The truck is loaded and I let rip, zooming in and out with up and down on the left thumb stick. Just for fun I switch to the rocket launcher and blind fire from within cover - the rockets spiral realistically, sometimes missing their target considerably. But I did manage to land one missile plum in the middle of a bunch of Triads guarding the truck - resulting in a hugely satisfying, ear-bursting explosion, with flying bodies, lots of blood and the odd burning corpse. Savage. With Packie in tow and the Triads safely disposed of, I drive the meds to the safe house and Ray - he says hi. This, I'm told, is the first time Niko meets a Mafia contact.
From my short time with the game I know that the combat in GTA 4 is the best of any GTA game. With the implementation of cover, full control of the targeting reticule and destructible environments, Rockstar has dragged the series kicking and screaming into the next-generation. It feels more satisfying, more tactical and more like the games we've loved playing over the last few years. With elements of Gears of War, Rainbow Six Vegas and Assassin's Creed, GTA 4 positively reeks of next-genness.
Some fans of the series will no doubt complain that these changes weren't needed, or make the game worse than its predecessors. But I disagree. A combat overhaul was, in my opinion, absolutely essential in order to keep the franchise relevant. The increased realism is welcome. But none of these changes have ruined what has stood the series in such good stead down the years - the freedom to do what you want, and have a blast at the same time.
There are still many unanswered questions - there's only so much info you can glean out of a couple of hours with a game. We know next to nothing about how the multiplayer works, for example. I'm assured info isn't far off though. The multiplayer will, of course, be an essential component in the overall GTA 4 experience, and it's absolutely imperative that Rockstar nails it.
We also know little about relationship building, which will also be extremely important in the game. Sure Niko can take women out on dates, and even get them in the sack, but what benefit will it bring? We know that improving relationships with certain people, like Roman and Little Jacob, will result in assistance (keep taking Roman out for drinks and he'll eventually offer you a completely free Liberty City wide taxi service, keep Little Jacob sweet and he'll give you weapons for nothing), but what can women like Michelle offer apart from questionably animated swinging hips?
Still, I've seen enough to know that GTA 4 is sure to blow the socks off anyone who's played GTA in the past. Indeed, I'm going to make a tentative claim and say it's shaping up to be the best in the series. But I still have some reservations. Liberty City does indeed feel more like a living, breathing place than ever before, but dig deep and you'll find that it's emptier than you might think. You can't enter most of the game's buildings or talk to 90% of the people you see. If you witness a crime you can stop and watch the event unfold, and even follow it through to an arrest - police will push the perpetrator's head down and bundle them into the back of cop car. While there are tonnes of people simply getting on with their lives, doing things like withdrawing money from cash machines and discussing the burning issues affecting the citizens of Liberty City, at the end of the day they act like the soulless automatons they truly are.
Does it matter? As I've said, this is GTA, not the latest JRPG. You can still nick a car, run over 50 pedestrians, climb a drainpipe, jump onto a train platform, slide into cover, blind-fire a rocket launcher, blow everything up and escape from the cops while throwing Molotov cocktails out of a sports car. Who needs levelling up when you've got this?
I leave Rockstar's London HQ gagging for more and I can't wait to blow the final version of the game open in one weekend-long blitz. Am I excited for GTA 4? Hell yeah. And you should be too.
GTA 4 will be released for the PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 29 2008.