GTA IV’s Story Is Better Than GTA V’s

GTA IV’s Story Is Better Than GTA V’s

The Grand Theft Auto series is the ultimate commentary on modern America. Greed, lust, money and crime are wrapped together into a Las Vegas buffet of a game that is entertaining, insightful and overwhelming in its sheer variety.

What fascinates me most is the way GTA represents the tempo of modern culture better than almost any other medium. Everything from the music playlists, the polygonal landscapes that mimic real cities, the caricatures of celebrities, and the fascinating antiheroes. Whether you take it as allegorical, symbolic or literal, the Grand Theft Auto series is the modern epic.

GTA IV still remains my favourite because of the story and Niko, who is my favourite character in the whole canon. He embodies and represents the American dream, twisted underbelly and all.

Warning, spoilers abound.

“Surviving is winning, Franklin. Everything else is bullshit. Fairy tales spun by people too afraid to look life in the eye. Whatever it takes, kid: survive.” – Michael De Santa

Let’s get this out of the way. On almost every level, GTA V has superior gameplay and visuals. With three playable characters, the jukebox for destruction never gets repetitive. I’ve lived in Los Angeles more than a decade, and Los Santos captures the feel of L.A. perfectly (with the exception of the heavy traffic). I could even pull up to the street I lived on and pose in front of a building I saw every morning. The map is HUGE and Los Santos is a massive canvas for mayhem.

There is a scale to the missions that blew me away, combining the best gangster movies with the over-the-top sensationalism and humour known to the series. Some of them included shooting down an aeroplane, jumping aboard a train with a motorcycle, unleashing Armageddon in military suits during the Paleto Score, and waking up in a body bag at an FIB morgue. The Three’s Company mission particularly stands out for the way it involved all three characters in a bold rescue. Trevor flies the helicopter to the destination where Michael rappels down a skyscraper to break out the prisoner. Franklin provides backup support as a sniper, followed by a helicopter battle that was as daring as it was unbelievable.

The ambitious gameplay seamlessly melds with the latest in technology and the list of improvements from GTA IV is extensive. Driving is taut and Franklin’s special ability to slow time behind the wheel is especially helpful in aiming your weapons (something I struggled with on the driving levels in IV). Drug trips provide a strange mix to the missions (monkeys and aliens, anyone?). You can play stocks, the smartphone interface is more intuitive, the TV shows are stranger and more satirical, characters have increased customisation, and there are actual mid-mission checkpoints, meaning you don’t have to restart the whole thing all over again as in GTA IV.

The GTA series has always had great performances, and V — with Ned Luke (Michael), Shawn Fonteno (Franklin) and Steven Ogg (Trevor) is no exception. Michael wants to maintain the status quo, keep his family happy, and not go crazy in the process. Franklin wants to rise above his current circumstances and believes Michael can help him get more opportunities. Even if the narrative seemed to be going down a familiar mentor-protege type of dynamic, it was executed so well that I couldn’t wait to play each new mission. And then all of that is upended when Trevor shows up and pretty much takes over the game.

“Whoa, whoa! Now Mr. Raspberry Jam, he died a noble death, bringing great joy to a lonely man.” – Trevor Philips

Trevor is arguably one of the few playable GTA characters in the universe that not only gets what it means to be in the GTA world, but revels in it. He doesn’t want to be likeable or sympathetic. He doesn’t want you to feel comfortable, or somehow justified in doing the horrible things you do on the streets of Los Santos. Even after the brutal torture scene in the By the Book mission, he makes it clear he only did it because he enjoyed it, not because he was forced to by the FIB.

Trevor embraces anarchy, lacking any remorse, all while wielding a strangely fickle moral code. Every time you switch to him from another character, something bizarre awaits; vomiting in a random spot, walking around half naked in public, being chased by the police, waking up next to dead bodies, and flushing a leg down a toilet. I don’t think there were ever as many disturbing moments in GTA IV (or, in fact, in any of the GTA games) as there were with Trevor, which is saying a lot.

Trevor is a Joker whose Batman/audience happens to be us. We can condemn and criticise his violence and greed, but we can’t turn away. Rockstar continually pushes the edge through Trevor and challenges us in the process. But not in any obvious way, lecturing us on the moral ramifications of this or that. Instead, the message isn’t about torture or even violence and how terrible it is. It’s how dulled we are to it entirely, making violence a matter of indifference, or even worse, amusement.

The chemistry between the three characters is always a romp, as when they ask each other about their first scores and Franklin has to confess to his pitiful virgin bounty. Their car rides together contain some of the best dialogue ever written. The character models have very realistic detail compared to the simpler features of GTA IV, and the textures are as layered and nuanced as the gameplay that seemingly takes everything into account.

GTA V is the ultimate sandbox for villainy and crime. The only thing I really longed for was some stronger female characters (would it be too hopeful to long for a female protagonist in the next GTA?).

“Only those who die get closure. The living do not.” – Niko Bellic

And yet, GTA IV still comes out ahead.

The main character, Niko Bellic, is a veteran from Eastern Europe, looking to get a fresh start. Unfortunately, he faces plenty of opposition, starting with his background as an immigrant. Although his ethnicity is not specified, he’s from Eastern Europe and has to endure derisive taunts because his skills are limited. As he asks his cousin:

What am I good at, Roman? What is my trade? I deal in death because that is all that is open to me.

He begins in the depths, arriving “fresh off the boat” to Liberty City with nothing to his name after his cousin’s promises of riches ring empty. English isn’t Niko’s first language, and likewise, his first apartment, infested with huge roaches, is a far cry from the American dream. His look of disgust when Roman jumps on the bed with a dead roach on his shoe would be funnier if it wasn’t so depressing. Rather than let the circumstances of being a stranger in a foreign country discourage him, Niko does what he can to adapt, struggling his way up, fighting, robbing, and killing to eke out a living. Throughout every struggle, every strange Liberty City quirk that accosts him, Niko remains true to his personal convictions, a stark contrast to his cousin Roman who lets others push him around. In each mission, there are people who want to exploit Niko, mocking him for being a “yokel,” but even when he’s hired to kill certain people, he’ll often try and make a more humane choice.

Niko’s fortunes grow and his status increases with every mission. There are some major setbacks (as when a rival, Dimitri, burns down their apartment and his cousin’s taxi company), but when he climbs back up, it only intensifies the feeling that Niko’s growth is our own. As much as I liked the three protagonists of GTA V, we never experienced that kind of rise, with maybe Franklin as the exception when he gets a fancy new house. The trio do earn more money from their scores, but neither of them were in the financially dire straits Niko was when he began. GTA IV is in some ways a contemporary iteration of the Horatio Alger myth, just drenched in lots of blood.

I’m not a war veteran, but a big part of why I relate so much to Niko’s character is because I experienced what it felt like to be an immigrant. When I was around eight, I moved to Seoul, Korea for two years. Even though outwardly I looked Korean, I could not be more foreign as I only half understood the language and couldn’t read or write it at all. Everything felt so different and the culture shock was as confusing to me as when Niko meets characters like the eccentric Brucie Kibbutz for the first time. Other students and neighbours made fun of me for being a Westerner, mocked me for being American, and told me I should go back to my country.

Two years after my arrival, I returned to the States, and needless to say, I was ecstatic to be back. I still love Korean culture, love Korean food, love Korean dramas and films, etc. But those experiences remain, and I’ve always been empathetic to the immigrant’s plight because of that. I know what it feels like to go to a foreign place, feel overwhelmed, and try to adapt using whatever skills you have, traits embodied by Niko. I just wished I’d had as much guts as he did standing up to the bullies.

Niko eventually reveals to his cousin that the main reason he came to Liberty City was to find the man who betrayed his military unit and caused most of his compatriots to be killed.

When he finally tracks down the culprit (Darko), Niko almost breaks into tears after he learns they were killed for a mere thousand dollars. At that point, I assumed Niko would either execute him or let him go. Instead, the game turned the decision over to me. I was stunned, surprised that it was my choice and not a scripted event. There’d been smaller instances earlier in the game where the decision to execute or not was left to me, but in something this important? I didn’t know what to do. Which one was the right choice? How would it affect the ending?

Until then, most moral choices I’d experienced in gaming were pretty straightforward, a game mechanic tallying invisible points on some chart that would have some repercussion down the line. Be good, or evil. Rob the poor woman, or help her. This was the first time I’d ever felt tortured by a decision and it was all the more agonising to realise it was a purely individual choice that had no impact on the gameplay or the story (the two endings would be determined by a choice made in the following mission). Darko, wracked by guilt, had gone crazy, a shell of a man that was a pitiful sight. Should I take justice and execute him?

In the end, I chose to let Darko go. I questioned myself every second afterwards. Niko’s own words to Roman reveal his conflicted settlement:

“I would live through killing Darko as well, but then, when I looked at him, I realised that nothing would change if I killed him, revenge would not somehow shut the book on what I have seen.”

Niko’s time in Liberty City has not only changed him, but it changed me, the player, too. He’s not bound to his roots, not condemned to the crimes he’s committed. His decision is intertwined with my own to spare Darko. He’s weaving his own way. But I could have easily taken revenge, poured twelve bullets into Darko for each of his dead friends, remaining mired in a cycle of violence.

I was moved by the decision, haunted by the way it made me question my own feelings.

This was in stark contrast to GTA V where the final decision didn’t cause me any hesitation. Franklin is given the option of betraying Michael or Trevor for villains that I did not trust anyway. Michael and Trevor had done Franklin no wrong. The only motive for him to kill either was for profit. The third option, saving both and killing the villains, was the obvious one, and the most satisfying. I enjoyed GTA V’s ending sequence (especially the part where you take down your enemies), but there was no Darko moment where I felt that the characters had changed irreversibly. Even playing out the other endings in GTA V, I did not feel as troubled as I did in GTA IV.

That Darko scene still remains one of the greatest moments I’ve ever experienced in any form of entertainment.

Conclusion: “Nothing’s real in this town.” – Franklin Clinton

There’s a lot I loved about both Grand Theft Autos, and if this were a comprehensive comparison of gameplay, this article would go on forever. There’s no doubt that GTA V had a great story, though a very different one. What’s most important for me is how complex game narratives have become, where we can discuss not just what we would do in similar situations, but the moral and ethical impact of the story choices we make.

In that sense, both games are a triumph.

Peter Tieryas is a character artist who has worked on Guardians of the Galaxy and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed’s 15 Highly Anticipated Books as well as Publisher Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. He’s been published in places like Kotaku, Kyoto Journal, and Tor. He tweets at @TieryasXu and blogs at


  • Honestly, I hated the Niko story, and didn’t play more than a few hours of GTA IV, been waiting for V on PC to play it.
    The last GTAs I really enjoyed where the Vice City and the one before that where you were a mafia guy.
    I really wish they would do another Sopranos style one, I couldn’t stand San Andreas, the whole rap culture thing just grates on me, I would really, really love a prohibition era GTA title, Boardwalk Empire style.

    • You didn’t like SA?? Crazy. I’d do anything for an SA2. Much prefer that culture.

  • And thennnn The Ballad of Gay Tony and The Lost and The Damned both had way better stories still.

    • Especially TBOGT! Personally, I enjoyed Luis and Tony FAR more than the vast majority of the IV’s (Niko & Little Jacob notwithstanding) and TLATD’s characters. Even the majority of GTA V’s. I mean, the characters make the story, and if you can’t stand the poorly written caricatures of people (with a liberal dose of stereotypes and tropes) you’re required to interact with, it makes enjoying the story a grinding, up hill battle that leaves you somewhat unfulfilled at the end. Or at least, that was just my experience with them.

  • (Spoilers) I agree, I liked the ability to play as three characters, but didn’t enjoy the story. I was all excited for the story of coming out of retirement and planning heists with my old buddies and making huge stacks of cash, but then only to realise I was doing these jobs for the FIB kinda sucked the excitement out of it. GTAV’s story just seemed like a jumbled mess.

    • This right here!!^^. This is entirely what made the GTA V story thoroughly unsatisfying for me. I was sold on the materialistic things V would have for the first time since GTA:SA (which was what made IV so disappointing to me!), buying properties/businesses, modding cars, weapons, etc, and heisting was apparently the main source of the considerable amounts of cash required for this.
      In the end, of all the heists you’re required to undertake, you only get to bank the loot from two of them (First and last) because everything else is either taken from you (Trevor’s job) or it’s a bunch of freebie shit performed on behalf of that jagoff from the FIB for absolutely no gain other than story progression! It seemed so pointless and more like a chore on play through on the second time. I mean, some of those heists were fun (especially knocking over the armoured car!), but I wanted to do heists for the bank, not for the ‘joy’ of heisting in itself! Plus I didn’t want to waste inordinate amounts of time fucking GRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINDING for breadcrumbs I was able to make via the business I could buy, times three since I’d have to do it for all of the characters if I wanted funding for material needs for all the characters. I want that money to spend during the story, not at the end of the storyline when I’m potentially getting bored with the game!

      And while we’re at it, why couldn’t I profit from Trevor’s established meth business, or have access to Michael’s wealth?? I mean, that mansion and the lifestyles of his family have to be paid for somehow.

      • Dunno why I added that spoiler tag. It’s been over a year, everyone knows the storyline…

  • I actually didn’t like GTA IV at all. I probably got a little over halfway through the main story and I lost interest, not just in the story but the whole game. I loved San Andreas and spent way too many hours in that game, but IV just didn’t hit the mark with me. GTA V on the other hand was brilliant! Sure the story is a little disjointed at time, and perhaps not a masterpiece of writing, but I get the impression it was about as concerned with the plot as most Die Hard movies. Sure it has to be there, and it has to be a least a little entertaining, but I think this was more about simply getting to know the 3 protagonists, and having enough of a plot to glue all the awesome action missions together.

  • GTAV’s ‘story’ was much more than just the main narrative of the three PC’s. The entire world was the story!
    I’ve posted this before, but this stands out as a highlight of all gaming to me…


    Onie night I started off as Trevor in his trailer, then took off in his truck headed for LS. Before I got to the Freeway on the edge of Sandy Shores, I noticed a young lady asking for a ride, so I pulled over and let her jump in. She said thankyou and that she wanted a lift to Vinewood Hills to see her boyfriend. I had that moment, “Take her to her destination, or to the Altruists?”. But she seemed like a nice girl, and her destination was in the direction I was going anyway, so I thought sure I’ll take you where you want to go. As we drive along the freeway, she explains how she can barely remember the last week because she had been partying so hard. She then takes a call from her boyfriend, who she then has a heated argument with as to where the $1000 he gave her went, and who she had been with as she tries to convince him she hadn’t been with a guy called “Brian”. She then takes another call from someone she is curiously “intimate” with, whom she is making other plans with.
    “Hmmmm”, I thought…. she….. seems a little familiar to me….
    As I pull off the Freeway and head towards Vinewood hills, I’m about to drop her at her destination. She then explains to me how different she is from her BF, and that she can just manipulate him for money/sex/anything because he is deeply in love with her.
    OK. I DEFINITELY know who this character reminds me of….. Let’s just say it hit a little close to home for me [and probably a lot of other people out there].
    At the last minute, I ripped up the handbrake and hauled ass back towards Mt Chilliad. She fell asleep as I drove all the way back out to the countryside.
    As we approach the Altruist town, she wakes up and says to me “uhhhh…. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the Vinewood Hills”. And Trevor responds with what is hands down the most fantastic line I’ve heard so far…
    “Oh, I’m positive I’m taking you where you need to go”…..
    FUCK….. YES!!!!!
    I screamed at the TV as she was offloaded at gunpoint, grinning ear-to-ear.
    On the long drive back to LS, I did start feel like a massive piece of shit. But I don’t care. Karma, bitch!

    • that is by far the best take on that “random event” that i have heard. And i completely get it 😛 in the end the boyfriend thinks you’re brian anyway and tries to kill you…. you made the right choice

      • haha thanks! That memory is still burned in my brain, thanks for getting me to read it again too! It’s funny, I had a ping in the back of my mind last night that I should fire up GTAV again….. I think this is seals the deal for what I’ll be doing tonight :p

  • The ending was very cliched for V, the standard “kill everyone who ever screwed with you”,
    but man, it was satisfying as hell.

  • Nico just didn’t suit the gameplay. I can believe that Nico is crazy, I can believe that he’d do all the stuff the game asks you to do, but I don’t believe that he’s that specific sort of crazy or that he’d do all the stuff that way. As much as I felt like Franklin didn’t make any sense the rest of the cast felt way more in sync with what was going on outside of the cut scenes. You can argue that GTAIV is the more serious story and tried to be deeper but I don’t feel like it really succeeded and even if it did that doesn’t automatically make it better.
    At the end of the day Vice City had a fantastic story specifically because it wasn’t serious. Everyone was as insane as the game let the player be. The plot existed almost exclusively to bait you into having fun. GTAIV took itself and it’s story so seriously that it almost felt like the freedom to misbehave was an oversight. Something accidentally left in there from the other games that they meant to remove.

  • Agreed; thought I think GTAV is a better game overall due to the scope etc. The story in IV was a lot more interesting. I think the characters in V were all good, bar Franklin who is one of the most boring characters in the game, but just the overall story wasn’t exactly that great. I would have much rather played a story surrounding Trevor and Michael’s earlier life, like when they were doing jobs back then.

  • Loved the gameplay of GTA V, but aside from San Andreas and Chinatown Wars, I have not enjoyed any of the storylines.

  • I agree that GTA5’s ending wasn’t nearly as strong as GTA4’s ending, but the entire rest of the story in GTA5 was much more entertaining and engaging to me than GTA4’s story. I liked GTA4, but after GTA:SA it felt like a step down. It didn’t have the scope a game like GTA needs and deserves. GTA5 was an excellent return to form in that respect, both in scope of story and scope of gameplay.

  • I found GTA V’s characters sounded like pulpy stuck records. They all do and say the same thing over and over the whole game long (And for drawn out amounts of time IMHO). The strangers and freaks missions were amazing though.

    Side note: I also felt that the game world was less of the simulated sandbox of GTA IV and more of an on-the-rails ‘act’, like San Andreas or LA Nore. Which isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, just something that was different.

  • I found the driving mechanics way to difficult to come to grips with in GTAIV.

    GTAV I jumped rightn in and was able to drive competently from the get go. I felt like a drunk, uncordinated idiot in 90% of the cars in GTAIV and that really, really turned me off from continuing it on.
    Well, that and how horrible the PC port was when it first came out.

    • The cars in 4 were super floaty and the chase camera responded too sluggishly. I really didn’t like the driving experience in 4.

  • IV was a much better game, played it online for 5 years, was bored of V in 2 months

    V has junk dumbed down vehicle physics ripped straight from midnight club

    I remember playing midnight club way back and thinking “wow GTA IV would suck so bad with vehicle physics like this ” look what happened….

    Driving is not even fun, supercars go up grassy hills better then offroaders, The cars have no weight to them, you can crash a big truck and trailer into a blista compact and it will stop in its tracks….
    No drifts and peel-outs, you could smoke your tires all the way down the road in IV and pop them, no more

    And the motor bikes are straight garbage in V, leaning forward doesnt even put weight on the front wheel anymore, wheelie takes zero skill to keep up

    The game is so dumbed down for casuals now

  • With GTAV I always had this feeling that at some stage they were brainstorming ideas for this and they had some UX (User Experience) reports with User Personas. These are just like imaginary people that UX people make up to represent a notable group, based on their data. Like you got a million users but you can summarise them to management using 5 imaginary people: Tom, Roger, Jenny, Marge, Joan.

    Like one of the personas would be Trevor: plays GTA games just to have fun by causing death and destruction, doesn’t focus on the main story. Maybe Michael: Has played many of the GTA games and completes the main story and side missions.

    Anyway my pet theory is that each of the main characters directly represents the approach of a major group of their users to the single player game.

  • More than any game I’ve ever played, GTA IV stays with me. I felt invested in the character of Niko. The feel of those choices, coupled with music like Pruitt Igoe by Philip Glass never left me. It had darkness and depth I’ve not seen since.
    GTA V was fun, but GTA IV still lurks somewhere in my mind. I still love that damn game.

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