Rockstar markedly increased the depth and sophistication of the story for GTA IV, stripping back some of the wackier elements in favour of a tighter, more focused plot. Consider it the Batman Begins re-boot of the GTA world. This new-found maturity was epitomised by world-weary protagonist Niko Bellic, a deeper-than-usual central character. Rounded and well-defined, Bellic was the exact opposite of the usual vanilla cipher video gamers usually play - upon whom they are supposed to import their own personality. Instead we got treated to something far richer: a conflicted immigrant from a war-torn Balkan state, guilty of possible war crimes and looking to leave a life of violence behind him in the New World. However the life of violence and criminality he knew proves difficult to escape and Niko is pulled deeper and deeper into the seedy underbelly of American capitalism. There was an even sharper sense of satire than usual in the game's critique of capitalism - far more damning and incisive than many American movies ever get, with money the root of all evil every step of the way. Like Scarface, Niko continually finds that he can get ahead easier with a gun than by making an honest living. Even though they basically had you playing the tracksuit wearing antagonist from Behind Enemy Lines, Niko was likable thanks to his ultimate simple wish to get the hell out of trouble and settle down with a nice Irish girl. Any players who remember how that turned out won't doubt that GTA IV was the opposite of sick wish-fulfillment. No, you couldn't make him enormously fat by eating a dozen hot dogs, but WHY IN HELL WOULD YOU WANT TO?! Niko's character is defined by the people telling the story rather than by each individual player... which is why it's worth playing through. I realise we live at a time when its increasingly fashionable for "users" to "generate their own content" or tell their own story, but I'd personally far rather be told one rich story than waste hours playing through one of eleven compromised bland ones. There were fewer side-quests last time around, but then again: why should Niko Bellic take time out to run an ice cream van or become a firefighter? Expect endless side-quests and a return to hi-octane craziness in GTA V, with a character you can customise to your heart's content but who has no discernible personality whatsoever. But you'll probably be allowed to dress him in shocking pink roller-skates with a rainbow Afro, so have fun with that for the twenty seconds it's funny.
A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.