Version tested: Xbox 360
Assuming they're not hiding until Q3, everyone else will be kicking themselves. Ever since GTA III, they've all been standing on Rockstar's shoulders and leaping off in new directions, like war and destruction in Mercenaries, super-heroics in Crackdown, and goblins and Jean-Luc Picard in Oblivion. But Rockstar kept its eye on the zeitgeist, and GTA IV's big innovations aren't amazing physics, spectacular graphics and epic environments - although it has all those - but convenience and multi-tasking. There is no longer any wasted time.
There have been hints of this before: listening to Lazlow while you chased down gangsters, using disguised ramps to outrun the mafia; doubling up the entertainment. But GTA IV doubles up the interaction. The mobile phone is central to this, allowing you to make phone calls and text-message people one-handed while you walk or drive; networking, socialising, organising, and listening to that ringtone you downloaded for America's Next Top Hooker. It's a tool for manoeuvring between GTA's activities and gameplay ideas quickly. It feeds you certain missions, and lets you phone in the results. When you hear a song on the radio that you don't recognise, you can dial 948-555-0100 and the game will text you the artist and song name. The phone's well-realised, too; you even hear that interference noise when it's about to ring. When you fail a mission, you can answer a text to teleport yourself back to wherever you spawn after the cut-scene briefing finishes.
You also keep your weapons when you die, so as long as you're never taken alive, you can do just that. When you succeed, the game auto-saves. Once you've wined and dined your friends and family, you can use the phone to order supplies - Little Jacob the arms-dealer will pull up in an alley nearby, Brucie will fly his chopper to a nearby heliport, Roman will send a cab. The cabs are very useful. Any cab you see can be whistled for, or leapt in front of, its customers ousted and thrown to the kerb and the driver instructed to take you to a waypoint, social venue, or any of those familiar little initials on the mini-map that initiate missions. Hit a button and you're teleported there via a short loading pause. It's pricier to do, but hey, convenience costs. If you drive yourself, GPS navigation uses the mini-map to guide you to your mission-specific destination or waypoints. However you travel, you can look around with a free-look right-stick camera, and a button for locking the camera onto targeted vehicles and individuals assists with pursuits.
Besides the phone, the second-best thing GTA IV does is realign the combat to match the Hollywood driving. A Gears of War-style cover mechanic slams your back up against most surfaces, even cars, so that you can creep up to the edge, hop to adjacent cover points without exposing yourself, and fire on your enemies with a flexible targeting system, which locks on but frees you to drag the reticule to a head, or kneecap, flick to other targets or go completely free, crouch to improve aiming or click to zoom slightly, all without tying your fingers in knots. As you approach an abandoned, rundown hospital packed with drug dealers, or tumble into cop-filled streets to affect a getaway, or jump out of an elevator in a goon-filled hotel corridor, your heart rises, where often it sank.
There's also a sense of refinement in areas where GTA has always been strong, like driving and carnage. Now you can lean out of the window and fire in any direction, providing you can direct the right analogue stick at the same time as steering and managing the throttle - slightly awkward, but then it would be - and technical advances improve basic acts of destruction. Along with tumbling lamp-posts, there are fire hydrants to crash over, innumerable variations on smash-object-and-shower-street-in-debris, and some environmental damage; actual structures maintain their integrity, but you can chip away, they hang onto bullet holes, and anything you can see through is no sort of cover. The NPCs know this, too, and rarely stay in the driver's seat for long if you lock onto them with a gun - something else you can do now, with a matching blood-spray effect on the punctured windscreens to announce the truth of your aim.
Windscreens also take a battering from heads, because you can be thrown through them on violent impact. Explosions rock you and anything else in the world - try going up to a group of people with a live grenade - and it's possible to entertain yourself by walking into moving cars, or hitting bikes at speed to send their riders into the air. You have to look before you cross the road. The effects are comical at times, but GTA IV reserves the absurd for exceptional circumstances, like a man trying to cling onto his carjacked sedan as you accelerate away. Bodies can't be broken into pieces, despite the blood, so it's never disgusting either.
The world itself is smaller than the state-sized San Andreas, but locations have character. The kidney-shaped island that hosts Broker and Dukes - home to the airport in the east, a carnival, a fair amount of green-space and tree-lined avenues - is the aftermath of a collision of awkward terrain and an expanding population that scattered confusing sloped road junctions and incongruous architecture across its span, patrolled by the Russian mafia. The smaller Bohan, also accessible from the start, is a rougher northern relation, linked by massive bridges and home to an uneasy gathering of immigrant neighbourhoods and housing projects. Beginning the game in Broker, Dukes and Bohan allows for a diversity absent from the opening throes of San Andreas.
Heading west to Algonquin, there's an apparent bleakness, but only north of the game's equivalent of Central Park - a large green expanse, swollen and tunnelled through in places. Head south towards Star Junction, GTA IV's Times Square, and the streets and their occupants smarten, franchise shops and eateries cluster, framed by tall arches that climb above the mezzanine level where buildings start to form the skyscrapers that dominate the financial district beyond. There's a stronger police presence, too, because these people are worth protecting.
Star Junction itself fills your screen with neon - ads and outlets, like Pirate Music Store, Shark Credit Card ("Extortionate Value"), make-up billboards for Max Renda, spinning pharmacy signs and glitzier Cluckin' Bell restaurants, where you can quickly top up your health. It's clean, but dirty. It's a far cry from the decrepit Alderney to the west, a blue-collar spread of industrial buildings, housing projects, sagging telegraph poles and corrugated roofs pocked with holes, overgrown parks full of rusting cars, half-built houses overshadowed by the monstrous freeways and the skyline of Algonquin visible beyond, glistening with derision over the broken roads and the homeless shuffling along them. Wherever you are, incidental drama plays out all around you; fat cops chase bag-snatchers, and inattentive drivers bash into one another. It took us about 12 hours to unlock all the islands, by way of some mucking about, and as usual the rails are quietly oiled for you by long-standing strengths of GTA's design, like roads where there's just enough room to drive between columns of traffic without impediment.
Elsewhere, GTA had been doing joke websites for years (remember Kent Paul?), but GTA IV has an entire joke Internet, accessible through terminals and TW@ cafes, and home to email access, novelty sites and social portals like Love-Meet. You use the Internet to receive requests for exotic car thefts, and to entrap people. Similarly, you can dial 911 on your phone, so you can prank-call the cops and steal their cars, and search for people on their computers. Or you might be sent a photo on your phone to help ID a target. We don't feel guilty about imparting this, because GTA IV is rich enough that we can afford to fritter away a few of its very minor reveals.
Theoretically, strong and innovative missions should coalesce from so much environmental variety, and the phone, web and physics innovations, but the best scenarios are down to the series' traditional strengths - solid driving controls and car handling, which encompasses a broader spectrum of grip and suspension, rather than relying on speed to do most of the differentiating - and the fact that you're more comfortable, manoeuvrable and secure in control of Niko than any of GTA's previous anti-heroes. By the time you unlock Algonquin, the game is in its stride; you rob a bank, assault entrenched mafioso and drug dealers in complex, multi-tiered environments, race to escape the police, and everything feels better for destructible scenery, variable weather and lighting conditions, detailed sight gags - like a precious coffin wiggling precariously out of the back of a hearse as you enact a bumpy escape - and the script variation when and if you have to try again.
The storyline that arcs from Broker to Alderney handles Niko's past and present with decent range and subtlety. The old mood-swing effect - relationships accelerating from cautious introductions to strong bonds and pivotal drama in just a few cut-scenes - is almost completely eradicated, and cut-scenes are improved by physical interaction and behavioural animation, and a clever script. Niko himself is quickly sympathetic - his moral latitude is rooted in horrible war stories, but he's warm-hearted - and imposing, and his influential relationships are with rounded individuals, albeit often in caricatures' clothing. Situations and developments are rarely contrived, as the dialogue lays the foundation for dramatic events and betrayal subtly, in a way that you can appreciate more when you see them a second time.
The moral awkwardness of Niko's situation is fed into a degree of decision-making on your part, too - take a life, save a life; choosing who to side with - and although it was difficult to discern the impact of this stuff on the first play-through, the game promises that it has repercussions. Thanks once again to technical advances, particularly graphically, Rockstar manages more drama, and interactive drama, in these significant showdowns, rather than resorting to bosses with large health bars.
This sort of attention to detail, which exceeds your expectations, is apparent throughout, with vast expanses of content tucked into areas that even thorough investigation might not uncover. The comedy club has been trailed pre-release, and features routines from Ricky Gervais and Katt Williams, but you can watch TV programmes too; police behaviour is reworked to rely on visual identification to keep the heat on you, allowing you to slip away if you can get out of sight of cars and choppers, whatever your wanted level (no mean feat, as the police will box you in and try all sorts now); you can't customise Niko's physical attributes or upgrade him, but you can change clothes, and buy anything you see in a clothes shop, and the women you date will notice if you dress poorly. They also nag.
And the things you do with your friends are activities themselves. Bowling is based on speed of release and timed aftertouch; pool is fully-realised billiards, albeit with simplistic cuing and physics; drinking ends in falling around, and is funnier than it ought to be; and strip clubs are, er, unchristianly high-definition. If you get tired of other people, you can put your phone in sleep mode, take a slow cab ride and put on the radio - home to a pleasant variety of styles and some superstar DJs (Iggy Pop, Juliette Lewis, etc) with brilliant chat shows and radio ads. The hybrid car advert, the debates about medical insurance, the Ikea baiting, Dragonbrain. There are plenty of secrets to unearth, too; watch out for pigeons.
Then by pulling up your mobile phone, you can select multiplayer. Via a lobby system that allows you to form teams and check out other players' details, you set up games that apply old norms and GTA-skewed derivatives to the game's fabulous open world. In a world of lock-ons, with weapon spawn-points on the mini-map, regular and team deathmatch come down to knowledge of the terrain, which is only acquired through persistence, but the team-based Cops n' Crooks, where one team starts on foot, escorting a VIP to an escape point while the cops spawn in a police cruiser and try to chase them down, is an instant hit, and others like GTA Race are more than they sound. With guns and rocket launchers, bad losers make it more entertaining for the front of the pack. Then there is Free Mode, which lets you do whatever you want in Liberty City with up to 15 other people, and leaderboards for all. (Look out for more thorough commentary on GTA's multiplayer post-release.)
Like the PS2 games before this, though, some of this comes at a cost. We've all read by now about the PS3 install time (look out for a special Face-Off feature next week), but the frame-rate also takes punishment throughout, polluted by Rockstar's unashamed ambition, with noticeable pop-in in places. It never once stopped me enjoying myself, though. The only things that did that were the occasional stickiness of cover points when trying to manoeuvre quickly, the continued absence of mid-mission checkpoints (itself only irritating when a mission begins with a long drive, which is rare), and some clunkiness in ladder-climbing and vaulting objects. And perhaps Niko's arsenal, which is quite basic, even though it's versatile.
Otherwise, GTA IV is the 10/10 you were expecting. Almost everything you do in Liberty City would be good enough to drive its own game, and the best parts would be good enough to outrun the competition, but the reason it works so well is that Rockstar has made a game that requires no patience to play. This, as much as its usual coherency and the best script in the series, is what makes GTA IV the best openworld game yet, and why it will take something miraculous to rob it of game of the year status.
10 / 10