Poor Niko. Breaking his back every day for a bunch of two-bit thugs, killing people he doesn't want to, just so he can, er, kill someone he actually does want to and get the revenge he so desperately needs. And when he's not doing that, his only recreational activities all hinge around hanging out with Liberty City's biggest collection of bastards, losers, and psychopaths. Pretty depressing stuff.
If GTA 4's environment (and narrative) were built to oppress as much as it freed players, then GTA 5 seems to represent the opposite approach. A return to the free-wheeling nonsense of San Andreas has been welcomed by series fans, but it's the influence you can exert (or at least perceive to) on the world around you, as well as yourself, that will one of the key differentiators between GTA 4 and GTA 5.
Again, Niko's story of a probably-depressed immigrant didn't really tally with a sports car-driving, bling-wearing big-city player. He was a janitor, used and abused by the rich and powerful, and rightly enough the narrative just didn't facilitate showing off or indulging in conspicuous consumption. Clothing choices were bland (eastern european track star/gangster or plain businessman), houses were perfunctory, cars were essentially commandeered taxis, used as a short-term fix to get from A to B.
Rockstar has made a big deal about the amount of character customisation possible in GTA 5, and it seems to have outstripped even the madness that came before. Tattoos, hairstyles, outfits and the like return from the last jaunt to Los Santos, but now you can even get your, erm, well... you can get this done. Lovely. Car customisation also makes a comeback, with players able to buy, insure - so they can get a new one delivered if they ruin it - and personalise their rides, and kitting out your apartment (or buying property outright) will enable you to put your stamp on the town.
None of these are the most difficult or original ideas to conceive or implement. Rockstar itself has done it all before, and its competitors have taken it to new heights. What it does do, however, is enable players to project their influence onto the world: something that GTA 4 was never able, or willing, to do. One of the reasons for the success of Saints Row is that you can dress your avatar up (or down) as you will, with the various attributes players give them contributing to 'their' character. It's a simple way to get players more involved, and it'll work wonders in a fashion, status and money-obsessed tale.
Beyond both the superficial and the aforementioned empire building, there's also far more to do outside of the main missions. Again, in GTA 4 you followed the narrative, maybe did vigilante stuff, mini-games, and the odd side-quest with a passer-by. Interesting diversions, but they didn't really feed back into the game in a meaningful way. Here, Rockstar has the chance, via the influence of Red Dead Redemption, to integrate side-quests and other diversions into the main story, and I hope they take it.
Bounty-hunting missions are one of the most obvious ways of hooking non-essential elements into the campaign, not least the narrative of 'your' character. These were some of most entertaining aspects of Rockstar's cowboy opus, and here they should be better still. Chasing perps down before cuffing and throwing them in the back of your car, then depositing your quarry out of the city limits promises to be both lucrative and fun.
Crucially, they'll also lend some weight to the characters outside of the missions themselves. These guys are total bastards, one and all, and so it makes sense for them to want to earn a bit of cash hurting, killing or capturing people in a way that GTA 4 didn't. Sure, Niko could grab a police car and use the computer to chase Liberty's most wanted, but aside from a few extra bucks in your pocket it didn't mean much.
Here, it'll feed back into your persistent abilities, which will be levelling passively anyway as you drive and shoot your way across town, providing far more incentive to take them on. It's also a happy medium between the core story mission and the out and out rampage.
Then there's the hunting challenges (while these could have less prevalence placed on them than in RDR due to the fact that the main characters aren't living off the land, they'll still upgrade your character, and could provide unique wares upon completion) and the various sports and recreational activities which will give you buffs for when it's mission time. And what of deep-sea diving, treasure hunting, shark-fighting, all that noise? Again, passive upgrades that are anchored into a central core so you're always upgrading. Always moving forward.
Would I want Rockstar to go further than that? Sure, why not. What If I could use those bounty missions to hunt down the heads of rival gangs, weakening them in their territory, or go and 'acquire' a white collar criminal who has influence in an important firm, easing your takeover of territory that way? What about the ability to buy property and customise it on the outside, like some sort of west coast Donald Trump, so when you drive past it will be as unique to you as your stupid hair/penis piercing combo?
Will it happen like that? Probably not, but either way GTA 5 should be a far more coherent package when it comes to how your look and actions affect the world.