After all the hype that follows teaser trailers, magazine previews and internet reports, it's too easy to forget that at the centre of the noise is, well, a Grand Theft Auto game. With the same GTA formula we've been happily playing for years.
That's not to say GTA IV is old-hat - far from it. But in the unprecedented event of being lobbed an Xbox controller and left to roam Liberty City unchained, we knew exactly what to do. Which was basically to steal a car, run over a pedestrian and outrun the police for ten minutes until we got nicked by a bobby hiding behind a tree.
It's still awesome; flying over walls from (poorly) hidden ramps to outrun the police, and rocket-blasting cop helicopters is just as fun as it was in 2003. After two hours of intensive hands-on, the question is no longer "does GTA IV re-write the urban crime genre?" but, "does it blow away San Andreas?" The answer clear and simple - yes it does.
Grams Theft Auto
Controller in hand and game un-paused, the very brown-clothed Niko appears on screen, in our control for the first time. We're still knocked back by how fantastic everything looks - only this time there are no smoke and mirrors clouding our vision, and no handcuffs preventing us from peeking around the corner.
First thing's first; despite our concerns the framerate is absolutely rock solid. We're on a fairly busy street corner in Broker with cars, pedestrians and the massive cityscape looming on the horizon. It's all good.
Rockstar North hasn't been stingy with the effects either. Immediately we notice lovely motion and depth of field effects when locking on to targets (with the left trigger). There's also some bizarre but pleasant field-of-view "fisheye" mischief going on when you move the camera at an angle underneath or above Niko (making the distance between characters and the background look further - sounds strange but works).
The lighting system in particular looks fantastic. Some of the game's scenery and textures can look a bit rough around the edges in screens. But, in motion, the scale and detail of Liberty City is impressive. It feels just like a GTA city; pedestrians scatter and the sound of gun fire, the odd hidden ramp lurks behind low walls and comedy ad signs are never far away.
The mission we're on (Jamaican Heat) is early in the game and tasks Niko to pick up drug-dealing Jamaican gunman Little Jacob from his pad.
Stealing cars with the Y button is as simple as ever. The most noticeable difference from San Andreas is a strong feeling of weight behind the world, as demonstrated by the poor fellow flailing and rolling on the floor as Niko ejects him from his vehicle.
Euphoria Physics - the stuff powering LucasAarts' Force Unleashed game - is the tech to be thanked for this. It might not sound like a big deal, but because of how massively un-interactive and well, rigid the environments were in the PS2 instalments, it's incredibly liberating to see pedestrians fall over, cars bump in the road and scenery roll and collide realistically when hit.
The biggest impact of GTA's new-found physics is probably in the vehicle handling, which now feels far more realistic and affected by the world around it. By luck, we found the best car to test this out right on the street where we started; a completely rusted, half-burnt out old banger.
After happily evicting its previous owner (who was probably pleased to get some fresh air) we sped off down the road only to slam into the pavement, as the handling of the car was being skewed towards the dodgy wheel on our left hand side.