The Grand Theft Auto series has been around for 20 years and has captivated millions. When the first in the franchise came out in 1997, it shocked and delighted gamers with its supposed glamorization of criminal activity as you, the protagonist, work your way through the ranks of the criminal underbelly in a corrupt city. No other franchise in gaming history has been as largely controversial, or to the millions of fans it has, been more consistently enjoyable. While I could go on about any one of the games in this series in great depth, today I’m focusing on GTA IV as we celebrate its 10 year anniversary.
Every year, thousands of people from other countries enter the United States hoping to achieve the “American Dream”. Niko Bellic, the protagonist in GTA IV, is no different. Niko is an Eastern European war veteran on the run from his homeland and venturing into America in hopes of finding the man who betrayed his unit in the war, as well as creating a better life for himself. Upon arriving in Liberty City (based on real life New York), he quickly finds that the land of freedom and vast riches is not quite as luxurious as his cousin, Roman, has made it out to be. Almost immediately, Niko and his cousin are harassed by loan sharks, drafted into working for the mob, and betrayed several times over. Welcome to the Land of Opportunity!
GTA IV is an action/adventure game and third person shooter, that starts off with only your fists and melee combat available to you until after your first mission where you can obtain a knife. Niko then quickly moves up to a pistol, and continues to advance his arsenal to include weapons like semi-automatic rifles and rocket launchers. You know, cause this is ‘Murica! The weapons are really fun to play around with and I love that they all have a satisfying feel to them. The pump action shotgun has a big kick compared to the pistol and Micro SMG, but deals a lot of heavy damage, especially in close quarters. The rocket launcher fires rockets in a believable, not perfectly straight line and takes in wind as a factor. GTA IV was also the first in the series to utilize a cover system, that while at times can be a bit frustrating, like when it keeps sticking you to a piece of cover you’re trying to get away from, but for the most part it offers a more realistic and tactical experience.
Now what would a game like GTA IV be if it didn’t offer a wide variety of cars? I mean, it’s actually named Grand Theft Auto, so you’d better believe that a lot of time and attention was put in to creating a wide variety of different vehicles. Going back to GTA IV made me realize just how floaty a lot of the cars felt, especially in comparison to GTA V as well as other games that feature driving mechanics. After a little while I got use to it and was able to fully appreciate just how unique they were able to make all of the cars feel. The little sports cars gain speed almost instantly, the muscle cars are fast too, but fishtail like crazy, although, that can be great in races when drifting around corners (more on that later). Surprisingly, I found two of my favorite cars (aside from the hard to find sports cars) were the newer modeled cabs and police cars (not the older Crown Victoria style). They had good pep, solid brakes, and great steering. Who would have thought that out of all of the cars at my disposal, those would have been my cars of choice?
Not only does GTA IV offer an impressive list of cars, it also boasts a massive array of other types of vehicles that you can commandeer and enjoy the hell out of. Want to cruise around from coast to coast, but don’t want to deal with traffic? Step into a power boat. Want to zip in between cars as you chase down The Lost Biker Gang? Hop on a motorcycle. Want to earn your spot in “waste management” for the mob? Hijack a dump truck and “take out the trash”. Want to just cause total chaos and mayhem? Climb into a helicopter and have fun weaving in and out of buildings (or just straight into) and firing away at innocent bystanders. There’s no limit to what sorts of pandemonium you can cause with any given vehicle. Many times, getting lost in a rampage is exactly what makes these games so enticing.
GTA IV focuses a lot on personal relationships with some of the characters you meet. You start off with your cousin, Roman, and work your way to a more extensive list of friends and contacts. GTA IV also introduced the use of a cell phone so you can get in touch with your acquaintances with greater ease. Not only can you hit them up for mission based purposes, but many of them you can hang out with as friends and do certain activities with. The activities include drinking, eating, darts, bowling, pool, seeing a comedy show, and going to a strip club. Most of these activities are fairly quick, but I absolutely hated playing pool. It goes on forever with no way to skip through your opponent’s turn, for the most part. I don’t mind the sometimes tedious task of having random hangouts with friends if it’s done quickly like when eating or drinking. After drinking though, the camera waves all over the place and Niko becomes very difficult to control. GTA IV was the first in the series to let you drive while intoxicated, but thanks to MADD, he expresses discomfort with the idea of doing so.
Different friends have varying responses to certain activities and some will only agree to do specific things. The same goes with dating. You can date a couple girls just by following the main story, or you can go to an internet cafe (oh my god, remember when those were a hot spot for people to hang out?) and try your luck on a dating site. While I must admit, the internet portion of this game is extremely dated (I mean, it has been 10 years), it still made me laugh with the ads that pop up as well as the spam that fills your email. Somethings never change.
After getting the approval rating of certain characters high enough, you unlock a special perk unique to each character. Roman gives you call up cab service (this was in the days before Uber and Lyft). Little Jacob delivers weapons at a discounted rate (one of my personal favorites). Brucie gives you helicopter rides. Packie sets up car bombs on desired vehicles. As tedious as it can be constantly stopping your story progress to do something with a friend, the help that they can provide, especially with harder missions make it well worth it. Do you know you’re about to take out a house filled with drug dealers and thugs, but are low on ammo? Call Little Jacob to meet you in an alley down the street for some body armor and as much ammo as you can carry.
There are certain activities that become unlocked by meeting specific characters during regular mission progress. Little Jacob allows you to deliver packages within a short time limit for bonus cash. Brucie unlocks races. I must say, the racing in this game has so far withstood the test of time. They’re so much fun! Not only do you get to haul ass through the streets you’ve been terrorizing on a routine basis, but now you get fly though them on a variety of different vehicles. The races range from sports cars, to station wagons, to muscle cars, to pickup trucks. Each race feels different and fresh. You can also steal targeted cars for a nice profit, assassinate people, or steal a police car and use their database on their computer to find criminals and bring them to justice (I know it seems hypocritical seeing as how you stole the police car in the first place).
There’s just so much to do in GTA IV that makes it still compelling to play even after the substantial story is over. Aside from the side missions mentioned above, there are pigeons scattered throughout Liberty City that you can kill for an achievement. There are random interactions with people available at certain times in specific locations too. I highly recommend engaging these characters since they provide some really messed up and brief storylines to further enrich your experience. I completely forgot about the stunt jumps too, until I launched off a construction site while evading the cops only to have it cut away to a cinematic camera. Now I find myself getting giddy whenever I see a sheet of wood hanging off the back of a truck.
There’s also the multiplayer mode which I’m very surprised and happy to say, still has a large and loyal following. I didn’t really think anyone would be on when I tried it out again, but I was wrong. There are still quite a lot of people doing their thing in the GTA IV multiplayer mode and strangely enough, not all of them are jerks. A lot of them just want to cruise around and enjoy the world for what it has to offer. If you’re looking for the most interaction though, go to the airport. Just as it was 10 years ago, everyone wants to start some fights at the airport. I’m not sure why, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was due to the easy access of the helicopters. I’ve already discussed the fun you can have raining destruction from a helicopter.
The sound design in GTA IV is still as superb now as it was 10 years ago. The voice acting is top notch, despite this title featuring more relative unknowns in the lead roles than previous installments. I was shocked to discover though that there were a lot more celebrities in this game than I remember. Some of the radio hosts include Iggy Pop, Bobby Konders, Juliette Lewis, and DJ Premier. The talk radio personalities feature the likes of Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader. The comedy club shows I remember having Kat Williams, but completely forgot about Ricky Gervais. All of them are hilarious! The soundtrack list was initially impressive, though due to the contracts of the songs coming to an end in the 10 year mark, many are being pulled from the set lists. Rockstar Games has assured players that they are working on adding new songs to their playlists.
I remember being blown away by the graphics in GTA IV when it initially came out, but going back to it I have to admit that this is one area where it definitely hasn’t aged well. The actual city itself is still pretty amazing , as are the quirky little details all around it. It’s mainly the people that have aged poorly. The character movements are stiff and the closeups of people during the cutscenes make you realize just how ugly they are. Sort of like hitting on someone in a dimly lit bar and then you see them outside under a lamp and say “yikes”. At least GTA IV has a good personality though. Deep and funny enough to make you start forgetting how unattractive it is.
All in all, I have to say that GTA IV is a game that has thus far withstood the test of time. It gives a deep story that makes you care about the protagonist, even if he does lots of loathsome things. The other characters are just as rich and keep the story progressing nicely as you help them out in a number of ways. There are so many side quests and things to search for, that it’s nearly impossible to get bored with this game, even now. It’s truly been a pleasure reliving this wonderful, albeit slightly depressing, installment of this groundbreaking franchise. It’s backwards compatible on Xbox, so if you’ve never played it before, or just want to play it again, do yourself a favor and join Niko Bellic on his journey through the crazy streets of Liberty City.