Let’s Take a Look Back at Grand Theft Auto IV – The Most Serious Game in the GTA Series

FeatureMay 5, 2015 at 6:23a PSTby Luc

Let’s Take a Look Back at Grand Theft Auto IV – The Most Serious Game in the GTA Series

We've just celebrated the seventh anniversary of the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the most serious installment in the famous franchise. Its specific atmosphere was the reason some people were not overly fond of Niko Bellic's adventures.

Not long ago, PC gamers celebrated the release of GTA V on their hardware, and it was this production from Rockstar that managed to capture the attention of most of the fans. Hovewer, it wasn't the only notable event that occurred at roughly the same time. Almost exactly seven years ago Grand Theft Auto IV hit the market following a long wait. The game was by all means unique, not only because of its impressive scale and great attention to detail, but also the introduction of a very specific atmosphere, completely different from what had defined the series before. The console edition of this title met with an amazing reception, and even though few people seem to be aware of it, it was the second highest scoring game in history, with an average rating of 98/100. Second only to the Nintendo 64 version of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it did one notch better that its successor, GTA V. Such results are not achieved by chance, although it's hard to deny that the game was not to everyone's liking. This resulted from a completely different emphasis of the narrative. Rather than a light-hearted atmosphere, we received a dark, heavy story, which was something unexpected of GTA. However, it wasn't the only aspect that intrigued critics and millions of fans around the world. What else made the production deserve such a unique position in the history of video games?

It Starts As Any Other Story…

First of all, we should mention the open world structure. Of course, this feature had already been present in the previous productions from Rockstar, but in the case of GTA IV the developers positively outdid themselves. And they did it in every possible aspect of the production. The size of Liberty City triggered a massive jaw-dropping reaction. Add the amount of stuff we could do in almost every corner of the city, and we get a sandbox so complete that it was only after the release of the game’s continuation that we received a title of a similar scale. It’s also impossible to overlook the details, which were numerous in the metropolis itself. You could see that the streets had a “soul” and were unique, and the people filling them were actually "alive". While visiting Liberty City one had an impression of traversing an authentic giant city. Only the best games manage to achieve this effect.

Liberty City was truly astounding in terms of its size and diversity. - 2015-05-05
Liberty City was truly astounding in terms of its size and diversity.

In the end, however, it wasn't just the attention to each and every possible detail that triggered such a fantastic reception of GTA IV. This was also brought about by a whole series of gameplay-related solutions. Even though they constituted an extension of the solutions that Rockstar had already developed, this time they were enhanced and pushed to their limits. The most notable example is the option of using a phone. This element, already present in the previous installments, made its way to GTA IV, but thanks to a "simple" trick and the addition of several new options, its function changed completely. The mobile phone was no longer just a tool used in the narrative, but became a device that enabled us to delve even further into the world around us: we could call a friend, receive a text, look up information, call an ambulance, or switch to multiplayer... In other words, this simple gadget turned into a mini communication and command center, which did a lot more than just help us immerse deeper into the story. To make things even more interesting, we were also given the option to change the ringtone and wallpapers on our smartphone. Such a tiny detail would normally be of no consequence but becomes quite significant when we take into account that GTA IV in its entirety is composed of such minuscule, polished elements. This is where the game shows what it’s really made of.

The Details Make The Depth

The phone is connected to another small revolution that Rockstar introduced in the fourth installment of the series. Again, at first it didn't seem like anything special, but it added another very important layer to this perfect sandbox. What I'm referring to is of course the possibility of establishing "friendships", wandering around the city with a companion and indulging in a variety of activities. Fancy a break from daily gangster-ing? At any point in the game we can call up Michelle and get her to go on another date with our character, for example to Split Sides. Feel like doing a bit of sport? Perhaps darts? Pool? Bowling with Roman ("Roman, I'll be happy to go bowling with you for the hundredth time. Say, in an hour")? How about a drop of booze, some restaurant or a strip club? The plethora of available choices was not limited to the abovementioned options. Any pastime we chose was genuinely entertaining, thus adding depth to Liberty City.

Bowling? With great pleasure, Roman. - 2015-05-05
Bowling? With great pleasure, Roman.

Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the few installments in the series that received two major story expansions. Issued as separate productions and sold under the title Episodes from Liberty City, the two add-ons, entitled respectively The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony were less gloomy than the core version, though they didn't steer clear of more serious topics. Both titles met with a very enthusiastic reception of players and critics alike, receiving ratings in the vicinity of 9/10. Few expansion packs can boast an equally impressive achievement.

This feeling was reinforced by the array of other diverse elements. Of course, this doesn’t refer to missions only (although they were numerous), but also things such as available cars. To show the true scale of the phenomenon, it's best to use solid statistics. In GTA III we had a total of 56 vehicles that we could drive, swim or fly. While an impressive figure, it still completely faded in comparison with what was given at our disposal in the fourth installment. We could explore the corners of Liberty City in 127 unique cars, planes or boats. And while it's true that GTA V doubled this number, it was extremely impressive in 2008. If we also consider the possibilities provided later by the PC version, said difference deepens even further. Let’s not overlook the fact that the PC optimization for GTA IV was terrible, and both versions were left far behind by GTA V. Still, we cannot deny one thing – this edition was accompanied with phenomenal mods. It's thanks to them that the production is still alive and can boast a large following, despite being several years old. They include a wide variety ranging from simple modifications improving various elements or adding new clothes, through the ones providing complete substitution of characters and creation of new threads, and finally those that revamp the graphic design to the extent that even modern games look mediocre compared to GTA IV. The modding community did wonders to the game, and the results achieved could – and still can – easily compete with what players create in Skyrim. After the release of GTA V, the new installment will probably take the lead, but we shouldn't forget that for many years the biggest modifications made were for GTA IV.

That's right, thanks to mods GTA IV can look like that. - 2015-05-05
That's right, thanks to mods GTA IV can look like that.

Dark And Brooding

All this meant that almost everyone who tried their luck in GTA IV was immediately immersed in the atmosphere of Liberty City. Which was, despite its specific nature, simply amazing. The story of Niko Bellic wasn't to everyone's liking, but if we managed to survive the arduous beginning and actually engaged in the narrative, it turned out that Rockstar provided the players with something to remember for at least several years to follow. The thing that’s impossible to overlook from the moment you launch the game is the fact that GTA IV is just awfully serious.

Although the comedic situations and characters typical of the previous installments were still present in the game, the emphasis shifted completely. Here, the driving force of the story was present in the form of a heavy atmosphere and emotional dilemmas of the main antihero, with whom we quickly establish a specific bond. Niko Bellic, a war veteran from the Balkan region, comes to Liberty City to start a new life. Lured by his cousin’s promises, he decides to leave the past behind and move towards a better future. At least this might be the initial impression. However, it soon becomes clear that the motives of the main character are much more complex. What’s more, he has his fair share of experiences nothing short of traumatic. The character soon confesses that he came to the United States to exact revenge on his former partner whose betrayal led to the death of the majority of the members of his former unit. This part of the story alone brings about an emotional aspect significantly greater than what was present in all previous installments of Grand Theft Auto combined, but Rockstar was not going to stop there.

Liberty City, the land of opportunity, turned out to be less than gracious to Niko. - 2015-05-05
Liberty City, the land of opportunity, turned out to be less than gracious to Niko.

The need to take revenge on the person who ruined his life is used by our antihero as a an ultimate excuse for almost everything he does. While trying to escape the demons of his past, he ends up chasing them instead, falling into a spiral of hatred and violence immediately after arriving in the US, which leads him to his present fate. Murder, drug trafficking, extortion, robbery – this is Niko's reality and even though his deeds are hardly commendable, we still end up feeling some sympathy for him. At the end of the day, an irresistible desire for revenge is something we are able to understand, although the longer we play, the more obvious it becomes that the hero is driven by something else as well. Survival, in its broad meaning, to which the protagonist refers all the time, no longer sounds like a legit explanation when we find ourselves reveling in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet fail to refuse increasingly "dirtier" jobs. Niko himself acknowledges during the game that he "works for anyone who will pay properly." Most of the time, Bellic is in denial about his murderous and greedy nature, telling herself that once he gets his revenge, he will finally be able to leave the life of crime behind. However, the greatest tragedy of his life doesn't affect him until the finale of the story.

GTA IV trailer

GTA IV trailer [1:01]

A Choice That Leads Nowhere

In the end, we come face to face with Darko Brevic and have to choose whether to spare his life or take it. Considering the fact that Niko spent the last couple of years obsessed with revenge, another murder seems to be an obvious solution at this point. However, seeing what a wreck of a man our nemesis became, we find that the decision is not a simple one. Players who chose to listen to everything Darko had to say during this scene had to deal with another, equally painful fact. “You say I ruined you? You were always a killer! I just helped you see that", said Brevic. These words contain a powerful emotional message, which calls into question everything that we saw during the game. The tragic situation is further aggravated by the fact that no matter what we do, we're somehow on the losing side. By killing Brevic, we achieve nothing and Niko himself admits that after the murder he feels the same as he did before – just empty. All the crimes that he had previously committed in the name of revenge and survival, prove to be pointless ... or just confirm Darko's last words. Sparing our nemesis’ life puts us in an almost identical situation and neither does it change anything.

The scene that makes us realize who Niko really is. - 2015-05-05
The scene that makes us realize who Niko really is.

In the final sequences, Rockstar managed to incorporate a few small tidbits that further deepened the already gloomy atmosphere, even though they had an ironic meaning. Of course, this refers to the place where we exact our final revenge on Dimitri or Pegorino. Given what had just transpired, the name Happiness Island is the last thing that would fit the context, and its absurdity is highlighted by Roman or Little Jacob's words. When committing subsequent murders, we hear: "It's over, you won". In fact, Niko fulfilled his American Dream of a great fortune and independence, but along the way he lost everything that really matters in life. It’s hardly a "victory".

No matter what we choose, shortly after the events unravel, Niko decides to make one last attempt to sever the ties with his old life and find the good lying within him. Unfortunately, our past decisions have a funny way of catching up with us, and eventually we have to deal with the consequences of our actions. It is no different here – depending on the side we had chosen before, we lose either Roman or Kate, which brings the hero back to the place from which he so desperately tried to escape. We follow the murderer and finally kill him, once again exacting an empty vengeance, which is the only way to solve problems that Bellic knows. When the player realizes that this story is simply a series of brutal and tragic events that trigger one another, and our antihero stepped on this path willingly, thus condemning himself to "eternal" suffering, it turns out that in the case of GTA IV we are dealing with one of the most dark themes in the history of this type of games.

A smile rarely lightens up this face. It's hardly surprising. - 2015-05-05
A smile rarely lightens up this face. It's hardly surprising.

It's Always Grim In Liberty City

Was it a good decision on the part of Rockstar to move away from the light themes and choose such a heavy atmosphere instead? The fact that the fifth installment of the series marked the return to a slightly more crazy and colorful setting seems meaningful in this context. The story was without a doubt captivating and multi-layered, but in fact many players found it dissatisfying – after all, what they expected of Grand Theft Auto was a ton of fun and not the serious reflection on the meaning of life or the dark plot twists. GTA V also managed to smuggle in content of this kind, but it shown in a parody style and in no way compared with what its predecessor offered. Let's add the level of detail, which set the bar for other sandbox productions so high that we had to wait until the premiere of GTA V to get something equally polished up. Whether you enjoyed Niko's story is a matter of taste, but we cannot deny that this serious narrative has left its mark on the gamers' community and pop culture alike. At the same time, it probably constituted the deepest, most tragic and ambitious story we've ever encountered not only in the Grand Theft Auto series, but in the entire genre as well. Such things can be said only about the top-notch productions.