Sorry for the double post, but this site limits the number of quote blocks, so I had to break this up into two posts:
With just about every major GTA release, R* makes changes that makes the new game feel almost-entirely separate from the last game. The same goes for GTA V. However, the reason why GTA V is singled out is likely due to its newly-implemented features. You see, when R* added new features to older GTA titles, they generally did something that no other developers were doing. R* ended up taking far more outside influences than with previous titles.
Rockstar ALWAYS borrowed outside influences and gameplay motifs. Some of them serious additions and some meant as satire. V is no different in this regard.
San Andreas brought in level up features for character abilities, skills, and weapons that were already in use for years in RPG titles. That was derivative, but fun. "Dancing" in San Andreas was lifted from Dance, Dance Revolution. Weapon upgrades by "simply using them" was being done even by action games like Ratchet & Clank for several years, but also many RPG's. Asset properties in both SA and VC were heavily borrowed from RPG games like the SIMS. Hell, GTA III itself took a lot of ideas from the original Driver game, which was actually the first 3D era sandbox game. The reason III is so famous is because it did it so much better and really took all the ideas from SO MANY other games and made it its own.
This is not to suggest that GTA games are all derivative from top to bottom, by the way. BUT one of the things I loved so much back in 2001, and still love about GTA III, is that the game felt like ten games in one. It felt like a shooter, it felt like a driver, it felt like a crime sim, it felt like an RPG in some ways, and on and on. This is, in part, because of the fact that Rockstar has always used GTA as a platform to borrow a f*ck ton of ideas from everywhere all over gaming, combine those ideas with their own motifs, add a fun story and a beautiful world, shake it all up, and create a GTA game.
V is definitely NOT the odd man out in this regard. It follows the same pattern as all GTA games.
For instance, I have yet to see another AAA budget game with GTA IV's level of vehicle crash physics and AI reactions to impacts (Euphoria is more than just simple ragdolls, it's a "simulated" nervous and psychological system).
One of my biggest complaints about GTA IV is that it's all show, no go.
And this is partially why. Rockstar spent so much time with that new engine getting every single little detail right, from creating physics with like ten million ways to ragdoll and die, all sorts of vehicle deformation, NPC actions when being bumped into, dropping things, and falling. IV got all these details right, but in doing so, Rockstar forgot to bring the fun. Its like they were so focused on creating what they thought would be some Mecca of a physics engine, that they either had no time to make a fun game after that or they were too busy ogling at all the cool dents and dings to be bothered to actually create, ya know, a fun game.
I mean, don't get me wrong, if they could do both, fine. But one of the problems I had in IV that I suspect caused it to not be fun, is that the physics were so meticulous that they became restrictive and oppressively tied the hands of players. As I also said above, maybe some of the details (like vehicle deformation) could have been brought into V from IV, and sure, this would have been cool.
But I don't think this was, nor should it have been, a priority when creating a massive videogame world and jam-packing it with a lot of fun. The only reason I ever notice car damage in V is when I read this forum and some fans complain about it. It isn't something I even remotely care about while driving at 200 miles per hour down the street and take a sports car off road lol. I just don't think that this level of detail in crash physics adds enough to a game that it needs to be prioritized. V has incredible attention to detail in many ways. Just not in precisely the same ways as IV Because it is a different game.
V's graphics are more detailed, for instance, as are the overall visuals and colors. And not just on the PC or the PS4/XBone. Even on the PS3 or 360, same console as IV. Again, V has incredible attention to details in many ways, but not all ways. And neither did IV.
Meanwhile, with GTA V, the changes that are seen are pretty "mainstreamed" by most other AAA developers. Of course, I'm talking about the likes of regenerative health, special character abilities, and a low TTK (Time To Kill). I actually feel that a high TTK suits GTA much better.
Personal taste. I actually hated that in IV and now in the Episodes, which I am forcing myself to play through. Also, remember that IV is the odd man out in this regard. It is literally the only game in the series that buffs AI enemies that way. San Andreas, III, VC, LCS, and VCS, as well as V all have much lower TTK, and I think GTA is a better game going this route.
GTA IV still allowed you to dispatch AI very quickly with a single well-placed headshot, but it also allowed players to utilize the slower method if they want (whether to torture or just simply incapacitate, not kill, the AI). However, I do feel that GTA EFLC's combat was inferior to vanilla GTA IV's combat. GTA TLAD has even clunkier movement than the vanilla game. GTA TBOGT is slightly less clunkier in terms of movement, but the added feature of the player's auto-aim breaking away from an incapacitated AI ruined a bit of the pace in what's supposed to be the fastest-paced story of the GTA IV Trilogy (it screws up the target switching almost entirely). GTA V's combat seems to have been more geared towards a sort of "competitive" online component, but even then, its combat still falls way too short to be considered as such. In addition to the low TTK, the weapon balance isn't good, the first-person mode is clunky on consoles, the third-person shoulder aim is way too far off to the right, there's no shoulder-switch button as there is in Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, auto-aim is still way to prevalent in the multiplayer, and so many other issues.
I think the thing to remember here is that GTA is NOT a shooter, by definition. It is a sandbox crime game, with many, many, many varied gameplay ideas. I expect a shooter (whether FPS or just a regular shooter) to meticulously craft its shooting and cover mechanics. I don't expect this in GTA, nor do I believe it is either appropriate or fun. GTA V takes shooting and adds it into so many other things more seamlessly because the shooting is a part of a greater whole, NOT the final goal. In GTA, at least the GTA that I know and love, combat mechanics are a means to an end, NOT an end to a means.
The thing I LOVE about the gunplay in V is that it is meant to be more fast paced, fluid, and action-packed. One thing I HATED ten years ago in IV, and really hate all over again with the Episodes, is everything happens soooooooo slooooooooooow. It all feels clunky, plodding, and there is no sense of Adrenalin. This is because everything is so calculating and strategizing that the combat feels like a strategy game more than anything else. I agree that the Episodes are even more clunky than regular IV, but still. IV was way too slow moving and plodding, as well, and the cover system was absolutely AWFUL, just as it is in the Episodes.
In V, everything feels like a rush when I am in combat. Its fast, furious, feverish, and heart pounding. As was SA, VC, and III. And this is, in part, due to a lower TTK, where the pace is really stepped up. As for regenerative health, I love the idea, AND I think only partial regeneration without a health pack, soda, or food is a great compromise. MANY games do it, and I think its about time GTA did as well.
That's not to say that all of the "mainstreamed" features are bad, though. The weapon and radio wheels have been long overdue! If those existed in GTA SA and GTA IV (kind of does in the latter, but in a not-so-well-known and more archaic form), that'd have just been an extra button freed up for an additional feature. That's a godsend.
As mentioned earlier, GTA IV's reward system was pretty crap, but so is GTA V's. You literally get over 95% of your campaign money from a single heist while most other missions don't even net you a single penny, and most of the side stuff gives you zilch also. The only good side rewards are the $2,100,000 from the Epsilon missions and the Space Docker from finding all the UFO parts. The "rewards" for finding all the submarine pieces and letter scraps is a total dick-slap to the player. In contrast, GTA SA gave you a significant reward for completing almost-literally every side activity. There is actual worth in getting all gold medals in the schools in GTA SA.
I agree that it is a bit of a let down to get such a huge chunk of money from a mission so close to the end that money is no longer useful to the player. But, for better or wrose, ALL sandbox games are like this. Saints Row, one of my favorite franchises, is guilty of this, too. So was San Andreas and Vice City. I mean, all the 100% completion rewards for SA and VC were cool, but once you have 100% completion, who cares? This is an unfortunate quality of almost all sandbox games. It is what it is. IV, as you said, simply has crappy rewards across the board, and this takes away a lot of the fun.
I think you are glossing over how V, like SA, does incrementally reward the player:
Go to the gun range, and your ammo carrying ability goes through the roof, especially with Franklin. There is enough money to buy all the ammo and weapons you please, and MANY or most of the properties as you progress. lol Just not the Golf Course or the really expensive theaters. I think that the reward system of V, in terms of progression through the story and the side missions, is very satisfying overall.
And yeah, GTA Online is essentially Saints Row: The Turd. Even the splendid Saints Row 2 (still the best in the franchise) hasn't jumped the shark THAT much. GTA SA? GTA SA has the common courtesy to keep the downright absurdity to cheat codes.
I love ALL the SR games, including The Third, SRIV, and Gat Out of Hell. GTA Online is nothing like SR. In fact, from the little I have seen of GTAO it is one of the most spectacular Online experiences in gaming history. My reason for boycotting it isn't because it is too over the top. lol If anything, I see that as AWESOME and a draw, not a deterrent. But I have been boycotting GTAO for 5 years because Rockstar has used it as a platform to gut the SP DLC and post-launch support. Not that my little boycott of one is going to hurt Take2's profits. I just refuse to support that policy of freemium corporate thuggery.
GTA V is great, but I do feel some of the negative influences from the lesser-received online portion may have tainted the core experience. GTA V came out a little over five years after GTA IV, but it was so ambitious that it could have used even more time to flesh out some aspects of gameplay, story, and overall design. Of course, any longer, considering five years is an eternity for video gaming, and the community would have probably burnt down R*'s HQ. So, I will give R* the benefit of doubt that GTA V's reputation (separate from financial success) among the fans was perhaps on a slippery slope since beginning.
Again, in my opinion, GTAO is detrimental not necessarily to GTA. It may, in fact, be the natural outgrowth of the freemium business model, which, unfortunately is inherently corrupt. But the windfall profits that are generated from Online may cause Rockstar to become lazy with future GTA SP games, and my greatest fear for GTA is that the SP will devolve into NOTHING MORE than a transparent scheme to entice people en masse to go online.