"Where's the best place for putting my foot down?" I ask my Rockstar guide, a smirk creeping across my face. "Probably Algonquin," he replies. Algonquin, Liberty City's version of Manhattan, it is then. And so I slowly work my way towards the Three Boroughs Bridge, trying desperately to avoid attention. I don't want to so much as nick this baby, it's just too damn sexy to ruin.
I pass through the toll station, slowing down by the barrier like a good citizen. Niko reaches out and pops a couple of dollars into the machine. The barrier comes up, I travel through, and I'm there. Algonquin is densely packed, with spiralling skyscrapers, imposing government offices, heavy traffic and plenty of people enjoying the beautiful, sunny weather. But up North the population starts to thin, the roads start to empty and my finger starts to twitch. I'm in the Banshee - GTA 4's coolest, baddest, shiniest, fastest car. I jacked it from some loser back in Dukes (Queen's) as soon as Mr Rockstar spied it. So now, with some lovely, clear, wide open road in front of me, I put my foot down.
It's fast. Super fast. And incredibly hard to control. I press B (I'm playing the Xbox 360 version of the game) to check out the Banshee from cool cinematic angles. I need to break absolutely ages before I take a corner. Turning feels like trying to move a metal mountain. This baby needs care, clearly, and no small amount of skill. It's not long before I've bust it up pretty bad - showing off the real-time vehicle damage in all its glory. Soon it's dragging to the right, and slowing down. For shame. I've ruined GTA 4's most glorious car. Ah well. I'm sure another one isn't too far away.
Anti-climactic speeding notwithstanding, my lack of driving skill has highlighted perhaps the most important point Rockstar North is trying to make with 2008's most hyped game - that GTA 4 will be the most realistic GTA ever.
I could see glimpses of the fact during my trip to Rockstar's London HQ to get a first-look at the game back in January. But seeing it is different to feeling it. Now, finally, I have my grubby mitts on an Xbox 360 pad and I'm moving Niko about, causing havoc and tearing up Liberty City all by myself. And it feels great.
You can see the added realism in every digital inch of Liberty City, eking out like virtual sweat. Crash into a lamp post and it will tear concrete from the pavement, sparks flying and wires dancing in incredibly realistic detail. Driving around Broker (Brooklyn) with the weed-smoking Rastafarian gangster Little Jacob in the passenger seat might draw unwanted attention, especially if the car windows have been smashed from a particularly rough car chase. Explore any of the city's many hospitals (where you'll respawn if you're killed) and you'll come across water coolers. Fire at these and water will spill out of the holes you've made in the plastic. The "fantasy" vehicles have all been removed. Gone are the tanks, aeroplanes, parachutes, jet packs and bicycles. Cars, choppers, motorbikes and boats survive the chop. Vehicle damage is detailed and has a real impact on the handling of your car. If your tyres are shot out sparks will fly and you'll slowly grind to a halt. If you smash up the front of the car it will start to die. Ram from the side and it will drag left or right. Vehicles won't explode automatically when they're upturned either. If you're cornered by the cops you can try to run away, Police, Camera, Action!-style after you've put your hands in the air. All this and we haven't even got to talking about relationship building, one of GTA 4's gameplay cornerstones.
Still though, GTA 4 is no Holodeck. During my few hours of hands-on time I experienced plenty "oh yeah, this is still a game" moments that reminded me that, despite Rockstar North's efforts, Liberty City still plays by virtual rules.
Pull a gun on a random bystander, perhaps someone casually walking down a street, or withdrawing money from a cash machine, or sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, and they'll either run away or cower - and that's it. Cause death-filled carnage in an area, drive the cops absolutely crazy, escape their line of sight and search radius (visible in the mini-map in the bottom left hand corner of the screen) and then return to that area, and everything will be returned to normal. Fail a mission and you'll be sent a text message offering you the chance to reset and retry. I'm not criticising the game here. I'm just saying that you shouldn't expect a virtual world simulation. Liberty City is quick to react, but it has a hard time remembering.
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.
Disappointed? Ah well. You'll get over it. And to help Rockstar has included a plethora of mini-games to keep you busy while you battle sexual temptation. Details are thin on the ground, but expect bowling, pool and darts as well as illegal car races along airport strips. It's clear you won't be left bored by Liberty City. Oh no.
Speaking of distractions, before sorting out those dealers I put Liberty City to the test and went off on a tangent, in true GTA style. Running over pedestrians is as satisfying as ever. They fly off into the distance, almost comically. It's another example of GTA just being GTA. Sure it's violent, but it's a hyper real violence, the kind of ridiculous, over-the-top violence you see in films like Kill Bill. It's not violence that will make anyone cringe.
It only takes a few minutes of mayhem before a cop spots me. Good - a decent-sized trail of cop cars provides the perfect opportunity to test the new driving combat. Here you hold LB make Niko smash out the door window and fire automatically (RT is reserved for making the car go). That will cause your currently equipped weapon (tap X to cycle through your inventory) to shoot. You can then move the targeting reticule with the right stick to direct fire. It's quite fiddly at first, and even a tad frustrating. Accurate fire is difficult, but this will no doubt get easier with practice. I did manage to shoot a cop in the skull through his front windscreen, causing his head to slump onto the steering wheel, honk his horn and bring the car to a slow, inevitable stop - but it was a complete fluke.
It's great fun. Reassuringly great fun. As we've talked about in our first-look, when you cause trouble that's in view of a cop you'll trigger a flashing circle on your mini-map. This is the cop's search area. You need to get out of that area or break line of sight and switch vehicles to lose your tail. The more murder and destruction, the more stars fill on the attention meter at the top right of the screen, and, as you'd expect, the harder it is to escape. I died more than once in this way - don't expect Liberty City's police force to give Niko an easy ride, or cars to provide Niko with magical immunity to bullets - cops will lean out and shoot at you through your windows too.
All this frivolous frolicking can't last forever, so I turn my attention back onto the mission at hand. As I near the drug den Little Jacob tells me to provide support fire from outside while he storms the house. I sprint to the outside wall and tap RB, causing Niko to effortlessly slide into cover, (the guy likes to show off those skills he picked up while working for the army in Eastern Europe). Moving the thumb stick left I make Niko hug the wall and inch towards the main house window. Niko automatically ducks, giving me a perfect pop in and out of cover position to take out the goons going nuts inside. It's during this shoot out that I can see GTA 4's new destructible environments at their very best. With the pistol I take out the dealers one by one, going for as many head shots as my thumbs allow. One takes cover behind a plasterboard column. No problem. Locking on with the left trigger I fire the pistol anyway. The rounds chip away at the plasterboard, eventually punching their way through and into the flesh of my unlucky target. Sweet.
I'm told that plasterboard won't be the only type of destructible cover. Fences and all sorts will only provide protection to a point - and of course you'll need to factor in the weapon strength. But even from this brief mission I can tell that Rockstar North has had one eye on Gears of War and the other on Rainbow Six Vegas while revamping GTA 4's combat.
I die and respawn outside a hospital (die and you'll keep your guns, get arrested and you'll lose them). I take a trip inside - something my Rockstar guide tells me he's not tried before. It's disappointingly empty, with only a few cowering bystanders (I still have my pistol in hand) sitting on benches. I ask if you can talk to Liberty City's residents, randomly, just for a chat. Unfortunately not - this isn't an RPG.. I buy a soda from a vending machine, which replenishes my health slightly. Refreshing.
I try the mission again. On the way I fiddle about with the car radio - left and right on the d-pad change station. Although you can't import your own music into GTA 4 (I'm told it wouldn't be in keeping with the tone of the series and wouldn't allow funny advertisements and droll Djs to amuse players), you won't want to. There are loads of stations, divided up into genres from rock to my personal favourite, electronica.
This time I keep myself and Little Jacob alive. As the dust settles I enter the building and survey the result of my handiwork. Corpses lie strewn about - glowing cash aching to be nabbed. There's a first aid kit too, which I notice replenishes my green health meter - wrapped around one half of the mini-map, the other half is for armour. All that remains now is to drive Little Jacob home and watch the cash count on the top right of the screen.
I skip to about a third of the way through the game, to a mission called Final Destination that begins in Broker and ends in Bohan. I'm watching a cut scene in a seedy club in Hove Beach, GTA 4's version of New York's Brighton Beach, and named after the UK's very own Brighton and Hove. Hove Beach is where all the Russians hang out in Liberty City. Niko is with a man called Dimitri. They've come to the club to speak to an imposing Russian gangster called Mikhael, a man who looks extremely upset at having to send two scantily-clad women from his side to listen to you. Dimitri is in quite a state - he suspects the Feds are onto whatever it is Mikhael's operation has been getting up to. Mikhael suggests a rat - Dimitri says it's simply a case of drawing too much attention to the group because they've been getting adventurous. Mikhael suspects Niko and orders him to kill one of Dimitri's friends, Lenny, as a show of loyalty. Dimitri is up in arms at the suggestion, but you have no choice - Niko needs the money after all.
This being a preview build of the game, my Rockstar guide unlocks all the game's weapons for me to play with. I jack a car and start causing chaos, just to try everything out. While driving you can drop grenades and Molotov cocktails like land mines. You can't target, just chuck them out of the window, with the hope that they'll blow up any pursuers. It's an imprecise science - you need to be careful you don't hang on to grenades too long or they'll blow up in your face - but it does prove effective if you fancy causing crazy amounts of damage.
I decide to get back on track and take out Lenny. Here I get a feel for the mini-map and how you'll navigate Liberty City. On the map, yellow dots point out where you need to go, blue dots indicate you need to get something from that spot and a red dot tells you where you need to kill someone. You can set your own way points on the mini-map - but missions will automatically sort themselves out. We've talked about the sat-nav before, but we've discovered some new details. Get in a European-style car and the sat-nav voice will be that of a posh, sexy English rose. Get in a US-style car and it will be that of a posh, sexy, American woman. You can change the settings so that all cars have sat-nav, or only those good enough. And while Rockstar is keeping very quiet on the player versus player side of GTA 4, I'm told that players should turn their sat nav off after a while so that they better learn the nooks and crannies of Liberty City for the multiplayer. Interesting.
My English rose directs me, in sultry tones, to cross the Three Boroughs Bridge. Here my Rockstar guide takes the pad and switches the weather settings from sunny, clear sky to night, so that I might see Liberty City in all its glory as I cross the water. It is a truly impressive sight indeed - artificial light from skyscraper windows gleams in the distance, the moon casts an ominous glow on the road, car headlights fly past me like dance club lasers and I catch an eyeful of Liberty City's many advertising billboards - all fake and in keeping with the "taking the piss out of real life" GTA attitude. I get a real sense of the sheer size, scale and density of Liberty City as I cruise across the bridge, moving the camera about to get a better view with the right stick. I mess about with the controls, clicking in the left stick to honk my horn and toggling my headlights by holding down X. It's an effortless, almost therapeutic journey. I imagine I'll spend hours just cruising the city when the game's finally released this April.
Something puzzles me though. Buildings, landmarks and objects in the distance have an odd haze to them. This looks like a deliberate graphical effect, perhaps intended to simulate peripheral vision or an aeroplane engine-style heat haze. Perhaps it's a developer trick - a way of pumping out more immediate detail in such an open world. Either way, the "distance" is never in complete, high-resolution focus and at times during my hands-on this felt odd. While we're on the subject, I ask about GTA 4's weather effects. There's sunny day, clear night, morning fog and even heavy thunderstorm, but no snow. Ah well.
While in GTA 4's pause menu I spy some interesting options. You've got your standard mission objectives in the Brief, a massive amount of stats, including game progress, mission completion, times died, addiction level (how long you've played the game), Michelle fondness and details on how many times you've been shopping, bought clothes and got drunk. Buying clothes is important - you won't be able to customise Niko in any way apart from the clothes he's wearing. Some people will complain if you never change your clothes and some missions require certain outfits - you need a suit for a mission involving an interview with a lawyer (more on that later).
There are more general stats available, including how many crimes you've committed, how many vehicles you've driven and how much money you've made. You've got head shots and mini-game scores, too. One statistic that did catch my eye was for driving races. GTA IV will have an airport run - a sort of illegal car racing club. And you can expect online leaderboards on which you'll be able to compare your scores with everyone else in the world.
Enough options already. Back to the action. I find Lenny on a train platform (you'll be able to use trains to get around Liberty City if you don't like driving). My mini-map, via a black arrow, showed he was positioned above me. After climbing stairs (Niko can only jog up stairs, not sprint) I trigger a short cutscene where Lenny and his goons start blabbering after I tell him I'm here to kill him. Like a foolish beginner I haven't equipped my Uzi in anticipation of things kicking off. Lenny and his goons dispatch me like the noob I am. I respawn at a nearby hospital, more determined than ever.
Searching for a car to nick I discover a little more about how Niko will interact with the people of Liberty City. Press B while walking in a crowd for an Assassin's Creed style push. But don't expect people to just take your aggressiveness - a push is counted as a violent act, and they will fight back. Start a fight with some randoms on the street and, if a cop spots you, they will try to arrest you.
Time to try and kill Lenny again. This time I remember to equip my Uzi before I trigger the cutscene - I take care of his goons and Lenny makes a run for it, jumping in a car and speeding off. I nick the closest car available and speed off in pursuit, wildly firing from the car window. A few lucky shots later and Lenny slumps forward, his car slowly grinding to a halt - I've hit him through the rear window and in the back of the head. Nice.
I now skip further forward to the fourth and final mission of my hands-on. This mission, called Harbouring a Grudge, begins in Dukes and ends in a dock in Algonquin. Niko has befriended a man nicknamed Packie (Patrick McReary) - one of a family of Irish thugs. We're in a car together, on our way to a job. I pass a TWAT - Totally Wireless @ internet cafe - Liberty City's chain of Internet cafes. I ask about how they will work. There will be plenty of websites on it, from news reporting on the chaos you're causing to more general stuff. There will be email access too - for one mission which requires you to go to an interview with a lawyer you'll need to submit your CV via email in TWAT. I'm told that GTA 4's Internet will look a lot like Rockstar's very own real life GTA 4 website, and will have an effect on gameplay. But I'm also told that TWAT will mainly be of interest for completists, suggesting you won't have to spend time surfing a fake version of the web if you don't want to.
I drive Packie to the Algonquin docks. Packie is very chatty, offering lots of life advice - most missions in GTA 4 are explained by accomplices as you drive to the job, keeping pad down time to a minimum. I'm told that if you repeat the game's missions the dialogue changes each time (there's about four dialogue versions for each mission). But repeat too many times and Packie, for example, will say he's bored of talking and asks if he can listen to the radio. It's a nice touch, and should help to keep things fresh, especially during repeated attempts of the more difficult missions.
Turns out that Ray, the Italian mafia guy we talked about in our GTA 4 first look, has tipped Packie off that the Triads are expecting a boat to arrive at the Algonquin docks with some interesting cargo. Ray wants him to wait for the Triads to load the cargo into a truck, steal the truck then get it to a safe house. In exchange he'll split the profits and, as you'd expect, help Niko raise some much-needed cash.
Packie advises you get to high ground in order to provide sniper support. It's here that I discover some elements of Ubisoft's own assassination sandbox Assassin's Creed have made their way into GTA 4. Niko can climb with X, shimmy left and right with the left stick, jump up with another press of X and drop with Y. Right now Niko's legs look terrible as he inches towards a fire escape that will enable him to get up on a roof top. But I'm reassured that Rockstar North is hard at work redoing this animation so it looks much more realistic when the game is released.
In position, the boat arrives with what Packie reveals are meds. As I wait for the transfer, I notice the graphical quality of the water - reflections are impressive and it ripples realistically. It looks like Liberty City's lakes and rivers will be one of GTA 4's most impressive graphical accomplishments.
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.