When looking at any series in media, people have strong opinions as to which installments are best and which are the worse. In film, it is the general consensus, amongst fans and critics alike, that the third installment of the Godfather trilogy is the weakest. In music, artists often have one album which, through commercial and critical acclaim, eclipses everything else in their back catalogue – such as Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and R.E.M’s Automatic for the People, to name but a few. In gaming, the question of which Grand Theft Auto game is best is a highly contentious one, and while most 3D titles in the main series – Vice City, San Andreas and GTA V -are considered viable candidates, no installment has been received with the as much ire, negativity and fan backlash as GTA IV.
Criticised for, among other things, its dark lighting, more subdued missions and slower vehicle handling, what GTA IV represented above all else was a sharp turning point in the series, a shift from the neon satire of Vice City and the jet-pack flying over-the-top action of San Andreas to a more gritty, melancholic drama. The rainy, dirty streets of New York-inspired Liberty City embodies protagonist Niko Belic’s story, a recent immigrant and veteran of the Balkan Wars whose personal demons are worsened by his relapse into a life of violent crime. It was a shift which divided fans; some praised the bold shift to a more serious tone, while others lamented the more serious vibe and toned-down gameplay. For me, GTA IV’s tone stripped back gameplay and more personable story not only made for the most cohesive and immersive game in the series, but one of the greatest video games ever made.
The beauty of this argument is that the elements of GTA IV levelled against it by detractors are also seen as strengths by those who hold it in high regards. The aforementioned story, with its more serious feel, is one of many divisive elements of the game. For me, if I’m going to invest 20-plus hours into a story, in any medium, my preference would be for an engrossing drama, with a great cast of characters and a sharp script which can be both witty and intense. GTA IV ticks all these boxes; Niko’s supporting cast often outshines the star of the game (which is no mean feat), for comic relief there is his overly-optimistic cousin Roman, and Brucie, the steroid taking bodybuilder. On the more serious side are the legit gangsters like Ray Boccino and Gerald McGreary; more stoic and prone to violence but still hilarious in their own way. All of these characters are expertly voiced and have genuinely brilliant dialogue to work with, embodying GTA IV’s balance between the series’ humourous inclinations and the depressing reality of the unfolding narrative of crime, death and betrayal.
Speaking of the story, it is, for my money one of the best in gaming. Niko’s past is constantly referenced through conversations with friends and the appearance of people from his past criminality in the Adriatic, as you progress, you learn more about all the games major players, as employees begin to trust you, friends begin to rely on you and love interests begin to fall for you. It’s not as blunt as Trevor’s psychosis, CJ’s gangbanging backstory or Tommy Vercetti’s Tony Montana posturing; the story of Niko and those in Liberty City is more subtle and understated, but also more interesting and rewarding.
The gameplay correlates with the feeling of the story; driving is slower but more realistic and combat is basic but challenging, with counter-punching being a necessity if you want to win hand-to-hand. The aiming and covering mechanics introduced in GTA IV fixes one of the series’ most galling faults, and while it isn’t quite as smooth as GTA V (you also don’t have the same arsenal of guns or customisation options), for a glorified street criminal engaging in street shootouts the weapons are more than sufficient. All of this is implemented across one of the most well-paced games I’ve ever played, the way the story unfolds, introducing new characters with new missions demanding more of Niko’s time and services across the game’s three islands, which are accessible as you progress through the campaign, manages to keep the player constantly interested, encouraging them to play more without showing all its cards too early; that it manages to maintain this level of intrigue consistently all the way to the game’s conclusion is an epic achievement rarely seen in gaming, particularly a game of this length (the only title that comes to mind which could rival GTA IV’s pacing is Resident Evil 4).
Add to all these elements a host of easter eggs, a full phonebook of potential friends with whom Niko can engage in activities with, and side missions and you have the games other x-factor which distinguishes it from the competition: immersion. GTA IV feels like a living, breathing city, taking control of Niko is like stepping into the shoes of a real man with real troubles and real emotions. Some may be annoyed by late night phone calls from cousin Roman to go drinking, but it’s moments like these – and the intimate banter which reveals secrets about the game’s cast – that set GTA IV apart. GTA IV is more than an action game, more than a third person shooter, more than a great story with great characters; it’s an immersive experience, one which is unparalleled by few, if any, other games made before or since. GTA IV held the highest aggregate Metacritic score for a reason: it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the hype surrounding what was then the biggest game in the world up until that point, it was a gut reaction to one of the most well-crafted pieces of art in the medium.