13-years-ago, on this exact date, GTA 4 was released for the Xbox 360 and the PS3 to much fanfare, wide critical acclaim, and massive commercial success. By 2008, GTA 4 had been in the works for a while, and fans had been anticipating a sequel to the dearly beloved GTA San Andreas since 2004.
But if early trailers and marketing material were anything to go by, then the upcoming title was shaping up to be different than the last. Fans, by that point, had grown accustomed to GTA as satire-rich, action romps, with hints of serious undertones, but never saw it as a gritty crime drama.
Yet that is exactly what Rockstar Games envisioned the next Grand Theft Auto title to be, and the result was a rather divisive title in the community. The true genius of GTA 4 lies in its inherent ability to evoke a passionate reaction from the audience. The catch is, it can easily sway either way - negative or positive.
As the first game in the series to divide public opinion since the early days of the franchise, what made GTA 4 distinct from the rest of the series?
What makes GTA 4 so distinct from the rest of the series?
A gritty tone and narrative
"Tone" has always been a rather subjective topic, but it can be broken down into smaller, less vague elements, that when put together, collectively form the "tone" of a game. In cinema, the tone is derived from several elements such as lighting, editing, cinematography, and even the actor's performances.
The same rules apply to the medium of games, as GTA 4 illustrated that a much-muted color palette and de-saturated look to the city gave it a distinct tone. But it would be an oversight to suggest that GTA 4 was the first game in the series to have utilized color grading and palette as a way to relay a singular tone.
Each game in the past has had a distinct art style and approach to color grading. For instance, the neon sheen over Vice City is the first thing players thought of when looking back on their visual memories of the game. While they also thought of San Andreas' particular shade of sunset-yellow during that particular time of the day.
Rockstar Games have always utilized a dominant color grade for a variety of purposes. Giving the open-world city a personality of its own is a big part, as the city itself is a huge character in the GTA games.
GTA 4 adopted a far grimmer color palette, with many bright colors almost drained from the picture. Giving Liberty City a distinct, soulless personality that played very well into the kind of story the game was attempting to tell.
GTA 4's story begins with an Eastern-European immigrant, Niko, arriving in Liberty City in hopes of living comfortably with his cousin Roman. He soon discovers that Roman is, in fact, living in discomfort and always finds himself in some trouble. After which Niko decides to help him out, and players soon find him embroiled in matters of the Russian mob.
Slowly but surely, GTA 4 reveals Niko's true intentions of coming to Liberty City: to seek revenge on the men who had wronged him back in his days in the Army. This is a very different kind of story than San Andreas and Vice City.
While the game has its moments of levity, fun, and humor, its ultimate goal is to be a gritty crime drama. This makes it distinct, and the biggest creative risk Rockstar had taken up until that point.
While the players had fairly little trouble getting used to the "Batman Begins"-ish tone and narrative, the gameplay did cause some trouble. One of the biggest distinctions was how cars were handled in a way that seemed to have realistic weight.
For comparison's sake, it was akin to suddenly a sim-style racing game a la F1 right after playing Need for Speed, which is an arcade-style racing game. The difference was night and day, and the players couldn't help but feel the game was intentionally trying not to be fun.
While it is almost certain that Rockstar's goal was probably to add weight to the player's actions and a sense of realism, it wasn't a big hit with everyone, which the kind of risk studios must take truly revolutionary.
Other new gameplay includes a rather serviceable yet often disappointing cover system, which feels like a much more unpolished version of the Gears of War cover system.
The gameplay continues to divide fans, as some believe it not to have aged well. Simply put, GTA 4 was attempting to be the most "grounded" game of all that came before, as is reflected in its lack of ridiculous airplanes, jetpacks, or submarines.
The game's goal was to tell a story, and all the ridiculous humor and childish puns in the world weren't going to come between the game and the player.