s franchise of crime games, or you’re decidedly not. If you don’t like the games, then GTA IV, for all of its nifty little improvements over earlier games in the series, is unlikely to change your mind. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It just builds a better one.

In GTA IV, you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European with a rough past who, lured by tales of wealth and prosperity sent by his cousin Roman, comes to Liberty City-thoroughly reimagined from its previous appearances and closely modeled on New York City–to escape the trouble he’s gotten himself into and start a new life. Niko is also bent on getting revenge on someone who betrayed him and his unit during the Bosnian War. While the previous GTA games occasionally attempted to create a sense of drama, for the most part, the comedy was broad and the pervasive violence was presented in a humorous, cartoon-like fashion. In GTA IV, there’s a much greater weight given to the storytelling. Niko is a complicated and really likable character who you gradually learn more about as the game progresses. The better you get to know him, the more you get pulled in to his story, and you get to know him not just through the typical cutscenes, but also in fresh and compelling ways, like the emails he sends to his mother back home. All of the supporting characters are similarly well-defined and complex, and the violence here has a real sense of impact, of finality. When Niko puts a bullet in the head of a gangster early on in the game, it’s anything but cartoonish, and Niko does not commit the act lightly. The tale the game tells ranges from the slums of Liberty City to the penthouses, from disused factories to prosperous museums. It’s an epic saga with themes of trust and betrayal, family and friendship, revenge and forgiveness, and most of all, the American dream.


This isn’t meant to suggest that the game isn’t funny. It most definitely is. The satire on the radio (and, now, on the television as well) is as sharp as ever, and is very much of the moment, with frequent, obvious references to the current political and cultural climate in the United States. And Niko’s interactions with other characters are also frequently very funny, but for the most part the humor comes out of the characters in smart, realistic ways that don’t undermine their complexity and believability. This is not the immoral or amoral story some people loudly accuse it of being. On the contrary. Like all good crime fiction, it is a deeply moral story, a story of choices and consequences. The plot moves at a slower, more deliberate pace than those of the other GTA games, and some players may lose patience with the sometimes lengthy cutscenes, or the frequent phone calls from friends asking Niko if he wants to hang out, but for those players who can appreciate such things, the story and writing here are truly among the best ever seen in a game.


Thankfully, while in some ways the game moves at a slower pace than earlier titles in the series, there are also a few terrific additions to the series that keep things moving along at a steady clip. For one, there are, as there should be, taxis all over Liberty City, and it’s a very simple matter to hail one and be whisked off to your destination. If you’d like, you can enjoy the ride and watch the city pass by out the window, but more often than not you’ll probably opt to warp to where you’re going.

The other really helpful new feature is the option to immediately restart any failed mission. If you fail a mission, you’ll receive a text message on your phone asking you if you’d like to retry it, and restarting the mission is as simple as pushing A. Additionally, getting sent to the hospital no longer results in the loss of your weapons, which generally makes jumping right back into a mission a lot more feasible. (Being arrested still costs you all of your weapons, but unless you surrender willingly, you’re typically much more likely to be sent to the hospital than dragged off to jail.) And when you are driving somewhere rather than paying someone else to drive you, navigating the city is a cinch thanks to the GPS waypoint system, which will plot the shortest legal route to any location. Of course, it’s usually faster and more fun to take a few illegal shortcuts here and there, but the system is nonetheless very useful.


Another crucial addition to the gameplay is the introduction of a cover mechanic, which seems to be all but required in games involving people shooting at each other nowadays. This mechanic, along with a greatly improved lock-on aiming system, makes the gunfights in the game much more enjoyable and visceral than they were in earlier GTAs. It also makes them considerably easier, as it’s usually a breeze to lock on to somebody, move the aiming reticule up just a tad so that it’s in the head region of your target, pop out of cover at an opportune moment and nail them, but despite its ease, it’s usually pretty satisfying. While improved considerably, the aiming system isn’t quite perfect. Particularly when enemies get close, things can get a little wonky, and it can be difficult to target them, or to have Niko shoot them instead of whatever he’s taking cover behind, but for the most part it works quite well.

Driving is also improved over previous games in the series. While earlier games rarely required you to use the break to keep from losing control and flying off the road, here you’ll have to be a bit more conservative, though the driving model is still enjoyably far from being realistic. Additionally, cars are more durable now, and can take a good deal more of a beating before they burst into flames.


The most significant improvement over earlier Grand Theft Auto games, though, or games in general, for that matter, is Liberty City itself. The words “living, breathing world” seem to be frequently tossed around when discussing games, but Grand Theft Auto IV creates the illusion of such a world far more effectively than any game before. The sights and sounds of the city come together to establish a rich and believable sense of place. Street vendors hawk their hot dogs and hamburgers. Radio stations can be heard playing in passing cars. People answer their cell phones, or stand around in groups of two or three chatting, or sweep or wash windows, or do tai chi in the park. They break out umbrellas or shield themselves with newspapers and run when it rains. And all the while, the city itself is a perfect backdrop, dirty and beautiful, diverse and tremendously detailed. Perhaps, in a sense, the world is too detailed, as, playing the game on my 360, it’s not at all unusual to see details pop into place. I didn’t mind this-to me, it’s a small price to pay for the rich level of detail the game offers-but some players may find it bothersome. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that the game performs considerably better on some consoles than others.


The game’s sound is tremendously important making Liberty City as compelling as it is, and it is certainly up to the task. The voice acting throughout the game is absolutely terrific, bringing each character to life and never hamming things up unnecessarily, letting the naturally funny moments be funny and giving the serious moments the gravitas they deserve. All the sounds of the city are present, from the rumble of elevated trains to the distant wail of police sirens to the muffled sounds of the radio in passing cars. And speaking of the radio, Grand Theft Auto IV’s soundtrack is a diverse, vibrant, expansive collection of music that provides a perfect soundtrack for the city and the story. Certainly, few things are more subjective than music, and there are those who feel that GTA IV’s soundtrack is weak. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more. Nearly every track from the game’s radio stations is a solid representation of its musical genre. I was thrilled to pursue a train while in a car to the moody rock of Mama by Genesis, to survey the city from a helicopter by night to the sleek beauty of Philip Glass’ Pruit Igoe, to gun down drug dealers to the pulsating rhythms of the dancehall played on San Juan Sounds, and to drive down a rainy street on a gloomy afternoon to the plaintive vocals of Inner City Blues by Marvin Gaye. When the songs played over the end credits ranged from O Tebe by Russian pop group Ranetki Girls to Hello’s New York Groove, that jubilant celebration of the city Liberty resembles so closely, I realized what an ideal soundtrack to this unusual take on the immigrant’s quest for the American dream Rockstar had crafted.

While some people may miss some of the more over-the-top mission objectives from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, the tasks you’ll go on throughout Grand Theft Auto IV’s storyline are always enjoyable and occasionally surprising. If you push through the story with laser-like determination, you’ll wrap things up at somewhere under the 30 hour mark, but there’s certainly no shortage of other activities to engage in as well.


GTA IV also offers a number of multiplayer modes, all of which, in my experience, work very well. You can race through Liberty City, have deathmatches, fight over turf, do a couple of one-off cooperative scenarios, and so on. These are all cool, though to be honest, when playing with my friends, we typically have the most fun just goofing off and wreaking havoc in the game’s online free mode.

Grand Theft Auto IV does a number of things far better than any game before has done them. It creates a world that’s convincingly alive. It tells a far richer, more compelling and rewarding crime story than any previous game. It doesn’t revolutionize the GTA formula in any way, but it keeps everything that works about it, improves some things that didn’t work so well, and delivers a game that is exceptionally well-made on every conceivable level. Grand Theft Auto IV is nothing short of a masterpiece.

  • GTA IV: Rockstar’s series grows up a bit
  • by Carolyn Petit
  • Published on July 23rd, 2008
Grand Theft Auto IV
Rockstar Games
Compliments of Rockstar Games

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