The perfect next generation iteration of the franchise.
GTA 3 remains my favourite video game of all time. I was absolutely blown away by the scope and depth of the open world and was amazed by the countless hours of gameplay to be had. Although I felt that Vice City was a superior game, GTA 3 had a special place in my heart for being so groundbreaking for its time. Although for many, GTA San Andreas took things up another notch, I didn't like it. I felt that it did "too much", and I thought a lot of what it did was redundant and ended up in my mind watering down the good parts of the game until what was left was a bloated game that I ended up never finishing; (I was stuck on the second last level where you needed to gain enough gang land territory).
I came into GTA IV with some trepidation. Was it going to be a joyous gaming experience like my time with GTA 3 and Vice City, or was this going to be the definitive end of my love of GTA by following on in San Andreas' disappointment? I am so glad to say that it was resoundingly the latter.
I absolutely loved what Rockstar have done with GTA IV. It has an absolutely amazing depth to it, less in detail than that of San Andreas, but clearly done in a studied, measured way. It seems clear they learned a lot from the kitchen sink approach of San Andreas and brought a more refined game, that offered an absolutely amazing amount of depth not just to the game, but to the entire world, but did so in a way that allowed a player to skip it all if they wanted and not have it be in the way. I didn't miss a single thing they omitted from San Andreas.
All of the gameplay mechanisms have been tightened significantly. I never complained about them in the past, as a game that offered so much, it felt unfair to criticise it with unfavourable comparisons to other games that specialise in one mechanism like driving, or third person shooting. All the key elements that make up the gameplay of GTA IV have been greatly improved from previous incarnations, and the end result is an even more satisfying experience.
Lastly, the story and characters are amazingly strong. The strength of GTA storylines have been to give some semblance of context to the missions, GTA IV takes it up many notches by delivering a strong emotional narrative; something admittedly perhaps ill suited for a game that indulges too easily in rampant violence and complete anarchy, but well appreciated by me nonetheless.
An observation, rather than a criticism that I have however; the character developed for the protagonist Niko Belic is something that a player can easily and quickly contradict. Niko in the cutscenes is a conflicted individual, at times killing mercilessly, but at other times wanting to break away from that life. In fact, he tries in vain to rationalise his cold blooded ways by blaming the horrors of war that he has experienced, and the necessities of having to do what it takes to survive in his new home by doing the one thing he is good at, but always desperately wanting to put this life behind him. This comes through strongly in the story, but you can completely contradict the very core of who Niko is being established as being just by going on a killing spree for the hell of it. It's a quite an amount of dissonance that the game inherently allows a player to create.
Every element of the game is strong, and if you want to delve deep you can, and you will continually find rewards. This game is massive. The perfect next generation iteration of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.