On a foundational level, Grand Theft Auto IV’s sprawling open world environment is not exactly unique, taking New York City as greatest inspiration, an environment adopted by countless others in the open-world genre – here, though, the city is not an exact replication, but an interpretation, something creative and imaginative, lending to the game a certain charm and whimsicality. Divided into several boroughs, each distinct atmospherically, a picture of diversity and largeness is here created – the starting area, Broker, exists as a grimy, poverty-stricken neighborhood, a bastion for the immigrants arriving by boat in the nearby shipyard, coming in droves, hopeful men who instantly have their hopes dashed, meeting with swift oppression. Their neighborhood of Hove Beach is a place of squalor, but a place of fraternity. Niko Bellic, both idealistic and pragmatic, is promptly greeted by this squalor, his own personal dreams shattered upon departure of the ship, arriving in Liberty City, greeted by an affectionate if weak-willed cousin, drowning in financial despair, a despair manifested in the entire borough proper. Travelling as a duo towards Roman’s confined apartment, grime and dirt overtake every surface therein, soiled sheets, stained walls, a labyrinth of dishes left dirty and discarded in the sink – here is perfect picture of poverty, awakening instantly Niko’s ambitions. Rather than living next to a dilapidated amusement park, rollercoaster tracks left to rot, forgotten, the gleaming lights of Algonquin leave an alluring mark upon the impressionable Niko – there is happiness.
In a clever design decision, though, exploration is gated, Algonquin a mere temptation in the distance, Niko confined solely to Broker, to poverty. Eventually reaching that place, Algonquin, with its large avenues and masses of citizens, is a triumphant affair, a direct indicator of progress. A physical manifestation of Niko’s ascension is fast made apparent – rather than that hovel in Hove Beach, here is affluence, Niko dwelling in a sprawling pent-house some distance off the ground. Rather than stains, there is cleanliness and orderliness, furniture not punctured by holes, but shining with new upholstery. In the impoverished areas of Broker, antiquated, rundown vehicles left in a state of disrepair crowd the streets, while conversely the avenues of Algonquin are frequented by stylish, powerful sports cars; in terms of game design, these two environments are diametric opposites, conveying the immense diversity attached to the sprawling city proper, some citizens living in affluence, while the majority toil away endlessly, having little to show for their endeavors – Roman is just such a man, and it takes Niko’s resolve and ambition to elevate the pair, to bring about that ultimate removal and economic progression. In a minor stumble, though, the final explorable environment, Alderney City, is devoid of any creativity or originality; rather than ending in triumph, environmentally matters end with a whimper.
The NPC’s inhabiting this world can be quite compelling and intriguing; their modelling is often repeated, while technically they are disappointing, reflecting the game’s advanced age. Still, the incidental dialogue they speak while merely mulling about the streets imparts a strong sense of charm, furthering cleverly the world-building. Again reflecting the environmental diversity, different models and behaviors are attached to different boroughs – Broker is abounding in crime, necessitating a strong police force, while matters are overall tamer in the concluding area of Alderney. Broker has criminals; Algonquin has yoga stretchers, those permitted with leisure time to partake of the central park’s varied fauna and beauties. The AI often acts believably, responding in kind to the various occurrences which emerge organically with the passage of time; a torrential rain – a frequent occurrence – prompts the employment of umbrellas, while others, less fortunate or unprepared for this rain, are forced to retreat to the comfort of some structure, to escape the soaking effects of these sometimes-unrelenting torrents. Furthering this sense of time progression, weather effects beyond basic rain are present, with sudden frigid snaps, Niko’s breath observable in the air, frame visibly shaking from the cold. The cinematic again emerges; on a particularly dreary, oppressive day, all saturation can drain away from the world, everything becoming a muted grey, all color departed from, resulting in an almost distressing sensation – distressing but compelling, enigmatically beautiful. Here, with these blacks and greys, is represented in Liberty City’s seedier, moodier side, highly original.
These brief artistic flourishes are incredible to behold, and they avert what could be total disaster in world building – from a technical perspective, Liberty City is understandably dated, with poor textures and a short draw-distance; pop-in is not an irregular occurrence. But the indefinable nature and complexity of Liberty City permits its elevation above the common rabble of world design. Particularly marvelous is seeing the cityscape from above, taking to the skies in a helicopter, only amplifying the beautiful aspects of the city, especially when the voyage is made at night, stars dotting the skies; the dense city in all its grandeur is spread out below. The buildings seem taller, the people and cars made into mere specks, totally insignificant, part of one solid mass, individualism lacking. Niko, even while helming such an extravagant vehicle as a helicopter, is but another of those small dots, hopeful at heart and taken in with the same notions of awaiting prosperity, manifest in the city proper.
Despite the occasionally disarming beauty of the cityscape, it is still principally the citizens of Liberty City which create its greatest charms. Beyond the basic, underdeveloped NPC’s lining the game’s many streets, driving the game’s many cars, making periodic exclamations or jokes, there exist further, more consequential characters, who greatly advance the world-building, characters discovered organically, during the act of exploration. Given this organic nature, a sense of life is here achieved, the city populated by people desperately needing of assistance, floundering away, subject to some unrelenting turmoil. Others simply want discourse, which Niko is happy to engage in, these characters seeing in him a receptive ear, someone used for the purposes of unburdening. A plucky, wealthy man is encountered towards the beginning of the narrative, willingly and happily giving the still-struggling Niko a fair bit of money, manic and irrational though oddly likable. Some hours later, that mania is gone, replaced instead by an exaggerated nervousness, the man given over to narcotics; destruction here seems imminent. Niko, ever kind, gladly aids this man, reciprocating the charitable gesture previously done him Countless are such engagements, one seeing the stalking of a cheating wife, Niko coming under the employ of her enraged, suspicious husband. In another engagement, Niko speaks with a young woman, gradually sinking into further darkness, and promptly disperses funds for her benefit, imploring her to leave the corrupt place, to return to her loving city, a victim to Liberty City’s manifold hostilities.
Characters of even greater import also develop the world considerably, frequently calling Niko, encouraging him to go on some excursion to one of the city’s many diversions – gritty pool halls, inviting bowling alleys, dreary bars, satisfying restaurants existing in fair diversity – much content is on offer here. Aesthetically, many of these environments are compelling and highly detailed, the developers accurately capturing the nature of a mentioned pool hall, with stools and a level of expected uncleanliness; a bowling alley, conversely, is all brightness, manifest in the architecture proper, and in the people who frequent it. A major gripe, though, is the relative dearth of these interior environments, a scant few accessible outside of these venues and restaurants. More expressions of the immense attention to detail found here would only flesh out the world further. True, some towering apartment complexes are explorable, leading upwards, their zenith affording picturesque views of the streets and people below, while the staircases leading upwards are often grimy, some plastered with graffiti. This lovingness only makes more frustrating the absence of similar explorable interior environments. Understandably, technical limitations are present, forcing ambitions to be reined in, so some of this lack is explainable, though that fact does not dampen the disappointment. A similar limitation attached to the hardware is related to the frequent duplication of NPC modelling, a fast-food worker employed in Algonquin functionally the same as one in Alderney or Broker, possessive of the same model and the same voice acting. It destroys immersion, and the slightest ounce of diversity here would further the believability of the game world; limitations again arise.
One aspect abounding in diversity, though, is the eclectic mix of radio stations, which further contributes to world building. From electronic music, through to traditional rock, house music, and rap – here is great variety, reflecting logically the varied tastes possessed by its disparate inhabitants. Somewhat of a mistake is made, when considering the immensity of taste also present within players – some stations will understandably be shunned, dismissed as irritating or grating. Universally compelling, though, are the talk shows, coupled with other brief news snippets broadcasted on all stations, reporting upon particularly consequential acts in the game’s narrative; after completing a mission of great import, a succinct synopsis is relayed, typically by the fictional Weazel News, the reporting tinged with a bit of self-aware humor, even as the subject matter is shrouded in total darkness. The inclusion of these little blurps evokes a sense of progress, as if Niko’s actions have lasting repercussions in Liberty City. A second conveyance of this progress is also observable within these news reports; a struggling Niko, floundering away in Hove Beach, was a total non-entity, undeserving of any acclaim or notoriety, a simple immigrant engaging in petty actions and crimes. Now, Niko is involved in bank heists, in assassinations, drug and diamond deals, embroiled also in Mafia affairs – hearing of these exploits directly points to Niko’s escalating powers and sway.
Alongside that rise of power is a correlative rise in wealth, which fast proves inconsequential. Niko may earn respect and a significant sum from more elaborate missions, but there is little practically to spend it on, Liberty City suffering from a dearth of vendors; basic clothing and customization options are available, divided into three distinct brands, furthering the diversity of tastes in the metropolis, with the clothing of Perseus being of an exaggerated cost, logical considering its prominent presence in Algonquin. Similarly, cheap, peasant-like clothing is purchaseable in Hove Beach, further cementing the notion of poverty therein, dividing the city believably in wealth. Also, cleverly reflecting modernity and modern trends against the liberal dispersion of firearms, a system of underground arms dealers is present in compensation, their presence deliberately concealed, forced to engage covertly, conveying the sense that both the government and the police are determined to crack down and stifle potential violence, to dispel Liberty City of some aspect of its griminess, a mostly futile effort. The necessity of this secrecy, though, is rather compelling, furthering world-building and poignancy, difficult matters portrayed accurately But beyond these principle vendors – the arms dealers and fashion outlets – wealth has little objective value; the enticing nature of Algonquin is underutilized, Niko forbidden from engaging in its higher delights, even while possessive of the funds to engage in those delights. Even something as straightforward as purchasable property would develop Liberty City, this purchasing a more tangible illustration of Niko’s prosperity and ascension.
Superficially, Liberty City is unremarkable, being but another bland, urban environment, comprised of mundane avenues and skyscrapers, towering bridges spanning the game’s many waterways, connecting together its many boroughs, everything existing in logical if unimaginative fashion, even as an admirable sense of cohesion is present. The technical performance is but serviceable, low draw-distances, poor textures, and frequent pop-in destroying immersion. But actually delving into the world, experiencing it and its people, a unifying charm is made apparent, matters coalescing, the game transcending the mundane, embracing color and glitz one moment, dingy griminess the next, this vacillation of tone and coloration directly reflecting the divided nature of the city, a place both good and bad, a place with a steep economic divide; sprawling high-rises house one class of people, another forced to live in ramshackle housing, drowning in poverty, conveying the rift of the American experience.
Excelling in atmosphere, certain creative flourishes are present, which other games would casually gloss over. Taxis can be hailed at any moment, serving the function of fast-travel, an immersive, active experience if desired, the camera changing to a first-person perspective, Niko permitted to gaze out the window at passersby, while the individual naming of each street shows attention to detail, bolstering further immersion. An entire subway system is present, serving as a secondary if comparatively unremarkable fast-travel system. Sprawling tunnel systems exist below ground, serving as milieu for certain of the game’s more cinematic chase sequences. Helicopter tours can be undertaken, cheap food acquired from the varied vendors who populate the city’s many streets. Collectively, these flourishes elevate the game into something greater. Surveying the city from above, positioned securely in the cockpit of a helicopter – here is something magical, grimy in parts, inviting and glamorous in others. Narratively, the game falters as the conclusion is approached. But Liberty City remains true, only developing in intrigue and appeal as the plot progresses. Populated by a large, diverse people, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City is a profound achievement.