Grand Theft Auto IV is looking superb. Perhaps even more importantly, it's looking finished. The millions of eager fans who were disappointed by the game's postponement can rest easy, because bar a major catastrophe, the game should make its planned April release date. Having played it for two and a half hours at Rockstar's London offices, we can report that the game is running smoothly, has relatively few bugs, and is as intricately detailed as we'd hope a GTA game would be. In fact, playing five missions and exploring two of the game's massive districts was almost too much to digest in one sitting, and we left intoxicated by the amount of new characters, areas, and gameplay that it has to offer.
Our demo kicked off at the beginning of the game itself in a mission called Jamaican Heat. Niko has traveled to Liberty City on the back of a promise of wealth and opportunity from his cousin Roman. Once Niko arrives, he finds the truth to be very different, and we join them both in the office of Roman's taxi firm. Roman is fielding phone calls from angry customers while Niko is pacing up and down the room. Niko is then tasked with going to meet a character called Little Jacob, a Jamaican stoner whose main interests lie in the acquisition and use of drugs.
The voice-over work is pretty much finished at this stage, and it's of the same high quality that we've come to expect from the Grand Theft Auto series. Little Jacob's vocal style makes him pretty hard to understand, but there are subtitles available should you need them. The incidental conversations still help to flesh out the characters in GTAIV, and they've become even more well-rounded thanks to a multitude of dialogue recordings. Conversations change depending on how you approach missions, so if you have to repeat them, you're unlikely to hear the same exchange the second time. We played one assassination mission that took place on a train platform, and the preceding cutscene changed completely when we approached the target from a different angle.
GTA: San Andreas really upped the ante in terms of character customisation, given that it let you completely change your appearance through exercise, diet, and clothing. GTAIV ditches the role-playing game elements, but you'll still be able to customise Niko as well as take him for a bite to eat. During some of our downtime in Liberty City, we dropped by a discount-clothing store and swapped his standard jeans-and-jacket combo for a more sportswear-oriented look. We were able to buy sweatpants, a sports jacket, boots, and sunglasses during our visit, and although it was hardly appropriate attire for an Eastern European crook, we liked being able to go into a shop and change clothes before a mission. After that we headed to a local diner, and in another nice touch, the staff and customers put their hands in the air. Apparently everybody thinks you're about to rob them when you forget to put your weapon away.
Although Rockstar has often pushed the envelope in terms of story, characterisation, and music, it has been criticised in the past for poor control systems. San Andreas tried to improve things with auto-aim and lock-on, but the combat still felt muddled and imprecise. The controls have evolved once again for this outing, with subtle changes made to the locking system; targeting is handled on the left trigger, and it automatically locks on to the closest enemy in sight. If you fire with the right trigger, you'll shoot at the body of your enemy, but this is nonfatal and it can take more than a few shots to bring your opponent down. However, flick the right analogue stick upward and you'll aim for the head, where it's one shot to kill. Though this takes more dexterity to pull off, it's worth attempting if you want to take successive enemies out in one fell swoop. In addition to the new aiming system, there's also a new cover mechanic that uses the right bumper on the Xbox 360. It's not quite Gears of War in terms of run-and-gun action, but using cover does let you consider your targets from safety before popping out to fire, or even blind firing if you're in real trouble. You can also hold "A" to run between cover, and though it's not done to the same extreme as in John Woo's Stranglehold, you'll see enemies pulling off slides and rolls as they move between cover.
These small adjustments certainly refine the regular combat of GTAIV with respect to its predecessors. However, the biggest improvement has undoubtedly been in drive-by shooting. In previous games, you were limited to firing left and right out of the car at fixed right angles, but now you're able to shoot freely by holding the left bumper and moving the right analogue stick. When you first move to aim, Niko smashes out the window of the vehicle and a targeting reticle appears. It's still slightly fiddly if you're trying to drive and shoot at the same time, but we managed to take down a whole gang of drug dealers on our first attempt.
The GTA series isn't particularly noted for its technically advanced graphics, but powered by the RAGE engine that debuted in Table Tennis, GTAIV is certainly a good-looking game. The city stretches as far as the eye can see, which means that Algonquin's tall buildings and bright lights tease you when you start the game restricted to the Broker district. With that said, the RAGE engine accomplishes this technical feat by blurring out the background image in a necessary but visually distracting act of trickery. Hopefully the team will be able to balance this out once it has optimised the game further to allow for a better mix of fidelity and performance. On the plus side, we were encouraged by the lack of slowdown at this stage, and with hardly any other bugs to be seen during our playing time, it's looking very encouraging for the game's planned April release. There are so many incidental details in GTAIV that it's sometimes easy to take them for granted. You still have a small map in the corner of the screen to help navigate, but more expensive cars also have a GPS system. As you drive a Mercedes-style car around Liberty City, a gentle female voice will tell you where to turn to reach your target. It might not always pick the quickest route, but it is clever enough not to guide you down one-way streets. As with previous GTAs, bridges will initially be closed off to restrict players from entering certain parts of the city, but we were able to skip forward in the game and cross the bridge from Broker to Algonquin. The only problem: tollbooths have been included in the game, and speeding through the barrier resulted in a throng of police cars chasing us over. The next time we tried, we slowed down at the window, paid the toll, and waited for the barrier to open.
Our demonstration ended with an assignment called "Deconstruction for Beginners," an assassination mission in which we had to take out some pesky union leaders for a new character called Playboy X. The first part of the mission required us to scale one of the tallest buildings in the city using a small lift; just ascending the structure took the best part of a minute. We were still a good way off from the heady heights of the Empire State Building, which was visible in the distance, but our building made for a spectacular view across the dock. From our vantage point, we were able to snipe a few henchmen perched on cranes before descending and finishing off the leaders on the ground. This particular mission also serves as a tutorial for using grenades, and you can now blindly toss grenades from behind cover to produce some pretty spectacular explosions. It has to be said that in terms of core gameplay, GTAIV remains pretty much the same as the previous games. You'll be playing the same sort of missions, mixing with unsavoury characters, and pulling off crazy stunts during downtime. But the attraction of GTA was always in its sandbox possibilities, and the new Liberty City is the most intricate playground yet. Rockstar was particularly generous when it came to free time in the city, and whereas the five missions we played were fairly regimented, we were encouraged to explore the surroundings.
Our final experience in GTAIV came as we got in a car and drove to what may be the geographical highlight of the game. Broadway looks just like the area of New York that it's modeled on, with gaudy neon lights providing illumination for the people and traffic below. Once again, the enjoyment comes from the details, including posters for fake movies and theatre productions that sit alongside the "NAVSAQ" stock-exchange ticker. Driving around, we also found a couple of the 50 stunt jumps that will be featured in the final game. If you get a good run up in a fast car, you can nail massive jumps off of these ramps and clear rivers or barren land in a single bound. The upside of the stunt jumps is that you get recognition (and likely achievement points) for completing them, and you can control the camera to speed up or slow down the action during the jump. The downside is that if you crash into something when you hit the ground, you'll go hurtling through the windscreen.
GTAIV looks magnificent so far. It takes the humour, style, and character of the previous games and wraps them in a sumptuously detailed new city. That said, there's still plenty that we haven't seen from the game--namely the PlayStation 3 version and the multiplayer modes. Although the game is a matter of weeks away, Rockstar has promised us glimpses at both elements ahead of release. In the meantime, consider us psyched up for the planned April release date.