One of the biggest disappointments ever
At the core of it, GTA is basically an okay game, as far as gameplay design goes. A huge city with places to see and people to be in, decorated with some of the finest graphics ever. Lots and lots to do, and an illusion of choice to gamers. Others can concentrate on the mission tree, others can release their inner psychopath and wreak havoc around Liberty City.
The game's world is entertaining, not really because of the story but because of the characters. With great writing and voice acting, especially characters like Brucie and Dwayne, feel interesting and three-dimensional. There is a lot of humor and sharp dialogue in the game, and the hilarious radio advertisements and great soundtrack add up to the experience.
As far as the GTA series go, though, GTA IV might just be the worst, and it is weird to see how Rockstar just ignores all criticism their games have faced over the years. The shooting is still awkward, but for different reasons. The fact that almost every mission involves shooting hundreds of nameless criminals makes the shooting segments feel really dull.
The mission design isn't too great, either. It seems that every mission is either shooting a bunch of criminals or chasing a criminal through the city. And, of course, if you die or just otherwise fail the mission, you have to start all over again, which is infuriating because the game and the missions are too scripted. Sometimes the car you're supposed to chase is immune to all damage until you reach a certain point, but there's no way to know that.
The hand-to-hand combat is even worse due to the way our "hero" Niko moves - even trucks are more agile than him. Just walking on the street might cause you to take damage if you trip on something, due to the game's physics engine.
The biggest flaw of the game is that Rockstar, for some reason, tries to inject "realism" in the GTA word, which is an exercise in futility. The story is "darker" and "grittier" and the creative insanity from the earlier GTA titles is almost gone. Of course, there is a ton of funny moments, but a lot of time, the "edgy" humor feels forced. The game feels way too cynical and joyless from time to time, like you're playing the video game equivalent to Family Guy our South Park.
And then there's the "friend system" just about everyone seems to hate, and for good reason. For the last time, Roman, I don't want to go bowling with you! You're the most annoying character in the game!
The Bottom Line
Even if you're into GTA, you might have to think twice before deciding to get GTA IV. The game feels like a chore more often that it should, and while the production values of the game might be high, they mostly just succeed in hiding the fact that the gameplay is very underwhelming.