Still, none of this matters much. Despite the moves towards a more realistic gangster epic, the most important thing is that Rockstar North retains the immense fun factor GTA is famed for. Even though I've only dipped my toes into the murky waters of Liberty City, I can tell that you're going to have as much, if not more fun in GTA 4 than in any of the previously released games.
GTA 4 still retains that strong sense that you can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want that the series has always had. I mentioned taking the Banshee for a spin - I did this during the middle of one of the game's crucial main missions. Deciding to take a break from GTA 4's main story and experimenting isn't a problem. In fact, it's a pleasure. And Rockstar is keen to keep that dry wit, those satire-fuelled references that have always coursed through GTA's veins, as obvious as ever.
It's easy to get distracted in Liberty City, but I didn't spend the entire hands-on fannying about, oh no dear readers. I actually got to complete four of the game's main missions. The first involved the previously mentioned Little Jacob, a wonderfully voice-acted Jamaican gangster. A cutscene plays out inside Roman's Broker taxi rank. He's talking to a man on the phone - "no I am not gay!" - and Niko gets some pop from a Sprunk vending machine. Roman wants Niko to pick up Little Jacob from his house and help him out with a little job. Fair enough.
As soon as I'm on the road I get a taste of how connected Niko will be with the characters of Liberty City. His mobile rings - A to answer, B to reject on the 360 pad - it's a guy called Vlad who offers me a job. Niko's phone will ring off the hook during the game. You'll be bugged by gangsters offering you work and potential girlfriends looking for a date (Niko's clearly quite the ladies man). Niko is never more than a phone call away from a distraction. But, mindful of my limited time with the game, I turn down all advances (I was asked not to accept a date from Michelle, a romantic interest introduced to Niko by a friend of Roman's, damn!) and head to a lookout position atop a small building facing the back area of another building where Little Jacob hopes to score a deal. On the journey, the Rastafarian weed fan mentions his reservations about the dealers (although he thinks he might just be paranoid). How true his concerns prove.
The drug deal goes wrong and bad guys pour out the back, hoping to keep the money and the gear. Sweet - this gives me a chance to take them out. At this early stage of the game Niko only has access to a pistol - indeed the mission is intended to introduce players to GTA 4's revamped combat. I learn that Niko has various levels of speed - from walking by simply moving the left thumb stick to sprinting by tapping A. The pistol targeting reticule is moved with the right thumb stick, and fire is the right trigger. While the left trigger does lock on, as in previous GTA games, you can now move the target after a lock with slight movements of the right stick. The point? Head shots of course. And nut shots. Whatever floats your boat.
I take care of the goons, picking up scraps of cash their corpses leave behind (loot glows yellow in GTA 4). I notice an auto save - the game will do this after every main mission and Niko will usually call the job in with whoever gave him the work. I jack a car and, with Little Jacob by my side, make my way to the wayward drug dealers' den, hell bent on revenge. This mission, called Concrete Jungle, is intended to teach players how GTA 4's brand new cover system works, and move the story further. Little Jacob, it turns out, works for someone called Badman, a gang leader who arranged the deal with the rogue punks in the first place.
Michelle calls again, begging for some Niko love. I'm desperate to learn more, so at this point I start to bug my Rockstar guide for some more juicy relationship details. Yes you can take Michelle, and other women, out on a date if you want. If I had accepted Michelle's offer (turning her down causes Niko to make an awkward excuse about being busy) the main map would show a number of dating hotspots. It's up to you to decide where to take the target of your affection. Thing is, you need to find the right venue for the right woman - they all have their own tastes, and won't take too kindly to certain bars or clubs. Get it right though, and, well, you can start to think about taking things to another level.
No, there will be no sex mini-game in GTA 4. Just thought I'd get that out there. My Rockstar guide was keen to clarify that. I don't blame him either, after the whole Hot Coffee farce. If you do manage to worm your way into a woman's pants, you'll drive her back to your place, or hers, and do the dirty deed off camera. Mass Effect this 'aint.