The last time I played a GTA game was the original on PlayStation in my friend's front room almost half a lifetime ago. I say played, I think I had about ten minutes on it before I got bored and let someone else have a go and it was never a game that we rinsed when we all hung out together. Since then I have heard various very good things about the GTA series, although I've never been interested enough to check them out - even when I have owned a system they have had a release on.
I have also been aware of the various controversies surrounding the series, but my general answer to that is that the games have an 18 rating for a reason. My more specific answer is that truly open sandbox/sim-type games will obviously allow you to do despicable things, but that no-one ever complained about the moral effect on the player of setting up dangerous slums in Sim-City for a quick buck or the well-known tactic in Theme Park whereby you could up the salt content in your snacks to make people spend more on drinks (and up the ice in the drinks so that they had to get larger sizes to quench their thirst).
But then again, people don't think that the ruthless and intentional exploitation of large numbers of people, including systematic degradation of their health and life expectancy, for monetary gain or ideological dogma is as bad as a single murder. Personally I think that both are despicable, but then again I'm a soft-hearted liberal socialist who nevertheless spends his time playing war games and reading Tolkien, so I'm probably already hopelessly compromised.
It does seem odd, to me at least, that I'm writing this defending a game I didn't even like, but I think it's important to state that I'm not against the game in principle, I'm just against the game in the sense that it's a steaming hunk of fail. It starts with a comedy Eastern European going on about boobs and doesn't really make much effort to ever raise the tone, which is a shame - because with the slickness and immersion of the rest of the game's interface and design you sort of think that maybe they could have been a bit more grown-up when writing the script? I mean I get that Niko's cousin is supposed to be a cock but the way they've done it makes it feel like a Danny Dyer film, when it could have been Mona Lisa.
Which brings me to another problem I had. The game is so 'cinematic' that it just distracts from what game there is. GTA IV clearly wants you to pretend you're in a film, it even lets you pull the camera out for angles that it's impossible to actually control from, but which ape both standard Hollywood establishing shots and the sort of stock intercuts used in chase sequences.
I dislike the idea that games should be cinematic already - yes, lush visuals add to the experience, but that's not the same as being cinematic, which is for me an indication that the developer has no confidence in the game as a game. Cinema, or film as such, is a very specific medium and the things it does are not the same as the things that games do. I'm not going to go into it here because it would be a whole essay in itself, but I don't want my games to try to be films for much the same reasons I wouldn't want a film to be novelistic. If you really think that the film/game hybrid is a fruitful place then I imagine that the late nineties has got a huge car boot full of interactive CD-ROM games it would like to sell you.
Because of this, or maybe just because of the sandbox element, playing GTA IV didn't even feel like playing a game, it felt like playing with a toy. A broken toy at that, but a toy nonetheless.
It's not the fact that you could randomly murder people that's rubbish - you can do so in Fable II for instance - it was the lack of any feedback from the environment when you did so outside of the specific mission parameters that the game gives you. I repeatedly crashed into police cars, ran red lights and caused car crashes, but that wasn't a problem. Neither was beating some religious nutter to death in front of a hospital (in fact, I didn't want to kill the guy, but the game wouldn't let me not because he just kept punching me even if I ran away). At least in Fable II, even if ultimately all morality effects are reversible your decisions do matter in both the short and long term.
Unfortunately that lack of feedback from the system is what makes it a broken toy (a real RC vehicle has consequences if you drive it into a lake, in GTA you just restart, great in terms of cost but ultimately boring) - that and the chronically shit controls. (I'm sure that if you start from a position of not being able to drive the controls might make more sense.) The one truly gamed element there is seems to be the dating system, which is roughly modelled on those interminable Japanese dating sims that every gamer will have played at least once during an idle trawl for wank-fodder (which will have become a 6-hour, increasingly desperate and profoundly un-erotic stat grind in order to earn a single picture the likes of which you could have found in five minutes with a single search), although no-one likes to admit to having done so.
Still, I probably wouldn't have been interested even if it was the best toy in the world. In the end, I play games because I like to play games - I like to be challenged by a system or a person. Toys seem to me to be more about encouraging imaginative play, and at least for me I prefer to do that with something more imaginative than The Guy Ritchie Movie YOU Control!