A GTA Retrospective – GTA returns to Liberty City

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Following the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004, Rockstar immediately began work on a game that would be even more ambitious in scope, size and narrative. With a core team of around 150 developers that were led by the key members from the Grand Theft Auto 3 development squad, Rockstar got to work on a game that would graphically surpass everything that they had done so far.

Using a combination of the Rockstar Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) which had previously been used in Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, and the Euphoria engine Liberty City was in for one hell of an urban renewal. Utilising middleware from other software companies, GTA IV was dead set on being a real looker.

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With a more realistic tone, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser remarked on the tonal shift and said “what we’re taking as our watchword on [Grand Theft Auto IV] is the idea of what high definition actually means.

Not just in terms of graphics, which obviously we are achieving, but in terms of all aspects of the design. You know, trying to make something more realistic, more held together, but still retaining the overall coherence that the other games had.

While Liberty City may have been an homage to New York City, Rockstar wanted to avoid making it a 1:1 replica of the big apple. “Because we were working in high definition and we knew we’d need a shitload of research, we wanted to be somewhere where we had a foothold,” Houser said.

What we’ve always tried to do is make a thing that looks real and has the qualities of a real environment, but is also fun from a game design perspective.

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GTA 4’s Liberty City may have been smaller than San Andreas, but the environment was far more focused, with the design goal being to avoid dead spots or irrelevant level design. Rockstar would send teams over to research the design of New York City, and later work with a full research team that was based in New York City in order to nail the feel for the game.

Starring east-European immigrant Nikko Bellic, GTA 4’s story would also be devoid of any overt film references. Gone were the Scarface and Goodfella references and themes, instead replaced by a much darker and grittier storyline that saw Bellic rise up from being a lowly strongarm in New York to a force to be reckoned with.

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“[Grand Theft Auto IV doesn’t] really have any cinematic influences,” Houser explained of the grim storyline.

We were consciously trying to go, well, if video games are going to develop into the next stage, then the thing isn’t to try and do a loving tribute or reference other stuff. It’s to reference the actual place itself. In terms of the character, we wanted something that felt fresh and new and not something that was obviously derived from [a] movie. […] Maybe [we] could do something ourselves that would live alongside that stuff.

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With a final release date of April 2008 locked in, Grand Theft Auto IV would end up being one of the biggest video games ever made, involving over a 1000 people and a budget that was estimated to be at over $100 million at the time. But the end result was more than worth it. Liberty City crackled with life, and players could now engage in combat scenarios that allowed them to take cover, while the world around them burnt.

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Nikko had access to a cellphone which could be used to unlock more jobs within Liberty City, arrange dates as well as infamous phone calls from his cousin Roman about hooking up for a few rounds of tenpin bowling. While the core mission structure remained unchanged, Liberty City was home to new diversions, vehicles and weapons and a massive online multiplayer component for up to 32 players. All of this coalesced into a massive game, that raised the GTA benchmark yet again.


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GTA IV had more on the way once players had finished the story of Nikko Bellic. Two episodic DLC packs were released for the game, which starred different lead protagonists in Episodes From Liberty City. The Lost and The Damned and The Ballad Of Gay Tony were standalone expansions that continued the Liberty City exploits further, adding new ideas and gameplay scenarios.

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Lost and Damned was released in February 2009 and starred Johnny Klebitz as a member of the Liberty City biker gang The Lost. The Ballad of Gay Tony was released in October 2009 and starred luis Fernando Lopez as he helped nightclub owner Gay Tony out of several conflicts. Both packs were then collected into one retail release, as well as Grand Theft Auto IV: The Complete Edition in 2010.


GTA IV (1)

GTA IV received stellar reviews on release, and it remains one of the highest-rated games still on Metacritic to this day. IGN called it a release that “sets a new benchmark for open-world games”,while Game Informer labelled it as a game “completely changes the landscape of gaming”. Sales were of course, through the roof.

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GTA IV sold over 3.6 million units within a 24 hour period of release, earning over $310 million in revenue and making back its production budget. That number jumped to over $500 million earned worldwide, off of 6 million units sold and surpassed various analytical predictions. After a month of being available, that number jumped even further to 8.5 million copies sold, kickstarting a new trend for games to field even bigger budgets and ambitions. GTA IV even broke three Guinness World Records by May 13 2008: Highest grossing video game in 24 hours, Highest revenue generated by an entertainment product in 24 hours, and Fastest-selling video game in 24 hours.

At the end of 2008, GTA IV had already sold over 5.18 million units in the USA alone, with the PC release adding further to those numbers.

Last Updated: April 15, 2015

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