I decided to write this review a little differently than I normally do. Since GTA4 is rumored to be around a 100+ hours of gameplay I decided to write this one in pieces while certain parts were still fresh in my mind. So here it goes.
First thing you will notice is that there is about 3GB worth of game data (hey at least it doesn't take as long as DMC4) that has to download to your system before you get going. Another thing you will notice is that it autoloads and yes you have to watch those cut scenes every single time you play. The game starts off on a boat making its way to Liberty City, "land of opportunity". You, Niko Bellic, a Russian immigrant are on this boat having left home to try and make a new life and get away from your past. After a few seconds of waiting, your slick talking, gambling addicted cousin Roman shows up but he is to drunk to drive so you drive home and thus get your first feel for driving in GTA4. The driving mechanics from a technical standpoint are right on, the physics on the cars and the damage they can sustain are all spot on though brakes are well for most vehicles except the most expensive ok at best. You will notice that you are now driving with the triggers which takes a little getting used to but not a big deal.
GTA4 is a much darker game than either of its most recent predecessors Vice City or San Andreas. I mean in Vice City and San Andreas you could pretty much say that the goal was to get rich and take over everything, and while that is a component of this one you don't feel like its the main thing interestingly. You will notice that the game develops a lot slower than any of the others, by that I mean the story arcs. While I am thinking of it, man the story arcs are cool because you now have choices that you never had in GTA before. You have the opportunity to choose if you whack certain people and based on your choices the story arc diverges again, now its not all just based on which missions you do first. But back on track, you have a lot more side missions and you accumulate money much slower, well at least in the beginning. But that changes later.
Another new twist is your cellphone which is upgraded throughout the game. This allows you to interact with characters you have met during the game and not only get jobs from them but actually build friendships with them that will either help you or hurt you in the game. For instance, you will meet a Rasta named Little Jacob rather early in the game and do things or you may not. Depending on the order you do things, he will come along with you to have your back in certain situations. Same as with the rest of the characters, you will call them and suggest things to do and they will call you. Every choice you make affects the relationship, if someone calls and wants to go bowling and you say no that affects your friendship, you say no three times in a row and well you get the picture. Another thing is that the characters do remember you, what you do, girls will remember clothes you wear and cars you drive and make comments on them each time you see them. So to a degree its a lot like real life you have to balance your time and take care of your friendships, and watch your friends too. I learned the hard way what dealing with the wrong people will do and now at this point in the game I am paying for it (I knew they couldn't be trusted, darn Feds).
GTA4 introduces and all new cover system similar to what you see in Uncharted and the like. I like the cover system, and you definitely need it in some battles but it is not as polished as some of the others I have seen. Specifically, the fluidity with which you enter and exit cover. If you are in a doorway, you can spin across from one side to the other to avoid fire but coming out of cover is less than fluid. Of course the graphics are gorgeous, but in a rugged kind of way.
GTA4 ends the same way it plays, with a choice. Unfortunately, just like in Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, no good deed goes unpunished. With alternate endings depending on your final choice the game displays a depth and insight not often seen in a video game. The game is brilliantly architected and a success on so many levels. I commend Rockstar for breaking away from the molds of Vice City and San Andreas and doing a game that is unique in the franchise. One thing people will not say is that this is either over those games done over.
The one thing that I will leave you with about this game is take time to enjoy the little things. If you play straight through this game without digging into the full interactive web browsing experience by dating folks from Love meet or craplist, calling people about cars on the car site or going to the website where it tells you where all the secret stuff is hidden(www.whattheydontwantyoutoknow.com) then you are doing yourself an injustice. Make sure you go to the Caberet club a few times to see the acts and definitely make sure you check out the multiple comedy acts of Ricky Gervais and the pimp himself Katt Williams, yes Katt Williams is in the game with 4 or 5 3-5 minute performances which are hilarious.
In the end Grand Theft Auto 4 is one heck of way to start off the stream of big titles set to be released this year.