At five hours in I feel I can comment a little on the game. I was hesitant at first, I struggled with the first big mission of the game, mainly because the unarmed combat controls feel like wading through knee deep quicksand but making my way passed that part I’ve come around to something close to full on addiction. I was vaguely embarrassed by that trouble once I did beat the mission.
As reported elsewhere the story focuses on Niko Bellic, a Serbian immigrant, who came to Liberty City to pursue the American Dream. He comes sidled with some serious baggage and a suitably mysterious past that lead to more than a few bumps along the way. It is a startling familiar story that feels more reminiscent to something out of a 1930s gangster movie than any previous GTA title. Where Vice City drew comparisons to the 80s version of Scarface I think that GTA IV bears a closer similarity to the 1932 original version of Scarface; and that is a good thing. The game is darker and grittier than any of the previous versions of GTA and even the humorous elements take on a bit of a sharper edge than in the past.
The gameplay is familiar, but the story pulls you along and, even as early in the game as I am, you know things are gonna be bad. There are some slight tweaks that add to the gameplay over previous entries into the GTA series. They’ve added a cover system that works though I’m not sure how useful it will be and the gun controls feel tighter all around. My favorite addition is the major tweak to the wanted system. When you get a Wanted star a blue/red flashing circle appears on your radar indicated the zone where you are actually wanted. Escaping the circle by evading pursuing cops and your wanted stars go from white to gray. Succesfully avoid any cops outside the zone for a little while and your home free. The chase element this introduces to the game makes for some tense, entertaining moments particularly when it happens mid-mission and your stuck with a vehicle particularly ill-suited to evading pursuit. Escaping pursuing police cars in a black van at night, in the rain, was intense but left me feeling satisfied when I eventually did it. The Pay and Spray the easiest means of evading police in earlier cames is still an option but you need to enter when out of sight of police and you need to actually find a Pay and Spray, the chase element is a much more satisfying experience.
Driving is still a bit off, but better than before. You have a handbrake now that makes pulling off big turns and 180s easy enough, with judicial use of the analog trigger to control acceleration and a bit of practice and the controls work well enough. The graphics are good but not great, but are enhanced by fantastic lighting and inspired animation in terms of both broad movements and facial expression (in the cut scenes). There is still some horizon popup but noticably less than in other games (**cough**MassEffect**cough***). I don’t know if it’s the near perfect game a lot of media outfits are making it out to be, it won’t win over those who were vehemently against the game (either because of content or gameplay) but for those on the fence or who love the series it is certainly worth a look. At least for me it has so far been a compelling, entertaining experience and has justified its purchase many times over already.
I have yet to give the multiplayer a shot.