Big fan of the series here.
I love GTAIV just as much as any other game in the series. I must admit though that the game's greatest strength
doesn't really show its full colours (literally) until you've actively exhausted the story and its offspring. When you inevitably head over to GameFAQs
to check out where the flying rats are, that's when it really shows up. As someone who's never been to New York but experienced lots of media presenting it, it's really quite neat.
For the record, I don't consider the characterisation the best ever in the series, but Niko's my favourite ever lead. Regardless of the, erm, pronunciation issues and so forth. So forth clearly meaning IM LEAVING HERE WITH RAMEN.
I can understand the annoyance of the friend system, though the only one I really cared about 'hurting' myself gameplay-wise was Little Jacob. The rest can make nice time-burners once you're finished, and I understand that those trips make up little character building scenes that just wouldn't have fit into the story. But is there a point to caring after the story's over? I don't know, maybe they're relying on you having nothing to do, real life-wise. That said, Packie in particular has some fun things to say. Get him drunk as quickly as possible.
Of course, the best (worst?) part is the lampshading. Just like with The Driver in Vice City, Rockstar knew
people would hate the friend system.