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Grand Theft Auto IV Remains The Most Important GTA

I grew up in the era when Grand Theft Auto was basically contraband. In 2003, my friends and I pitched in to buy a copy of Vice City and shared it amongst one another, out of the eyesight of our parents, who had all been worked into a fearful frenzy by articles in USA Today about the game’s prostitution and violent propensities. Grand Theft Auto wasn’t just a game to us but was a central part of our adolescence, the kind of all-caps MATURE thing we experienced as an act of rebellion as much as a fun doodad to pass the time.

Grand Theft Auto IV came at a strange time. I wasn’t even playing games at that point anymore, having ditched my consoles when I went to college in 2007 in an effort to focus on my studies and become a world-renowned author™. However, I still found myself drawn to IV, not because it was the next-gen version of GTA, but because so much of that game spoke to a thematic evolution that I was interested in. Head-down in books like The Great Gatsby and The Crying Of Lot 49, GTA IV’s somber take on finding yourself lost in the bleak tunnels of The American Dream as a poor person while the rich get stupider, crueler, and richer spoke to me. I spent countless hours on a friend’s Xbox 360 to complete the game, eagerly playing through the sad tale of Niko Bellic.

You’ve probably read a hundred hot takes on Grand Theft Auto IV and The American Dream. You can go here for my version of that if you want, but I want to focus on something different for this piece. IV excels when it comes to building something that is rare for open-world games: a thematically unified experience that works when it comes to telling a story while also respecting that the player is an autonomous inhabitant of that world instead of a passenger. The way that GTA IV does that is that it accentuates its heaviness.

Heavy is (forgive me) a loaded word. There are obvious examples of heavy, when it comes to physical weight. Something – a bag of rocks, an anvil – is heavy. There is also the thematic version of the word, of course; to say something is heavy is to say it’s weighing you down emotionally, it’s depressing you. GTA IV has systems in place both in moment-by-moment gameplay as well as the narrative that embraces both of those.

Since the narrative’s emotional heaviness is pretty obvious for anyone who’s played GTA IV, let’s talk about the gameplay concepts, like physics. GTA IV’s physics are paradoxically unique in that they present a surprisingly eloquent take on awkwardness. Everything feels like it has a defined weight in GTA IV that drags it down. Niko walks without elegance, always a victim of his own lack of balance. Sometimes someone will brush past him or a car will gently tap him, and he’ll fall over awkwardly. Cars are an extension of that. Even the faster convertible vehicles turn much more slowly than they would in a racer or another GTA game. To call them tanks would be exaggerating, but they’re not nimble. 

In GTA IV, gunfights feel similarly unique. Plenty of action games make use of destructible cover but there’s something about the weightiness of the world that makes it feel alive in a unique way. Taking cover behind a car during a fight with the police will result in the vehicle slightly jumping when rounds strike it, the glass above you will shatter and rain on you as bullets break through. Melee combat is clumsy but visceral, with Niko’s brutal pistol whip of an enemy coming around the corner creating a combination of tension and surprise. The delayed execution of the move plus the enemy’s stagger backward leaves an opening for you to finish them off, and it is surprisingly and uncomfortably intimate.

People rightfully noticed that the ragdoll animations and even pacing of the gunfight action changed for GTA V, with enemies popping out everywhere and their bodies reacting in more of a “drop dead” sort of manner than IV’s mixture of prolonged and sagging animations. IV’s kills are disturbing because of the intimacy that V trades away for its scope and genre conventions. Where V is constantly throwing you into the sort of action sequences you’d see in Speed and Mission Impossible, IV’s gunfights often take place in squalor. The immediacy of nailing a drug dealer’s eyeball around the corner in a ratty slum’s hallway with a blind fire from a pistol and then watching their head blow back against the wall is much more disturbing (and interesting) than V’s approach.

The difference between the two modes of violence makes sense when you consider the works they’re aping. V is the culmination of Rockstar’s love affair with the films of Michael Mann (Thief, Heat). The action is breezy and enjoyable, with the screen briefly flashing to let you know when you kill someone. More focus is put on taking down waves of enemies in wide open streets (as opposed to Liberty City’s narrow ones) and deserts to mimic high-quality, pulse-pounding action sequences like this: