You've Been Playing GTA IV Wrong

When Grand Theft Auto IV came out, I was swept away. The scope, depth and scale of the game were almost too much to take in. It seemed like a game in which anything was possible, like a parallel reality, re-created.

Three years, two expansions, and countless hours of vehicular manslaughter have provided some much-needed perspective. These days criticisms abound, from sluggish controls and a finicky camera to inconsistent characterisation and bloated plotting. But of all of Grand Theft Auto (and indeed, Red Dead Redemption)'s issues, one is perhaps the most overlooked: The crummy, distracting mini-map.

That icon-strewn circle in the lower-left corner of the screen is a Rockstar perennial; one could even call it a defining feature of their games. In the real world, have you ever walked down an unfamiliar street while consulting your phone's GPS? You're wandering along, intently following the progress of the little blue arrow on the screen, until you trip over a curb and finally look around, at long last getting a sense of where you are actually standing. Hey, there's a world out here!

Returning to GTA IV after a few months away, I realised that more often than not, my eyes were all but glued to that circle in the corner of the screen. I'd be driving through Broker and would find myself following the coloured lines on the mini-map so carefully that I wasn't even looking where I was going. A high-speed chase would be difficult not only because of flying pedestrians and hairpin turns, but also because of the intense eyeball-acrobatics required to quickly move between the mini-map to the road.

The mini-map's effect on combat is even more pronounced. Enemies turn up as large red dots, and what would have been a tense standoff becomes more of an exercise in dot-removal whack-a-mole. How many enemies are left? Hmm, why not just check my map! Oh, there are three! Blam. Blam. Two down! Hmm, I see the last guy must be hiding in that aeroplane hangar! Better go kill him. Blam.

Don't get me wrong — I had plenty of fun with GTA IV's cover-based combat. But imagine if the (vastly superior, I would argue) combat in shooters like Gears of War or Far Cry 2 had been aided by a mini-map that helpfully pinpointed every enemy's location. The tense thrill of combat would be neutered, and the game would suffer hugely as a result.

My eyes were open, my ears perked. A GTA IV shootout had me genuinely engaged for the first time in ages.

As an experiment, I tried loading up GTA IV and turning off the HUD and mini-map completely. I found that it made the game significantly more immersive, engaging, difficult and fun. It didn't quite feel "optimal", and at times the shift was pretty extreme, but all the same I recommend that fans of GTA IV give it a shot.

The first thing I noticed was that without the map, I was forced to learn my way around Liberty City. But what I also found was that doing so wasn't actually that hard! Whenever I'd get in a car to head to a new destination, I'd check the map in the pause menu. "Hmm, OK, I have to get to the upper west-side of Algonquin, near the [email protected]" (Side note: Yes, these are sorts of sentences this game encourages us to speak aloud.) Once I knew my destination, I drove as I would in a real city — following familiar routes in the general direction of my goal.

Liberty City is laid out with such artfulness that it's easy to discern one's location simply by looking around. There's always a landmark, bridge or body of water visible, and after spending an hour or so getting my bearings in each new neighbourhood, I found that I could very easily get around. And while doing so, I was able to get my eyes up and really take in the game's strongest feature: its brilliant setting.

Another thing I noticed was that the talking GPS included in many of GTA IV's higher-end cars actually became useful. With the mini-map turned on, that computer-y "At the next intersection, turn right" notification always felt woefully behind-the-times and almost entirely useless. But with the mini-map off, I actually found the GPS system to be a huge help and eventually came to rely on it to get me where I was going. I found myself hunting down cars that I knew would have a GPS, which added an enjoyable layer to GTA IV's carjackings. Decisions, decisions...

L.A. Noire actually implemented a similar mechanic into its partner system; it was possible to have my partner call out the turns I needed to make, freeing me up to take in the sights and sounds of the game's meticulously re-created Los Angeles. Whether that was Rockstar or Team Bondi's influence, it's a promising development.

More striking was how much more exciting combat became: wildly intense, visceral, and a bit terrifying. With no map and no HUD, the game's first large-scale shootout in Vlad's bar was as intense as the culminating sequence of a big-budget crime film. Walking into Comrade's, I felt as wired as Michael Corleone sitting down at the restaurant table on that fateful night in The Godfather. When Niko drew down, gunfire erupted with great chaos and bloodshed. In the immediate aftermath, Niko crouched behind a table as I wondered if the coast was clear. Was the armed bartender still crouching back there, waiting? Had I taken him out, or only clipped him?

My eyes were open, my ears perked. A GTA IV shootout had me genuinely engaged for the first time in ages. Suddenly, the goon popped up from behind the bar and let off a few rounds, and with a roar, Niko ripped a few shotgun blasts into his chest, dissolving a section of the bar into a cloud of blood-stained, broken glass. The coast looked clear, but I could hear another thug waiting for me outside the door. Shotgun at the ready, I slowly made my way to the door, pulse racing, bracing for what was on the other side.

Had I played through that section with the mini-map turned on, the entire thing would have been a mechanical exercise: checking the screen, seeing where the enemies are, fearlessly clearing them out one at a time. Turning off the map and HUD evoked nothing so much as the flawed yet underrated Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. Despite a raft of frustrating design decisions and some spectacularly grating lead characters, that game recreated the visceral, chaotic thrill of urban combat in a way I'd previously never encountered.

I'll admit that wiping out all of GTA IV's on-screen prompts is a bit extreme. It makes the game much more difficult, particularly in later missions — as it turns out, clearing an entire apartment complex of drug dealers and then escaping a three-star wanted level is pretty difficult without any mini-map advantages! The approach also took some discipline — I'd been hard-wired to expect to play a GTA game a certain way, and it took a few hours to break free of that conditioning.

Create an entirely different kind of Liberty City Experience. Pause the game. In the Display menu, set the Subtitles, Radar and HUD to "Off". In the Controls menu, set Auto-Aiming to "Off". Back in the game, press the back/select button until the camera is zoomed all the way up to Niko's shoulder. Continue your adventures in Liberty City distraction-free. (it's particularly cool to start a brand-new game with this approach.)

Since GTA IV's launch in 2008, many games have experimented with eliminating HUD-clutter, often with successful results. One of Dead Space's most interesting design decisions was the elimination of the HUD, a trick that made the game much more immersive and terrifying than the comparatively cluttered Resident Evil 5. And Rockstar's own Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars showed that it was possible to overlay a GPS route directly into the game without interfering with a player's view, finally eliminating the need to go back and forth from the mini-map to the game screen. Something similar could certainly work in a 3D Grand Theft Auto.

As Rockstar works on Grand Theft Auto V, they would do well to further re-tool their onscreen interface. The best solution would involve a high degree of customizability; perhaps a thumbstick that can bring up the mini-map for only a moment, or the option to turn off enemy locations on the map. With a more organic, less-intrusive system in place, GTA V's open world (rumoured to be Los Santos) will become far more immersive. And perhaps more vitally, combat will be much closer to the third-person cover-shooters that GTA IV is emulating.

Other changes would be necessary as well, starting with an overhaul of GTA IV's sluggish, much-derided on-foot controls. Given the sharp gameplay improvements that Rockstar San Diego's Red Dead Redemption showed over GTA IV, it seems safe to say that Rockstar North will be making further refinements to their next mega-release.

But it'll be a little while before GTA V comes out. In the meantime, try firing up Niko's big adventure, turning off the mini-map, and losing yourself in Liberty City all over again.


Comments

    I remember turning off my GPS so that I would learn the city (and shortcuts!) rather than following the coloured line.

      I too removed the GPS line so I could learn the map a bit better, I had friends that caught taxis everywhere and had no knowledge of the map.

    The option has always been there to play it this way - better for Rockstar to include it and cater to all levels of gamer.
    This is just a bloated piece on the author realising he is more "hardcore" (hate that word) than he thought he was...

      His blaming of the minimap for not being able to enjoy GTA IV is a bit much for me to stomach.

        Wow, harsh criticisms here. He didn't once state that he failed to enjoy the game because of the minimap. He didn't start harping on about how only idiots use the default GUI. You guys seem to need to lighten up; I for one appreciate more expression about playing games, how best to enjoy them, and how other people experienced something so subjective as a game.

        You guys have both entirely missed the point.

          wait...I said what?

    I love wandering around Liberty City... its only because that this game has the worst car physics of any game, At high speed the Banshee is the worst offender even the smallest twitch makes the car spin, people on forums have told me that in GTA IV its not about going fast in cars because of the city landscape and i politely tell them to fornicate themselves with a sharp object because it's Grand Theft Auto.

    I miss the wide expansive world of San Andreas and i cant wait for the SA mod to be released, i will probably spend more time in that then the original.

      Same here. I hate trying to drive on eggshells in GTAIV when I was used to high-speed chases being a regular part of play sessions in all the previous games. In GTAIV it's almost suicidal to hold the accelerator for more than half a second in any situation.

      Don't even get me started on the seemingly random 'fly out of the windshield' algorithm that game likes to use :-P

        @aerin
        It's not random..
        it's a hilarious punishment for being a shit driver.
        solution:
        stop crashing into things.
        I find the driving in gta4 much more rewarding and satisfying than the previous games.

      yeah i dunno what your problem is but i can speed in banshees or any car for massive distances weaving in and out, its only the occasional taxi pulling into the intersection, or bump in the road that screws me up. very fun driving, nice change from playing GT5 :P

    This was a nice article. Maybe I'll try playing my next open-world game mapless. Assassins' Creed sans minimap sounds pretty fun, actually.

      Good idea, actually. I'm not sure if it can be turned off, though.

    I actually started playing without the map on my second play through of the game. Totally agree it adds a lot more immersion, fun and realism. Removing the hud doesn't work for all games (and often isn't even an option), but is definitely worth testing out. I also like how you can customise the hud in gta to only display certain elements.

    Personally I just ignored the minimap but then I've played GTA4 so much I don't need it anymore

    I think its a different kind of enjoyment here.
    The enjoyment of realism.

    "Woah, I'm actually lost and squeezing through back alleys trying to get to my destination. Its like im actually driving in an unknown city!"

    I agree its fun, but after while I get tired of getting lost all the time (all GTA's already do a good job at making roads that LOOK like they lead to the bridge but then end up going under it! @?#%$*)...and i just want to get back to cruising the streets.

    but I do like your point on enemies on the minimap. would be awesome if you could just turn that off.

    In response to the actual author (and not the commenters)...

    I also had this feeling whilst playing GTA4 and a couple of hours into my first playthrough, turned off the Mini-map, GPS and auto-aim. With the auto-aim off the gunfights became immensely more visceral. I was now seeing bullets hammering into metal, timber, rubber, glass and water as well as the intended targets. Something that wasn't happening before, as the auto-aim was making Nico shoot like Robocop.

    However, the biggest obstacle I encountered from removing these features was the game's inability to assist me in getting from point A to point B. And that was because the core gameplay was designed with all those features turned "on". For me, this is what I think stopped GTAIV from revolutionising its own genre (which is why we haven't seen a leap in open-world sand-box games.)

    Rockstar should take a good long look at a game like Splinter Cell Conviction, as it was Ubisoft who saw Rockstars use of three-dimensional in-game credits/markers and took it a step further, in the right direction.

    Our games don't need mini-maps and GPS systems anymore. What they need is smart, unobtrusive hints and markers that do not remove the player from the game's "immersion" (or is it "emersion" haha)

    Although I do not think Rockstar should remove their mini-map/auto-aim/HUD features from the next GTA. To evolve the genre, I do think those features should be "OFF" by default and the gameplay should be designed to work without them.

    In the end, I turned the mini-map back on and left the GPS off, which made it somewhat easier to work out where I needed to go at the start of each mission.

    well if your on multiplayer an your competing you need to know where your enemys are expecially the ones that are hunting you down maybe if they put mini maps a optional setting in multiplayer games removing them for all players so it could be fair and also fun for everyone

    i do the same thing for assassins creed games- try exploring rome without the mini map to show you which way to go and you'll find its a much more difficult game- you have to rely on large landmarks to navigate, but ill tell you what, it made the game feel so much better

    I've done the same thing in F1 2010. I noticed i was always watching the track map, or my lap timer, which distracted me from the actual thing i was doing 320kph+ on. So i turned it all off, so much more immersive.

    I bought the original GTA back when it came out in the 90s. It came with 3 paper maps of the 3 cities (Which I still have - joy!). My little brother was my co-pilot/navigator.

    Installed Liberty City stories with a view to finally playing TLaTD and TBoGT. I may just have to turn off some of the visuals and see how much more fun I can have.

    If you turn off the minimap in FFXIII and boom!
    It actually feels non-linear.

    rockstar should rather make a pc exclusive gta that would be mindblowing i can assure you.
    consoles suck for any other genre than fighting games.

    Whilst I didn't enjoy Far Cry 2 that much, they did some interesting things to approach this same issue. They had street signs at each intersection and these changed colour based on objective.

    When playing Red Dead Redemption I also noticed I was looking at nothing but the mini-map and totally ignoring the beautiful landscape and the thrill of riding down the dusty path. Unfortunately when I turned it off I immediately noticed that all objectives, enemies and interactive sections were shown through the mini-map and instantly got lost and confused.

    Mindfulness.

    Indeed. Perhaps they could take an idea from Arkham City and have a compass bar on top, and use a highlight on the area. Sure, you spent a lot of time in the air as the Dark Knight, but I tried to play in this manner on the ground and it was fairly cool. Skyrim does this quite well, though of course that is a big place. A smaller place that is quicker to get around but uses this system could open the door to a more immersive gameworld. Maybe the ability to turn it off in missions or while in chase or combat, and just have it on while free roaming would be best.

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