Okay, so it’s been out of a week and after notching up some-teen hours of play over the last seven days, I’m just about in a position to declare what I think about it.

I’d been looking forward to the release since before this time last year and once the first trailer was released, complete with the Philip Glass score, every time I switched on my Xbox 360, I kinda wished it was being switched on to play GTA IV. So there’s been a fair level of anticipation chez Gav and a shit load of hype everywhere else.

First up, visually, it’s captivating. Liberty City this time round may lack the sheer scale of San Andreas, but what’s there is beautifully drawn and, like the best cherry tomatoes, it’s organic. Plus, everything that lives, breathes and dies in Liberty City seems to add to the experience. Life’s rich, High-Def pageant.

Pedestrians mumble to themselves and each other. Fast food joint counter staff announce, “Welcome to Burger Shot, motherfucker.” Crossing the road requires extra care because these drivers don’t think twice about knocking you over and this time, you can see the health shatter from the gauge with every bounce off the tarmac. The first time I saw the rag doll physics in action, I felt a little sick, much like the first time I noticed blood leak from a random pedestrian on GTA III.

Control-wise, it’s much the same deal as before, except quite notably, the combat system has been tweaked to be more in line with First Person Shooters and the driving has been tweaked to be more in line with actually driving in NYC. No longer can you throw a car round a corner at 120 mph with just a prayer and a yank of the handbrake. In fact, if your right index finger is tempted to apply the handbrake you may just end up doing a passable impression of Doctor Fox on Dancing On Ice. But you can dive out of your car and use it as a barrier.

Both tweaks, I think, suit the less-cartoony feel to the game. So what if driving at speed now relies on you being able to calculate a racing line? It makes it all the more rewarding when you nail that corner and find yourself back in the race or on the tail of the Russian mafia.

The story arc and characterisation of the main story is Hollywood quality. The missions follow the same formula as ever other incarnation of GTA and fall neatly into four categories: kill someone, take something to someone, evade someone, catch someone. There are 90 of them, so prolonged playing is bound to highlight the similarities in theme. Is that bad thing? Well, no, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. it just is. To make a big deal of this is, I think, to miss the point.

Since when was the main storyline of a GTA game the be all and end all? As was the case with GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas, what you get up to when you’re not on a mission is what hooked me when I first visited Liberty City on the PS2. The living and existing, the choices, the side games and now the MASSIVE multiplayer options are, I imagine, what will keep me coming back to the game long after the final credits have rolled.

So it’s flawless, then, right? Not quite. The draw distance can still be a problem sometimes and I’ve come out of my apartment on more than one occasion to find that the furniture arrives a few seconds later. Plus, the first time you have a scout over the city in a helicopter, you realise that it’s not really that big a city at all. Cars randomly turning right or changing lane detracts a little from the improved realism.

But for every one of these, there are a dozen reasons to love it and at the very least, you’re well within your rights to utilise the free aim shooting method and kill the boy behind the counter at Burger Shot.

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