GTA 4's Slow Opening Hours Were Also Some Of Its Best

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 91.44m, 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 neighbourhood 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 licence plate, maybe. Niko gets carted off in handcuffs, soon to be tossed in gaol 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 materialises. 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 neighbourhood 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.


Comments

    It may sound odd, but GTA V made me appreciate GTA IV more. I went back and played IV's story after I finished V, and the story was a far more mature, far more intricate tale told than V. The emotion invested in one character was lost when it had to be seperated into three. While I don't dislike V's storyline, it was something akin to say, going from Michael Bays BADBOYS (Part V) to Michael Manns HEAT (Part IV) and seeing the drastic different in story quality. The Ballad of Gay Tony replay only drove this home even more, as well as Lost and the Damned.

      Totally agree. GTA IV felt like the series had grown up from its chaotic roots. I liked Niko more as a character, it's easier to be sympathetic towards him and the situation he's in. GTA V is more fun and chaotic, and it has a great cast of characters, but I can't take any of it seriously nor do I really feel anything for the characters.

        Take the bank robbery for instance. That was some hectic shit. I quote HEAT because it took inspiration directly from it, running up the streets in the kevlar, trying to escape the cops, down into the sewer, trying to get away etc. It was just awesome. Part V had some fun heists, but for *me* at least, they never quite reached that thrill of the heist with Packy and co. in part 4.

          Gosh i remember having a terribly tough time on that bank heist in IV!

      Agreed.
      I also feel that GTA IV was good at being bad, but GTA V was bad at being good.

        That's gotta be the goddamn best description I've heard of both games lol. When GTA IV was bad, it was very very bad indeed, but GTA V for me, never truly hit the heights of intensity that IV did either.

      Exactly -- 5 is a very, very fun game, but its quality in terms of story is on par with a Michael Bay -- not necessarily a bad thing, but not groundbreaking either. 4 was bleak, interesting and tragic.

    I think it was brave that it was almost languid for the first hour. The boat arriving at the docks, the cinematic shots and then the slow-paced opening missions gave the characters time to grow. I thought the tone was set even by the trailers though - the Koyaanisqatsi inspired "Things will be different" one is still one of the best video game trailers I can think of.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CsrTF0-Gok

    Never finished the last mission, although tempted to go back and play Ballad of Gay Tony.

    IV is still yet to click with me for many reasons.
    Installation issues (I couldn't for ages, then I found a fix, then the fix stopped working, in the end you just get tired, ya' know)
    Controls that drive me up the wall, (at least they drive something)
    There's also a really bad sense that the character they wrote for the game doesn't fit inside game they made. He comes across as someone that slips into a dissociative state any time he's not in a cut scene.

    I don't hate it though, weirdly enough my favourite moment peaks just before you . When you drive back to your flat, only to see it up in flames. Going to an even worse apartment, in an even worse neighbourhood really gave me this strong feeling of not having much and then having it taken away from me, again.

    It's a trend that stops almost immediately after, but I would have loved to have seen the story go the inverse of a standard GTA story, where you start with little and watch it slowly get taken away. Toward the end, you look at what Roman had when you first arrived and start to see it as the dream Roman that paints in his letters.

    As a chechen (born in Chechen Republic, which is a small place inside the Russian Federation for those who don't know) I really appreciated this game. For me, GTA 4 is the best GTA in the whole history of this game.

    Like you said so well, I enjoyed playing hours and hours in Liberty City, but just like you, my favorite part of the game was the first days of Niko in the city. I speak russian very well and when I heard different PNJs talking russian in Hove Beach, it made my life seriously. Then I discovered the Russian Mafia with Vlady boy. I used to love these missions where you had to beat a chinese guy who ows some money to your employer and all that stuff, it was really entertaining.

    Then I discovered that Vlad was fucking Roman's girl, and it made me angry so I decided to kill the fat russian mobster.
    Then a fucking russian idiot kidnapped me and my cousin, I started to work for the Russian Mob but at the end of the day (this is ironic because in real life, my country was destroyed by the Russians and I have about five of my family members who were killed by the Russian army during the second war) a russian idiot, another one, betrayed me and almost killed me.

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