I've been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto 4 lately. Spurred on by the disappointing Definitive Edition remakes, and after finally dealing with some PC performance issues I've been having for years, I decided to revisit Liberty City—and I'm more convinced than ever that it's the best GTA. It also got me wondering: now that I'm fully immersed in GTA 4, how would it feel returning to Los Santos in GTA 5? So I downloaded all 100+ GB of it, which I had to do overnight, and when I loaded up my old save and set foot on those sun-soaked, palm-lined streets once again, I was... disappointed?
Grand Theft Auto 5 is one of my favourite games. I've finished the story 3 times, and I'll likely do it all over again when the PS5 version launches next year. But after spending around 40 hours as Niko Bellic, Johnny Klebitz, and Luis Lopez in Liberty City, GTA 5 feels—and this surprised me—almost like a step back for the series. It's obviously superior in a lot of ways. The story missions are more fun, varied, and forgiving. There's more to do in the open world. Everything looks nicer. The PC performance is excellent. The combat is way better. But there's something missing—something in the way it feels.
Absolutely everything in Grand Theft Auto 4 is underpinned by a rich physics engine. This makes it the most tactile, physical open world Rockstar has ever made—and I include Red Dead Redemption 2 in that. This results in some wonderfully weighty, satisfying vehicle handling, characters who react realistically to being shoved, run over, or shot, and a general feeling of dynamic, reactive interactivity. GTA 5 has these physics too—but they're heavily toned down, to the point where its world feels more artificial. I never noticed it before, but coming straight from GTA 4, it really is night and day.
Grand Theft Auto 5 is still great, but now when I get into a car, I can't shake the feeling that, compared to GTA 4, it's like an arcade game. The semi-realistic driving in GTA 4 is divisive, but I love it because you really do feel like you're behind the wheel of a big, heavy, combustion-powered chunk of metal. It can feel overly slippy at first, but you master it over time, and soon drifting around corners with that bouncy suspension feels amazing. But in GTA 5 you can pull off physics-defying maneuvers Niko Bellic could only dream of. I was amazed when I hit the brakes at speed and the car just stopped, almost instantly.
These simplified physics apply to almost everything in GTA 5. Car crashes and impacts don't feel as severe. People on the street don't react as dramatically to being messed with. (Yes, I know how that sounds.) It just isn't as physical a world, even though it looks infinitely better from a technical perspective. It's ultimately quite tricky to put into words—you have to feel it to understand it. If you have both games to hand, run around the city in GTA 4 for a bit, driving and causing mayhem. Then switch over to GTA 5 and do the same. Even if you can't fully articulate the difference, you'll definitely feel it in your hands.
The driving and physics in Grand Theft Auto 5 are arguably a better fit for the game. It's fun, vibrant, and sunny, and an overly complex driving model and a heavily simulated world might just get in the way of that. GTA 4 is dark and gritty, so the realistic approach to how it plays, and the physics that govern the city, is probably a better fit. Even so, I've been spoiled by it. Even modern open world games now feel disappointingly static and lifeless compared to the now 13-year-old GTA 4. I really hope Grand Theft Auto 6, whatever form it ends up taking, feels more like Liberty City and less like Los Santos.
A feat only a true Dovahkiin could pull off.