Of course, just because the story and character have changed in Grand Theft Auto IV and just because the setting is now a lot more dirty and realistic than we might be used to from the Grand Theft Autos of the recent past, it doesn’t mean that everything else has changed.
In fact, for the most part, this is Grand Theft Auto as we’ve known and loved it ever since the series first jumped into the third dimension.
Grand Theft Auto IV is, like all past GTA games, a mission-based sandbox game. At the start of the game you are kicked off the boat and dumped in Liberty City, picked up by your cousin and given a bit of an intro. Then you are turned loose and are free to wander the streets of the impressively huge Liberty City as much as you want. Missions are available, but not obligatory and there are plenty of, uh, distractions.
True, you are confined to the first islands of the city for the opening acts, but more areas open up as you progress on through the story by completing missions for various friends and enemies. Some missions in Grand Theft Auto IV are obligatory and some of them are there for those who want to do a little bit extra on the side or who demand 100 percent completion. Either way, you can take your time at running errands, there's no rush at all.
GTA IV also expands on the relationship aspects of San Andreas by giving players optional side quests and activities, such as taking a girl out for a date or hanging out with your cousin. Mostly these side-events appear as extra mini-games and fetch quests, like bowling, pool or ferrying your cousin to a strip club. The latter has all the, uh, features you'd expect but isn't actually the best activity by far. It's a novelty that will soon wear off.
Unfortunately, many of these mini-games are tacked on or lacklustre, such as Bowling which feels less like the real sport and more like cheese-rolling on an uphill course.
The real bad news though is more of a contradiction in design and, though it isn’t really a fault of the game, it did irk us somewhat. You see, there are several long interactions available in GTA IV; comedy shows and variety acts you can visit, TV programs you can sit back and watch on a screen on your screen. Technically, these are great. They offer players a chance to sit back and laugh at some genuinely funny humour.
In reality though, they become more of an annoyance. It's not like listening to the radio, which you can do as you move between missions or on the go. To watch a comedy show in GTA IV requires the player to find a club, pay for entry, sit down without getting a weapon out, and then put the controller down for a long time. We’re not sure how long exactly, but we watched one show for about half an hour at one point and it didn’t show any signs of stopping.
Frankly, it’s overwhelming and feels a little punishing. Sure, you can skip the show and reap the gameplay benefits regardless, but there’s so much extra content here that even hardcore players will feel suddenly out of their depth. We don’t even want to know what happens to those who have the innate need to do everything in a game.
Again, it’s not really a fault – but it is a problem, somehow. As Tycho points out, when presented with the chance for anything, players often tend towards nothing and the sheer amount of content you’ll end up skipping through is perhaps indicative that the entire game could do with some tightening up.
And yes, we are aware of the irony that we’ve spent the best part of a page outlining how too much content is one of the biggest problems in Grand Theft Auto IV, but it needed to be said.