Driving around the city you soon get a feel for the distinct districts – the financial district is a jungle of concrete and steel devoid of any pedestrians, while at the opposite end of the scale Liberty City's thinly veiled take on Times Square is a cavalcade of neon signs and complex architecture. What's more, there were no noticeable dips in the frame-rate as we cruised through Liberty City's centerpiece, further serving to massage any fears about the robustness of the game's engine.
We weren't able to ascertain how much of the city would be open upon first play, though Rockstar were kind enough to further highlight the dynamic lighting system by speeding through a day via the debug controls. The effects of the sun's rise and fall were spectacular, enough for us to hope that a feature to speed up the time frame will be un-lockable in the full game. Currently two minutes equates to one hour of game-time, although that is subject to change.
Playboy X was the next character we were introduced to, a familiar figure from the Looking for That Special Someone trailer. The mission, Destruction for Beginners, takes you to his Penthouse apartment, where you'll also meet the just released convict Dwayne, a dour foil to some of Playboy X's more outlandish character traits. The task is to take out the Russian Mafia involved in union dealings on a nearby construction site. After a shirt drive you park up in a back street, grab a sniper rifle from the boot and, with Playboy X in tow, take a window-cleaner's lift that scales a nearby skyscraper which overlooks the building site.
Using the sniper rifle to take out some of the lookouts on the site, the enhanced physics engine again comes into play. The downed Mafia goons fall from their perches and make quite an impact when hit the ground – one victim fell onto the roof of a parked SUV, and it was hard not to wince at the ferocity of the collision.
Heading down from the rooftop, we were given a first glimpse of the overhauled combat system that looks to dramatically enhance the GTA experience. Taking its cues from games such as Gears of War, it focuses on the effective use of cover – though unlike examples such as Kane & Lynch, GTA IV looks to have hit a fine balance. With Playboy X communicating to Niko over the headset, our protagonist runs from cover to cover, whether it be a parked car or an overturned barrel, with the sort of grace seen in Hollywood blockbusters such as Heat. Indeed, Rockstar has gone out of its way to ensure that the cover system doesn't become a source of frustration during combat, and you can go into cover against any object in the game with a single button press. Cower behind a car, however, and you could soon find yourself exposed as the vehicle drives off. Niko is also a fairly acrobatic lead, sliding and diving into cover with ease, and in another nod to Gears of War he can also blind fire around corners.
Rockstar was unwilling to discuss how the health system works, though we can report that the enemies have easily-targeted hit points. There's the obligatory headshots, plus the ability to shoot enemies in the legs, merely disabling them – perhaps we'll be seeing some more humane approaches to some of GTA IV's missions? The weapons we saw were nothing new to the series, with an AK-47, M4 carbine and shotgun being put through their paces, although the implementation of grenades has been vastly improved, with the ability to lock-on-and-throw enabling increased accuracy. Another nice touch was that when a locked-on adversary was blown into the sky by an explosive, the camera followed their flailing corpse trial through the air. Maybe GTA isn't the place for humane approaches to missions after all.
The end of the Destruction for Beginners mission saw Niko take down a helicopter with a bazooka, which left an arcing smoke trail as it streaked through the sky. The mafia boss scooted away from the chopper before we nuked it though, meaning we had to chase him on foot and fire the killer blow while he tried to escape up a ladder. It's pretty brutal stuff, and it all managed to display the new dynamic to the combat system that means GTA IV should be straying away from the anemic and oft-frustrating gunplay offered by its forebears, and may well hold its own against the current generation's batch of shooters.
Truck Hustle was the last mission we saw and kicked off in GTA IV's equivalent of New Jersey. There's a distinct Sopranos lilt to the conversation of the two Italian gangsters you meet, who urge you on to keep an eye on a bunch of Triads looking to offload a 'cursed' batch of heroin. The drive to the mission start was in a more luxurious car than we had previously seen, replete with talking sat-nav that dished out audible directions as we drove. We also got a chance to hear some of GTA's acclaimed voiceovers on the radio channels, and rest assured it's as smirk-inducing as ever.
Getting out of the car and walking to the destination, we noticed another aspect of Niko's phone – its built-in radio. Sound quality is, as you'd expect from a mobile, realistically tinny and having the soundtrack accompanying you on foot is a welcome addition. Although all the tracks we heard in game were merely place-holders while the myriad licensing issues are being attended to, we're sure GTA IV will be no different to its predecessors with their supreme soundtracks. The radio also seemingly responded to Niko's previous antics – our destruction of the helicopter on the building site was being reported on the radio news bulletin.
We were then treated to another demonstration of the improved combat model of GTA IV, although this time somewhat more fiery as grenades were used with abandon, resulting in some quite spectacular explosions. It seemed that when targeting an enemy, their health would appear on the aiming reticule, and the Triads being taken out appeared to be a sturdy bunch – although a well-placed grenade soon took care of them.