It'd be a damn, dirty lie to say that the next-gen Liberty City didn't look great, but in our recent demo we quickly settled back into our comfort zone and everything felt very GTA again.
That said, Rockstar has hit the nail on the head where the real estate is concerned; for the first time GTA's locale looks, feels and sounds like a realistic city, and not just streets of copycat buildings mixed in with the occasional shop or landmark.
Even if it's nothing but a fancy piece of scenery, each building looks just as unique and significant as the next, and the respectable number of cars and pedestrians on the street helps conjure the feeling of a bustling city, well above anything we've seen in previous GTA games.
But the most impressive feature of GTA IV is its interiors and how they fit into the gameplay. Loading times are absolutely non-existent, and the insides of shops and houses are just as detailed as your average linear action game.
What excites us the most is how this seamless progression from free-roaming city to intimate, indoor environments gets rid of the horrible feeling of disconnection GTA III had when it teleported you from the busy streets to a totally separate empty cube with a cash register. It's like the epic presence of an MMO has been mixed with the fluid action of a shooter.
Couple this with a significantly improved combat system which has you ducking behind cover and interacting with the environment like never before in a GTA game, and we wouldn't be surprised if most of the fourth game's firefights took place indoors.
Believe it or not, in between projecting joy at the television screen we did collect a few concerns as well.
The code we saw was a few weeks old before we even arrived, so we think it would be unfair to kick up a stink over the small amount of shadow and pop-up glitches in the demo. That said, we're hoping for a lockdown on the framerate as the park scenes ran significantly smoother than the city - but that's not to say the city was chugging badly.
Thankfully, Rockstar says this will all be smoothed out for the final game.
Less of a concern, more of something we're hoping to see, are the routines of pedestrians and the lives they live out. In our demo we didn't really get to see pedestrians get up to much other than walk around, though Rockstar notes that traffic and pedestrian routines were modified for the purpose of the demo.
Taxis as well, we're told, were far more common in our demo than they will be in the final game, and each will have a different cab driver rather than the single bearded fellow we met.
We've had our introduction and now we've picked at the real meat and veg of GTA IV. Next up, hopefully, is proper hands-on time and we're looking forward to seeing how that Gears of War-style cover system handles. And making some really big police car pile-ups, obviously.