It takes an awful lot for me to spend extended periods of time playing games. I tend to pick at them, putting in a few hours a day over a week while doing other things in between. So, when GTA 4's game-time stat read 35 hours after just three days and my eyes were blood-shot it was obvious that this was not your average video game - not even your average great video game. After more than 40 hours Rockstar's most ambitious game to date was over and left me wondering if I'll ever be able to look at 'normal' video games in the same way again.
Starting GTA 4 for the first time, it was hard to know what to expect. I knew you played as Niko Belic, an ex-military guy from Eastern Europe, that the game is set in Liberty City and that Rockstar had worked on sorting out many of the issues in previous GTAs, but beyond that I came to the game pretty fresh. As to be expected, the opening moments drip with quality, the kind you'd expect to see in the latest $200 million blockbuster movie. In the office the whole gang had gathered to watch the opening moments. "That's so cool" was said more than once in the first five minutes - before the game had even given me the controls - and it's a phrase that became increasingly common - joined by big grins - over the course of the game.
Things start off unexpectedly slowly. Early missions revolve around helping out your cousin Roman, who runs a taxi cab business. It's here that you'll get to grips with the ins and outs of GTA 4, including the new waypoint system for navigation (in-game GPS), your mobile phone (essentially your link to all your contacts in the game), the new combat system and the way missions work. Of course, you'll likely go off the rails, experimenting with the new physics system by ramming innocent pedestrians with your car or inflicting enough damage to cause your car to explode. It's all very next-gen and far too easy to waste hours of your life on.
You'll also come into contact with Liberty City's finest, the LCPD. The wanted system has seen some changes over previous GTAs, making chases all the more entertaining. Do something naughty, like reverse into a patrolling police car, and you'll have a one-star wanted level. The cop will start a pursuit, staying on you as long as he has you in his sights. Get outside the relatively small search zone for a short period of time and the search will be called off, but things can get a lot worse. Once you get up to a three-star wanted level (shoot a cop or go on a blood-thirsty rampage) things aren't so easy, with helicopters giving the cops an eye in the sky. Just hope you never have to see the dreaded level six.
Cars in GTA 4 all handle very differently, as do the bikes. Larger vehicles are pretty sluggish and don't take to power-sliding around corners all that well, while sportier cars have an almost arcade racer feel, ideal for nipping about the busier roads in Liberty City. The motorbikes are the most nimble though, weaving in and out of traffic with relative ease. It's easy to get a little too confident though. In a car a high-speed head-on collision can see Niko fly through the windscreen, but do the same on a bike and you're guaranteed to be eating tarmac, and whatever else your lifeless body careers into as it flies through the air. Helicopters and boats also make an appearance later on in the game, both offering a far more peaceful form of travel.
As deadly as vehicles can be - you can even manually aim a weapon while driving - it's on-foot where you'll do most damage. With a target lock-on and free-aim system the game has most gamers covered, although it's not quite perfect. In confined spaces the camera can get a little lost and the new cover system occasionally locks you to the wrong piece of scenery. Trying to balance free-roaming gameplay and solid shooter controls can't be easy, but Rockstar has done an excellent job. To begin with you'll be limited to your fists and a baseball bat, but soon you'll have access to a pistol, then automatic rifles, sniper rifles, grenades, molotovs and RPGs - lots given to you for certain missions, but also available at the numerous gun stores in the city.