No developer was able to drum up as much anticipation and praise for their blockbuster releases last gen quite like Rockstar. With a lineup of star-studded releases from Grand Theft Auto V to Red Dead Redemption to L.A. Noire, the company was hitting it out of the park every time they stepped up to the plate. But as great as all of those games are, perhaps none were as hyped upon release quite like Grand Theft Auto IV.
On the surface, it’s not hard to see why GTA IV was such a landmark release. While its graphical prowess is passable at best today, it was a gigantic step up into the next gen from Rockstar’s PS2 trilogy. Even more importantly, Rockstar made some major changes to the controls and mechanics of the franchise upon its migration to the newer batch of consoles, making GTA IV feel like a drastically different game than its predecessors. Rockstar also abandoned the more over-the-top ridiculousness of San Andreas and Vice City for a more grounded and realistic return to Liberty City, which was also the site of their initial jump into the 3D space in the now legendary Grand Theft Auto III. Accompanying this change was the game’s protagonist Niko Bellic, an immigrant taking his first steps into a strange new world. Niko is arguably the most likable, interesting and relatable protagonist in series history, and his presence in this game, along with the twists and turns the narrative takes around his journey, make GTA IV’s story plausibly the series’ most engaging.
Unfortunately, many of the steps that GTA IV took to stride gracefully into a new generation seem understated and, at times, outdated compared to the masterstrokes Rockstar has accomplished since 2008. While the gunplay was a gigantic step up from previous GTA titles, it’s also nowhere near as polished as what is present in Red Dead Redemption or GTA V. And while adding weight to the vehicles around Liberty City creates a more visceral driving experience, it also tends to make all but the lightest of cars difficult to drive effectively, particularly when racing through the streets during one of the game’s many chase sequences.
Which brings me to what is perhaps GTA IV’s greatest flaw; its significant lack of mission variety. While GTA V and even Vice City and San Andreas managed to keep their protagonists’ criminal activities fresh, just about every mission in GTA IV involves driving to a location, taking out all of the enemies in the vicinity, grabbing an object, and then leaving. Often times, a car chase is involved, but one variation is hardly enough to warrant the grind. Even worse, when the game does experiment with helicopter sequences or the great heist in the mission Four Leaf Clover, the player is often punished for not grasping the new type of objective resulting in a fail state (which can be reached either by dying or failing mission objectives) a complete restart of the mission from scratch, including the requirement of actually driving to the mission-giver and either listening through or skipping the same cutscene as before. It was a very frustrating oversight for Rockstar that they thankfully rectified starting with GTA IV’s DLC, and it significantly dragged down the overall experience for me.
Despite its flaws, GTA IV is still a phenomenal game that sucks you in until its ultimate conclusion. The story is a step up from previous installments (though many of the characters are still forgettable and stale), the shooting and driving mechanics were drastically improved (though not yet refined), and the world-building, as always, is absolutely top-notch. GTA IV is no longer the crown jewel of the series, but it is absolutely still worth a look for anyone with a penchant for Rockstar’s signature style.