Niko sits perched atop a high-rise building in the financial district of Liberty City, the wind swirling around him. He is crouched, poised, surveying everything. He can see hundreds of buildings in the distance - houses, skyscrapers, shops, towers, all in glorious detail. He can see cars driving below, oblivious to the chaos that is about to ensue. He can see a blinding blue sky, almost cloudless, and an aeroplane casually gliding overhead. He can see a river, one that dissects the city, glistening below. The Liberty City skyline is busy to say the least. But it is not the skyline or the beautiful view that Niko is interested in. Oh no. He is interested in the three unsuspecting Mafia henchmen whose job it is to keep people like Niko out of the building site they are protecting.
This is the third mission we've been shown during our behind closed doors super secret showing of a brand new hot off the press build of GTAIV on the Xbox 360 (the game will also be coming out on PS3), a title that's sure to bust the gaming world wide open when it's released on April 29. Hyped isn't the word. We'd say anticipation for GTAIV is beyond a level our mere mortal minds can truly comprehend. Is it unfair to expect Rockstar to fulfil those expectations? Nah.
What follows is a tentative claim, considering we haven't actually got our hands on the game yet, but from what we've seen (the game is all there, Rockstar is currently polishing and ironing out bugs) GTAIV looks like it's going to make happy even the most stingy of GTA fans. In fact, we'd go as far as to say it'll delight them. And, if you're not a GTA fan, GTAIV might just turn out to be the one that changes your mind.
Back to the rooftops and the mafia problem. Niko has been given this job by a Liberty City gangster called PlayboyX, who Niko has already spent some time with on a mission earlier in the game. Just before Niko set out, he enjoyed a cutscene where he met up with PlayboyX at his ridiculously plush pad in Algonquin (Manhattan). PlayboyX is your typical rude boy US gangster, all bling and guns - "this is my town!" he explains. We're scared to argue.
Niko, however, takes it all in his stride - his military background back in Eastern Europe has provided him with a steady, non-fussed air. PlayboyX needs someone like Niko, someone hard as nails and with a death wish, for this particular job, and Niko needs the money, although he makes a point of telling PlayboyX "I'm not low budget". So off you trot, ready to cause some chaos.
Niko and PlayboyX get in a car and drive. You're in control of the car of course, weaving in and out of traffic towards your destination, clearly marked on the mini-map. It's during these more laid-back sequences that you really get a sense of the graphical detail of Liberty City, an area smaller than in previous GTA games but packed to a much higher density and with a much greater sense of verticality. Mere streets are wonderfully detailed, with bright neon signs, loads of cars, intriguing shops and rolling poster advertisements demanding attention as you cruise around. While we're not convinced by GTAIV's water (in which you can swim) at night window lights impressively reflect in it. There's some noticeable texture pop-up, too (the game is still being worked on and a consistent level of 60 frames per second isn't confirmed), but Liberty City certainly has a next-gen, heavily populated feel to it. The streets are literally teeming with life - people are everywhere. Lifting the lid on Liberty City is like lifting a boulder and finding millions of ants underneath. The people certainly look as if they're minding their own business and getting on with their daily lives, drawing out money from cash machines, jogging, smoking and chatting. We'll reserve ultimate judgement for the hands-on of course, but it all looks mightily impressive.
But not everything in GTAIV is in your face impressive. There are loads of little touches (Rockstar claims it has made thousands of changes for GTAIV) that help add to a sense that you are a part of a living, breathing world. For example, while you're driving and listening to the radio (all the music is place holder while Rockstar sorts out licensing issues) interference will scratch the radio signal just before your mobile rings. It's a simple yet brilliant touch, and just one example of why GTAIV looks so impressive.
While you're driving, PlayboyX explains the background to the mission. He wants to impress a powerful Arab who has embarked on a building project in Liberty City. The Mafia, however, isn't happy, and has taken control of the building site in order to prevent construction. To curry favour with the Arab, PlayboyX wants you to storm in and kill everyone. Simple.
Back to the rooftop (you following?). Sniping the lookouts from a rooftop building is, we're told, just one way of approaching the mission. If we had wanted we could have taken Niko on a Commando-style blast-em-up and shot our way in, or taken out the spotters from the ground. But we're not interested in that. We're interested in doing a clean, professional job, Leon style.
Niko steadies himself and zooms in on the spotters. Our handy Rockstar demo guy swiftly and precisely takes all three out, sparsely positioned on cranes overlooking the building site. One of them tumbles from a crane onto the roof of a car below. Cue delirious praise from PlayboyX through a radio headset. It's time for Niko to cock his shotgun, make his way down the building and aim squarely for the Mafia.
It's here that we're given the clearest indication of how combat will work in GTAIV. As we predicted in our GSI on the Move Up, Ladies trailer, GTA IV indeed features a cover system, which, we're happy to report, looks stunning, and is the change to the core GTA gameplay mechanic we're most excited about.
As in previous games, you have a targeting reticule and can switch targets at will, allowing for strafing and locking on. When targeting, clicking up on the right analogue stick moves the targeting reticule to your enemy's head, and clicking down lowers it. To get into cover you press the right bumper. It's context sensitive, so depending on your distance from and the type of cover, Niko will do a different move. For example, if you're a couple of metres from cover and press the right bumper, Niko will do a Thierry Henry-style knee slide and seamlessly slam his back into whatever is keeping the bullets from penetrating his skin. If you're right next to the cover, however, he'll simply crouch down. Put that in your chainsaw and smoke it Marcus Fenix.
As in Gears of War and what seems like a million games since, GTAIV also features blind firing. Here, Niko swings his arms up and over or around to the side, depending on the cover, and fires off rounds from whatever gun he has equipped. I'm told the blind fire is quite useful - indeed it looks like the enemy AI isn't quite up to coping with it. Here the targeting reticule is merely a guide - the bullets will spray wildly and inaccurately.
Back to the assault on the Mafia. Just before you start shooting 'em up we noticed another of those nice little touches. Depending on your distance from a vehicle, if the radio is playing you'll hear it. Move close and the sound gets louder. Move away and it slowly fades out. And, get this, if you fancy a booming hard rock soundtrack to accompany the on-foot carnage, you can whip out your mobile, tune in to a thrash metal station and have it play on loudspeaker. Nice.
The combat itself looks fluid and fun, and not particularly heavy on the strategy. It's a case of moving from cover to cover, chucking grenades and letting rip with the shotgun at anyone foolish enough to rush you. There's lots of action, lots of goons to take down and plenty of exploding barrels to add to the carnage. The job-based on-foot sections of GTAIV look like being extremely action intensive.
Our demo now skips to a mission late in the game. Niko is with Rey, a Mafia-type character friend of his who has been helping him search for "that special someone". Niko didn't come to Liberty City just because his cousin Roman promised him a better life. Niko has his own, personal motive. He wants to find "that special someone" we're told (Rockstar won't elaborate on this), and Rey has been helping him do it.
He brings Niko to see Phil Bell, a big-cheese Mafia gangster. A cut-scene kicks in which is ripped straight out of the Analyse This script book. "The thing?" "What thing?" "You know the thing, with the thing." "Oh the thing. Yeah what about it." "Badda beep badda boop." Turns out the Triads want to offload some heroin they believe is cursed, and, since Rey has turned down the job, Phil offers it to you. Off you trot.
On the way another nice little touch catches our eye. Cars have sat-navs, as you'd expect, which explains how Niko is able to set waypoints on the main map and have directions appear in the main HUD mini-map. But that's not all. In certain "better" vehicles, if you strain hard enough, you'll be able to hear a sexy female sat-nav voice tell you to turn left, or turn right, in lovely, dulcet tones.
Eventually Niko gets to where he needs to be. It's night now (Rockstar's demo dude was able to change the time of day at will to show off the game's lighting and weather effects). The moon is high in the sky and is casting shadows on the ground. There's what seems like a million stars looming overhead. But Niko hasn't got time for all of that. He's concentrating on stealing a truck filled with heroin from an army of Triads.
There's no time for subtlety either. Niko storms in with a rocket launcher, blind firing at anything daring to move. Again, lots of carnage, lots of explosions. The ground is on fire and Niko caps a Triad in the leg, forcing him to the floor. The poor unfortunate soul catches fire, rolls around in agony and eventually dies. Ouch.
The truck starts to move and looks like it's getting away. Niko runs after it and grabs the rear bumper. Here you have to tap A (on the Xbox 360 pad, we assume it will be X on a PS3 pad) to climb to the roof of the truck as it swerves and speeds its way towards a getaway point. This sequence, we're told, was in the recent trailer, and was inaccurately described by forum posters as not in-game. It is.
Niko rolls around the top of the truck as the driver desperately tries to force him off. You need to control Niko in order to keep him there. Eventually you make your way to the passenger seat, jump in and kill the driver - you don't control Niko when he does this. You bring the truck under control, call Phil and let him know the heroin is in your hands. He tells Niko to drive it towards an old mansion, which you do of course. Niko, after all, needs the money.
Time is jumped forward again, this time to 9.45am (one real-life minute equals half-an-hour in-game) and a speed boat is spawned. Niko is going to take a boat trip in order to see Liberty City in all its glory. We take in the Statue of Happiness (the Statue of Liberty), speed under the Broker Bridge (Brooklyn Bridge) and generally get a sense of the scale of the city. The game will include four boroughs, Dukes (Queens), Algonquin (Manhattan), Bohan (Bronx) and Broker (Brooklyn). It will also include Alderney (New Jersey), which is more of a state. In all it takes us a good few minutes to get from one end of Liberty City to the other on the speed boat. We're told that if you're not in a rush players will easily spend 100 hours getting everything the game has to offer, and that it's about as long as San Andreas or Vice City. And that's not including the confirmed two batches of episodic content, which Microsoft has an exclusive deal to keep only on Xbox 360 (sorry PS3 owners). Nor does it include the multiplayer side of things, which Rockstar is keeping quiet on until March. But what we can say for certain is that GTAIV, like its predecessors, will be a game that will reward effort. If you want to put the time in and engage in exploring, side quests and other non-main storyline stuff, you'll get your money's worth.
This is a first look, and as such, firm opinion is difficult. From a distance GTAIV looks superb, and, now that Rockstar has implemented subtle tweaks to the combat, looks like a great deal of fun to boot. But it's still classic GTA. This is an evolution of the genre, not a revolution. While Rockstar has dismantled all the parts and examined them in great detail, you'll still spend loads of time stealing cars, escaping cops and engaging in bloody murder. It's the first true next-gen GTA game and as such is perhaps more of a refinement than an overhaul.
It's also GTA grown up. The graphics are certainly improved (we're not sure the character models are the best we've ever seen, or the face textures) and more realistic. Niko's mobile, his gateway to the world, means he's never far from a call and a new job (littered about the city will be an Internet cafe chain called Twat, a sort of Liberty City information gateway). We're told GTAIV is the most sophisticated and opportunistic GTA world ever created, and much of that is to do with the phone. It has a camera you can actually use, a diary, a memo system and, hush hush, it'll be the device through which you channel the multiplayer portion of the game. Interesting.
The game's emphasis on relationship building too, suggests a more mature approach. Here you'll be able to pick and choose who you spend time with in the game. You can simply call someone up whenever you want and ask them if they fancy going for a drink. Getting pally with your mates in this way opens up "friendship favours". For example, get friendly enough with Little Jacob and he'll provide you with guns for free whenever you want them, saving the need to buy them from a shop. And once you've actually got the favour out of NPCs, you'll need to maintain your relationship with them by hanging out with them to keep them sweet. Ignore them for a bit and they'll start to call you, complaining at the lack of love. Perhaps Rockstar's implementation of the relationship system is in part a result of its decision to drop the character customisation through eating and working out from San Andreas?
We're shown an example of the friendship system in practice. Niko calls Roman just after completing a mission to see if he fancies a drink. Roman obliges and wants to meet at a local bar (get friendly enough with Roman and he'll offer Niko a free taxi service from anywhere in the city, saving the need to nick cars every time he wants to get somewhere). When we get there, the game quickly jumps to Niko and Roman stumbling out of the bar (we're not sure if you'll have in-bar sections), and you regain control of Niko. Both are struggling to stand up, and it's an effort for our demo guy to get Niko to walk in a straight line.
Here we're shown the game's much-hyped Euphoria scalable physics engine in action. Niko and Roman struggle to the car, their character models reacting to the surface and lines of the vehicle depending on how players approach it. They trip over themselves and each other in ultra realistic fashion. On the face of it, this isn't anything important or essential to the game. But dig a little deeper and all these little touches add up. And yes, for the first time in a GTA game, you can drink and drive (the car swerves all over the place and you have impaired vision for a few minutes while the alcohol wears off). GTA was never the most politically correct game series in the world and GTAIV will be no exception (just wait for the Daily Mail to get a sniff of this).
As you'd expect for the first GTA game to be developed on the PS3 and Xbox 360, you've got a greater level of vehicle damage than ever before. Bonnets fly off and cream unfortunate passers by and shooting out tyres has a real effect on enemy cars. Rockstar has also tweaked the way you attract unwanted police attention in the game, with a new police wanted system. Here, you have up to six stars worth of attention from the cops, which will fill up depending on how much carnage you cause. The level of hate will affect the search area in your mini-map, which you have to move out of to escape attention. But there are other options here. Niko can switch cars when outside line of sight and fool the pursuing cops into thinking you've disappeared.
The first mission we were shown in our demo gave us a glimpse of how all of this will work in practice. Niko is given a job from an annoying loud-mouthed wise-cracking gangster called Brucie - "ice cold man!" - who you might have seen from the second GTAIV trailer. Brucie owns a garage just round the corner from Roman's taxi depot, in Algonquin (Manhattan). He wants you to kill someone, someone who is about to go on the stand and put a lot of people in prison, but before you can do this you need to find out where he lives, and to do that, you need to steal a police car, log on to its mobile internet network and search their database for an address. Simple.
So you steal a car (what else?) and start mowing down people and generally causing a bit of a ruck in order to attract some attention. It's not long before the cops come calling. Niko rams into the cop car, gets out, uses his own car as cover and starts blind firing with a pistol. Then, once all of the cops have left their vehicles, our demo dude makes Niko sprint towards a cop car, jumps inside, and speeds off.
We've only accumulated a couple of stars worth of attention, so it's a fairly simple escape out of the search area. But we're told that the police can become incredibly difficult to dodge. They will communicate with each other over police radio (you'll hear them talking about specific streets), set up road blocks and combine to force you to a halt. They will also readjust their search depending on where you were last spotted. So, if they see you while you're trying to get away the search radius will restart from that position. In all, it looks like Rockstar have tried to create a more realistic getaway experience then ever before, one that's based on line of sight and feels like a game of cat and mouse.
Once we've escaped we're given a glimpse of the police database. You simply type in the name of the person you're after and it will cycle through hundreds of faces, eventually returning a selection of results. You pick the right one, in this case Lyle Rivas, and get his address. You mark it on your sat-nav and head towards the mark on the mini-map, smashing multiple posts and destroying fire hydrants along the way.
Niko arrives and, predictably, Lyle does a runner. Here we witnessed a known bug where the mission will fail one out of four times, but don't worry, Rockstar's on it. Incidentally, if you do fail a mission Niko will receive a text message which lets him give it another go. You jump in the cop car, put the sirens on (to smooth the journey so to speak) and give chase. Here we're given a look at how driving and shooting at the same time works in GTAIV. In a first for the series you can smash the near side window, lean out and shoot forwards while in a car, aiming with the right analogue stick. Luckily Niko has an Uzi at his disposal, and goes straight for Lyle's tyres. The car crashes to a halt and Lyle makes a run for it. He doesn't get far.
Back with the speedboat and our demo comes to an inevitable conclusion as we park up on a beach area. Here we find a random computer-controlled resident of the city sitting on a bench reading a paper and minding his own business. Perhaps he highlights Rockstar's most impressive achievement with taking Liberty City into next-gen territory on the PS3 and Xbox 360 - that is to create the most atmospheric video game sandbox we've ever seen. We just can't wait to try it out for ourselves.