GTA IV also deigns to serve up muddy moral conundrums at every intersection. Put simply: can a person who's been chasing revenge for ten long years ultimately be the bigger man and finally walk away from his prize, or will he succumb to the gnawing, all-consuming need for vengeance? Even greater decisions await, and - again, without spoiling anything - the 'wrong' decision in the game's final strait will likely have cataclysmic personal consequences for our hero. But, as always in the murky world of Grand Theft Auto, there are too many shades of grey throughout to easily discern the 'right' path from the 'wrong' one.
So, enough flavour. How does GTA IV actually play? Put simply: magnificently. Firstly, an apology. Contrary to our first impressions in our recent multiplayer exclusive, it turns out car handling is perfection itself - once you're properly accustomed. Every single one of Liberty City's legion of automobiles have been imbued with their own Herbie-like personality, so each freshly pilfered ride presents its own unique driving challenge. It speaks volumes that even after twenty hours you'll still often prefer to hare between missions for the sheer adrenaline rush rather than simply hail a cab.
Speaking of missions, you'll need to finish at least ninety (!) to bring GTA IV's main storyline to its gripping conclusion - though, as in previous GTAs, life goes on and you can still wander around Liberty City to finish off remaining assignments. In terms of quality, they're largely of an extremely high standard, with some genuinely witty, novel inclusions that slot in comfortably alongside more traditional 'drive here, shoot him' stalwarts.
Obviously, there are standouts. In particular, botched bank heist 'Three Leaf Cover' is bound to establish itself as a fan favourite, trumping rival Kane & Lynch's own ode to Heat with effortless aplomb. Other standouts include a memorably violent point-to-point car ride with feisty mob brat Gracie Ancelotti in 'I'll Take Her', the chopper chase (with added rocket launchers) that is 'Paper Trail' and epic tanker shootout 'A Dish Best Served Cold' but - to be frank - there are simply too many standouts to list and everyone is likely to have their own personal pet.
Gunning for Glory
Shooting has also been immeasurably improved since San Andreas. Vitally, the new mechanics are considerably tighter, while the cover system proves enduringly solid, despite the odd hiccup when an enemy gets too close and lock-on goes haywire. Otherwise old bugbears return. You'll still die (a lot), you'll still get maddeningly frustrated when AI partners die on you and you'll curse Rockstar's decision to make half-depressing the left trigger for free aim mode default - which can be a nightmare during intense shootouts when your nerves are all a-jangle. (Though, to be fair, controls can be tweaked). Still, these are minor niggles.
World in union
So, how about we throw the term 'Living, Breathing World' at you? A real gaming cliché, huh? But here, perhaps for the first time, it's actually warranted. There's just so much going on, so many individual touches that it's easily possible to imagine pounding the pavements of Liberty City for an entire year and still stumbling upon hitherto unseen quirks. After all, who could forget the lone fitness obsessive practicing his Tai-Chi in the park, the grubby bums huddled around a burning oil drum deep in an abandoned underground rail station, the entire rack of pun-licious porn flick names in a sex shop or the jaunty fiddle jig that plays inside Irish pub Blarneys?
Even the minigames are genuinely entertaining in their own right, from the comprehensive pool simulation to the almost-better-than-Wii Sports bowling and the enchanting 3D riff on Columns that is the QUB3D arcade machine. Factor in at least ten in-game 'moral choices' plus multiple endings (yep, you read right) and - bizarrely - GTA IV's legacy mightn't actually be its gameplay, but simply the fact it's succeeded in creating a world that's genuinely alive, and teeming with stuff to do that simply blows rival sandbox efforts out of the water. The internet, the races, the side-missions, the hidden packages, the Achievements - it's quite possible we're talking at least fifty hours of AAA gameplay here. And all crammed onto one measly DVD...