For many gamers, GTA was born on the PC in 2D. We've all got our memories of racing through the time-limited demo, the squeaky phone gibberish playing over mission instructions, trying to work out the lyrics to Four-Letter Love, and doing the bomb-on-a-bus mission. But that was a while ago, back when Speed starring Keanu Reeves was a cultural touchstone. These days, GTA is synonymous with consoles, having bossed the last PlayStation for Sony and given Microsoft something to shout about for the last 18 months. Did you know they have some exclusive DLC coming up? Did you?
Well never mind that, because the 360 version may be due hours of new content, but the PC version brings the series home with significantly more features. Everything you'd expect from a port is here - the story-driven single-player game, with visuals buffed to take advantage of the PC's superior components (there's even a benchmark mode, if you're one of those), and Games for Windows Live-backed multiplayer, using the TrueSkill ranking system for matchmaking - along with a new video-editing suite that allows you to capture your antics and then play around with them using a drag-and-drop interface, before exporting the high-definition results and sharing them.
GTA IV hardly needs summarising, but here goes: you play as Nico Bellic, a recent immigrant to New York facsimile Liberty City, and having set yourself up in your dimwit cousin's apartment, and on the books at his mob-backed cab firm, you head out into the game's openworld in search of the means to stabilise your family and carve off a bit of your own American Dream.
As with past GTAs, this involves driving cars and completing third-person action missions, and the hilly, tonally varied and visually spectacular Liberty City is an interesting canvas onto which Rockstar paints an impressive array of scenarios, which take advantage of new cover-based shooter mechanics and the series' trademark hotwire-and-go racing, strung together with clever additions like a mobile phone for keeping up with contacts.
As ever though, it's the incidental humour and gameplay - some of it intended, some of it emergent - that helps sustain the 30 or so hours it takes to wring the city of all it has to offer, and having built an empire on letting players muck about and make their own fun, PC developer Rockstar Toronto acknowledges that by harnessing modern PCs to deliver the video editor, which allows you to capture clips of gameplay (everything except cut-scenes and mini-games, like ten-pin bowling) and then insert custom camera behaviour, apply visual filters, pick your own music, and save off the results.
Capturing gameplay is simple. All the while you're playing, the game is caching the last 30-60 seconds (depending on what's going on) of action, and at any time you can hit the F2 key (or the Back button if you're using a 360 pad) to save that chunk as a clip. You don't have to do anything with it immediately - indeed, you could hit F2 every so often throughout the game without ever visiting the video editor, and then simply dive in there once the credits have rolled - but should you want to try it out, you can access the suite through a new option on your mobile phone.
Once loaded, you choose saved clips and then drag and drop them into the editing window. Each takes a few seconds to load full-screen when you double-click, and you can watch through them while a timeline at the top of the screen keeps track of where you are. Tracking controls respond instantly, and if you want to play around you can start adding markers to the timeline.
Let's say you have a clip of Nico running down an alley towards a parked car that blocks the entrance to a broader street, which is packed with cops. He slides along the ground to get into cover behind the car, then starts opening fire on the cops to his left, eventually blowing their car up by manually targeting the fuel tank. Then he sprints across the road and escapes down another alley. Wicked. Viewed from behind in the traditional third-person perspective, though, this picks up all the little wrist and finger movements that contribute to mouse or analogue stick camera control, and as a result looks more like a steadycam doing the robot than a scene from a Michael Mann film.
Add a marker to the start of the clip though, and another to the point where Nico slams up against the first cop car to take cover, and you can specify a camera that orbits 90 degrees from behind him to the side, capturing his knee slide and framing up his new targets - the cops at the end of the street - in classy fashion. There are options for smoothing the camera's acceleration and deceleration, and if you don't like the orbital approach you can specify the path the camera takes manually with a few interstitial markers. Or perhaps you'd rather do the Gears of War roadie-run style handheld camera shot.
As for the cop car explosion, it looks fine blowing up in the distance, but it can be improved upon. A couple more markers to bookend the sequence, and a bit of fiddling with variables, and you can zoom in on it using a mixture of camera movement and altering the field-of-view (with an FOV range of 15-95) and then slow down as the petrol ignites and the car explodes. Add another marker to switch the focus back to Nico, standing and watching calmly, and then another to the end of the clip so that, as he races off down the alley, the camera rotates around behind him and lifts up into the sky, staring down the alley in one of those lingering fades that action films seem to like when they want you to consider what's just happened.
Alternatively, you could rewind at this point and add a visual filter, because the editor has loads. Sepia, obviously, and black and white, and green, red, sketch, night, hot night, dark sided, noire, psyche, cinema, muddy, neon, steel, tweaked steel. Those are just the ones we wrote down. You can make the game look very different. You can also pick any music you like from the game soundtrack, and turn off character speech if you want the action to speak for itself. As I played around composing a gaffes trailer, the last thing I wanted was Derrick McReary mumbling on about PE4 while the camera neatly swung round to capture a bus smashing a police car out of our pursuit (with a touch of speed-up to emphasise it, obviously), so that was welcome.
As is the option to overlay your own text. Our Rockstar minder speculated that machinima fans could use this, in combination with the online free-roam multiplayer and wealth of available character models, to make their own actual movies. The one barrier to that may be players getting their heads around the editor, but Rockstar promises a PDF included on the game disc and website explaining everything, and training videos are likely to follow online.
It's also worth pointing out that your bumbling correspondent is a complete moron, and still picked it up within 15 minutes. Machinima devotees, meanwhile, are likely to appreciate the range of options for exporting clips. As well as a standard 640x480 dump, which can be uploaded directly to the Rockstar Social Club, it's possible to export 720p and 1080p WMV files for distribution via other methods.
Away from the video editor, other expectations have also been met, and in some cases exceeded. Rockstar Toronto hasn't confirmed a custom playlist radio station yet, but we're hopeful, and the game auto-saves after each mission, just like the console games, so you shouldn't lose much progress if your overclocked quad-core CPU finally chokes on a background process.
Keyboard and mouse control is obviously in, too, as is Xbox 360 pad support, but the fact you can switch between the two on the fly represents a middle-ground for players who fancy driving around 2008's Liberty City using analogue sticks and triggers, but using the third-person cover system to shoot up dealers and cops with WASD and mouse-based precision. The only niggle here is that the mobile phone is operated by the right end of the keyboard, away from primary controls, so those who favour keyboard and mouse for all may lose out on the one-handed texting element of driving, unless they can settle on a comfortable alternative configuration.
You can also customise all the usual graphical settings. Although our test machine's monitor is limited by a 1920x1200 resolution, the maximum supported is 2560x1600, and there are options for configuring view distance, detail levels, vehicle density, and the volume of shading. Rockstar also boasts of improvements to the process of streaming content into the world and says the draw distance has been boosted by default. That much is obvious as we drive across a bridge towards the Bank of Liberty during one of the game's showpiece missions, a bank heist with the McReary brothers. The peaks of skyscrapers are visible over the misted horizon many miles away, while the frame-rate, with a pretty firm 30fps baseline outdoors in the sections we see, occasionally ascends towards the magic 60. Indoors, it's never anything but.
Scaling a console game up to PC levels of detail is fraught with difficulty, judging by the number of games that cock it up spectacularly, but Rockstar Toronto appears to be aware that if you're going to tweak a game fitted to current-generation consoles, then you need to be mindful that the new details are coherent with what's already there and that you're choosing the right things to accentuate. PC gamers expect to be able to read the wording on the posters and flyers slapped around the game world, for instance (not for them the Vaseline and airbrush filters of modern 3D console engines), so here they can. If you're playing GTA IV for the first time on PC, you'll find a lot more humour rubbed into the backgrounds, like leaflets in the bank. "Hey kids! Wanna know about credit?"
Without the benefit of placing the 360/PS3 versions and the PC game side by side (which we will of course be doing next month), it's hard to say how effectively the update has been accomplished overall, but the things our PR guide picks out for us - the lettering, the individual leaves on trees, the newly lit lights on top of taxis - are good fits, and the fact we couldn't immediately spot anything else out of place is a good sign. These changes might be slight enough to have PC gamers scoffing, but it's also worth remembering how pretty GTA IV was on consoles. Some of the lighting is exemplary, with one of the best day-and-night cycles in any game this year, and the cut-scene direction and character animation are the equal of anything else in any genre.
All of which leaves GTA IV in a promising state a few weeks from launch. We're still a bit wary of Games for Windows Live, even if it gives cheeky gamers like us a chance to reap the gamerpoints for a second time, but we can get over it. What we really need now, however, is a practical assessment of how much PC power we'll need to get the most out of the spruced engine, and that video editor in particular. Naturally, you can expect to hear about that and see our usual array of forensic comparisons closer to the game's release. For now though, we're fallin' in four-letter love aga-ain.
Grand Theft Auto IV is due out for PC on 3rd December.