Grand Theft Auto will go down in history, for better or worse, as one of the most controversial gaming franchises ever made. Although it started with humble beginnings, the series blew up big time in 2001 with the release of Grand Theft Auto III and only grew with subsequent sequels. 15 years ago, Grand Theft Auto IV brought the franchise into a new console generation, showcasing fresh technology and a distinctly different style. Sitting comfy as the third highest-rated game of all time (according to Metacritic), Grand Theft Auto IV had a massive impact on the open-world action genre moving forward. As this mega-influential title celebrates its 15th anniversary, let’s take a look back at how Rockstar’s big sequel shaped the series for decades to come.
Looking Back on GTA IV 15 Years Later
To set the stage properly, it’s important to note just how big of a deal Grand Theft Auto IV was back in 2008. The previous game, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, had released to massive acclaim just 4 years prior. With the power of the newly released Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, fans were eager to see if Grand Theft Auto IV could push the envelope even further.
April 29, 2008 was more than just a random springtime Tuesday, as nearly every gamer was enamored with Grand Theft Auto IV. After spending hours waiting in line at a local video game shop for the midnight release, sick days aplenty were called in by gamers who couldn’t wait until after work or school to dive in. For weeks on end, Grand Theft Auto IV was the hot topic of conversation, leading pop culture at large. While previous Grand Theft Auto games had seen high success, Grand Theft Auto IV launched to exceptional buzz and anticipation.
Niko Bellic Braves Liberty City
From the very first cutscene onward, it’s obvious that Grand Theft Auto IV sets out to accomplish something different than its predecessors. Unlike the somewhat goofy and outlandish plot of games like GTA: Vice City or San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV was firmly serious. Intended to start a new chapter for the franchise, dubbed the “HD universe” by developer Rockstar, GTA IV juggled heavy themes like war, immigration, loyalty, and “the American dream”.
Viewed through the eyes of protagonist Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who moves to Liberty City looking for a new life, the narrative is full of tough breaks and betrayal. It’s also a story with some tough choices, and for the first time in Grand Theft Auto history, the player has a say in the outcome of events. Various points in the story present the player with moral dilemmas, often involving sparing or killing various characters. While these choices don’t have a huge impact on the story at large, they still act as a powerful way of introducing player choice into the narrative.
Despite the generally serious nature of the story, Grand Theft Auto IV still offers levity and humor where applicable. Niko is surrounded by a cast of personable characters, including his goofy cousin Roman, the always-smoking Lil Jacob, gym rat Brucie, and more. Random encounters on the street also result in a few eccentric story beats, including a serial killer lurking the streets of Liberty City, and much more. Arguably better than any GTA game before it, Grand Theft Auto IV successfully blended memorable characters with a believable, immersive world.
How GTA IV Changed the Game
Grand Theft Auto IV wasn’t content with simply centering on a more grounded story, as the game essentially shook up every major mechanic, including driving, combat, and general exploration. In line with the vibe of the narrative, everything is more realistic. This is immediately apparent when you hop into a car for the first time, as automobiles are weighty and take a careful hand to properly control. In GTA IV, the car you choose to steal might make the difference in a high-speed getaway, encouraging you to learn the ins and outs of each potential getaway vehicle.
Shooting controls are also very different, and in my opinion, over major improvements over previous entries. Grand Theft Auto IV introduces a handy lock-on feature, making it easier to acquire and down targets with speed. A new cover system lets you duck behind cars, blockades, and other obstacles, adding a bit of strategy to every gunfight. Of course, these mechanics are clunky at times, but are a godsend when the situation grows dire and your ammo count runs low.
It’s also easy to understate just how much stuff there is to do in GTA IV‘s Liberty City. There are a slew of mini-games and side activities to occupy your time, including bowling, darts, or even a leisurely helicopter ride. You can browse a faux internet at the computer cafe, take potential dates out to dinner, or spend an afternoon at the pier carnival. Easter eggs and fun references litter the map as well, ensuring that the most thorough explorers will find satisfying rewards. Also, thanks to the advent of online multiplayer, up to 32 players could occupy the streets at once, using Liberty City as their personal playground.
The Legacy of GTA IV
In short, Rockstar came up with a risky plan for Grand Theft Auto IV and ran with it. They stuck to a vision, one that promoted realism and immersion over cartoony chaos, and it worked. While not every aspect of the game is perfect, Grand Theft Auto IV blew open the gates for the masterpiece-level games that followed.
Without GTA IV‘s somewhat scuffed online multiplayer, Grand Theft Auto V Online wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is today. Likewise, the incredible detail and realism of Red Dead Redemption II owes a lot to GTA IV. Even though the late 2000s were a time of immense growth in gaming, with great new ideas popping up at unbelievable rates, Grand Theft Auto IV stood out as a giant sequel that dared to try something new while simultaneously sticking to its roots.