All this stuff is great – truly great – but what proves just as exciting are the various ways in which Rockstar has made GTA IV a better game than its last-generation predecessors. Of course, it’s a better looking game. There’s still a certain cartoon quality to the characters and environments, but Rockstar has used the power of the 360 and PS3 to throw in a whole mass of new detail in everything from the cars to the architecture to the clothing, and bind it all together with some superb weather effects and a gorgeous natural lighting system. However, it’s a more enjoyable and immersive game on other levels. Take combat, for example. In previous GTA games, melee combat and – particularly – ranged weapon combat was a hit and miss affair. Now things are different, with a clear and effective auto-targeting system backed up by a manual fine-tuning option, a proper system for finding and firing from cover, and a full range of punches, blocks and kicks in close-up fighting.
Meanwhile, the new star of the show is Niko’s mobile phone. Always accessible at the press of a D-pad button, you can use it to receive and reply to messages, make phone calls to business contacts, arrange dates with girlfriends or an evening out with Roman, and call in special features like a quick side mission or a free taxi ride. It’s brilliant. While you’re driving back from one objective you can be setting up your next big task, or pulling out of an existing commitment because you won’t have time (after all, while you might have a hit to carry out, you don’t want to leave your current lady standing in the cold). And when you’re lost and looking for something to do, it’s the mobile phone that will often have you scurrying on to take the story one stage further.
The result of these additions – plus new ones like a post-mission auto-save – is a game that flows better and feels even more immersive than San Andreas or Vice City. In the meantime, all the stuff that was good in previous GTAs is still good here. You can still pinch vehicles from a staggering range of sedans, sports cars, 4x4s, vans, trucks, motorcycles and ambulances, and each one still has a feel and a sense of weight and momentum all its own. You can still ride around looking for stunt opportunities or go on a rampage of destruction, and the police chases are as much fun as ever – and slightly less exhausting thanks to a new and slightly more forgiving alert system. You can still listen to music and chat from a variety of different radio stations, giving you everything from reggae to rock to Russian rap or cool jazz, and the soundtrack is full of iconic classics and more recent crackers. Most of all, it’s a game that never fails to make you laugh – even at things that you know you really shouldn’t laugh at. Does it worry me that Rockstar has created an amoral fantasy world in which you’re positively encourages to break each and every rule? Slightly, but I’m having so much fun that I can’t really be bothered to feel outraged.