Grand Theft Auto 4 suffers heavily because it is an extremely hyped game. This has the consequence that almost all its reviews make horrible exaggerations about how great it is (like the Halo series), and the rest spend so much time trying to break through the wall of hype people have built around their reasoning that they forget actually reviewing the damn thing. But I must apologize; I must be sounding rather vague when all I am really talking about is the IGN and the GR reviews. The IGN one was so ridiculous I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to make an art exhibit out of screenshots from the game and produced an opera based on its story, while the GR one went rambling on about STDs, transsexuals, and public nudity; only briefly touching on the features of the game.
GTA4 is not even close to the perfection many have attributed it with, and is a disappointment when compared to all the hype, or even compared to San Andreas, but that doesn't make it a bad game. No indeed, GTA4 is a mediocre GTA game, which makes it above average compared to most other games. While many features present in the older games have been refined or otherwise changed, not all of the changes are necessarily good ones, and not much in the game is new to the series.
The environment itself is the biggest disappointment in the game, even if it is only a slight one. Liberty City is almost as small as I remember it from GTA3. I wouldn't really know for sure, but the city seems about as large as Vice City plus another island. In any case, it is much smaller than SA, and it feels as though there is a lot less to do. Of course the buildings are rather well detailed and all, and there are more buildings with interiors than before, but many interiors are meant for a specific mission, and the smaller, apartment buildings that make up the vast majority of buildings that can be entered pretty much all look the same. It feels as though 4 has fewer types of vehicles than SA, and there are no more planes, which makes sense considering how small the environment is.
The story this time around is not a whole lot better than in the past, but the characters are much more 3-dimensional. Well, some of the characters are. Niko is by far the most interesting character, as despite the horrible things he does, he is too complex to simply categorize as a "bad" person. Indeed, when it comes to morality, GTA4 has a much more realistic system than any Bioware game, in that there isn't any. Many of the conversations in the game are actually worth paying attention to, and such conversations can make the annoying dating mechanic that was introduced in SA worth dealing with.
The missions are obviously the main thing to do in the game, but this is much more apparent in 4 than in any of the previous games. The missions are numerous, but many of them are basically the same, with some little unique action to do thrown into some of them. They vary in quality, but all of them are rather linear, each with a set up sequence of events that is unchangeable. For example, in one mission, I needed to steal a truck that was under guard. So, after killing off most of the enemies with an rpg and an assault rifle, I notice someone getting in the truck while I am rather far away. Of course I figured that he would drive off with the truck, so I pulled out a sniper rifle and shot in him the head. However, that turned out to be a big mistake, as not only did he not die, but it triggered a chase section where I was intended to run up to the back of the truck and grab on, except in my case, I was much farther away than was intended by the mission. Thus, the next 20 minutes were spent trying to catch up to this damn truck by running on streets conspicuously empty of cars. There is still no checkpoint system in 4, which annoys me to no end. Many missions have very long car follow/chase sections which are then followed by gunfights. Dieing during the gunfight section means repeating the damn chase/follow scene. However, restarting missions is much easier this time around as an option on the phone will instantly restart a mission with no traveling to the starting location required.
Driving has changed a great deal, but not for the better. Sure, the radio is as amazing as it ever was, and the new GPS system lets you put no effort into familiarizing yourself with your surroundings, but unlike most things in GTA4, the driving has a sense of realism that makes it much less fun than it was in the old games. Driving fast is now extremely hard, as turning 90 degrees while going over 20mph will invariably cause one to crash through streetlights, lamp posts, and other various objects, with the vehicle stopping only when coming into contact with an indestructible stick of a tree that decorates the sidewalk. Nothing seems to alleviate this problem, as the handbrake that used to help out in this situation now immediately causes vehicles to spiral out of control.
Of course driving is much easier when done at reasonable speeds, but considering the name of the game is grand theft AUTO, the inability to drive at high speeds without blowing up or flying through the windshield is annoying. This is further rubbed in the player's face, as the computer can easily fly through traffic at insane speeds during car chases, which is balanced out only by the player's ability to shoot out tires or specific people inside the car.
The combat system is similar to the one in SA, only more advanced. After locking on to a target (and locking on to a target is always easier than free aiming at them), the aiming reticule can be moved to aim at different parts of the target's body. This makes killing people ridiculously easy, as headshots can be easily pulled off by simply aiming a bit up after locking on. This actually makes it easier to get one-shot kills from long range using a submachine gun and locking on than using a sniper rifle and free-aiming using the analog stick. However, the targeting system has some flaws, in that it is unusually hard to change targets, and has a habit of sticking to people after they die, slowing down the killing by a small amount.
The cover system is usually very good, and can make blasting through legions of mobsters/drug dealers/hookers relatively painless, but it can be somewhat unreliable. Switching from one cover position to another without actually detaching from cover is unusually difficult, and ending up on the wrong side of a piece of cover is not incredibly uncommon. Additionally, many missions involve scaling multi-story buildings under fire, which leads to some cheap moments on staircases as there are always 5 people ready to play whack-a-mole as soon as Niko's head pops up to the next floor.
The new friends system is relatively cool at first, but then becomes tiresome and boring. Having a good relationship with a friend can unlock a special ability that they have, but after a certain point, it is hard to care, and much easier to ignore lonely friends. In fact, the whole phone feature is overrated, as it serves little purpose outside of missions, except for side-jobs.
The in-game internet is surprisingly large but has little interactivity. The many websites are very comedic and are good for hours of reading, but the only meaningful thing to do with the internet is check email, which can include side-jobs.
The new police chase system is much better than rushing to the nearest pay-n-spray. Simply driving out of a search radius without being seen by cops can be very convenient and is perhaps a little more reasonable than the old way.
Money is once more essentially meaningless. It is rather hard to accumulate a large amount of money in the game, but it doesn't matter because it is only good for buying weapons. The real estate and businesses from SA and VC are completely gone, and all the safehouses are simply given to the player. This seems kind of ridiculous as Niko constantly *****es about needing money in the story, but there is absolutely nothing to spend it on other than the weapons.
The graphics are pretty good, and while they are certainly not the best around, they get the job done, and the explosions look very good. Playing on the 360, I had no significant slowdown or horrible technical problems, and have faced worse playability on Mass Effect.
Oh yeah, multiplayer. I never really cared about playing GTA online, and I still don't. Moving on.
GTA4 is just like all the other GTA games, really, except it breaks from the tradition of adding more features and making everything bigger and better. Instead, it is more like a better looking and more refined version of GTA3. As such, anyone who likes GTA will enjoy this game, but it certainly won't change the minds of those who dislike the series.