I have to admit to a certain reticence when it comes to praising games. Like most writers, I can usually find something not to like about a game, and those bits usually make the best copy. But 30 hours into Grand Theft Auto IV I can easily say it's my main contender for Game of the Year. Hell, it's in the running for Game of the Decade. I'd even go so far as to say it's the best game I've ever played.
Comparing notes around the office, I also have to admit that I play incredibly slowly. It's been rumored this is a 60-or-so-hour game, which would theoretically put me at the halfway mark, but there's no way in hell I'm halfway through this game. In fact, the game's stat page tells me I'm closer to a third of the way into the main story, with plenty of side missions and random, unscripted events still left to uncover, and that thought fills me with unabashed glee.
I usually start up a Grand Theft Auto game prepared to suffer through overblown characterizations and poorly rationalized plot devices just to get to the meat of the game - blowing shit up and running from the cops. But this time out, the main storyline is incredibly well-written, acted and directed, and a joy to behold on its own. In fact, as with the best games, this story could very easily stand on its own without all that game-playing crap in the way, which is something you can also say about the game-playing crap; and seldom do the two get in each other's way. Savor that. You rarely get the chance to experience an interleaving of story and gameplay as smoothly and painlessly as you will in GTA IV.
BioShock got it right, mainly by creating a kick-ass story and then shelving it, leaving it there for you to discover - or not - as you chose. In GTA 4, as in the previous installments in the series, Rockstar went the cinematic cut-scene route, but this time pulled it off so flawlessly that you may have heard the last of the debate on whether that game element will ever die out. To be fair, a large portion of GTA IV's story is told in-game, through Star Trek-like dialogue, as characters are walking or driving to and fro, and over the phone when characters ring you up to chat; but neither the cinematics nor the in-game elements drag on long enough to annoy. It's a master class in how to keep an audience interested, as Ken Levine put it at this year's GDC, in "your stupid story" while not standing in the way of their fun.
If playing all the way though the scripted missions just to get the meat out of the story is your bag, you can do that. If, however, you're like me, and you like to circle around the story, poking at all the extraneous junk around the periphery before digging in and proceeding along the charted course, you can do that, too. In fact, you don't even have to experience a single mission to get 20 hours of fun out of this game. Steal a car, swipe a police cruiser and let the fun begin. You'd be surprised how entertaining a good police chase can be. Especially when you take a wrong turn, hit a ramp and land on the elevated train tracks, then tear off into the subterranean tunnel system, police helicopters in tow.