Fresh GTA IV details

Get drunk with your friends.

Rockstar has revealed fresh details about Grand Theft Auto IV ahead of its expected release in the next few months.

Among the most welcome changes are those to vehicular shoot-outs. Previous drive-by controls of aiming left or right (or forwards on a bike) are gone, handed over to the right analogue stick instead, allowing you to pinpoint tyres or trigger environmental obstacles like snapping straps holding logs on lorries.

On-foot combat reflects these changes too, now sporting a very Gears of War-like approach. Diving and skidding behind cover is fluid and done with a single button, while blind-firing and aiming from hiding spots is also in.

When you snipe enemies their deaths are played in a short cinematic sequence for dramatic effect, and the camera follows enemies blown up by grenades into the air. You now lock-on with grenades for more accurate throwing.

Rockstar is still mute on the health system, although enemies already display hit-points. You can pop them in the leg to maim them these days, as well as shoot their brains out and whatnot.

Another big new feature is the mobile phone, as we have seen. You can do snazzy things like report crimes to automated police systems and then pinch their cars when they arrive. Oh, cop cars will have an on-board computer for looking up names and addresses, too, and you will be able to upload pictures from your phone to have a look through the database for details.

Running away from the police is a little different now as well, with a radius that pops up around your character when you become wanted. Get outside it without being spotted and it goes down. Get spotted and it centres on you again. But then we knew that already, from memory.

Phones, incidentally, are most useful for chatting to friends. And making good friends is rewarding as each acts like a pseudo quest line which, once completed, will yield a free taxi service or free helicopter rides or even a chap who delivers guns to you anywhere on the map.

Increasing your friendship levels involves scrolling through to their number and picking a reason for phoning: to go for a drink, bowling, darts, pool or more. The more active of those are handled with mini-games, but even drinking has been given an overhaul.

Get smashed with your friends and you will stumble out onto the pavement and be given control of Niko now sporting wobbly physics, blurry vision and the driving skills of a horse. Make it home in one comedic piece and friendship level goes up.

Another welcome addition are autosaves after each mission, although you can still travel to safe-houses while faffing around to checkpoint your progress. Missions can be restarted quickly by texting a number on your handy phone, too.

More importantly, the extra development time has allowed Rockstar to get to grips with lots of the niggling issues from earlier play-tests. Frame-rate is said to be solid with occasional texture pop-ups, and the visual level of detail from environmental effects like lighting and reflections, or just much more complex textures on objects, lend it the visual sheen we've all hoped for.

Physics from the Euphoria engine have had a considerable impact as well, allowing cars to drive realistically and chases to be exciting rather than frustrating. Characters are also animated much more believably and so can deliver the reassuringly quirky script and dialogue seen as such a staple in the series - Niko consistently spits out one-liners as he pursues enemies or is under enemy fire. Jokes ahoy, if you like.

And now the world as a whole is much more alive, with random events happening around you such as police chases or careless drives bumping into pedestrians or maybe a man eating a hot dog and singing to himself as he dresses up in his wife's clothing. That last one might not be real.

Then there are the little touches like Sat Nav systems in posh cars to giggle at or quick time events to make car chases or battles more cinematic, as well as the crucially important inclusion of motorbikes. Also, speedboats.

Plus you can play music through your mobile phone so you will never be without a catchy tune to whistle along to while exploring the streets of Liberty City.

Grand Theft Auto IV is due out on PS3 and 360 sometime between February and April.

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