The true OGs know: GTA 5 and particularly Online may be where all the action's at, but GTA 4? That hits different. For me it is Rockstar's greatest achievement, from the top of its tonally perfect recreation of Liberty City in HD down to the conflicted, semi-heroic, and trapped figure of Niko Bellic in the underbelly. Masterpiece.
With all eyes on any scrap of information about GTA 6, and of course the ongoing success of GTA Online, most of the series' fans have long since moved on from GTA 4. But not one extraordinarily skilled chap called Droo, who frequently streams the GTA games and speedruns them, who in June achieved a world-first so remarkable it seems unlikely to ever be beaten.
Droo completed GTA 4 in under six hours, but most remarkably, without taking any character damage whatsoever. The killer element is that it takes place using the OHKO (One hit KO) mode in the Zolika's Trainer mod. This not only puts Niko's health at the lowest possible value but also disables any scripted occurrences where that value would spare the player death. Any damage, any hit at all, even a slight breeze, and he's dead as the Dodo.
Issue is, the poor guy only has 19 subs on YouTube and 1.1K on Twitch so, despite the entire run being livestreamed and quickly archived, no one seemed to notice. (I don't deserve any credit either, but take a bow DanielTheAssassin, a fellow GTA speedrunner who was so gobsmacked by the run they sent PCG a tip).
"This incredible run took me a grand estimated total of 1500 hours to complete," Droo told me. "I started playing in January 2021, and I finally got the run on June 11, 2023 [...] When I first started getting into the No Damage runs in January 2021, essentially all I knew how to do really well in the game was steal cars and shoot people. I had no deep knowledge of any inner mechanics of the game and, in fact, never even anticipated I would end up needing as much knowledge and experience as I eventually gained. Plus, at that point, I was still new to playing GTA 4 with a keyboard and mouse."
"The most frequent physics damage comes from a strange taxi mechanic."
An Any% run of GTA 4 features 81 standard story missions, and Droo quickly realised the issue with this run would be the length: he'd have to work out a route of maximum efficiency through the missions, incorporating when missions could be started, and deal with things like GTA 4's near-total absence of checkpoints (a bit of a pain when you're practising a OHKO run).
Droo's perseverance produced his first successful OHKO run over the course of several days. He'd completed every mission in the game without taking damage, but was yet to work out how to string all this knowledge together into what Droo calls one "single full-length 6, 7, 8+ hour run." So planning for the gaps between missions, getting to the location of the next, and even the optimum way of chasing taxis in the road (much more to come on taxis).
"You can visualize it like keys on a piano," said Droo, "with the small, spaced black keys being the story missions, and all the white keys in between being simply 'existing within Liberty City.' Police and armed pedestrians on any given corner ready to bust you or fight you for bumping into them, or seeking you out to shoot you if you fire a gun within their earshot, as might be required by a mission. Aggressive and unpredictable traffic in the roads which don't stop for you in the street, or might even purposely drive into you.
"Staying alive to get from one place to another in the game's city, while having perfect execution of skill and luck inside each mission, all for 6+ hours straight, is the feat."
Example: taxis are an important part of this run, and key to getting between missions. GTA 4 for the first time incorporated the Euphoria physics tech, a seriously impressive addition that makes Niko and other NPCs ragdoll in a more realistic fashion when impacted. So the lightest tap from a car or another pedestrian can knock Niko off-balance and into a ragdolling animation which will always deliver some infinitesimal damage, and end the run.
"The most frequent physics damage comes from a strange taxi mechanic," explains Droo. "Occasionally, Niko will begin exiting his taxi (after taking it for a fare) while the taxi is still moving, and as he steps onto the ground, he stumbles ever so slightly, almost bracing himself with the stopping taxi. A casual player likely wouldn't even notice this short animation or the two second delay between exiting the taxi and moving again. An OHKO player, however, notices every time, since even the slightest 'ragdoll state' Niko enters deals a tiny sliver of damage, obviously enough to immediately send an OHKO player to the hospital."
Some of Droo's strategies in this light are simple: cars are inadequate cover, because bullets can go through them and parts of Niko can be exposed, so in missions that expect you to use them as cover you'll see him lunging to get behind the nearest wall.
Because GTA 4 is a hard game, and on top of that contains in Droo's words "intense and clever enemy AI" that take cover, conserve ammo, shoot at the 'right' moments when you're exposed, and can even rush the player. The cops are "aggressive, accurate, and numerous [...] maniacal at times in the extent they'll reach to apprehend or kill the player." The game will also spawn cops and their vehicles near players, and the more you avoid them the more spawn and the fiercer they get.
This and stuff like the taxi behaviour creates an element of randomness, of which Droo says "I remember doing any given section of different missions 100, 300, 500 times over, and then on the 501st time, something totally new and unexpected might be witnessed, often resulting in a death." On top of which are the mission restrictions themselves: GTA may be the most famous sandbox in the world, but its missions can be strict about how Rockstar's designers 'expect' them to be completed, allowing little room for creativity and freedom.
A bad date
Which conversely is where Droo's run begins to show incredible creativity, pushing right up against the game's own boundaries and tricking it into helping him. "A small and surface-level example," said Droo, "in the mission Trespass, I use a certain trick to bring along one of the four women Niko can go on dates with, inside the mission." This is the character Katie, and Droo's able to get her inside the mission using the Police Vigilante feature, with the game thinking they're on a date, before he shoots at the ground, spooks her, and Katie abandons the date.
The cutscene that plays when a date ends has a side benefit: it "clears the area around where Niko and the girlfriend are standing, and is used to totally remove several armed gangsters in a big building, among other helpful nuances which lessen the luck-focus and normalize the randomness of the mission(s)," said Droo. "It's still risky due to leftover enemies and a very alert nightclub bouncer that is alerted to gunshots," adds Daniel, "but it makes it 100% easier."
There are older GTA 4 "no damage" runs, but probably the most well-known is segmented and not continuous like this. Next to this kind of stuff, no-hit runs in Elden Ring seem like small beer. GTA 4 doesn't have invincibility frame rolls, or dodging, and in Droo's excellent phrasing: "you avoid damage with set-up and preparation, and by killing everybody else first."
This is an incredible challenge, and it's not immediately obvious just how difficult it is. Droo calls it "a terrific undertaking", and I asked him what the appeal was: "It's incredibly difficult. No one has done something like it before in a game this random, this long, and this hard. Additionally, the things that make never taking damage so difficult, are the same things that make/made me fall in love with GTA 4. It's immersive, it feels realistic (in some senses), it's appropriately rewarding and punishing."
Pray to the void
"Usually the taxi ends up falling in the void which at some point warps it where the runner wants to ultimately go: that's why it's called voidwarping."
As for what's next, Droo is experimenting with a similar run for San Andreas, but already thinks that one will prove "significantly easier" due to the game being less complex. "My passion is these 'perfection' challenges in my favorite games," said Droo. "Spending hundreds or thousands of hours learning the ins and outs of the best games, games I like the most or would be the most impressive and novel to complete without ever receiving a single scratch or singe. That's my path!"
I'm going to end by describing what I find the most jaw-dropping trick in this run. It happens on the second-to-last mission, Deal (If The Price is Right), where Droo uses something GTA runners call voidwarping. The above video should start at the right moment.
This means abusing the taxi fast travel system to teleport the player directly on top of the map marker they want to go to: it also isn't usually possible, because the in-game system is designed such that the taxi should just drop the player off nearby. However, it can be brute-forced which means that, in Daniel's words, "usually the taxi ends up falling in the void which at some point warps it where the runner wants to ultimately go: that's why it's called voidwarping."
Initially, Droo has to start the mission, get the character Phil inside the warehouse, after which re runs back outside to the cab and, doing things I don't understand, somehow gets it to warp straight inside the warehouse (after a brief pause in which to pray).
The cab warps inside the warhouse. Initially Droo panics, thinking it hasn't worked, because there's a few thugs inside. He quickly dispatches them, and realises the strategy has worked. See, voidwarping can have an incredible side-effect. When Niko pops out of the void and into the warehouse where the mission is based, because the player hasn't set off any of the usual approach or mission triggers, 99% of the enemies that would normally be in the warehouse despawn.
A mission that would be next-to-impossible is rendered almost moot by a cosmic taxi blinking into existence and an army of goons just blinking out. Droo mops it up, walking through the warehouse cooly and deliberately, taking out the few baddies that spawn with some expert grenades and caution. Probably the most tense moment is when he seems to have misjudged a jump. As he says himself while playing, "if I hadnt done this 500 times, I would've died"
Droo finishes the mission, with one more to go and on course to beat six hours. His final time is 5:51:09. What a speedrun, and what a ride.