Grand Theft Auto IV's 29th April arrival on PS3 and 360 has been widely, not to mention voluminously heralded as the defining moment of this generation of consoles. Cruising around Liberty City in high definition on the biggest LCD television in the world, you can easily tell why: where Vice City and San Andreas were only able to extrapolate from the GTA III base - albeit to record-breaking effect - getting to know GTA IV is a steady sequence of pleasant surprises and sensible reconfigurations. Liberty City may be, to borrow from the game's amusing website, "where the American Dream comes to die", but it's also where the Grand Theft Auto series has come to be reborn.
Protagonist Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City the victim of fittingly youthful naivety; tempted to Rockstar's recreation of the Big Apple by his cousin Roman's false claims of fast cars, fast women and a fast fortune. The domestic reality is more like the inside of a used baked-bean tin, complete with dodgy stains and mould, buried in the depths of a Broker tenement building.
The apartment is a save-point and rest location in the same way that homes were for previous GTA protagonists, but it's still here that GTA IV really asserts its superiority, as Niko sits down at Roman's kitchen table and leans on an elbow, coming to terms with his situation out loud. GTA's characters have always been expressive, despite technical limitations, but this is different: Niko and his fellow citizens have facial muscles that betray their reactions, can look each other in the eye, speak to one another with moving lips, take one another by the hand - and twist arms. Gone is that strange crease and bend in the chest that always betrayed the character model beneath the painted-on shirt buttons; Liberty is a city of believable individuals.
That sense of physicality and dynamism is reinforced as you step onto the streets of Broker, the first of the game's four major boroughs. A light fog blurs the night air as street lamps hang cotton buds of fading light up and down sidewalks dense with rubbish bins, fire hydrants, glass-sheltered bus-stops, sign posts and the occasional coned-off sand-pile of roadworks. Things you'll be breaking later. Pedestrians make their way around, oblivious to your arrival, bumping into the sides of slow-moving cars at cross-walks and muttering, making conversation or remonstrating.
It's cold; you can see the steam on Niko's breath. Later, as you're feeling your way through the streets and alleys surrounding Roman's home, rain starts to fall, covering the road and pavement in a thin film that splashes at Niko's ankles. The water glistens and reflects. Moreover, this is not just a single game environment, but a world of disparate locations; neighbouring streets accomplish the rare feat of distinguishing themselves from one another in name and content without feeling contrived or inconsistent.
More importantly, it's a world where you can do all the things that defined previous GTA games' success, and watch the game push each beyond the limits of past expectations. Car-jacking - eponymous, and simplest - makes the point well enough: parked cars are no longer either locked or not; with a quick glance this way and that, Niko smashes the driver-side window with his elbow and unlocks the door before sliding in and driving away. You can still open a driver's door and haul him or her to the ground, and in the case of resistance, you can send a kick to the neck to elaborate, but if you're pointing a gun at the driver's head, violence won't be necessary: they'll just get out and leg it.
Cars continue to handle somewhere between reality and Hollywood, with the handbrake as important as ever. SUVs with bouncy suspension are still playful, town cars still scream into fast turns and police cruisers are still punchy and quick to accelerate. Motorbikes are still nimble, and now they can do backflips.
But in tune with the extra visual depth to the world outside and the man in the driving seat, the vehicle models themselves range from gleaming, muscular examples of Detroit penis-envy to the shabby everyday of the inner cities. Bonnets still fly away over the roof when they're unhooked and flapping, but otherwise cars and trucks wear their dents in the right places, bullets perforate doors and boots and an accurate shot from behind, heading out through the windscreen, leaves a bloody hole in the glass. Car doors have a physical presence, too, so you can jump in a truck and reverse quickly to take out the cop chasing you through the streets to the door.
Your Rambo-like battles with the law are more elaborate, too. In-car, you can switch between pistol and Uzi, using the left bumper to elbow the driver-side glass outward and spray bullets by aiming with the right analogue stick, or you can switch to grenades, cook them with the left bumper and drop them through the shattered window, clicking the right analogue stick or using it to swivel the camera so that you can observe the impact they have on the underside of a NOOSE (SWAT) riot van. Caution is occasionally worthwhile, though, not least when you're passing giant articulated lorries, which swerve violently if you puncture their tyres with a stray round, spilling their cargo into your path before overturning and creating an immovable obstacle.
On the street, fist-fighting benefits from the ability to block punches with timed button presses, but it's inevitably the gunfighting that gets most attention; a new cover system allows you to throw yourself against a wall, the backside of a car or anything else you might naturally use to protect yourself, moving between adjacent cover points with simple motions. Holding the left trigger locks onto a target and exposes you to make the shot; if you hold the trigger down halfway, you can aim manually, or while locked on you can flick the right stick up or down to adjust for headshots and bullets to the knees. You can blindfire - grenades as well - and a hot-swap system gives you easy access to key weapons: caught in a firefight, you can hold LB and press up on the d-pad to switch to an Uzi or AK, left to opt for a pistol, right for grenades and Molotov cocktails or down for the shotgun.
Rockstar has upgraded police intelligence levels, claiming that you won't be able to stand in a street, bring the law down on your head and survive their concerted attention, and we certainly couldn't. Even armed with assault and sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and a full health and body-armour quota, the desaturated colours of a slow-motion stumble into death were never far away. Fortunately, going out in a blaze of glory sends you to hospital, where you emerge with your weapon arsenal intact.
To offset that, the new "wanted" system is less intensive; when the police are onto you, they establish a search radius around your last known location, indicated on your mini-map, and if you can escape that bubble without catching their attention, you're free, no matter their interest in you. As the swirling cross-shaped rotors of police choppers and the flashing cruiser and NOOSE icons crawl through the mini-map streets, your eyes flick between them and the street outside the car as you try to chart a path to presumed innocence. Switching cars also helps, but the pay-and-spray is no longer the panacea of past GTAs. And the more badly you behave, the larger the search area.
The police aren't so effective that you can't mess with them, then, and the best example of this is pulling up your mobile phone with the d-pad and dialing 911. In effect, you can use the emergency services number to request vehicular toys: a dispatcher sends a cruiser to your location, and once the cops are out of the car you can distract them and take control of it. The police computer within allows you to search for individuals whose names you've been given, whether it's mission-specific or not.
The phone's an interesting tool in general. As well as initiating multiplayer - about which we learned more this week - it can be used to snap pictures, send text messages (you can restart failed missions this way), and get in contact with your acquaintances. As you meet new people - remember, Niko is new to Liberty City - the phonebook gradually fills up. Select one and you can socialise with them, going out to strip clubs or a meal, or going on the lash.
These activities are entertaining in their own way: pissed up with Roman at your side, you move around the streets drunkenly - Euphoria's NaturalMotion catching you with convincing procedural animations as you stumble - and driving is almost impossible, as the screen blurs and tilts and the car slips left and right despite your best efforts. More than a novelty though, building social bonds with key characters is rewarded with extras: free cab rides from Roman, or guns delivered on demand by Little Jacob. When the phone beeps - as it often does to announce calls and text messages - it's worth paying attention.
Inevitably, it also draws you into missions, which use the game's improved graphics, physics and controls to propose new scenarios: phoning a contact in a park and watching to see who answers, for instance. One that we and others have been shown involves chasing down a police informant, at the behest of a steroid-pumped loudmouth called Brucie. Chasing him down is a matter of following his car and smashing it up so he gets out, before gunning him down, but reducing it to a single sentence overlooks much of its charm: the neatly scripted and choreographed cut-scene that kicks it off, the near misses as you lean out of the window firing your pistol on the freeway, and - in our case at least - the mission-accomplished phone call to Brucie, interrupted rather comically by a pickup truck smashing into Niko and sending him tumbling down the embankment. It's a good thing the game auto-saves after missions.
Euphoria's role throughout - articulating those tumbles, inarticulating drunken behaviour - is influential, and enables a lot of incidental humour. Like PAIN on PS3, there's a guilty delight in throwing Niko's unbreakable - albeit killable - body around the pointed streets of Liberty City, and Rockstar knows this. Smash into a barrier fast enough and Niko will be hurled through the windscreen. Our favourite physics gag, though, is the simplest: walking up the steps outside a municipal building, and shoving a man backward so he tumbles down the stairs. Old-school GTA was crying out for new-school physics, of course, not least in the stunt jumps that are once again sprinkled subtly around the city.
As you'll have read, there's even pleasure to be had just cruising across and around Liberty City. Taxi rides can be taken in rather than skipped over, allowing you to watch them from cinematic camera angles by holding a particular button or just sit inside peering out, asking the driver to flick to a radio station you like. Taking a speedboat from the first island's southernmost shores, you can glide through the water - the range of colours, and its behaviour, is remarkable - staring at the skyscrapers, bridges and ships in the distance. It does things, like the papered foliage, park fountains, glass fragments, GPS route-finding that obeys the law, an entire fictional working Internet - that would be back-of-the-box material in other games, but they're so incidental that the people walking us through the game didn't even mention them.
But then that's always been what GTA did that nobody else really managed: impressing and entertaining you, even when you're not looking for it. In this regard, GTA IV is no exception, but in every other regard, it looks exceptional.
Grand Theft Auto IV is due out on PS3 and Xbox 360 on 29th April.