I have never been a huge fan of the 3D versions of the Grand Theft Auto series. I am aware they are good games, and I even own the A-O rated (and properly stickered) version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. My issue has been the series' insistence in needlessly driving plot through stereotypes and locking parts of the city up so hard you can't so much as fart in that direction without death. Sometimes I just want to play the game and mess around to blow off steam, plain and simple. It just hasn't been satisfying (or possible) in the last few games. Am I buying Grand Theft Auto IV? No, but I am aware it's rating very well and I can respect it for that. Yes, Grand Theft Auto IV is a good game.
While I've not felt a crazy interest in the game, I am keeping tabs on it to see if perhaps some of my gripes were addressed in this new version or if it would contain some new thread to draw me in. Cargo has written a very effective summary of the things I wanted to know as his first impressions. Perhaps you may find it answers some of your burning questions.
I haz it. Played a few hours last night!
Preliminary thoughts: It's a GTA game. It's not the second coming of Jesus and Mohammed Ali rolled into one. If you didn't like the 3-series games you're probably not going to suddenly like this one. The graphics are better, the city is more detailed, and it feels less cartoony than SA and Vice. Liberty City is grimier and dirtier than NYC, it's like a hybrid of 1970s NY and the current era stylistically.
First thing I did was go to Liberty City's DUMBO analogue (my neighborhood) and check out the parallels. Our apartment isn't in it, but the one across the street from us is, as is the Clock Tower building and Brooklyn Bridge Park with the curving amphitheater thing at the beach front. The bridges are spot-on. Various intersections and streets are duplicated with uncanny accuracy. But the whole thing is compressed together so 'interesting' streets are next to one another, there isn't a lot of filler of samey-looking streets. So the bridge is next to Coney Island, etc. The result captures the essence of the city without the immense size, much like the previous GTA games. After tootling around for awhile it only feels a little bigger than the GTA3 liberty city, even though I know it's MUCH bigger. But it looks spectacular - the rain on the streets looks like rainy streets with blurred headlights from oncoming traffic coming towards you.. it is verging on photoreal in spots. Gorgeous. And the physics engine is outstanding - people fall and go sprawling in painful-looking ways.
Much has been said about the new combat and driving. Long story short it's less arcadey and the cars are harder to control. That is going to piss a lot of veteran players off until they get used to the new system. A shitbox old car will handle accordingly, and sports cars are twitchy and hard to steer. My favorite car so far is the Feltzer, which was the Mercedes-style convertible in SA and is more like a SLK Mercedes now. It's pretty sweet. Combat is not that different from the old one, you still auto target but can free aim if you want. Hand to hand reminds me a little of Bully or Max Payne but it's still mostly button mashing - I avoid hand to hand anyways and prefer to do my work at long range. Shooting from the drivers seat of a car is a loong overdue improvement.
I haven't unlocked much beyond the first few missions, although they've integrated the 'social' missions more into the main stream of the game, so dating girls and even going to shoot pool with your friends can unlock various features. They reduced the customization of Niko and streamlined some of the side missions - doesn't seem to be any taxi or firetruck missions, the hidden packages (200 pigeons to shoot) don't have incremental rewards (just a spawning helicopter in one of your bases apparently, when you get all 200) and as has been noted, no bicycles, aircraft, jetpacks etc.
Uh, what else. I took my car through the car wash and of course it immediately started raining afterwards. Lol. The soundtrack is varied, the radio stations are goofy as ever, and they really put in a lot of gratuitous profanity. Niko Bellic, your character, has a more interesting personality than at first appears, and the whole game feels like less of a cartoon and more of, say, a rather dark graphic novel with enough of the trademark GTA satirical tone to keep it from getting too heavy.
I like it a lot so far, and am looking forward to playing it all the way through, but the hype around it is getting deafening. Again, it's a GTA game. An improvement over the 3-series, but not a quantum jump.
I think I may purchase a used copy when I'm done playing some other games on my platter.