GTA4 is proof that realism isn't always the way to go.
Let me start by saying that I've put in at least 200 hours cumulatively into all of the Playstation 2 Grand Theft Auto games. I loved and cherished them. They played well, had good humor and made you feel like the world's greatest badass at times. Grand Theft Auto 4, with a budget of $100 million and a development time of over four years ultimately proves that Grand Theft Auto relied on more than just the city to play in. How you play in that city matters even more, and this is where GTA4 falls short of it predecessors.
GTA4 has a much longer story than the other games in the series, and it's more unique as well. You control Nico Bellic, a Serbian war veteran who is escaping from his past. He comes to Liberty City in hopes of finding the vivid American Dream that his brother Roman has been so willing to tell him about. When he arrives, he finds nothing of the sort, and instead becomes wrapped up into a life of violence much like the one he was trying to escape. Nico is a good main character, and his obvious humanity truly affects you in certain ways. The storyline is pretty good, but the dialogue is questionable and feels very out of place, which is where I believe GTA4 suffers the worst.
When you buy GTA4, you are buying a completely schizophrenic game. What I mean by this is that the different parts of the game do not mix: it feels as though you are playing two separate games, constantly conflicting between gritty realism and goofy arcadeishness. This can easily be displayed through a simple run through an even that will happen to you often in GTA4. You are driving a car running away from the cops. When you go to take a turn, you spin out and end up facing the other way. When the cop car hits you head on, you fly out of the windshield. You then get up, take a few rounds in the chest, and eventually succumb to a couple shotgun blasts. Let me break it down. When you spin out while driving, that was an attempt at realism. In the other games, the driving was much more arcade-like. However, you die after getting shot at least 4 times and flying through a windshield into a nice bed of pavement, officially making your character a flattened piece of swiss cheese. It takes a lot to kill you, just like in a more arcade-style game. These shifts in gameplay can really throw you off. Then there's the dialogue, as I mentioned above. Characters look real and act as real as they can in a video game, but the things they say are so absurd sometimes that you won't know what to think. You could say that this is a play on how big-city dwellers are all crazy, but I say that GTA4 is a victim of the times, stuck in the age of realism when it just wants to goof off.
The missions are better than common GTA fare. Sure, they're still mostly escort quests, but there's some gems thrown in, such as one where you have to find a person by talking to them on their cell phone. Your cell phone is used for many things in this game, be it to receive text messages or get missions. However, the text messages stuck out like a sore thumb at me as an example of somewhat questionable writing. Text messages in real life often involve shortening things like "hahahahahahaaaaa" to "lol" or "I'll see you some other time" to "cya". However, the inhabitants of Liberty City are all both completely literate and thumb gymnasts given by the messages they send you. Some are so long and winded that it's maddening, especially when they take the time to say meaningless things, such as "and sh**". This is a small detail to some, but it becomes aggravating when the game is trying to be realistic but doesn't bother to go beyond the city.
Speaking of the city, despite some glitches here and there it's easily one of the best game worlds to date, despite showing an utter lack of creativity, but that's OK, because that's their choice. Everything feels fairly alive and bustling most of the time, even though the pedestrians don't have a lick of street smarts. It really is a great playground of destruction, and I think it's the limit. I don't really want to see a city in a game get any bigger than this, just more interactive. Any bigger and driving will be a chore, just like in real life. Speaking of real life, I could go on and talk about all the useless crap that you can do in the game but there's not really a point. If I want to watch TV, I'll watch TV. If I want to watch Kat Williams, I'll put in a freaking DVD. Lemme shoot stuff.
The date/hetero-man-get-together aspect of the game is also pretty tedious. You can go bowling, play pool, go out to eat, or hit up the strip joint, but it's not really that fun, except when you go to the bar, get drunk and drive home on the sidewalk, which is a blast, not only because you're drunk, but because the most fun by far that I had while playing this game was hitting pedestrians in my car and watching the Euphoria physics engine work it's magic. It's really amazing, actually, and it helps explain where all the money went.
The combat in this game is improved over the others in the series, but isn't as good as other third person shooters out there, mainly that one where you play as a bottle of steroids. Still, it works well after some getting used to and bears resemblance to The Godfather, just as the police chase segments bear resemblance to Scarface.
Because I'm tired of talking about everything in this game, and believe me, I probably covered barely more than half of the elements in the game if that, I'll sum it up with this: Grand Theft Auto 4 is fun, but not nearly as fun as it could have been if it stuck to its roots. It's gritty when it shouldn't be, which is pretty much whenever it's gritty, and it's a shame. I'd recommend playing it because the basic GTA formula is here, it's only worsened a little. The city is worth exploring and Nico is worth knowing, but I don't think it's really worth putting another 200 hours into.