What to say about Rockstar? They’ve made me gnash my teeth in anguish this week by stating, to nobody’s surprise, that Red Dead Redemption is unlikely to grace my PC, your PC or anyone else’s PC. But they are giving us LA Noire. They finally got round to releasing Grand Theft Auto IV but there were technical issues and beyond them it needed a monstrously powerful computer to fully capture its criminal charms. And then they went and annoyed parts of the substantial modding community by releasing a patch which, some claimed, was designed to cripple non-vanilla versions of the game. What to say about Rockstar?
The first thing to say is that there wouldn’t have been a Grand Theft Auto IV modding community to anger if the game wasn’t receiving such wonderful post-release support through the dread art of .cfg file tinkering and absolutely massive overhauls alike. Whatever problems the game had at launch, the version, or rather versions, that are available on the PC now represent the definitive way to explore Liberty City.
I enjoyed the characterisation and emphasis on story in the game. I know not everybody did and there’s definitely an argument to be made that some of the sheer maniac joy of the previous games was missing, but that’s why we’ve got Saints Row now. GTA IV is something different and I, for one, am glad I have both options. However, beyond Mr Bellic and his dubious acquaintances, GTA IV offered a much larger character to explore: Liberty City itself.
It remains an astonishing creation. I can happily explore, listening to snippets of conversation, watching pedestrians scurry out of the rain, witnessing minor accidents that I had no part in. Although there are lots of corners being cut, with activity clearly spawning around the player rather than being stumbled upon, it doesn’t matter how many times I break the illusion, it’s still capable of casting its spell on me again.
But the real beauty of Liberty City is that it’s a canvas. Rockstar left plenty of room for additions and alterations, so it can be the City you want rather than the City they gave you. If you’re one of the people who didn’t like the weight of the vehicles in GTA IV, particularly in relation to its predecessors, then you can make everything handle in a lighter fashion so that high speed chases are a greater possibility. There are ready-made handling mods, which I’ll cover in a moment, but it’s also possible to tweak things yourself, using this tool, or others like it.
With that in your arsenal, you can make cars flip over at the slightest provocation or stick to the road under even the most extreme circumstances. You can make them soar like eagles or spin in tiny circles, like dogs chasing their own tails. It’s tools like that that allow for madness like this.
Want to transform Liberty City into a surrealist dreamscape, a hilarious and beautiful nightmare in which cars are no longer cars but drunken car-sized bullets? This handling file is the way to go about it. Just replace the original handling.dat file with that, after backing up of course, and you're on your way to a short-lived but unique experience.
But what if you’d rather make things more realistic, as I do, in the mad belief that every dent should affect handling and at a car’s top speed it should be little more than a coffin in waiting? The mods have you covered, and in some style too, with a complete overhaul of every vehicle on the streets. Grab that one here.
I find that realistic handling makes chases more tense affairs; a collision with a lamppost doesn’t just throw out some pretty sparks, but can buckle the bonnet of your car so severely a wheel rolls off. And seeing police cars crunch into oncoming traffic is all the more satisfying when, instead of bouncing off like a pinball, they crumple and billow smoke.
It’s not all about how things move though, it’s about how many things are moving. Would you like bigger crowds and more civilian traffic? Of course you would! As well as making the City a more interesting place to explore, chases and general reckless driving become much more of an emotional experience when pedestrians are clogging intersections and a race across eight blocks involves several accidental murders.
For something a little less polished but deserving of mention for sheer wish-fulfillment, there's Liberty Infection. It's Liberty City with zombies essentially and is exactly as imaginative and complex as that sounds. It's not a new game, it's a new way of approaching the city as playground, and it's fun, in its limited way. Who among us hasn't wondered what would happen if the pedestrians started fighting back?
On top of it all, GTA IV on the PC simply looks better than it does anywhere else, especially when paired with this beauty. Deriving much of its fancy-dan looks from other mods, the iCEnhancer is the one-stop shop for extracting the very best of what Liberty City’s visually capable of. Combine that with mods to bump up the number of people and cars on the streets, even adjusting traffic to suit the time of day, and you’ll be free to roam one of the most complete and beautiful environments in gaming.
And that’s the thing. It’s not just about making the game prettier, it’s about fulfilling the potential that was always there. I said Liberty City was a character and all of these mods add depth to that character. They create a better sense of place and, whatever accusations can be thrown at it, that’s the one thing that GTA IV always got right. Add more people and more vehicles and there’s more possibility for emergent situations, breathing more life into the city and creating more stories than a hundred expansion packs ever could.
We’ve covered some GTA IV mods in the past and there are hundreds more here, with everything from an FPS mode to heaps of individually modelled vehicles. But with Red Dead Redemption’s absence receiving some official word, I thought it was a sadly appropriate time to think about what we, the PC crowd, could do if they gave us more than a city. The West is a frontier, an idea, the kind of place that an ambitious few could weave magic from. But it looks like it’s not to be.
They are, of course, giving us another city, a real one this time, and it’ll be interesting to see what we can do with that. I’ve played and enjoyed LA Noire on a consolebox but I’ll still be picking it up again. In a way, with LA Noire it’s even more exciting to think of the possibilities than it ever was with GTA IV because there is a period recreation there but the game itself doesn’t encourage exploration or emergence.
Give the modders some time with it and it will though. If Rockstar really don’t want to disrupt the modding community, as they stated after their latest patch, I’m sure Los Angeles will have a lot more in store than any analysis of the console versions could lead us to expect.
For help with installing any mods that don't come with a suitable readme, check here.