Rockstar Games has had the industry in a vice grip ever since GTA III's days in the early 2000s. The publisher has delivered multiple cultural phenomena, with not a single bump in the road in sight.
That kind of consistency has rarely been seen before in a franchise, but it would be unfair to say that Rockstar hasn't dabbled or switched up their approach to making games.
GTA 4 represents a massive tonal and creative shift that was a departure from previous games in the franchise. Lush, sunny environments of Los Santos and Vice City were replaced by a dreary, oppressive cityscape in Liberty City, and casual violence was replaced by moments of quiet introspection.
This large creative left-turn could have easily alienated fans, but the game still managed to sell well and perhaps become the highest-rated GTA game in history.
5 things that GTA 4 did better than GTA 5
5) Consistent Tone
The GTA franchise has been lauded for its many clear positive impacts on the industry regarding open-world design, writing, and attention to detail. However, the mid-200s were characterized by a sense of "gritty realism" that was pervasive in modern media: from books to video games.
GTA 4's grungey, gray aesthetic, and grounded storyline were certainly representative of how the audience responded to the most. In hindsight, it might not have been the most original or groundbreaking of approaches to storytelling and game design, but it was, in fact, more consistent than GTA 5.
GTA 5, tonally, seemed to be reminiscent of a bull in a china shop with very little sense of direction it was going towards. While at times it was trying to make some barely nuanced commentary on social media or corporate greed, it was also throwing out ridiculously over-the-top ridiculous moments that didn't seem to align.
As a result, GTA 5's tone suffers from a lack of consistency, which is precisely what Rockstar nailed with games like Red Dead Redemption and GTA 5.
4) Grounded world and storyline
As mentioned previously, GTA 4's increasingly grounded tone wasn't just reflected in its art style and creative choices visually, but also gameplay. The physics of a car was perhaps the most realistic they have ever been, with cars feeling like the heavy pieces of machinery they are.
Going fast down a crowded street was a sure-shot method of crashing into a light pole and getting thrown out of the car and into a building. Each gameplay detail feeds into the sense of realism and grounded nature of the world, making for an exceptional experience.
GTA 5 is undoubtedly more conventionally fun in video game terms and is far more accessible. Yet, GTA 4 represents the kind of creative rebellion that made Rockstar the industry juggernaut that it is today.
3) Characters, not caricatures
Perhaps where the two games differ the most is in writing. Dan Houser led the creative on both the projects, yet the difference in the way they were written is night and day.
GTA 5 is much more sunshine, rainbows, casual mass murder, and oddly-timed jokes. Characters in the 2013 title can feel reductive as, apart from the protagonists, every other character the player meets in the game is little more than a stereotype or a punchline.
The "evil, corporate dude with no conscience," the "phony reality TV star," and a dozen other stereotypes are aplenty in the game. With little to no depth, the characters can often feel like stand-ins for commentary rather than fleshed-out individuals.
GTA 4, on the other hand, has very well-written characters that have layers of complexity and emotions that make them captivating. Every character, supporting or main, receives equal attention, which adds a ton of quality to the game.
2) DLC expansion for Story Mode
Perhaps one of the best DLC expansions in video game history, Rockstar delivered not one but two fantastic expansions for GTA 4. The Ballad of Gay Tony, The Lost and Damned are two fantastically-made expansions that stand on their own two feet independent of Grand Theft Auto 4.
The fanbase has been clamoring for some single-player expansion and is hedging their bets on the Expanded and Enhanced Edition for GTA 5. Yet, Rockstar's focus has been to expand on Story Mode through Grand Theft Auto Online, which, although undeniably great, doesn't scratch that itch for single-player DLC.
1) A sympathetic protagonist
The typical GTA protagonist wouldn't bat an eye when shooting down droves of enemies, police, and the like. All three protagonists of the game have almost resigned in reaction to overwhelming amounts of violence, which does seem to make them a bit less relatable.
However, Niko has a past checkered with violence that has haunted him for years and continues to do so. His return to crime is only motivated by his willingness to protect his loved ones and somehow find a way forward in life.
Niko Belic is, in many ways, the most complex GTA protagonist and one that players can't help but empathize with, given his clear motivations.