11 years ago, Grand Theft Auto IV released with a lot of hype. Despite the generally positive reviews, one thing fans noticed about the game was the fact that it heavily switched up the Grand Theft Auto formula, to the point that its two DLC packs (Lost and Damned & Ballad of Gay Tony) and successor (Grand Theft Auto V) appear to shift away from the tone IV establishes.
The tone in question is one of seriousness. One of the reasons prior Grand Theft Auto entries were so successful was because of their satirical overtones. Many characters were caricatures of real people or stereotypes. Stories and side missions contained elements of over the top social commentary. Humour was rife. IV changes all of this; while the game still plays with caricatures and features numerous moments of comedy, the overall tone is much grittier and the story is played much more straight than before. It isn’t just the writing that’s affected though.
The gameplay saw an equal overhaul, with movement, car handling, gunplay and more all feeling heavier and elements like health and vehicle durability also becoming more realistic. Although it retained aspects of silliness like cheats, the Statue of Liberty heart easter egg, etc., they were always additions rather than integral parts of the story or gameplay like before. This could have been problematic, because Grand Theft Auto did humour and satire so well that IV risked jeopardising Grand Theft Auto’s identity by trying to change what didn’t need changing. However, the game does it so well that I not only mind it, but I thoroughly enjoy it. Honestly, I’m glad the DLCs and V returned to the more humour laced style as it gives the series more personality, but as a one off the more serious tone really gives IV a distinct voice.
IV’s story deals with issues such as immigration and the general state of America, themes that have been frequently parodied in comedy games, movies and shows (see: South Park). This is why IV’s serious approach is so refreshing, as seeing these issues being shown head on is something that hadn’t been done that much at that point, and it made for many hard hitting moments that added up to create a phenomenal commentary.
The same applies to the gameplay. Open world games were getting increasingly ridiculous at the time and, while that’s not a bad thing, seeing a game that strived for realism with only some arcadey elements, as opposed to the realism only being semi-tackled at most, was refreshing. While GTA IV isn’t exactly a life simulator, it’s more grounded than most in its genre, creating an experience that’s unique and interesting but still fun. The most unrealistic aspect is someone being as obsessed with bowling as Roman is, but I respect his passion so I can’t even complain.
Overall, Grand Theft Auto IV was a drastic deviation from a winning formula that, against all odds, worked. Although I wouldn’t have wanted them to continue in that direction out of fear of the series losing its intriguing identity, as a standalone approach it’s brilliant and one that deserves more credit for what it contributes to the franchise.
What do you think of GTA IV? Did you like the unique direction it went, or do you think it sticks out like a sore thumb and are glad they moved away from this style? Let me know in the comments or via my Twitter profile @JoshBSocial.