There's no way that's not awesome
First off, I did not spend an entire year glued to my keyboard. At least, not playing GTA IV. In fact it took me 40 hours to reach 80% completeness. I didn't bother killing all the pigeons (why would I want to ? I like pigeons, they make pleasant soothing noises) or finding all the stunt jumps. Nor did I feel compelled to encourage Niko to do any more dating than the game requires. What's the point ? Dating aside, every 5 minutes I seem to get a call asking me if I want to go bowling/playing darts/go to an art class/do some embroidery. And what with all the morally ambiguous serial killing, there's not much time left for poor old Niko to just be his sweet self. Not to mention that Kate McReary does nothing but flirt with Niko, only to insult his thousand-dollar suit and refuse to sleep with him.
The reason it took me a year is because of one of the game's biggest and stupidest flaws - the lack of an in-mission checkpoint system. Some missions do simply require blind luck. First time round, I got hopelessly stuck robbing the Bank of Liberty. Even the first time round I was able to get through to the subway system with full health and some armour left, only to get run over by a train. This happened again. And again. And again and again and again - literally. After the 6th attempt I gave up and went and completed Fallout 3 and all its 5 expansions, Oblivion and its 2 expansions, the whole 5 games in the Orange Box, and oh yes, let's not forget finishing the whole "PhD" thing.
On my return, I got stuck on a racing mission for a man named Brucie - one I completed, originally, on my second attempt. You're given a sports car so overpowered it's incapable of going in a straight line, and aren't allowed to attack your opponents. This time it took until the 8th attempt before everything worked out fine for no particular reason.
Then we have to address the central storyline. You play a basically evil character doing basically evil things, who's idea of a moral act seems to be killing drug dealers and taking brutal revenge on people he disapproves of. Often revenge involves grenades, rocket launchers, attack helicopters and the mass murder of dozens of police officers. Claims that this encourages violent behaviour are ill-founded. It would be a bit like putting up a message at the start of The Dambusters : WARNING ! DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. BLOWING UP DAMS CAN RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH AND MAY RESULT IN A PRISON SENTENCE. Basically, if you have access to machine guns, rocket launchers and attack helicopters, I submit that you're probably quite likely to go on a killing spree regardless.
Despite their not being a single character who elicited an iota of empathy for me, the story is nonetheless very good for game standards. It could almost be a movie... in fact, sometimes it's far too much like a movie. I speak of the other great flaw : the scripted nature of most missions. Usually, you can kill whoever you like and go wherever you will by whatever means you prefer. Occasionally, however, certain characters are deemed invulnerable until you reach a certain stage and you have to use specified vehicles. By far the worst example occurs in the final mission : Out of Commission.
In this case, the rather minor character Pegorino has gunned down Niko's date, the ever-petulant Kate McReary, because Niko previously refused a major drugs deal. As I played it, Niko has seen this woman not more than 4 times in his life and all she does is insult his dress sense and choice of cars. But, bless him, our hero feels it's time for a mission of epic revenge, Slavic style. This involves an extremely long, slow and pointlessly easy car chase, followed by a fairly standard (though fun) kill-lots-of-enemies mission. Once you reach Pegorino, he becomes INVINCEEBLE and makes his escape in a rocket-proof speedboat. Your only option is to jump on a nearby bike and follow the coastline. Fortunately, Pegorino is apparently too stupid to realise that boats can travel out to sea, but motorbikes can only travel on land.
Spend more than about 2 seconds getting on the bike and the mission is ended. "Pegorino got away." No he didn't. He's right there ! I can still see him ! But if this happens, you've no option but to do the whole sorry thing again because of the lack of checkpoints. You may have killed a horde of enemies and still have full health and armour, but can't kill your apparent nemesis because you didn't quite hit F fast enough.
The frustration doesn't quite end there. Assuming you survive the dash along the beach - one tiny mistake and it's game over, again, you have to jump the bike across a ramp to get into a helicopter. That's fairly epic, I guess, but get the ramp very slightly wrong and yet again it's back to square one. Helicopters apparently aren't capable of landing : access is by motorbike only. Once you're in, you follow Pegorino, dodging his RPGs. Your 'copter has miniguns, but it seems Pegorino is still indestructible, so they're useless. Eventually, one of his RPGs hits the chopper (no matter how high you are or how good your dodging skills - it seems he has a long-range homing missile) but Niko lands it without incident.
You then run around on a small island until you find Pegorino and shoot him until he's dead. And that's it. Story over. The game effectively ends on an epic mission of badly-scripted revenge against a minor character who killed a casual acquaintance and relies on magic to make himself invulnerable. Oh.
Remarkably poor final mission leaves Niko confused
And yet... I love this game. The world is so incredibly realised - it feels like a real city is size, scope, and behaviour of its inhabitants. Random pedestrians walk by having conversations on their phones. Hold up other traffic and drivers will shout at you. Commit crimes and some residents flee in terror while others fight back with gusto. You can pick up hookers and rob people at cashpoints, if you like. And - by and large - you're free to do whatever you want. I just wish there was more stuff outside missions that you're actually free to do. Maybe Niko needs a day job... fireman, maybe. Or better yet, tour guide.
Overall, 9/10. It's stunning. It just needs a bit less scripting, a checkpoint system and a more epic finale.