Launched in 2008, "Grand Theft Auto 4" brought players back to the narrow streets and dimly lit cityscape that is Liberty City — this time in full HD. It proved to be a remarkable leap forward, leveraging Rockstar’s sparkly new RAGE engine for improved physics and graphical fidelity.
Although it raked in multitudes of perfect scores, still sitting at a 98 Metacritic score to date, "GTA 4" lives on as a relatively overrated experience in the minds of most gamers. Shoddy driving, insane (often even otherworldly) physics, and a darker tone all prove to leave some rather disappointed with the first HD iteration of Liberty City.
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And yet, its tendrils can still be felt to this day, evoking in hilarious ways a cultural shift as the world of New York City and beyond became ever-more reliant on modern technologies, like the cell phone, internet blogs, and directional GPS. It’s a shining beacon of times long past and, despite its age, remains one of my personal favorites in the franchise.
Over the past several months, I’ve been replaying "GTA 4" on PS3 (as we still don’t have a remaster), retreading the dark and gloomy atmosphere of Rockstar’s very first foray into HD worldbuilding. All the while, I can’t help but think of the ways "Grand Theft Auto 6," the franchise’s 12th installment and Rockstar’s next major hit, could benefit from using some elements that made its predecessor so unforgettable.
A darkness all its own
Rockstar took a dramatic turn with the storytelling, atmosphere, and even the combat in "GTA 4." Unlike previous games, which were often a bit too cartoonish and relatively easy to beat, "GTA 4" was a world of difference. It featured the dark and gloomy setting of Liberty City with an ex-military Eastern European protagonist looking for an escape from his own dark past.
Much of the story of "GTA 4" revolves around Niko and his cousin, Roman, as they attempt to make a life for themselves in a city rocked by terrorism, corruption, and ever-rising crime rates. Despite leaving his homeland for a better future in America, Niko is instead thrust back into a life of violence and murder.
In stark contrast to its sequel and its predecessors, "GTA 4" would leave its players with a paltry $700,000 in its final act, a measly sum compared to the potential $1 billion players could get at the end of "GTA 5." It’s owed to the underlying premise of the story, which Rockstar itself deemed to be a “rags to slightly better rags” tale, a gritty and more realistic portrayal of life in the big city.
Even "GTA 4’s" combat was more difficult. You might have a larger health bar, but damage was dialed up to 11 and gun fights were made all the more harrowing with blurred vision effects when changing targets and a limited arsenal compared to previous games.
The game’s ragdoll physics were a major plus too, allowing Niko to automatically push and run into pedestrians, often shoving them to the ground with dramatic (and hilarious) effect. This also made deaths, whether it be Niko or NPCs, that much more life-like.
This built-in realism and gritty narrative is what makes "GTA 4" so special and, although it might not have the same tight-knit city best suited for such a true-to-life digital world, "GTA 6" definitely should take notice with its own dark narrative elements, difficult combat, and more realistic animations.
As Rockstar’s RAGE engine reaches its ninth version, with many claiming it now to be superior than even Unreal Engine 5, it’s a safe bet that "GTA 6" will have quite the realism baked in and its first trailer certainly attests to that.
To combat its overriding darkness, "GTA 4" provides a slew of supporting characters and activities as a bit of levity. It might have turned into a running gag, with Roman’s constant calls to go bowling now forever immortalized as a meme, but I do miss that emphasis on friendships and relationships, which I found was sorely lacking in "GTA 5."
When taking characters out on the town, players are greeted with some awesome dialogue that wouldn’t be heard otherwise. Great examples include Little Jacob, Dwayne, and even Packie, all of whom gift the player deeper insights into the story and where their true motives lie.
Minigames like bowling, pool, and darts (the latter of which being the only one to make it into "GTA 5"), similarly offered up an escape from the downtrodden Liberty City streets and constant death hanging over Niko’s story.
While I’m sure "GTA 6" will have its own slew of enticing mini-games, many of which being Florida parodies, I do hope that we can take friends and acquaintances out to these spots for a bit of fun when not joyriding through pedestrians across Vice Beach. Nothing beats a bit of bowling with Roman to quell the overriding sadness plaguing "GTA 4’s" story, and I hope similar beats of joy can be felt in "GTA 6."
Single Player DLC
Although "GTA 4" did have its own online mode (one that many still claim is far superior to the current version), "GTA Online" sparked a whole new way for Rockstar to monetize its player base. Sure, the game sold over 16 million units in less than a week, which generated about $1.15 billion for Rockstar, but its online portion proved to be even more profitable, with daily revenue estimated at $2.5 million.
Given this momentous success, ensuring that "GTA 5" became the most profitable entertainment product of all time, the game would unfortunately lose out on some incredible single-player DLCs. With stories now coming out of multiple canned projects, one of which even containing a modern Liberty City map, many are hoping that "GTA 6" won’t miss out on similar updates in its future lifespan.
While it can’t all be blamed on "GTA Online," as the studio was in the process of building "Red Dead Redemption 2" as well, it’s still sad that "GTA 5" didn’t get the same love "GTA 4" did with such awesome updates like "The Lost and the Damned" and "The Ballad of Gay Tony."
Both offered players completely new protagonists to follow with dual stories that blended together, helping to shape a full picture of Liberty City and the intertwining lives of its inhabitants. Despite its massive size, Liberty City proved to be incredibly tight-knit as random characters came together in the most interesting ways.
"GTA 6" and all of its Florida Man glory will hopefully have similar interactions. As opposed to "GTA 5" (and "GTA 4" if you count its DLCs), the next "GTA" game will follow only two protagonists, Jason and Lucia. Maybe a forthcoming DLC could introduce a whole new character, one we meet in the main game, that offers an enticing new perspective on Vice City — and, hopefully, beyond, with additions like Liberty City, Las Venturas, and more joining the setlist later into its existence.
With "Grand Theft Auto 6" not slated for release until 2025, fans have quite a long wait ahead of them. At least there’s more than enough content to satiate the masses, with the "GTA Definitive Edition" hitting Netflix and a full port of "Red Dead Redemption" now available on modern consoles.
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Ryan Epps is a Staff Writer under the TV/AV section at Tom's Guide focusing on TVs and projectors. When not researching PHOLEDs and writing about the next major innovation in the projector space, he's consuming random anime from the 90's, playing Dark Souls 3 again, or reading yet another Haruki Murakami novel.