We've been planning to put this together for ages, but the recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV: Episodes from Liberty City (reviewed today) proved to be as good an excuse as any to finally put the effort in - not just because the additional content is so cool, but also to pay tribute to what remains the finest, most expertly realised open-world environment ever to hit consoles.
Just sitting back and watching the world go by in GTAIV is an experience in itself, and the range of behaviours attributed to the gameworld's pedestrians is absolutely phenomenal. They drink coffee on the way to work, they sit and read on the benches, they warm up before going jogging, they put their brollies or run for cover when the rain comes, they get immensely annoyed if a car runs into them.
Some of them smoke, some of them don't... They'll even pick fights with one another on the odd occasion. Combine this with the realistic movement of each and every vehicle, along with the uncanny lighting system and the superb realisation of multiple weather types and you can't help but appreciate the sheer technical accomplishment.
The player's focus is of course on the game itself, and the cityscape that Rockstar North has created is taken somewhat for granted bearing in mind just how far ahead of the competition this technology is. Creating and coding the make-up of Liberty City must have been a mammoth undertaking, but in the midst of the involving gameplay it's just background detail as Niko's story unfolds - or Johnny Klebitz's, or Luis Lopez'.
There are complaints that the game feels laggy and that the frame-rate is somewhat variable and often disappointing, and it's difficult to argue with that, especially when other open-world games sustain their frame-rates more convincingly. However, it's important to remember that in addition to everything we've just described, Liberty City is a creation unlike any other.
Games like Prototype or Crackdown can stream and decompress data relatively easily in comparison thanks to the multitude of repeated graphical assets, shared textures and more basic geometry. Not only that, but the developers can shape the environment as they please to match the limits of their technology. GTAIV on the other hand is attempting a full-on recreation of New York City, with all the challenges that represents.
Speaking of challenges, putting this video presentation together wasn't exactly a walk in the park. First of all, we needed a technique to sustain a first-person viewpoint without the game shifting into spectator mode. This was solved by using the camera-phone you get later on in the story. Next up, the capturing. GTAIV's day-night cycle lasts for about 50 minutes of real time and we captured around 45 different clips at one frame-per-second over the course of 10 days, not all of which made the cut.
While our previous time-lapse videos have simply faded between day-night cycles, for this one we went a little further. Thanks to the on-screen timer on Niko's mobile, we were able to edit together 15 days of game time - complete and unabridged - encompassing 35 different locations from Liberty City.
It's our tribute to a superb technical achievement that no other open-world game has yet to match, and we can but wonder what the team at Rockstar has planned for the inevitable next GTA offering. With the technology in the bag and still essentially unrivalled, will the developers shift the focus to content creation? Or can we expect an even more advanced version of this astonishing engine?