In 2008, Grand Theft Auto IV came at a time when open-world games were a dime a dozen. With the open-world framework set by GTA III, where player agency inside a large and expansive setting is given all the focus, Rockstar Games’ big return to the criminal underworld of Liberty City had to overcome some high expectations and other competitors that advanced the genre even further. Though GTA IV found remarkable critical and commercial success, many fans found the game’s more grounded and subdued tone to be somewhat jarring, especially compared to GTA San Andreas’ outlandish, over-the-top campaign.
When you look at GTA IV in the broader sense, it was more interested in immersing players into the atmosphere of Liberty City. With a larger cast of characters, along with several new systems to learn while exploring a more dense city, the new setting offered the most dynamic space in a GTA game at the time. And now celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2018, we’re taking a look back at Rockstar’s seminal sequel and how its more realistic take and focus on immersing players into its dense city opened doors for many other open-world games thereafter–setting the stage for Rockstar’s biggest success, GTA V.
As the first GTA game on PS3 and Xbox 360, the developers at Rockstar North opted to switch things up for its return to Liberty City. Powered by the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE for short), which made its debut with the budget-release Rockstar Games Presents: Table Tennis, Grand Theft Auto IV was the first AAA game to use the publisher’s new tech. In addition to featuring the Euphoria physics-engine, it offered far more detail in movement and animations, along with stronger visual fidelity and design. This gave the game a drastically different look and feel compared to the previous entries, presenting more detail in geography and aesthetic across the city’s various locales across the four boroughs of Liberty City.
While the familiar iconography, social commentary, and open-world action from previous games were still present–albeit in a more subdued light–GTA IV’s plot centers around the immigrant experience of Niko Bellic, establishing a fresh start for the series. Traveling from eastern Europe, the Serbian War veteran sought a new life in Liberty City, while also trying to find the man responsible for betraying him many years before. Though GTA III was set in Liberty City, this game’s incarnation of the setting was entirely revamped. This put players and Niko Bellic on equal footing, both outsiders to a new setting they had to make their mark in.
GTA IV has its share of high-stakes shootouts and elaborate high-speed chases, including the now-infamous Three Leaf Clover bank heist mission–which went on to serve as the basis for GTA V’s heist missions–but it never goes completely beyond the realm of belief. To do so would go counter to the tone of the main story and the style it went for. Respectively, GTA IV forgoes a lot of dumb action in favor of actually getting you to spend time with the many supporting characters in Niko’s story.
“Choosing to spend some time with secondary characters leads to some surprising moments of humanity and friendship, which is somewhat unexpected for a GTA game.”
Early on, Niko’s ne’er-do-well cousin Roman gives him a cellphone, which acts as the game’s main communication and contextual gameplay tool. Along with calling in taxies and emergency service vehicles–allowing you to take on side-jobs as a driver or even track down local criminals by hijacking service vehicles–it also opens up relationships with Niko’s closest allies. During your off time, you can take part in seemingly frivolous activities, such as going to cabarets, drinking at local bars, or visiting a strip club. Most importantly, you could even take part in a few games of bowling, which turns out to be a favorite among Niko’s circle of friends–particularly Roman.
In some cases, characters will contact Niko directly to hang out for happy hour, or for genuine dates with potential love interests. These encounters, while mostly optional, do have some greater payoff, such as extra bodyguards and access to better resources. For instance, Dwayne Forge, a former crime lord and ex-con, will contact players to hang out. Despite having tremendous pull in the criminal underworld, he lives a largely lonesome life in a perpetual state of depression. Hanging out with Dwayne will encourage him to loosen up and open up about his past. Choosing to spend some time with secondary characters leads to some surprising moments of humanity and friendship, which is somewhat unexpected for a GTA game. It turned out that the game wasn’t all about mayhem and crime after all. It was refreshing to see your time being rewarded with something cool in a GTA game, without having to fire a single bullet.
As Niko becomes more accustomed to living in Liberty City, his disdain for American life grows–sharing his thoughts with others about awful US television and the growing influence of social media. The radio stations of Liberty City blare late-2000s music and political commentary, and news stories keep you aware of the local goings-on around town, even referencing your own antics. That’s not to say that its commentary is totally on the money, however. Much of the humor and style it tries to play off for laughs hasn’t aged all that well–such as scenes with gay stereotypes and off-color racial humor. Granted, GTA has never been totally on the mark with its social critiques, but it does however have a strong sense of time.
Prior to GTA IV, the natural thing for other games to do was to offer more content, more action, and a bigger space to take part in. While other open-world games certainly did that well, such as the GTA clone-turned-full-blown-parody Saints Row, GTA IV focused on offering more active content to dive into. In comparison to San Andreas, the size of Liberty City’s four boroughs are smaller, but it’s far more dense with activity. Compared to previous games, GTA IV did a far better job of rewarding you for messing around and taking on side activities. Whether it was hanging out with friends or exploring the city to find several unmarked quests that led to some of the game’s most humorous and darkest missions, there was an incredible amount of thought placed into the core design of the world and how you could choose to spend your time in it.
GTA IV came at a time when open-world games were increasingly common, and it approached things in a way that made it stand out from the rest. Sometime after GTA IV’s launch, Rockstar released two DLC episodes–The Lost and Damned, and The Ballad of Gay Tony–which introduced new missions and playable events that eventually lightened the tone. Along with offering more extravagant action set-pieces and a larger arsenal of weapons in the style of the previous games, these expansions also offered alternate perspectives to the main story–another aspect further expanded upon in GTA V.
When looking at Grand Theft Auto IV in the broader picture of the series, the general vibe it tends to give off can make it feel a bit self-serious. Still, there’s something endearing–and even commendable–about how Rockstar stuck with it, and showing that you can still have a fun time exploring the city while learning more about the people in it. 10 years later, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City still features some of the series’ finest moments of storytelling. And given that it’s coming from a series that focused on tons of dumb moments full of violent nonsense, that’s a remarkable achievement in its own right.
Treyarch has big plans for the next entry in the Black Ops series. Along with revamped multiplayer, an expanded Zombies mode, and a series of solo missions centered around the Specialist characters, the developer plans to bring the battle royale craze to Call of Duty. During yesterday’s Black Ops 4 reveal event, we got to play over an hour of multiplayer. We also spoke with studio design director David Vonderhaar about Treyarch’s influence on the Call of Duty series and how the team is looking to make big changes with the next game.
Set between Black Ops 2 and 3, this fourth entry in the series re-examines the pace of combat, rebalancing many of the more established perks and weapons, while also slowing things down to offer a team-oriented and consistent combat loop. One of the biggest changes in Black Ops 4 is the move back to more traditional infantry-based multiplayer gameplay. Gone are the thruster-packs and wall-running antics of the future soldiers, and in their place is a more tactical take on engagement.
However, many of the more established features from the previous Black Ops games are still present. Along with the Pick 10 system, which allows you to customize your build with weapons, perks, and attachments, the Specialists from Black Ops 3 also make a return. In Black Ops 4, the Specialists–who include Ruin, Seraph, and Battery–and their dynamic with the other members of the team are far more important to winning matches, and there are many cases where the team will use their unique skills in tandem. My team used Recon’s Vision Pulse ability to highlight all the enemies in a room, for example, and then relied on Ajax’s riot shield to clear it out. This emphasis on teamwork and how to balance it with Call of Duty’s gameplay took time to figure out, Vonderhaar said.
“It’s really hard to make a tactical game if your character’s not [on the ground], so that was the main motivation for us when looking at Black Ops 4. We looked at the thrust-packing and wall-running from the last game… but for the experience we wanted to make, it made the most sense to make things a little bit slower–and slower by Black Ops standards is not slow at all! To give it a more tactical experience, it was really about the [removal of] health regeneration and keeping you on the ground.”
The general flow and movement of Black Ops 4 feels far more in line with Black Ops 2.
One thing I appreciated about playing Black Ops 4 is that the Specialists have a much stronger presence in-game. Compared to Black Ops 3, the unique characters were mostly about their special abilities, which were only activated every so often during a fight. But with each character having access to a particular set of gear in BO4, their place in the general flow of battle is much more identifiable. This goes great with the more tactical approach the game is going for, with players having to be a bit more reliant on their squad while also being more aware of which Specialists are on the other team. During our few games, I was more cognisant of which characters were in use by the enemy squad and how to best counter their skills. This was a nice change of pace from most other COD multiplayer games, where both sides just spam the same tactics ad nauseam.
While skilled players are still capable of taking on multiple enemies at once, there are a few changes in Black Ops 4 that they’ll have to get used to first. Though players actually have more health than in previous COD games, Black Ops 4 also removes health regeneration in favor of a new healing button. This makes healing a conscious decision, as opposed to running for cover and waiting for the damage to pass over, that can also lead to some hairy moments where you have to pick a good time to heal. Also, the mini-map will only show a set distance ahead of you–meaning you’re largely blind when navigating much of the map.
The more tactical flow of matches took some time for me to get used to, which meant a few failed games of multiplayer. Despite these changes, Black Ops 4’s multiplayer still runs at an extremely brisk pace. The general flow and movement of Black Ops 4 feels far more in line with Black Ops 2, which was a favorite among fans. There were a number of thrilling moments during my matches in Hardpoint, Domination, and the new game type Control, which forces the teams to fight for specific territory with only a limited number of lives. Seeing the team gel together, as opposed to just running off and trying to be the hero, was exciting to be a part of.
One of the new game types in Black Ops 4 is the long-rumored battle royale mode called Blackout. Set on a large map, where players can take control of characters and use any weapon from the Black Ops games, Treyarch aims to make a battle royale mode that is consistent with the style and tone of the series. While the team hasn’t shared any more info regarding the specifics of player count–which according to Vonderhaar is still being decided–they’re confident they’re introducing a new take on the game mode that will feel unique to Call of Duty and to other games of the sub-genre.
“We love those types of games internally, and our fans love those types of games as well,” said Vonderhaar. “I think there’s a strong opportunity to create something special for the series, and specifically for Black Ops fans. There’s a unique way to do that for Treyarch, and for Call of Duty. If we didn’t believe that, then we wouldn’t do it. This is a unique battle royale-experience for the Black Ops series… All we really want with [Blackout] is for Black Ops fans to have an experience to call their own. We’re going to do it the Black Ops way.”‘
The new pace of combat felt fresh, and I’m already looking forward to getting into a few more matches with the Specialists, along with diving into the new battle royale mode.
Treyarch plans to launch Black Ops 4 on October 12 for PC as a Battle.net exclusive alongside a simultaneous console release on PS4 and Xbox One. Going hands-on with it took some adjustment–who knew that we’d be so used to using jetpacks and exo-suits–but these changes felt welcome after few matches. The new pace of combat felt fresh, and I’m already looking forward to getting into a few more matches with the Specialists, along with diving into the new battle royale mode.
For more info on Black Ops 4, check out our full list of written and video coverage, which includes the Zombies footage and the new Blackout mode trailer.
This week’s PS4 news is a wild one, loaded with plenty of updates on your favorite forthcoming titles, deals, and more. There are also plenty of E3 updates and deals for you.
Deus Ex isn’t dead, but it’s not coming back any time soon. We saw new reveals from of Kingdom Hearts 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, Rage 2, and more. On the other end, Shenmue 3, Skull and Bones, and Metro Exodus have been delayed. A new PS4 system update is available now and GTA 5 Online’s update added a battle royale mode. E3 news is finally filtering in this week too. Don’t forget to pick up this month’s free PlayStation Plus titles, or snag a few deals from GameStop, the PSN, or Best Buy. Keep reading for all of this week’s biggest PS4 headlines.