GTA4 is the most immersive game I've played since Oblivion, and I've only put in 3 hours.
Being Niko is a whole lot more easy, mature and realistic so far, than being CJ back in San Andreas. GTA4 has an organic quality to it, unlike the paranoid frenetic pace of San Andreas. In Niko, you get to see the bottom of the pile of Liberty City, but it is not preternaturally dangerous. You ease into the dark life. My Niko is not there. I've just started. I got about 150 bucks in my pocket, I walk the streets a bit. I bought a pair of boots from the Russian market. I met this girl named Michelle and we went bowling. I sat down in my filthy apartment and watched Katt Williams on TV. I got into a fight to save my cousin from some Albanian loan sharks, but I got my ass kicked by a guy with a knife four times before I actually got through it. It feels like the pace of a real life, day turns to night and sometimes it rains.
Carjacking is stupidly easy in this world - easier that hotwiring a vehicle, but that's part of the fun. The driving engine in GTA4 is an order of magnitude more refined and subtle than any urban shoot 'em up game before, and the hand to hand combat engine defies button mashing of the sort that powers Bully. It makes a world of difference. I figured I could just knock over these fat thugs with some cool moves. No such luck. My Niko was basically spent after 50 punches. If you have to fight three men, you had better have a weapon.
As before, the music is crackling. The audio talent and variety in GTA4 is the benchmark against which all ghetto ambiance in the gaming world must now be judged. That too shows some mastery on the part of the Rockstar crew. I can't tell you how quickly stupid and repetitive comments just destroyed True Crime despite the ripping sound track. Once again, Rockstar has put together some excellent radio parodies and now added television parody as well.
The art direction is spot on. I am transported to Brooklyn and Queens in Liberty City. The light, noise and shadows under the tracks, the wooden clunk of my shoes on the boardwalk, the weeds and garbage cans under the light in the alley at night. GTA4's Liberty City is a completely intelligent and sophisticated riff off the American urban underclass. It is both exploitive and serious. This is to gangster gaming what the Sopranos was to gangster stories on TV. It has been more than evolved, but revolutionized and humanized with a deft touch. I really truly expect academics to take a close look at this representation of urban life. So far, it is utterly convincing.
But none of that prepared me for being drunk. Yes drunk. My Niko took his cousin out to a bar and then I get drunk. The experience is extraordinary. Niko stumbles trying to walk straight, the entire view is fuzzed and wobbly. I can't even get in a car to drive because I nearly get run over in the middle of the street. Before I can get to the curb I can hear cops coming, and then my head starts spinning harder. I had to laugh out loud it was so uncanny.
I approached GTA4 with more than a bit of trepidation. I have a difficult time being the criminal, but I'm emotionally sympathetic to Niko. It's more than just the date with Michelle and the relationship with cousin Roman, it's the whole world.