I never expected to like GTA, and my expectations were met. It just isn't my kind of fun. I can't even understand the raging positive passions that a large number of industry professionals have for it.
The industry elite rate it with a score of 98, while the great unwashed give a more honest 79 ref: metacritic. I'd give it a 70-ish. Please consider that average games are typically scored at 70 instead of 50 and bad games typically get scores of 50-ish instead of 10 or 20. Industry professionals are very generous with their scores.
Given that GTA isn't my "type" of game why the hell, then, did I buy it?
Well... I wanted to know! What it was about the game that had so many raving like lunatics? I suppose it's funny that I still don't know the answer to that, I'm guessing that it has something to do with either the 'nature' of the industry or the general low expectations of those in it.
I'm not going to deride the cheap mission design, the boring and repetitive game-play, the derivative and highly predictable story that lacks emotional buy-in from the player (viewer). If you enjoyed this game then my opinion is irrelevant, of course.
There are nuggets of pure gold in GTA IV that made the purchase and subsequent trade a worthwhile exploration, however.
I enjoyed the lampooning of American culture that was omnipresent. Admittedly it was very hit and miss, and largely juvenile, lacking sophistication and truly biting insight. It was enjoyable none-the-less, something worthy of exploration and discovery. I have since learned that this is a hallmark feature of the series and probably won't be as impressive to series loyalists, but as a virgin GTA player it was a worthwhile distraction from all the other irritations that plagued my experience with the title.
The other element of the game that I enjoyed was the "random" encounters. While traversing the game map one could encounter various characters that had no real bearing on the main story. Each encounter was a diversion from the rest of the game and a complete experience in and of itself. Each encounter was a single task mission framed by brief cutscenes. Several encounters spanned more than a single mission.
These random encounters were the best part of the game. They were the most honest, genuinely realised moments in the game. Freed from the stench of the overblown pomposity of the main story, they offered small patches of honest 'reality' in a world where themes focussed on suffering and hardship. They were probably too small for any deep emotional investment from the player, but they didn't need much for what they were. Most of them were spot on too, in terms of pitching the drama to the player, balancing the emotional buy-in against the satisfaction of play and reward. And most resolved in a largely unsatisfying way, highlighting the meaningless of the main character's existence more effectively than any of the mind-numbing drivel that drove the main plot.
The 16 year old female drug addict who offers her body to Nico in return for a couple of bucks, and her subsequent redemption is painful and while offering a chance for the player to do something constructive, news of her redemption is delivered via a distant email.
If one spares one of the targets in the game, there's the opportunity to meet him a little later on. He's resentful that the main character made him beg like a bitch for his life (something the game chose for me, not something I chose for myself, so my emotional buy-in is non-existent). He's looking for payback. He wants you to beg in the same way you made him beg as he points a gun at you. I didn't beg, and don't believe that there was the option to in any case. As a friend remarked, it was a clever reversal of the standard RPG quest result, he wasn't at all grateful about being spared, and it fit the theme of this 'world' perfectly. It did a great job of undermining any 'mercy' acts you may choose for Nico, and resolved in a largely unsatisfactory manner as he died anyway (unless he killed Nico and the player chose to end their gaming experience there!).
The drug addled merchant banker, the hip-hop idealist, the serial killer, even the ship mate selling handbags on a street corner. These were more real, more honest, and more effective in capturing the game's themes than any other part of the game. If I was involved in the design decisions of GTA IV (or subsequent titles) I'd focus the whole game around these "random" encounters. With branching stories revealing new random encounters depending on what choices the player made.
For example, if the player chose to try to save the girl, but her addiction was too strong and she lapsed (more honest, more real than what the game presented), then she might suggest that if the main character were to "take care of" her pusher, it'd be easier for her to get clean. This steady escalation of story offers chances for the player to explore the story in a more open way. More so than the faux open world structure presented. If the player chose to ignore her, or take advantage of her, then other options could be introduced, the police, desperate family members seeking their daughter / sister / friend. Etcetera.
Ignore that a whole bunch of industry professionals place GTA as the pinnacle of gaming experience for the moment and tell me what you think would make it better. Has GTA IV realised all your wishes for gaming, allowing you to place your console aside and get back to living life, or has it left you wanting more? If you do want more, will it be more of the same, or are there things you'd do differently?