This month marks the 10 year anniversary of GTA IV’s release. The last time I visited the grimy streets of Liberty City was in 2013, a few hours before the launch of GTA V. Now in 2018 I decided to take a break from the sunny beaches of Los Santos and head back to the east coast. Would I remember my way around the city? Was anybody still there? Would anybody wanna go bowling?
Thanks to the fantastic backward compatibility feature on the Xbox One, I was able to easily return to GTA IV. I jumped into a free roam lobby and was surprised to see a half dozen other players running around Liberty City—more specifically, the airport. Anyone who played GTA IV free roam enough knows that eventually everybody ends up at the airport. Even when playing with friends, we would always somehow find our way back to the airport. The airport is a popular spot because you can steal some of the helicopters, drive around the long runways, steal some of the cars in the parking lot—I could go on. In the past my friends and I would use the dirt track there as a rally course, taking different cars around it and seeing which was fastest.
After getting killed a few times by a jerk in a helicopter, I decided to leave. I had a whole city to explore again, after all. But as I left something strange happened. Another played drove by me in the parking lot and didn’t shoot me or blow me up. All the years in GTA Online have taught me that other players are always ready to kill you. But in GTA IV multiplayer things are different. There really isn’t a reason to kill other players. You don’t get money or level up or finish a mission. So most players are relaxed and non-violent. The one jerk I encountered who kept killing other people? The other folks kicked him out after a few minutes. It’s a totally different vibe.
I wanted to head back to all the different spots in Liberty City that my friends and I would visit regularly. First up, the hidden rally car in Northern Alderney. GTA IV multiplayer didn’t have cars you bought or upgraded. So getting a new car was all about knowing where they spawned or what areas of the city had super cars, muscle cars, etc. You got to know the city in a different way.
With my new car I was now ready to hit other popular spots in Liberty City. I visited the creepy baby stroller beach, which as the name implies is a beachy area where a lone baby stroller spawns. There aren’t any kids or babies in GTA IV, by the way. I also visited the broken roller coaster, my favorite skatepark, the Statue of Happiness, one of the glitchy tugboats. Some of my favorite spots are places where you can have a good firefight against the police. Other spots, I remember fondly because of the spawns—like the helicopter dock.
And yes, I did also return to the infamous and amazing swing set of death. I’m happy to report, the beloved glitch is still alive a decade later.
I visited a demolition derby arena, or at least that’s what we used it for. I remember in the past we would join random lobbies and ask people to come to our location to participate in some car smashing action. And nearly every time people would show up in different cars, ready to go. Nobody would nuke us or troll us with a helicopter, as they do in GTA Online. The community was different back then, more open and willing to play around with randos.
(An old GTA IV video showing people in the demo derby area.)
Part of the reason the community is more laid-back and well-behaved is that GTA IV free roam doesn’t have much to do that is actively gamified. There weren’t any missions or races to join in free roam, all that stuff was in separate modes. You couldn’t smuggle drugs or level up. All players had was Liberty City, some vehicles, other players and their imagination. So if somebody was doing something fun or interesting, people would often join in.
One of the best parts of GTA IV multiplayer and something I still miss to this day is the ability for players to change the settings of public lobbies. For example, the server I was in had police turned off. So I was surprised when I suddenly heard sirens behind me. I looked behind me and saw another player in a police car. I decided to play along and pulled over. They stopped behind me and then after a minute or two drove away. I guess I got a warning.
Later, I was driving around recklessly and the same player in their police car found me and this time I didn’t pull over. Suddenly, I was in a hot pursuit with a random player who was roleplaying as a cop. Eventually my car careened into traffic and I crashed. But I was near a bar I remembered was enterable. So I quickly ran in. Outside I heard sirens and a car door open. I shot at the bar door and a moment later shotgun shells ripped though it from the other side. Another moment passed and the player chasing me rolled in and shot me in the face. After spawning nearby, I watched the cop slowly drive by me, heading back to their patrol of Liberty City. I sent a message to the player, but never got a reply. Maybe they are still cruising the quiet streets of Liberty City, waiting for crime.
These moments just don’t happen in GTA Online. I miss the way the community would play together more in GTA IV. One time during my recent session, I had players randomly jump into my car while I explored. One player would direct the car by shooting in the direction they wanted to head in. Of course, we ended up at the airport. Liberty City also rewarded players for exploring. Finding a fast car or an RPG helped kill other players or take on the cops. And because there wasn’t anything to actually do in free roam, players had to work together to find the fun.
I’m glad Rockstar added more to do in GTA Online. But a decade later, visiting GTA IV has reminded me that there is something great about its more simple and quiet multiplayer.
Zack Zwiezen is a a writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. He has written for Gamecritics, Killscreen and Entertainment Fuse.