“Life is complicated. I killed people, smuggled people, sold people. Perhaps here, things will be different.” You’re not wrong, Niko. Step onto Liberty City’s cobbles, and it’s immediately apparent you’re no longer in Grove Street. Grand Theft Auto became a household name on PS2 thanks to its cutting social commentary, unparalleled freedom and killer soundtracks, yet never before had a developer captured a sense of time and place quite like Rockstar North achieved with GTA 4.
Despite sitting pretty on a Metacritic rating of 98%, Mr Bellic’s open-world pursuit of the American Dream is often viewed as the miserable, barbaric sheep of the car-pilfering crime saga. What a load of tosh. GTA 4 was a magnificent, bold game back in 2008, and it’s still a fantastic experience eight years on, frequently showing both guts and an eye for detail most PS4 games would kill for… or at least hijack a dude riding a Faggio scooter for.
Unlike the 1980s-set GTA Vice City and ’90s-themed San Andreas, Niko’s tale wasn’t a period piece upon release. Instead, it was about as screamingly modern as any game has been during the last decade. In the wake of films such as Eastern Promises, Rockstar North chose to tackle the very much hot potato topic of immigration, crafting both a timely lead and a story that felt more socially conscious than any other game on PS3. Tortured by his wartime experiences in the Balkans, Niko is an Eastern European immigrant with wavering morals, chasing good fortune and peace in a cynical, corrupt American city. GTA 3’s mute, blank slate Claude Speede he is not.
Why does GTA 4 get a relatively bad rap despite being an undisputed classic? It’s probably because Rockstar North tried to grow the series past brazenly obvious satire with a more sincere story – a philosophy that Rockstar San Diego would run with to outstanding success two years later in Red Dead Redemption. The adventures of Niko and chums may not have the same sense of chaotic fun as GTA’s PS2 trilogy, yet there’s no question that this is the most effortlessly tactile, believable entry in the whole Grand Theft Auto series.
From a mechanical standpoint, GTA 4 didn’t just move the goalposts forward, it took them home, burst the ball, then flicked the finger at the rest of its crying teammates. The game’s snappy cover shooting went toe-to-toe with the original Uncharted, and still represents a colossal upgrade over San Andreas’ unreliable firefights.
More than that, every seedy side alley, bustling street corner or Algonquin skyscraper feels properly handcrafted. This is a grim, bleakly funny take on New York that is stuffed with authentic Manhattan charm; its sense of bespoke personality dazzles, especially when you consider the impressive scale of the city.
Oh, and many of its missions are bloody corkers. A daring museum raid that Pulp Fictions Niko together with the two subsequent leads of GTA 4’s DLC packs. An incredible bank heist nod to Michael Mann’s Heat. A refreshingly downbeat finale that refuses to let Bellic off the hook for his criminal choices. In a genre still clogged by wannabe pretenders and generic tailing missions, Niko stands tall as a wonderfully corrupt king.
This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here.