It's remarkable to note that earlier this week, thousands of people went about their business in central Auckland completely unaware that video game history had touched down in the country. Lethargic students, middle-aged bankers and stone-faced executives trotted wearily past a central city hotel without the slightest suspicion as to the contents of an Xbox 360 safely ensconced in an otherwise unremarkable conference room upstairs. It's just as well, the thousands of hours and millions of dollars worth of development committed so far to Grand Theft Auto IV would pale in insignificance compared to what the New Zealand economy would have to weather in downtime should it be made public that a playable version existed within stampede range of Queen Street.
Contrary to expectations, rather than ascending to the heavens in a chariot guided by mythological creatures, Rockstar used a Boeing to leave New Zealand yesterday. Bound for their Sydney office, they'll be spending a fairly intense next two-and-a-bit months preparing for the April 29 release deadline. Fortunately, before they left we were treated to approximately an hour of in-game content of what is shaping up to be one of the biggest console titles this year. Perhaps ever.
"It's all about the depth, the quality of interaction with the world", claims our friendly Rockstar representative as we sit quietly outside the hotel whilst the presentation is being prepared. "We wanted to build a city where every little thing interacts with every other little thing". He pauses and looks thoughtful as I subtly pinch myself to ensure the reality I'd committed myself to involved Grand Theft Auto IV, and this wasn't some kind of cruel joke perpetrated by NZ House and Garden magazine. They're always after our readership. "Today though - well, we'll show you more about the characters. With Niko, it's not a rags to riches story - more like rags to slightly better rags."
After entering the conference room and signing a form that outlines all the things I'm not allowed to do with what I'm about to be shown, Rockstar dim the lights and the presentation begins. The first thing that really strikes you is the depth of field - obviously "Liberty City" is modelled on New York City, so from where we were standing the background consists of motorway overpasses, trailing off in the distance towards skyscrapers, accurately rendered complete with a sort of distance haze that gives the impression of a watercolour painting. Unlike a painting, however, you're looking at actual scenery that you can drive to. After spending several seconds gaping at the texture detail of the road, and wondering how they managed to get so many leaves in the gutters to actually look real, I have to switch my attention to the mission at hand - we need to drive to meet "Brucie" for a job.
For those of you who haven't been paying attention over the last few months, GTA IV follows the story of Niko, an Eastern European who is conned into moving to Liberty City to help his cousin Roman run his taxi company. Niko, however, has another reason for being in Liberty City - he's trying to find someone from his past who has wronged him.