You can go several hours in Grand Theft Auto IV before you get a gun. Soon after that, you’re blasting your way through shootouts with SWAT teams. But for those first few hours, you’re just some guy in Brooklyn, trying to make a new life.
I’ve been replaying GTA IV, which came out nine years ago this month. I’ve been struck by how it feels dated and fresh at the same time. Its more archaic elements sit in sharp relief to its comparatively slick follow-up Grand Theft Auto V, of which I’ve played hundreds of hours. How small and crowded and oddly orange GTA IV seems by comparison! The jumbly cars, lurching along on their pogo-stick suspensions. The soundtrack, full of Slavic rap and Latin jams that I still can’t call out by name. The jabbering radio shows, with their Bush-era fixation on Fox News, obesity, and the war on terror. The drab fashion, the dour populace, the unflattering clothes. And at the center of it all, Niko Bellic, an awkward middle-aged guy who made the mistake of moving to a new country to try for a better life.
It took me the better part of an evening to get GTA IV working on my PC. (Rockstar and Take-Two should be embarrassed by the current buggy, crash-prone state of GTA IV on PC. Come on, guys.) Once I got it up and running, I quickly instituted my tried-and-true preferred method of playing, which I documented way back when I started at Kotaku in 2011. No minimap. No HUD. I’d use my memory of Broker (GTA’s Brooklyn) to get around, stealing cars with audible GPS systems when possible. “In 100 yards, turn left. *Bing!*”
Cousin Roman met Niko at the docks and we drove to his apartment. Cousin Roman had said he’d hit it big in America. He hadn’t. Niko learned about his cousin’s lies, got angry, then went to bed. In the morning, Roman went to work and I was free to walk around Broker.
The nostalgia is strong with this one, and GTA IV takes me back to a specific time in my life. I’m still in my 20s, and just got back into video games. I’m living in a town I’ve since left behind, pursuing a career in music that’s now suspended in cryo-sleep. I’m playing GTA IV on a post-red-ring Xbox 360, and this game is more than I can handle. I spent the first ten hours overwhelmed by the possibilities. What could I do? What couldn’t I do? I had no idea.
I still remember that feeling now, years later, though in the intervening time I’ve broken down and catalogued everything in GTA IV a dozen times over. Its limitations, of which there are many, are now evident to me upon a cursory examination. Liberty City is tiny, and Broker is a tiny slice of it. There are only a handful of cars in the game, and only a handful of civilians walking around. Car chases end almost as soon as they begin, and I can get from Niko’s apartment up to Michelle’s place on Mohawk Avenue in seconds. I never get lost, but I still remember how I used to.
More so than most of its contemporaries, GTA IV went to great pains to place the player inside its world, even when it was inconvenient. To replenish your health, you walked up to a street vendor and ordered a hot dog. To shop for clothes, you walked over to the store rack with the item you wanted and selected it. In-game communications were handled through Niko’s ancient-looking cell phone, a now-widely adopted interface that was groundbreaking at the time. To fast-travel, you had to first catch a cab, then select your destination, then pay extra to warp there. Back in 2008, I was usually content to simply sit in the back of the cab and watch the city roll by.
I remember Niko and Roman’s neighborhood of Hove Beach like I remember places I’ve actually lived. Here I am, standing in the shadow of the elevated train tracks. Roman’s apartment is to my left. A hot dog vendor is across the street. The roller coasters and bowling alley (a.k.a. the “fun-fair”) are off behind me. There’s a diner up ahead, just past the clothing shop. Roman’s cab depot is around the corner, in view of the water. A police car sits up and to my right, unattended. I could break the window and grab a shotgun, then escape before the cops could catch me. I don’t want to, though. I like not having a gun.
Each of GTA IV’s opening missions is a tutorial. The game’s designers are determined to ease you in. First you drive a car. Then you drive a car, park, use your cell phone to warn Roman of some bad guys, then make your escape. Then you pick someone up, honking your horn to attract their attention. A girl named Michelle gives you her number. As you’re on your way to take her on a date, Roman calls you, desperate. You’re given a choice—go on your date, or go help Roman. That sort of choice played a bigger role in GTA IV than I remembered, and in retrospect feels more deliberately woven into the game than any of the narrative branches in GTA V.
The tutorials continue. You get in a fistfight protecting Roman, then chase a guy in a car. You fight a guy who’s got a knife. You take Michelle bowling. (Michelle, who will eventually reveal herself as an undercover fed, is terrible at her job. The first thing she does is text you and ask if you’re involved in any criminal activity.) After your date you drive one of Roman’s criminal friends around and get in your first story-sanctioned police chase. The game shows you how to lose the cops. After that, finally, you pick up Little Jacob and he gives you a gun.
GTA IV’s first gunfight is low-key, as gunfights go. You climb up to a platform overlooking an alleyway. A trio of dudes arrives to ambush your friend Jacob. You’ve got the angle, so shooting them is easy. The controls and aiming feel awkward compared with other modern games, particularly any time the reticle stiffens up or recenters itself without your input. A twist! A fourth guy comes out on the roof to your left. You shoot him. It’s not very dramatic; he just sort of dies. You drive Jacob to a bar and drop him off.
Things get more involved from there. Vlad sends you to kill a guy, but you can elect not to. Vlad then insults Roman’s girlfriend Mallory one too many times, and Niko decides he’s had enough. The first act ends in a dramatic shootout in Vlad’s bar. After killing a dozen or more of his goons, you chase Vlad through Broker and execute him.
All of that takes place within the space of a few blocks. With Vlad dead, the game expands not just mechanically, but geographically. You get involved with more powerful gangsters, including Vlad’s boss Mikhail Faustin. You head up north to Dukes/Queens and take jobs from a couple new people up there. You start dating a new woman. And at long last, the government lowers the terror alert level and you’re free to drive across the river into Algonquin/Manhattan. The first time I played, I remember champing at the bit to get into Algonquin. Now, Algonquin is where I start to lose interest.
Sometimes I imagine a version of GTA IV that never advances past that opening act. You spend a while getting to know Broker, doing odd jobs, and hanging out with Roman and his friends. Then Niko gets home after his encounter with Little Jacob and finds a police officer waiting for him. A witness wrote down his license plate, maybe. Niko gets carted off in handcuffs, soon to be tossed in jail or, more likely, deported. And that’s the story of GTA IV. A guy arrives in a city hoping for a new start, but it never materializes. He blows his shot. The end.
Can you imagine that game? The bustling metropolis of downtown Liberty City, painstakingly crafted but forever out of reach. Instead of one immigrant’s rise to the heights of underworld power, we’d get the story of a guy in a small neighborhood who never even makes it to Manhattan. I wouldn’t want that game instead of GTA IV, but I do kinda want to play it.
Each time I return to GTA IV, I want to leave Hove Beach less and less. I know I’ll never feel more immersed and attached than I do in those opening hours. Nowhere else in GTA IV feels as real or familiar to me as Hove Beach. Nowhere in GTA V does, either. For all of the newer game’s candy-coated indulgences and technical wizardry, it never matched its predecessor’s powerful sense of place.
The farther I get from Grand Theft Auto IV, the more I appreciate it for what it was. Bigger and faster are not necessarily better. The bright lights of the city can wait.