Driving in Grand Theft Auto 4 is awesome, actually


This week my love for GTA 4 has been rekindled in a big way. After fixing the performance issues that have plagued the PC version for years, I spend all the free hours I have in Liberty City. It holds up surprisingly well, especially how physics-focused everything is. This is the most tactile of Rockstar, physical world, which ranges from the hilariously responsive pedestrians and gelatinous limbs to the way city vehicles behave. Compared to responsive, almost arcade-like driving in GTA 5, the vehicles in this game are heavy and unruly in a way that really makes them look like heavy pieces of burning metal.

Not everyone liked it. GTA 4 was an almost universally critically acclaimed game, but some people referred to the driving as a weakness. They claimed it was slow, heavy, and unresponsive. But it was the point. I remember defending it back then, and now that I’m replaying it 13 years later, I’m going to defend it again. Driving in Grand Theft Auto 4 kicks the ass and should have set a new standard not just for the GTA series, but the open world genre in general. It makes navigation on big and dangerous object in crowded city appropriately dangerous, in a way the bumper cars in Los Santos never do.

Related: Still I Love The Weird And Scary Atmosphere Of Grand Theft Auto 3

When you are behind the wheel, you are completely at the mercy of the physics engine. If you miss a turn, you can’t just slam the brakes, stop instantly and reposition quickly. You have to take into account the weight of the car you’re in and the inertia generated by your acceleration, which brings sharp tension to every chase. It forces you to think more about the way you drive and the layout of the road, not just bombing like you’re playing OutRun. It is not a conduct sim, but the level of nuance and depth behind the handling model is surprisingly complex, giving the game a sense of balanced realism.


It also gives each vehicle a unique personality. Drive a muscle car and you can really feel the engine power rumbling under the hood as you slide and slide through the streets. But a shitty little compact has a distinctive feel just as much. Trucks, vans, SUVs, sports cars, buses, garbage trucks, they all handle in a way that suits their size, weight and shape. They respond realistically to bumps, potholes and other imperfections in the road, adding an extra layer of danger to every moment of fast driving. Crashes can also cause chaos on the roads, with panicked AI cars bumping into each other and setting off stacks.

GTA 4 Driving physics

It can be frustrating, of course. The slightest bump can throw you in circles, and some of the subsequent car chases are quite long and punishing. But one of the most satisfying things about this manipulation model is that it gives you something to Master. Over the course of the game, as you adjust to the physics, you just feel better and better about driving and the closer you are, the more fun it is. In San Andreas you drive better by completing a driving skill meter, but in GTA 4 you actually drive better become better at driving. It takes time, though, maybe that’s why a lot of people didn’t like it. You have to work on it.

I understand why Rockstar changed the way of driving in GTA 5. It’s a fun, vibrant, and sunny game, and it would take away from that vibe if you had to drive muddy, realistic cars through Los Santos. But it fits perfectly with the muffled, gritty realism of GTA 4. Liberty City is a nasty place, smeared with a tangible layer of grime and danger, that physics-driven driving draws from. When you torment the vehicles you’re driving by recklessly throwing them around corners, across landscapes, and into other motorists, they usually get dirty, scratched, dented, and reared up. It’s a messy and chaotic city, and those bouncy and dirty cars add to the mess.

Grand Theft Auto 4 is in desperate need of a remaster or remake, although hopefully better than GTA: The Trilogy. It is currently only playable on a very limited range of systems, and often in a compromised or obsolete form. If Rockstar brings it back somehow, I just pray the ride stays exactly the same. It’s part of the game’s identity, and it just wouldn’t be the same without it. If Grand Theft Auto 6 is a throwback to a more gritty, grounded setting, I’d love to see Rockstar experiment with a realistic physics-based manipulation model again. We’ve had it too easy in GTA 5 – it’s time for some more automotive punishment.

Next: GTA: The Impressions Trilogy: The Good, The Bad & The Janky

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