It's not easy reviewing games. No, seriously, it's hard work and requires a steady eye for detail, and a great deal of patience. So when we first floated the idea of simultaneously reviewing the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of one of the most important game releases this decade, I knew we'd need help.
Enter Aylon and Joel - two staff writers who kindly offered to join myself and Egor at Gameplanet HQ to start what would prove to be a marathon red-eye gaming session. They didn't require much coaxing; after all, this is Grand Theft Auto IV.
Once the gaming equipment had been turned on, and the pair of LCD TV's warmed up, it's fair to say the anticipation couldn't have been much higher. Unfortunately the PlayStation 3 let us down slightly, as the install process took roughly five minutes, by which time the Xbox 360 had already started the opening cinematic. All eyes were drawn to our first real look at Niko as he arrives at the dock in Liberty City.
Joel: My first impression of the game was viewing the introductory cut-scenes. Without giving anything away, the cut-scenes are possibly the best cut scenes I have seen in a game to date. So movie-like and professional in their production, they really start to pump you up before you get dropped into the game. The GTA series is well known for producing strong and interesting characters, and GTA IV is no exception. The characters you meet and spend time with play on most stereotypes that you can think of, in the usual hilarious way that only Rockstar can pull off.
Behind the wheel
Once the opening cinematic had finished, we found ourselves inside our cousin Roman's taxi. Roman is totally inebriated, so Niko is tasked with driving back to Roman's dingy apartment. The constant stream of tips in the top left of the screen helped us to get the hang of manoeuvring the vehicle quickly, and we managed to drive the short distance without incident. Once back at the apartment, we are left to our own devices as Roman is called up to drive his cab.
The first thing that strikes you about driving the vehicles in Grand Theft Auto IV is their insane suspension. There is such a fluid motion, even at low speeds, it feels like you're driving an armchair. I suspect Rockstar may have gone slightly overboard with SUV suspension too - they tip over at the slightest provocation. Fortunately that's not a problem now, vehicles won't catch fire and blow up if you merely tip them over - you have to actually seriously damage the vehicle multiple times before that happens. Or, drive sideways into a petrol station at high speed, as we discovered to our detriment.
Joel: Once actually in the game the next obvious thing you notice is how much improved the driving model is, or rather the physics model in the whole game. Cars have a real sense of weight to them as they veer around corners and accelerate up hills. You can visually see Niko (your character) being pushed around in the car as the forces at play take effect on him. The driving could be tighter and more precise, however it just wouldn’t be GTA if you weren’t taking out trash cans and pedestrians every now and again. The inclusion of motorbikes is also fantastic, although flying off one of these at high speed can leave you with a severe risk of life threatening injuries (unless you're wearing your helmet).
PlayStation or Xbox?
Grand Theft Auto IV is a game that will no doubt drive console sales, so it's important to compare the differences between the two before making a decision. We are happy to report that at no time did we notice any difference in content between the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, other than the requisite Xbox Live achievements system. Whatever missions we did on one platform were replicated exactly on the other.
Graphics however are different. Whilst both consoles suffer from a complete lack of anti-aliasing, there is something else at play - the Xbox version seemed crisper and warmer, as if drawn from a colour spectrum slanted more towards orange and yellow, whereas the PlayStation 3 seemed less saturated, more blue, and used a bloom filter that made everything look slightly out of focus.
To be honest, we were amazed at the difference between the two, and spent a considerable amount of time tweaking our TV sets trying to figure out what was happening and whether we could neutralise it. Whatever settings we applied for one console produced a totally different effect when applied to the other console, so in the end we pretty much gave up and just kept playing the game. Neither console is graphically any better than the other, it's entirely a matter of preference; no doubt both sides will have their fans.
As for controllers - again, this is simply going to be down to what you're used to. I spent most of the evening on the PS3, and for the most part it's easy to guide Niko around Liberty City. The DualShock 3 controller rumbled at all the right times, even during a thunderstorm, and it was easy to race along the motorway and fly between cars with precision.