Flawed but ambitious: how Grand Theft Auto 4 raised the standard for open-world games and helped shaped GTA 5

The strongest reminder that GTA 4 is now an old game is that Niko Bellic’s phone has buttons on it. Somehow that one detail – and the fact his mobile can’t access the internet – makes this game feel like it came out 10,000 years ago. 

It’s actually closer to a decade since the release of the first HD GTA, though, and you can sense that in the slightly blurry visage of Rockstar’s hyper detailed version of New York. Like Gears Of War and Oblivion, it showed a true generational leap was happening. GTA 4 essentially ended the era of clones that followed GTA 3, simply because no one else could make an open world that looked and sounded as good as Liberty City.

GTA 4 is the story of Niko Bellic, a Serbian war veteran who comes to the city  to start a new life. He doesn’t try that hard to stay out of trouble, however, and soon he’s popping heads on behalf of Russian gangsters and his well-meaning cousin, Roman. While I remembered Niko as being the reluctant criminal, a closer examination in most cutscenes suggests he enjoys it on some level, or at least understands it’s what he’s made for, which is arguably the real tragedy of the character. It’s a little earnest as an attempt to infuse extra drama into the series, but Niko is still a lot easier to like than Grand Theft Auto 5’s three protagonists. These sincere attempts at character development were certainly not wasted.

While there’s inevitably no happy ending for Niko, his is not the only story that GTA 4 tells. The game’s brilliant expansion packs, The Lost And Damned and The Ballad Of Gay Tony, were way better value than anyone could really have anticipated, possibly as a result of Microsoft paying a reported $50 million for their temporary exclusivity. 

Each introduces a new protagonist – biker Johnny Klebitz and jack-of-all-trades Luis Lopez respectively – and their individual eight-hour campaigns are unquestionably superior to GTA 4 itself. Both characters had previously appeared briefly in GTA 4 cutscenes, encountering Niko Bellic, which is a nice connection. As a trilogy, these stories offer a fairly deep portrayal of Liberty City, and likely sowed the seeds for the three playable characters idea in GTA 5.

Playing GTA 4 now shows how much Rockstar learned in the 5.5 years leading up to 5’s release. This was the first GTA to introduce cover shooting, since combat was the main weakness of the original Xbox games. It was a decent solution for the time, but the gunplay feels outdated now – it’s not very slick to control, and it was never a match for Gears. The melee fights, where characters ludicrously dance around each other like they’re two posh English gentlemen having a boxing match in the 18th century, aren’t exactly Arkham Knight. The driving, meanwhile, is a little too stiff and punishing for car chases – GTA 5 got it just right.

Hell of a town

These signs of age don’t stop GTA 4 from being enjoyable now, though. Revisiting it has been terrific fun. The story is more daft than serious on a moment-to-moment basis, with a vibrant cast of friends for Niko and a few well-developed villains. Rockstar brought narrative choices to the series for the first time, including a situation where you decide which of your friends live or die. I recalled finding these gimmicky but memorable when I first played GTA 4, but they’re well-done and let the player shape Niko’s morality.

The story holds up pretty well, then, but it was always Liberty City that was the star of GTA 4. Rockstar’s version of New York has golden sunsets, numerous landmarks and no wasted space – it’s a compressed and gorgeous encapsulation of the real thing, a deliberate move away from the simpler-styled sprawl that San Andreas was. That the developer went from the simple character models and cardboard-looking buildings of Los Santos to this rich HD vision of GTA in just over three years is remarkable.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit New York, or even if you’re just familiar with the place through movies and TV, Rockstar nails the atmosphere. Algonquin, its version of Manhattan, is still GTA’s most dazzling individual area: the looming skyscrapers, the clear artistic differences between neighbourhoods and the dizzying lights of Star Junction, its version of Times Square. There’s nowhere else like New York, and GTA 4 replicates that feeling.

A serious man

This wasn’t what everyone wanted from Rockstar at the time, though, and some of that criticism was fair. San Andreas set the expectation that every GTA would go bigger and sillier – GTA 4 is set in one big city, rather than an entire state. Dicking around in Liberty City doesn’t have the same disposable appeal that it did in early GTAs. Maybe it’s the inevitable clash with the story’s tone, but it somehow never feels quite as hilarious to blow up police cars with a rocket launcher, or run down some civilians, despite the game’s realistic physics.

Part of that comes down to no longer having access to the same tools, like the katana, flamethrower, jetpack or military aircraft from past GTAs. Niko’s got a very conventional set of firearms, and the Molotov cocktail is the only weapon that does anything that exciting. The DLC episodes significantly improve that – satchel charges, automatic shotguns and pipe bombs add some much-needed explosive power – and The Ballad of Gay Tony brought in a rocket-equipped helicopter you could nick at any time. But there’s a disappointing sense of restraint to the arsenal, a resistance to lean into the series’ notorious silliness that hurts GTA 4 a little bit. They want you to focus on Niko’s story and exploring the city, instead of, say, attacking people with a chainsaw for funsies, but having both would’ve been nice. The large-scale silliness of GTA 5, and even the set piece-y missions of The Ballad of Gay Tony suggest that Rockstar noted that criticism.

The developer earned the right to its grand story of an immigrant coming to America, though, and the tonal shift that was required to tell it was a brave choice of direction. The setting is built for this purpose: GTA 4’s Liberty City feels less like a playground than past GTAs, and more like a living city to be absorbed into.

Rockstar even experimented with a friend system, where Niko’s pals will call up to hang out. This has been widely mocked for how frequently friends will call up asking to go bowling, or to go for a helicopter ride, and it’s justified – they’re way too needy. It’s the only idea GTA 4 has that doesn’t work whatsoever, although if you’re particularly attached to one or more of them, there are some neat little bits of characterisation to be uncovered. That said, their removal in GTA 5 was merciful.

Filler or thriller?

GTA 4 takes a while to get going, and the way a long tutorial is embedded into the opening four or so hours tests your patience, especially if it’s your second or third playthrough. The truly great missions are buried slightly too deep into the story, but they’re worth the wait. ‘Three Leaf Clover’ is undoubtedly the most famous one, a tense bank robbery involving the bickering McReary brothers that escalates into a prolonged firefight with the law, both on the streets outside and in the subway. This unsurprisingly became the model for GTA 5’s heist missions.

Once the story moves to Algonquin, the quality of missions generally improves. Another favourite is ‘Final Interview’, where you pretend to go for a job at a law firm to retrieve some compromising files for a corrupt police officer, before killing your target halfway through the interview. In ‘Paper Trail’, you take part in a helicopter chase while your friend Little Jacob shoots rockets at the chopper in front of you, while flying over the streets of Algonquin. The former shows how a clever narrative hook can make a GTA mission memorable, while the latter demonstrates the impact the backdrop of Liberty City has in lifting what would otherwise be a quite basic set-piece.

"The main game and extra chapters managed to mature GTA while rediscovering the player-driven chaos that people longed for."

GTA 4’s campaign is too long, and it’s determined to end on a dour note no matter what choices you make. The DLC episodes offer a lighter epilogue, though. Their stories just aren’t as heavy, and being shorter means less room for filler missions. Johnny Klebitz is the closest GTA has got to a proper good guy hero, since his main concerns are keeping his biker gang together and his sort-of-girlfriend, Ashley, from overdosing. He’s still a killer, but he’s otherwise so likeable that Rockstar had to have Trevor kill him in GTA 5. The Lost and Damned lets you cruise through the streets in biker formation with other members of the Lost, which is a cool way of underlining his alternate perspective of Liberty City.

The Ballad of Gay Tony, meanwhile, offers a more frivolous and forgettable story. Yet this episode is best celebrated for how much it changed GTA 4: base jumping is reintroduced, with parachutes. Triathlons come back, complete with nitrous-powered cars. As mentioned, new weapons are thrown into the game, and it contains some of the best GTA missions ever, like ‘For The Man Who Has Everything’, where you fend off encroaching helicopters while on the back of a moving train with an automatic shotgun.

Collectively, the main game and its extra chapters managed to mature GTA while eventually rediscovering the player-driven chaos that people longed for from San Andreas. It’s slightly rough to play now, and only infrequently excites as a shooter, yet the city aside, its story surprisingly remains one of its main attractions.

Rockstar’s next attempt at a more credible tale in a real-feeling world was the Western sandbox game Red Dead Redemption, and they clearly benefitted from this first effort. There are obvious parallels between Niko Bellic and John Marston: neither can truly escape their old lives in an America where someone else is always calling the shots. GTA 4 is not exactly Mad Men when it comes to thematic substance, then, but for an open-world game where you can fire submachine guns at cop cars while listening to Rod Stewart, it more than holds its own.

This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.