As great as these core elements of GTA 4 are, it's the characters that steal the show and make the game truly special. Niko's cousin Roman is without doubt one of the most charismatic and likeable characters ever seen in a video game, and it's Niko's relationship with him - and his love of family in general - that underpins the storyline. You're never too far from the introduction of a new face and for the first time in GTA history Rockstar has absolutely nailed the mix of comedy and drama - helped by some brilliant voice acting and facial animation. Rather than one scene feeling at odds to another, they play off each other wonderfully, immersing you into the story as you grow to like or dislike the characters - sometimes even determining their fate.
As a 40-hour game for most average gamers you might expect the action to let up a little, but if anything there's always too much to do. Aside from the brilliant and increasingly dramatic story missions there's an abundance of side missions: those given out by the key characters which in turn allow you to call in favours; dating, including certain perks; mini-games such as bowling, darts and pool; getting drunk and wandering around the city in an inebriated state; a working GTA 4 internet service with email, purchasable ring-tones, internet dating and news; and more.
The problem is that you just won't want to stray from the core story missions - they're that good. A realistic city in which you can fire weapons and drive vehicles might sound like a recipe for lots of repetition, but that's just not the case. Although you do carry out missions that are similar, the variety is incredible and often unique in how you personally play them out. One moment you might be taking down managers in a strip club and the next you're robbing a Bank and escaping Heat-style - a mission that must go down as one of the greatest in GTA history.
Liberty City is a brilliant game world. We've had other games that have claimed to be set in real worlds, but nothing has come close to this. The map is split into so many different areas and suburbs that it's hard to understand how Rockstar ever managed to get this game out onto store shelves. The level of detail is just staggering. Whereas San Andreas featured numerous relatively empty 'filler' areas, there's nothing but quality in GTA 4. The city is full of people too, getting on with their lives, getting into fights with each other, talking on their phones and generally acting real. Of course, they're not real, and do display some signs of stupidity - most often in their quite ridiculously slow and poor driving - but any casual observers will be blown away by what they see.
Moving from the quieter areas you begin in to the more densely populated areas of the city is a great game moment in itself. Having played for hours in a poor neighbourhood, only to drive down a glitzy road surrounded by neon signs and billboards, with traffic congestion mimicking that seen in New York, is a sight to behold. The sense of moving up in the world isn't laid out on a plate as it is in previous GTA games; in GTA 4 you'll just slowly realise that you're in a better part of town, living in a better apartment, dressing in better clothes and earning money more readily. It's not an instant thing, and works in conjunction with the storyline, with the bigger fishes appearing as your profile is raised.