Rockstar already assaulted our senses back in April with the console release of Grand Theft Auto IV, and it's no secret that PC aficionados have been positively salivating at the prospect of this sandbox game making it to their beloved platform.
We covered this title fairly extensively at the time, so if you've been living under a rock, or playing World of Warcraft, then you can read all about Niko and Roman's adventures in Liberty City here. The story hasn't changed, and neither have the missions.
At this point, you may well assume that this is a run-of-the-mill port job from console to PC, full of the same buggy problems that exist when developers try to pass off console titles to gamers who actually care about controls and graphics. You'd be right to suspect disappointment too, particularly as it's a Games for Windows title, and ships with the utterly pointless SecuROM.
I had a host of dismissive comments lined up to occupy this particular paragraph. I wanted to rail on Rockstar for ignoring the gaming base that provided them with their early success. I'd mentally bemoaned the demise of DRM-free gaming, and fired salvoes at penny-pinching developers who can't be bothered to remove references to controller settings from their in-game menus. Unfortunately, all such valid complaints levelled at literally dozens of titles released this year simply don't apply with the PC release of Grand Theft Auto IV because Rockstar have done an outstanding job. I say "unfortunately" because now I'm going to have to find something nice to say, which is always a lot harder than pointing out faults.
To be fair, the install process isn't exactly hassle free. I don't like having to have to conform with Microsoft's grand vision of what computer gaming should entail, and as I don't particularly like people either, I fail to see why I should be forced into using Games for Windows Live. Sure, I can log out, but then I can't save my progress, and as there still isn't any periodic auto-save or checkpoint system during missions, there's little point in playing the game. The install process includes the option to sign up to Rockstar's Social Club as well, which is necessary for online play, and performs an online security check to ensure that you are a legitimate customer and therefore qualify to be treated like a criminal. Between the Social Club logon and the Games for Windows Live account (which required updating), not to mention the two-DVD 15GB install, you're not exactly going to be running over prostitutes quite as quickly as you'd hoped.
Install annoyances aside, you'd have to hope that the delay has been worth it. The PC version differs in three major areas; graphics, multiplayer, and video editing, so is seven months is enough time to impress a traditionally demanding demographic? You'd better believe it.
The game will auto-detect your rig and apply a level of texture detail it considers suitable to render Liberty City without too many issues. Both machines I've installed this on (an E6750/8800GTX running Vista, and a Q6600/9800GT running XP) were identified as having "medium" graphics capabilities at my native resolution of 1680x1050. It's best not to question this - a quick tweak of the draw distance settings will remind you that your new rig isn't perhaps as powerful as you'd suspected, and Larrabee is still a way off.
Whilst playing Grand Theft Auto IV on a console was like watching the world through a thin veneer of Vaseline, the PC release shines. Although there's a questionable level of anti-aliasing and antistropic filtering on the lower graphics settings, it still looks superb, and you'll have no trouble making your way around Liberty City at high speed. There have been virtually no slow-downs or frame rate issues that I've noticed in the single-player campaign, even during intense action, so it's nice to know that even a relatively mid-range (and inexpensive) setup won't be excluded from the fun. Even the load times aren't as bad as you'd expect, and with the prevalence of SSD in the market, this will only improve.
The controls are highly intuitive, and as default utilise WSAD for movement with the mouse providing combat and camera control. Everything can be changed to suit, and you can use an Xbox 360 controller if you prefer. This would be a shame however, as having the mouse control the camera and your crosshair allows for some extremely swift combat. In fact, running around the city, usually in multiplayer, will have you switching your field of view so fast you actually start to feel dizzy.
Apart from smugly pointing to your screen and making derogatory comments about gaming units produced by large corporations, the real reason you'll be wanting to buy Grand Theft Auto IV on the PC is undoubtedly the multiplayer. The 16 player limit imposed on the console release has been upped to 32, and it's difficult to find words to express just how much fun it is to have that number of players in close proximity with automatic weapons and fast cars.
Just an aside - many out there will have played Grand Theft Auto II on a LAN. For those who haven't - go get it, it's free. Remember the first time you scored that impossible rocket launcher shot as your friend was screaming towards you with vehicle machine guns blazing? Or the time you got up to full speed and ran down that group of Elvis impersonators? Well, if you enjoyed that, you're going to be spending a lot of time playing this.
We've already detailed the types of modes and the multiplayer structure here - again, this hasn't changed between the console and PC release. The lobby system is slick, and game matching and filtering is accurate and well designed. You can search for precisely the type of game you want to play, or simply open everything up and prepare to be surprised. The most fun I've had over this weekend has been simply playing deathmatch - it's particularly satisfying chasing the nearest player and watching their bullet-ridden corpse bounce off the bonnet of your newly stolen vehicle - I highly recommend it.
At one stage, a quick roll-call from players showed that apart from New Zealanders and Australians, there were Americans, Scottish, and even a Croatian playing on the same server. I'm not sure how Rockstar have managed to keep the lag in check, but manage they have, as problems attributed to bandwidth were few and far between. Sure, sometimes you go to steal a car and it simply disappears from in front of you, but this is rare and only seemed to occur when other people sharing my connection use internet-intensive applications.
The Games for Windows Live functionality included in Grand Theft Auto IV has added a whole heap of options, none of which I'll ever use. However, if you're the type, you can keep in contact with people you've played with, or block them entirely. No doubt eye-candy for the Bebo generation who can't draw breath without letting their list of twelve hundred close friends know about it.
Rockstar have also included a curious video editing suite with the PC release. This works by continuously capturing video as you play. You can, at any time, press F2 to save the previous thirty seconds or so, and this can be dropped into the in-game editor where it can be manipulated. You can introduce fade effects, descriptive text, and you can even apply songs from the radio stations within the game, or your very own music can be imported (and played back during the game itself as your own radio station). These clips can then be exported out as files to be shared online, or just as cinematic productions in their own right. Although you may consider yourself a bit of a Scorsese, you don't actually need that much skill to use this software, as fantastic results can be had through liberal use of the wide camera angles and ambient sounds throughout the city. It even captures multiplayer madness as well.
Between the enhanced multiplayer and the video editing suite, there's a vast amount of entertainment to be had with this PC release. It's not the mess one would expect from a console to PC port, as Rockstar have taken their time and made it work for the audience it's intended for. We may have first seen it on the console, but now we've been provided with the real Grand Theft Auto IV, as this is the way it should have been at release. From a purely creative (and selfish) point of view, it'd be great to see a sequel arrive on the PC first, so we can match the vision of Rockstar with the technical capability that only the PC platform can provide.
Wishful thinking perhaps.