I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I didn’t like GTA IV very much. I know, I’m about a year late with that verdict, but that’s because I was unsure about it for a while and other games took preference - I ended up getting it for XMas after having it sloshing around in my ‘maybe’ list for a while by a friend who really liked it. Partly because it was a present, I’ve spent longer than usual trying to discover what I was missing about it, but in the end have just had to accept that I don’t agree with the universal praise that’s heaped on it.
I really liked the original GTA and GTAII on PC from DMA Design, the precursors to Rockstar. There was something rather silly, over the top and crazy about them that made them a laugh to play. For whatever reason I never bothered to pick up GTA3 onwards, despite playing them a little on friends machines - each one seemed to take the ‘immersion’ aspect further and I was never entirely sure that was what I wanted from the game.
GTA IV does immersion with obsession. If you ever wanted to embody an American immigrant with loose morals and some shooting / fighting skills, then it probably doesn’t get much closer than this. The level of detail in the city is quite incredible, and it really does seem like a living, breathing place. It was fun for a while just driving around seeing what was there and marvelling at how well the open world was implemented. Similarly, the voice acting and characterisation is extremely well done - I’m not a fan of cutscenes personally, preferring interaction to passive observation, but at least the cutscenes here were mostly entertaining and very well executed.
However, my enjoyment curve when actually playing it was pretty erratic. Despite the fact that it breaks new ground in the open world department, the actual gaming elements are pretty hit and miss - it was fun at times, but there were just too many aspects that annoyed me; particularly that I’m acutely aware that each gameplay element has been done a lot better elsewhere IMO. The driving is considerably less fun than most good driving games (e.g. Burnout Paradise), feeling imprecise and spongy most of the time, and the shooting and combat feels awkward and clumsy compared to games that specialise in this element. The very worst case for me was when these elements were combined - e.g. having to have a car / motorbike chase while simultaneously shooting at things. I found doing this incredibly awkward and annoying, feeling neither in control of the vehicle or the gun in any adequate sense. Maybe I just needed more practice, but then repeating missions really started to get on my tits - you have to jack another car, drive back there, sometimes replenish your ammo or guns if you ended up in hospital, etc - to the extent that I really didn’t want to bother anymore.
Then on the ‘do anything you want’ score, I found Crackdown a lot more fun. Crackdown was an open city world with guns and driving too, albeit nowhere near as detailed or impressive as GTA, but the difference was that it was an absolute blast to mess around in, all the time. Forget realism - it was actually less fun when you started out as a ‘norm’, but as you powered up and got to do ever more ridiculous things (throwing cars, bounding from building to building) the game really became huge amounts of fun. Maybe I’m just bored with normality, but running about in a real city doing crime-related things in a pretty realistic way just wasn’t that exciting to me.
I also didn’t feel particularly enamoured with the characters or story, despite the impressive execution. I can recognise the good acting, interesting plotline etc, but it just didn’t click with me, in the same way that I recognise the quality of the acting in The Sopranos and Eastenders, but I wouldn’t choose to watch them. Gritty realistic drama just doesn’t interest me that much - I know the world is a pretty crappy place with some dodgy characters; I play games to have fun and get away from reality, not immerse myself further in it. And don’t get me started on the whole aspect of people phoning you up and wanting to go out on a date / to the pub / strip club etc. These little side-quests were almost universally pointless and dull, improved only by the ‘drunkeness sim’ part which was entertaining the first time at least. As entertaining as cousin Roman’s banter can be, and as nice as it is to unlock achievements like ‘Warm Coffee’, the outings are generally a bit tedious - but you have to do them to get the characters to like you enough to unlock other missions. At one point I ‘accidentally’ ran over Roman when he was waiting for me to pick him up to engage in some banal activity - I actually didn’t mean to, but I wonder whether subconsciously I was expressing some pent-up frustration with the chore.
So, in summary, for me GTA IV was an impressive achievement, something to admire both technically and from a characterisation perspective, but in my opinion wasn’t a hugely fun game to play. Maybe if you really dig the city underworld thing, or love the storyline, or just want the best experience of a living, breathing virtual city, it’s a GOTY for you. For me, once I got past the impressive surface there wasn’t really a game I enjoyed playing that much underneath. Ultimately, I’m glad I got to experience it, but I’ve traded it in to buy Fallout 3, which I’m enjoying playing a lot more.