Version tested: PC
I love Halo 3, you understand. But when it came out, and people asked me to describe it, my one-liner was, "Imagine if you had all the money in the world to spend on a game but couldn't change anything." Halo, conceptually, was as complete a thing as Mario Kart. To alter it too much, to push it in another direction, would be to destroy it. So we got flashes of user-generated content, multiplayer transparency, whatever. And, in the middle, Halo sitting there unchanged.
It's not a problem Rockstar ever has to face. The joy of GTA is that it isn't a complete thing. It's endless. If the devs had all the money in the world to spend it wouldn't be enough. There's always something else which could fit in there without changing its core values. But with GTA IV, with as much money as it's about possible for a videogame company to have, we saw what they could do. While it's a step away from certain features of San Andreas, this is as maximalist as a game's ever been, in terms of production values at least. The moment when you're replaying a mission and you realise it's got a completely different, brilliantly voiced conversation between the characters in the car is when you realise you're a long way from most games' occasional barks from whoever was passing through the studio at the time.
It's quite the thing. It's now on the PC. And it's fundamentally the same as the console versions. I'd go and read our console-version review to catch up on the basics, and return here to see how things have changed.
Go! Seriously, we won't steal your stuff while you're away.
As conversions go, it's an odd one. On some levels, it's genuinely exemplary. Take the controls. Plug in an Xbox 360 pad and it works fine. Play with keyboard and mouse, and it's great too - with the possible exception of going bowling, which seemed a little over-tricky. More so, have both plugged in at the same time, and you can skip between them as you feel like it.
When I've previously played PC GTAs, I've used a dual set-up to skip between the joypad's analogue controls for driving and revelling in the increased precision of the mouse for gunplay. I didn't really use it this time around, but the option was nice to have. In practice, I found the heavy-steering model of the game meant that I did far better on keyboard, with the mouse-look allowing me to take in as much of the views as possible. Point being, however you want to play it, you can. And they want you to - I was especially impressed by how the tutorial instructions change automatically to the last control device you touched, so if you change your mind, it changes with you. Which is so basic it seems odd to single it out for special praise - but it's a basic which isn't actually basic for most devs yet. So well done, guys.
But on other levels, it hasn't a clue. Like the vast majority of PC games, it auto-calculates its graphic settings. Unlike the vast majority of PC games, which generally underestimate what your PC can manage for the logical reason that a less-attractive game is less annoying than a less-playable one, its auto-calculation is more than a little optimistic. I had to knock down the default graphic options quite a bit on my PC (dual-core 2.4GHz, 2GB RAM, 640MB GeForce 8800) until I got an acceptable rate, and even then there was the occasional really nasty drop. While my experience was more pronounced than most, speaking to other reviewers via the secret review-grapevine lead to confirmation that fiddling to get it playable was universal.
That said, it's worth noting that even turned down, Liberty City remains one of the most visually stunning places yet seen in videogames. And, in terms of future-proofing, there's a lot of sliders that can be turned wayyyy up. In five years' time, the PC version will be the definitive visual incarnation of Liberty City - playing with a draw-distance set around to 20 and traffic-density way low makes the prospect of those hitting the 100 exciting. But now... well, it probably still is the most attractive version, but it's annoyingly fiddly to get there.
That's the conversion aspects, but there's more to GTA IV PC than just making it work on the beautiful beige box. What's interesting is how it's expanded to the new format. The one which will be impossible to ignore for everyone - even the people who don't play the game - is the replay editor. It'll be impossible to ignore, as YouTube will soon be full of people lobbing up their machinma of simulated pixelated-anal-entry.