None of this is new to Grand Theft Auto; the series pioneered the open-world genre, spawning a succession of clones, a few of which, like Mafia, managed to improve upon the core philosophy by picking up a single element and running with it. In Mafia you play as a would-be Mafioso, stealing cars and bootlegging in a Prohibition-era city heavily inspired by Grand Theft Auto's city planners. The streets are teeming with random, faceless passersby just waiting to be mugged or trodden upon, and every car is a short lock pick away from residing in your garage. Grand Theft Auto IV returns the favor, and shows that Rockstar is not only paying attention, but are gracious and talented enough to take suggestions and deliver beyond all expectations.
What set Mafia apart from other Grand Theft Auto clones was largely its compelling story , which elevated your character from a taxi driver barely making ends meet to the lynchpin of a Mafia empire over the course of a sweeping narrative rife with loss, redemption and plenty of bloodshed. The story alone would have made a good movie, which is fitting, since it was undeniably inspired by at least a dozen of them. Yet the story often got in the way of the fun, and Vishnu help you if you ever had to repeat a mission. GTA IV not only knows when to shut up and let you play, but the spoken dialogue actually changes if you're running a mission for the second or third time, meaning you'll rarely find yourself singing along to monotonous dialogue as you trundle through the early part of a mission. It's a wonder it took someone so long to think of this.
GTA IV would be improved, in my opinion, by the addition of a character garage, in which you can stash your favorite cars, like in Mafia, but in a game as perfect as this one, even that nitpick sounds hollow, as if I'm trying to justify my wage by finding one false note I can justifiably criticize. So while I'm at it, how about two more.
For starters, if you're a series newbie, you might find the first several hours of GTA IV incredibly frustrating. I, for example, came late to Grand Theft Auto. I didn't even own a console during the series' heyday, but when I bought an Xbox in 2004, GTA III was one of the first titles I picked up. Then I didn't buy another game for months. Few games present such a sweeping panorama of seemingly endless possibilities as GTA III, and even when you weren't sure exactly how to progress the story, there was plenty of obvious fun to be had; from stunt jumps to random encounters, the joy was in excess, and there was never any doubt about how to dig into the fun.
GTA IV, by contrast, is far more subtle, a word one would never expect to bestow upon a Grand Theft Auto game. The hidden packages and side missions are much more cleverly hidden this time out, and Rockstar made an obvious decision not to hand-hold, but rather to allow players to experience the world at their own pace. Unfortunately, if you don't know what you're looking for, you won't know that you should be looking for anything at all, and the game just feels like a vast, desolate wasteland in which there's nothing to do. Like Arizona. This feeling dissipates about five or six hours in, but for however long it lasts, it can be a game killer. A more thorough introductory mission - perhaps optional - might have corrected that.