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