Continued from previous page...

Pedal to the metal

You will need to learn how to drive fast, and drive well, as it occupies a large proportion of your time in Liberty City. Of the twenty-five or so missions we managed to complete in our epic session, the majority require you to move yourself around the city and visit various places in order to trigger events related to the mission. For example, one mission required us to visit our friend Brucie (a quick-talking, steroid-pumping bling merchant) and take him to pick up a sports car a fair distance away. Once we reached the sports car (a sort of cross between a Porsche and a TVR) we then had to win a street race that took us all around the suburbs of Liberty City. We retried that mission about five times before we got the hang of it, but the sense of achievement was well worth it, not to mention the thrill of racing through the city.

And what a city it is - every little aspect feels alive. For the first time, you can really picture yourself immersed in the game, even if you're simply cruising the boulevard. From the rumble of your engine as you pull away from a set of lights, to listening to a drunken evangelist preaching on a street corner - Liberty City is totally believable.

Aylon: I cannot remember the last time I saw a game this big and with this much detail in it – and with the short/nonexistent load times this game is easily a technical marvel. The city feels both alive and lived in, as if it was around long before I powered up the game. People go about their lives, and I mean they really have lives here. Traffic flow is different at different times of day and in different places. You see events happening irrelevant to you. I was driving down a road at one point and actually saw a fat cop chasing a guy down the street (he didn’t catch him).

The sheer multitude of environment activities occurring all around you is at first overwhelming. You no longer feel like the centre of the game, rather you've become a small fish in a very big pond. Simple activities, such as crossing the street, now require a heightened awareness of traffic patterns. Bouncing off the bonnet of a car is one thing, being run down by a Hummer and ending up in the hospital is quite another.

Watch out for po-po

There are two ways to get yourself out of the game - either be wasted, or get busted. Just as in the previous titles in the series, however, it's always preferable to get wasted, as it involves a trip to the hospital where you'll be patched up, and some money will be deducted from your total (the amount increased the further through the game we got). However, being busted means you'll not only have to pay a bribe to the local law authorities, you'll also lose all your weapons, and they're not cheap to replace. As you progress in the game, various new weapons are unlocked, and we managed to acquire an assault rifle for $3500. With most missions paying $2000 or less, being busted can seriously impede your progress.

Happily however, once you've got a bit of experience behind you, it's really very easy to avoid being busted.

If you're unlucky enough to attract the attention of the police, perhaps by accidentally hitting a police cruiser, or simply not checking the immediate area when stealing a car, a section of the mini-map will light up red and blue. This is the area that the police are actively patrolling looking for you, and all you need to do is escape this area, wait for about ten seconds, and your wanted level will be reduced to zero. The area increases as your wanted level goes up, indicated by stars in the top right corner of the screen. In one epic run from the law we managed to escape after acquiring three stars for shooting police, but it was extremely difficult and we were rather lucky to get away with it.

The police aren't always out to get you - they can actually help on occasion;

Aylon You aren't always immediately seen as the bad guy. I accidentally ran over this one guy's burger stand, so of course he pulled me out of my car and started fighting me. About half way through the fight I hear a cop car come and amazingly the cop comes and arrests the burger stand guy, not me. The cop didn't see me drive into his stand, he only saw this guy starting a fight with me.

Combat dynamics

If I'm permitted one complaint, it's that the auto-targeting system can be very frustrating during close ranged combat.

Grand Theft Auto III was a fantastic game, but it suffered from extremely poor combat mechanics. It wasn't easy to shoot anyone, especially using a controller, so we were excited to see the new combat targeting system in Grand Theft Auto IV. Basically, in order to punch or shoot, you can simply press the appropriate button, and aim exactly the same way you used to, but you also now have the option of an auto-aim facility that locks your weapon to the nearest foe.

Your targets health is indicated by a radial gauge that also acts as an accuracy meter - it will expand or contract based on the recoil of your weapon. This works extremely well for any target that is more than a few metres away from you - you can even cycle through enemies before you choose which one to shoot at. At close range however - forget it. If you're lucky enough to be facing the enemy you'll have a good chance at killing them, but if you're even slightly out it will either fail to lock on, or lock on to someone behind a wall, or over the other side of the street. On more than one occasion, I found myself running away from the enemy to get enough distance to use the auto-aim correctly.

With practise, these problems become less of an issue, and by the end of our session we were adept at using the duck-and-cover system to launch attacks. It's great being able to finally hide behind a wall and pop out at just the right time, and it really does help to give you an edge over your enemies.

Social life

It seems that making friends and keeping them can almost be regarded as a central theme to Grand Theft Auto IV. Once you've reached a certain level of trust with your cousin Roman, he will offer you taxi jobs where you can make a pittance ferrying people around, or you can simply call him up and go bowling, or play darts.

Joel: The great part about having a living city in GTA IV means you actually can have a bit of a night on the town. This involves arranging a meet with some of your contacts / friends over your cellphone, who you then pick up for a bit of drinking, playing pool or even some cabaret. The great part of this is that you actually can watch the cabaret, which at times can be very entertaining. On top of this your friends will love you more and eventually provide you with something in return for your friendship.

You also can have a quiet one and watch some of the fantastic TV programs that Liberty City has to offer. These are a nice way to build on the huge success of the radio stations and they just make everything even more vibrant and alive.

It's easy to make friends, but to keep them requires you to perform a juggling act. In order to complete your missions and retain your friends, you may need to choose between the two, and what may appear to be a simply request to play a game of pool may lead on to an important series of missions later down the line. We have to admit, we messed up pretty badly with Brucie - he offered to take us up for a helicopter ride to see the city provided we could meet him in an in-game hour (only a few minutes in real time) and we were in such a hurry to get there, we ran a toll booth and proceeded to attract some police attention. After gaining two stars during a controller mix-up (handbrake is RB, smash the window and shoot at pedestrians is LB) we spent so much time trying to escape from the law that Brucie texted us complaining that we'd stood him up, and it took quite a lot of effort to convince him later on to take us up in the helicopter.

Continued on next page...