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15 Years On, Grand Theft Auto IV Is Still the Series’ Best

Who wants to go bowling?



Grand Theft Auto IV Logo
Image: Mobygames

Welcome To America

It’s a chilly night in Liberty City. Niko Bellic arrives from an unspecified Eastern European country, here to bunk with his cousin, Roman, and live the good life. Only to find out that the ‘good life’ is apparently … pretty bad.

Who knows, maybe not as bad as the place he came from, but things soon start to unravel once Roman’s ‘mansion’ turns out to be a grotty second-floor apartment and his livelihood a greasy business running cabs. Bang-smack in the middle of a city full of double-crossing gangsters.

But of course, it’s a rags to riches story, isn’t it? Because a few dozen or so missions and cold-blooded assassinations later, Niko’s staying at one of the best penthouses in town. Just like in pretty much every other Grand Theft Auto.

Apple Pie

In many ways, it’s the classic American Dream – or at least a cold, blood-crazed version of it. But if the American Dream is to rise up from nothing and make it to the top, then does it really matter how that is achieved? And if so, is that Dream actually worth it?

Not usually intended to be the most philosophical of gaming experiences, you could say those are the big questions posed by the masterpiece that is Grand Theft Auto IV.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Image: Mobygames

Is It Too Dark?

At least, that’s the main criticism levelled at it. Following Vice City, San Andreas andVice City Stories, players got used to bright textures and Sun-washed streets. Grand Theft Auto IV, it is said, just feels a little too grey and depressing – full of graffiti-covered trains, manky stairwells, dishevelled tramps and, apparently, terrorism. Because near the start of the story, there’s a radio announcement that one of the bridges is closed down due to a scare. It’s 2008, people.

But remember, this is the second iteration of the same Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto III, and that title wasn’t exactly full of sunshine and unicorns (instead, think fog, grey and fish trucks). Whereas Grand Theft Auto V often descends into the over-the-top playfulness of a Saints Row title (i.e. psychedelic alien dream sequences), the gritty streets of Liberty City keeps things grounded in the series’ roots.

After all, this is a rainy East Coast city we’re talking about. Not the Sun-soaked streets of Las Venturas or Vice City. Liberty City is supposed to be dark.

However, that’s not to say it doesn’t leave any room for light-heartedness …

Grand Theft Auto IV strip club
Image: Mobygames

Niko, Let’s Go Bowling!

There’s Roman’s sleazy jokes, for one thing, not to mention his constant requests to play at bowling (which, by the way, has practically become an internet meme). One minute you’re about to shoot up a cop car and then BANG, Roman’s buzzing you on your cell.

Or why not take a gentle stroll through Central Park, or visit the actual beating heart that sits inside the Statue of Happiness (based, of course, on the Statue of Liberty).

And who could forget that famous Rockstar humour? It’s evident right across the game, from mission dialogue, to the NPC chatter, to the wacky side quests.

It’s Freedom, And It’s Money

Said Harry to Marv in the back of the truck at the start of Home Alone 2. And just as it’s true of the Big Apple, it’s also true of Liberty City.

Yes, Grand Theft Auto IV may be a little more story-driven than the others, but it still does what any Grand Theft Auto does best: letting you do whatever the hell you want.

Jack a cop car and gain access to the police database? Sure. Get a lap dance at a strip club and then blow the place to smithereens? Why not. Explore the deserted factory at the edge of town? That sounds fun.

Grand Theft Auto IV chase
Image: Mobygames

Key To The City

Perhaps the best thing of all about Grand Theft Auto IV is how it perfectly captures the atmosphere and troubles of living in a big-city metropolis (minus, obviously, the everyday one-man-army rampages and five-star cop chases).

This is a city that feels truly lived in, one that never sleeps. From the garbage trucks that appear in the morning, to the random NPC car crashes.

Sure, Grand Theft Auto V has a bigger map, but a lot of that is just empty space. Whereas here, every avenue, every street, looks like it has been carefully planned out. Every traffic light and every neon shop sign. Which is just one of the strengths this title has over its successor.

As well as the base game, there’s also the ‘The Lost and Damned’ and ‘The Ballad of Gay Tony’ expansion packs. Their stories making the city seem even larger, with more tales from its troubled and diverse inhabitants. DLC that’s actually worth it (*COUGH* microtransactions *COUGH*).

This is Grand Theft Auto par excellence. There’s never a bad time to relive its magic, and with rumours of a potential Grand Theft Auto IV remaster making the rounds, why wouldn’t you?

Michael is a plucky wordsmith and all-around pop culture enthusiast who believes that games and films are more than just a casual pastime and deserve to be thought and written about. Most of them, anyway! When he’s not working, writing, or out hiking in nature, he also enjoys old black-and-white horror films, matching his dark sense of humor.



  1. TheAlexWalters

    April 30, 2023 at 3:58 pm

    I agree 100%. It’s easily the best of the series and one of the few games where the npc companions feel like real people and not just robots with 10 lines. GTA5 looked and played better and 4 definitely could have used a first person combat option, but the location, the side activities, the missions, the overall story, and the overall atmosphere are unmatched in the genre.

  2. andrewsqual

    May 1, 2023 at 9:07 am

    Nope. 15 years later and I have never played a game that disappointed me as much since. There was SO much riding on this after the insane 11/10 GTA San Andreas and the features, map variance and just about everything it did.

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