Anyway, I picked up GTA IV last week and thought I'd offer my initial impression of the game.
I haven't played it in a while. Instead, I've been playing Call of Duty 4. That's partially a testament to how great CoD4 multiplayer is, but it also reflects my relative boredom with GTA IV. Honestly, I'm wondering if I should have bought it or just saved my money for the plethora of other great games being released this year (two of which I've already pre-ordered). If you haven't seen Zero Punctuation's review yet, you might want to watch that before reading further. Like most of his reviews, this one mentioned many of my own thoughts.
I both like and dislike the realism. I certainly love it in the visuals. Driving in the rain or fog is a thrill. I like the gritty story. However, I agree with most of the points Zero Punctuation made.
Being able to go bowling, play darts or play pool with another character is great. For a sandbox-focused game, more options is good. But Rockstar made a mistake by having those characters call Niko on his phone. That makes the world seem more real, but it also deters the player from enjoying the sandbox by constantly turning the player's focus toward the linear content. It's partially a problem of pacing. Sandbox adventures (meaning small series of explorations that the player subconsciously connects into stories) take time to develop, and the player needs time to become immersed in that exploration. The invitations to hang out by Niko's companions disrupt that exploration and prevent the player from connecting happenstance events into personal stories. There's not enough undisrupted time to wander through the sandbox and find one's own crazy series of events.
The TV channels are funny, but why do I have to sit in my apartment to watch? The billiards, darts, and bowling could have been designed so that the player could watch TV between turns. I'm a fan of world-type games, but who wants to roleplay a couch-potato? The TV stations should have been enjoyable while doing other things, as the radio stations are. There was more humor on the airwaves of early GTA games, but the music is still good. It would be nice if the radio turned down/off automatically when Niko answers his cellphone, but that's the sort of attention to detail that's often lacking in GTA IV.
The vehicle handling is awful. In this case, the move toward realism was a very bad idea. There's nothing quite like
The control scheme for gunfighting on the 360 is strange. There doesn't seem to be any reason the typical FPS setup wouldn't work, except for shooting while driving. And in that case, shooting while driving is a chore as it is, and should have been done differently. Wouldn't it be more fun to let a companion NPC or an AI for Niko handle the driving or shooting controls while I handle the other? Wouldn't a close-camera chase or gunfight like that be more fun anyway than combining the two into less visceral, less fluid experience?
I hate for this early-glimpse (many hours of play) review to all be negative, so let me reiterate that the visuals are impressive, the story is good, and add that pressing "B" while driving to activate a cinematic camera is an awesome idea (too bad Microsoft still stupidly fails to offer Xbox 360 gamers the ability to take screenshots). The bowling, darts, and (especially) pool are all extremely well designed, though I do wish pool and darts included the same swinging use of the thumbstick that bowling does (to add that visceral feel). The physics is great, but more for its applications to animation (pedestrians moving and getting knocked around, vehicles colliding, etc) than applications to gameplay (driving, gunfights, etc).
GTA 2 and Vice City were better games. They let the player off the rails immediately, kept the pace up, allowed wild and silly fun while wandering every which way, and strived to be over-the-top in gameplay more than in libertine shocks (ex: yes, the hookers in GTA IV are funny, but the production time would have been better spent on further dynamics in combat and driving gameplay -- i.e., content that improves the game's lifespan / replayability).
I'll put more hours into GTA IV at some point. But my early impression is that Saints Row is as good, and Saints Row 2 might end up being a better game. Hold out for that one, if you haven't already bought GTA.
I'm looking forward to trying out the game's multiplayer modes. Perhaps that's where GTA IV really shines... though that would be strange, considering that the GTA series has always been about the single-player sandbox.