Ever since Peter Moore's bicep set the clock running on 10th May 2006, the world has been watching and waiting, and Rockstar has probably been sleeping rather badly - albeit on rather more comfortable sheets than the ones it was soiling in October 2001 when Grand Theft Auto III first went on sale.
Back then, GTA was a good PC game, but 3D updates of 2D games were struggling to get the best out of their source material, so while interest was high, no one anticipated the impact GTA III would have. You could steal cars, do jobs for mob bosses and spend your money on hookers. You could stand on top of a car park and bait the police with a sniper rifle. At a time when everything else was a cartoon or a Capcom fighter, it turned out that this was what everyone wanted: a grown-up, mainstream videogame that made fun of politics, religion, the media and pop culture.
Rockstar knew it had a good game on its hands, but it had what is commonly known as "the fear". With a few carefully managed exceptions, it kept the game away from journalists until the last possible minute. In the end it needn't have worried, although that hasn't stopped it doing the same thing ever since, not least on Grand Theft Auto IV. As well it might, since this is the biggest game in the company's history. The fear is back. In light of the game's much publicised delay, we sat down to consider what we know.
Whereas GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas were rags to riches tales, GTA IV takes a less optimistic view. Player character Niko Bellic is an immigrant enticed to Liberty City by his desperate cousin, Roman, only to discover that the life of money and models in Jacuzzis is further away than ever. Starting out at a desk in a taxi depot, he's tarnished not only by his status but also by association with his cousin, for whom he's forced to work in order to make ends meet. GTA games traditionally begin in squalor, but the road to glory is a relatively comfortable one. Theft and murder are virtually incidental, because nobody remembers, providing your car's changed colour. In GTA IV, Rockstar isn't changing the rules completely, but it's making things more difficult, and describes the endgame not as "riches", but as "slightly better rags".
You can't just press a button to steal a car. The world doesn't allow it. You have to elbow the glass, break in and hot-wire it, all without being spotted. The cops notice; people report what you're doing, and if you're in a cop's line of sight then you're in a cop's line of fire, and he's not leaving his gun in its holster. When you're under police scrutiny, the crime scene forms the centre of a circle of investigation, which grows much wider depending on the nature of the crime. Revisit that area at your peril, because they are looking for you. Pay And Spray is no panacea, either. If you can steal away to a secluded spot, switch cars and play it cool, you might be all right, but that isn't something you're going to be able to do if you've kicked up a huge fuss getting there. This isn't the sort of game where you can stand on top of a car park and expect the cops to loiter on the ground wondering what to do.
"Verticality" is a word that pops up in Rockstar's press briefings, but their point is that the world will have greater depth. One example of this is your mobile phone. Previous GTA games involved taking calls and acting on them, but seldom making them (in GTA III, you couldn't even talk). But here your phone isn't just a way of receiving instructions; it's a way of getting into the world, and getting what you want from it. One of your first missions involves seeking out a man in a park. You have his phone number, so in order to find him you stand on top of a hill, dial the number and watch to see who picks up. With the game set in 2007, Niko uses his phone to keep track of contacts, organise meetings and keep track of his life - a neat way of hiding the interface, but also a way of saying that GTA is ready for the new world after years of living in a dream.
The Internet's here too. Rockstar has done mock websites in the past, but this time there are Internet cafés (called "TW@", obviously). The role the virtual world will play isn't clear, but Niko's likely to do more than throw a crim's name into Google now and then.
Bent Cop Blues
Liberty City, home to GTA III, has been redesigned under a heavier influence from its original source material, New York. There are five distinct boroughs - Broker (Brooklyn), Algonquin (Manhattan), Dukes (Queens), Brohan (the Bronx) and Alderney (New Jersey, or at least some of it). Staten Island is missing because, the developer says, it doesn't really add anything (apart perhaps from a ferry). The choice of a single city rather than a sprawling state like San Andreas catches the eye, but in a sense it was inevitable: in order to achieve the level of graphical and interactive detail that Rockstar needed to bridge the gap to expectation, the rules had to change.
To get closer to the world, Rockstar is keen to make more of your relationship with it on a small scale, and reduce the clear lines of artifice. Individual streets have more personality - their own names, and landmarks - and the people of Liberty City behave less autonomously, chattering on their phones and reacting to things besides you. You can buy hot dogs and watch them smoke. You can blow up their petrol stations and businesses, even when it has nothing to do with a mission. You can sign yourself up to more than one mission at once, and complete them in stages. NaturalMotion's Euphoria system has been employed, controlling Niko's movement through physics rather than simple rehearsed animations. When he runs, he leans into it as you would in real life; when he barges through a crowd, he has to fight against their weight as you do in Assassin's Creed. There's less absurdity; less going to the gym and wearing a silly mask, and more dressing the part, like donning a suit to convince someone you're there for a job interview, rather than murder.