Grand Theft Auto IV's 29th April arrival on PS3 and 360 has been widely, not to mention voluminously heralded as the defining moment of this generation of consoles. Cruising around Liberty City in high definition on the biggest LCD television in the world, you can easily tell why: where Vice City and San Andreas were only able to extrapolate from the GTA III base - albeit to record-breaking effect - getting to know GTA IV is a steady sequence of pleasant surprises and sensible reconfigurations. Liberty City may be, to borrow from the game's amusing website, "where the American Dream comes to die", but it's also where the Grand Theft Auto series has come to be reborn.
Protagonist Niko Bellic arrives in Liberty City the victim of fittingly youthful naivety; tempted to Rockstar's recreation of the Big Apple by his cousin Roman's false claims of fast cars, fast women and a fast fortune. The domestic reality is more like the inside of a used baked-bean tin, complete with dodgy stains and mould, buried in the depths of a Broker tenement building.
The apartment is a save-point and rest location in the same way that homes were for previous GTA protagonists, but it's still here that GTA IV really asserts its superiority, as Niko sits down at Roman's kitchen table and leans on an elbow, coming to terms with his situation out loud. GTA's characters have always been expressive, despite technical limitations, but this is different: Niko and his fellow citizens have facial muscles that betray their reactions, can look each other in the eye, speak to one another with moving lips, take one another by the hand - and twist arms. Gone is that strange crease and bend in the chest that always betrayed the character model beneath the painted-on shirt buttons; Liberty is a city of believable individuals.
That sense of physicality and dynamism is reinforced as you step onto the streets of Broker, the first of the game's four major boroughs. A light fog blurs the night air as street lamps hang cotton buds of fading light up and down sidewalks dense with rubbish bins, fire hydrants, glass-sheltered bus-stops, sign posts and the occasional coned-off sand-pile of roadworks. Things you'll be breaking later. Pedestrians make their way around, oblivious to your arrival, bumping into the sides of slow-moving cars at cross-walks and muttering, making conversation or remonstrating.
It's cold; you can see the steam on Niko's breath. Later, as you're feeling your way through the streets and alleys surrounding Roman's home, rain starts to fall, covering the road and pavement in a thin film that splashes at Niko's ankles. The water glistens and reflects. Moreover, this is not just a single game environment, but a world of disparate locations; neighbouring streets accomplish the rare feat of distinguishing themselves from one another in name and content without feeling contrived or inconsistent.
More importantly, it's a world where you can do all the things that defined previous GTA games' success, and watch the game push each beyond the limits of past expectations. Car-jacking - eponymous, and simplest - makes the point well enough: parked cars are no longer either locked or not; with a quick glance this way and that, Niko smashes the driver-side window with his elbow and unlocks the door before sliding in and driving away. You can still open a driver's door and haul him or her to the ground, and in the case of resistance, you can send a kick to the neck to elaborate, but if you're pointing a gun at the driver's head, violence won't be necessary: they'll just get out and leg it.
Cars continue to handle somewhere between reality and Hollywood, with the handbrake as important as ever. SUVs with bouncy suspension are still playful, town cars still scream into fast turns and police cruisers are still punchy and quick to accelerate. Motorbikes are still nimble, and now they can do backflips.