GTA4: Little Things Done Well
The bottom line is, the hype was ... well, hype. GTA4 is not the game to end all games. Reviewers who probably put 10-15 hours into it before making their judgment were understandably wooed by the open-world freeform sprawl of Liberty City, the interesting and well-done main story propelled by believable characters and excellent voice acting, and, of course, the massive PR campaign.
Once you get past the newness of it all, though, you see that the gameplay is fundamentally very repetitive: drive here, shoot this guy, steal this money. Drive there, take this guy out, call this guy. To their credit, the devs do sometimes get creative with this GTA equivalent of the standard RPG FedEx quest (i.e. take X package to Y guy for Z reward). But in the end, when you step back from the details, there's really not much variety here.
Still, though, somehow this game has a way of sucking you in. From what I can tell, it's the sheer amount of 'little things' that come together to make Liberty City so compelling: traffic, while not the smartest, is everywhere; pedestrians are on every sidewalk, yell things when you honk at them, answer their cell phones, get angry at drivers that hit them, and have conversations among themselves. In 27 hours of game time, I think I have yet to hear a single repeated conversation or comment from any one of them. Ambulances come to the scene of big accidents; cops chase bad guys; food vendors hawk hot dogs on street corners. Day changes to night changes to morning. Sunny skies turn to downpours, soaking the streets, forcing pedestrians to open umbrellas or run for cover. In short, the city really does feel alive, and its sheer size is such that you can't help but feel like it dwarfs you and would just keep on going even after you stop playing.
Seven months after its release, I'm only 37% of the way through the game, according to the in-game stats tracker. I'm not in any particular hurry, and I don't play that often. I pick it up every now and then, maybe once every two weeks for an hour. Right now I'm stuck on a frustrating-as-hell mission called "Waste Not Want Knots". I'm supposed to go with Packie McRreary and his brothers to a waste management plant run by the mob to steal a stash of cash. We have to hop the fence, take out the bad guys standing around outside, get into the plant, fight the baddies inside, I have to run up the stairs to the office and grab the cash, then we have to fight our way outside to the rear of the plant, where a 'getaway boat' is waiting for us. I've tried this mission, oh, probably thirty times. There are just too many bad guys. Making it that much harder is that if any of your guys dies, the mission's a failure. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but I just can't beat it.
Anyway, on the ride over to the waste management plant, Packie and his brothers have a conversation about the mob and about their own family. I was getting so, so tired of hearing this story every single time I had to drive them back over to the plant for one more try. Then, a few nights ago, on my 4th try of the night, I notice that Packie doesn't start talking - he's quiet. All I hear is the radio ... and then he says, "is it OK if we just listen to the radio on this one?" I couldn't believe it! The game knows I'm really damn tired of hearing this same stupid conversation and had some pity on me! Freakin' awesome!
So yeah, that seems to sum up the appeal of GTA4 for me. It does a lot of little things really well, and in combination, it adds up to a very well done game. The hype was way overblown, but it's a damn fun game.