While some might consider GTA 5 to be the current pinnacle of the Grand Theft Auto series, a case can be made for GTA 4 being more deserving of that title. Released in 2008, the game set a new benchmark for open-world design, creating a template that many others still follow today.
One could even argue that there wouldn’t be a GTA 5 or Red Dead Redemption 2 if GTA 4 hadn’t paved the way. Not only did it manage to outdo most open-world game that preceded it, but it also continues to outshine some of the genre’s finest entries after all these years. Here are just a few reasons why that is the case.
5 A Living, Breathing Open World
When players first set foot into Liberty City in GTA 4, it was clear that Rockstar had gone the extra mile to make its latest sandbox as accurate a representation of New York City as possible. This can be seen in everything from the lifelike pedestrians going about their day-to-day activities, to the towering buildings that make up the city’s skyline.
This of course wasn’t the first time Rockstar had built a believable city for players to mess around in. But it was a refinement of everything it had done up to that point, and the first one to be powered by RAGE, a proprietary game engine that helped bring the city to life with a host of modern rendering techniques. It also wasn’t its biggest open world, a distinction that was held by the massive Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. But what GTA 4 lacks in overall size when compared to San Andreas it more than makes up for in sheer density.
4 A Realistic Physics Engine
The Rockstar Advanced Game Engine not only delivered cutting-edge visuals in GTA 4 but also some of the best simulations of physics featured in an open-world game. This was paired with the Euphoria animation engine to ensure that every single person and object within the game, from the main character to street lamps, moved and felt like they had weight to them.
This impacted everything from the way pedestrians staggered around when you shoved them, to the way cars handled when driving at top speed. The physics was so extensive that it was normal for your character to get thrown out of the vehicle during crashes, resulting in some very over-the-top and often comical deaths. That was pared back considerably for GTA 5 and every subsequent Rockstar game making use of the engine since then, which is why GTA 4 still serves as a showcase for the full capabilities of RAGE in action.
3 An Engaging Story
Prior to Grand Theft Auto 4, the stories in GTA games had been serviceable at best. They were modeled after well-known movies like Scarface and Boyz N the Hood, and as such conformed to all the expected tropes and stereotypes. This meant they typically centered upon a main character’s rise to power while accumulating fame and fortune in a crime-ridden city.
But for GTA 4, the writing duo of Dan Houser and Rupert Humphries had sought to explore something a bit more profound, namely the immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of an ex-soldier from Eastern Europe in pursuit of the American dream. This immediately lends the game a grittier take on American culture than what had been shown in previous entries in the series. It still included a lot of the satire GTA games are known for, except none of that got in the way or threatened to overshadow its story.
2 A Cast Of Memorable Characters
Speaking of the story in GTA 4, the game’s plot wouldn’t be anywhere as compelling as it is if it wasn’t populated with a cast of memorable characters. Niko Bellic is unlike any other GTA protagonist since he is just as ruthless as he is endearing. The same thing can be said about his cousin, Roman, whose incessant requests to “go bowling” managed to attain meme status.
And this extended to other side characters like Little Jacob and Brucie, and the main antagonist Dimitri Rascalov. These were larger-than-life characters that didn’t feel like the typical stereotypes and caricatures that occupy other open-world games of this nature. Each one was fully fleshed-out with clear-cut motives and realistic character traits, brought to life through a combination of competent writing and great voice acting.
1 Great Single-Player DLC
One of the best things about GTA 4 is the fact that the story didn’t end with Niko Bellic’s exploits in Liberty City. This was because two single-player expansions were released for the game in 2009, first as timed exclusives on the Xbox 360, but eventually also making their way onto the PlayStation 3 and PC.
The first of these was called The Lost and Damned, and it centered upon The Lost MC, a biker gang operating within Liberty City. It had players taking control of Johnny Klebtiz, one of its members who gets caught up in a conflict with their leader. The second was called The Ballad of Gay Tony, and it had players playing as a bodyguard named Luis, who must help an eponymous nightclub owner overcome numerous challenges to their business and livelihood. Both expansions made use of the same map in the main campaign but still functioned as standalone adventures in their own right.