As far as gameplay goes, then I'm sorry, Rockstar is indeed lagging behind. It doesn't matter whether or not in a crime-themed game. There are other open world games in different genre that have already set much higher standards, both in terms of exploration and sandbox gameplay. There's no way Rockstar comes close to fully realizing the potential of the games they make compared to other developers, which may not be big budget titles with millions of copies sold worldwide but they have great fan following and respect in the gaming community as a whole. I mean, HD era is pretty much the same game I had experienced during the 3D era, but in a much more advanced engine.
GTA SA is the best game Rockstar has created so far, which stands out from the rest of the open world games in many ways and even compared to some of the overrated RPG titles, when it comes to possibilities for gameplay. In fact, the graphics and physics are also spot on! I don't find any issues with them. Its still very easily playable.
The sad part is that Rockstar completely changed the direction later by putting more focus on multiplayer, and open world details, rather than pushing the gameplay further in new engine after SA managed to get the series in the evolved state.
Of course, there's a lot that can be done differently to refresh the formula now that we have better hardware, and an amazing RAGE engine, but unfortunately, they are leaning heavily towards pushing Online further than SP.
I agree completely.
Rockstar are great at making technical masterpieces, meaning the inner workings (animations, physics) are unrivaled in the genre, but when it comes to the actual game aspect they seemingly don't know what that is anymore. I've said this before I believe, GTA needs a reboot. Meaning an entire rework of the existing game elements. Rockstar needs to try new things instead of sitting in their comfort zone. Rockstar has the resources to truly make the best game in existence, but they never do.
There is many things Rockstar hasn't done yet and things they've done already that can be expanded upon. The respect system of GTA2 is a noteworthy element that could use expanding upon. But their focus with their games currently is making their games look pretty and realistic first, and focusing on the game play second. Yoga is most noteworthy of incidents. Instead of giving players purchasable houses in SP and the cut content like vigilante mini-game, they gave us that Yoga mini game.
Rockstar have also regressed in the most important aspect of their game design. In GTAV most missions there is only one specific way you can complete them. You either do it the way Rockstar wants or you fail. That's not exactly "freedom" and that is the complete opposite of what GTA was founded upon. Read the back of GTA1 where it clearly says "Open-end mission structure - Complete jobs the way YOU want to."