GTA IV: PC Version Hands-On

We get a lengthy hands-on with the ultimate version of GTA IV to date, and check out its superb video editing mode.

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With the release of Grand Theft Auto IV for the PC just one month away, it's no coincidence that I'm doing some serious PC upgrading. After all, what better excuse to play through the most awesome game of the year than to experience a powerful visual update to the already-stunning console versions?

The thing is, truthfully, how much of a step up is it from the console versions? After spending a fair bit of time with GTA IV for the PC, we can say there's no doubt it looks absolutely incredible. But it was only just now, going back to the Xbox 360 version for comparison, that we realised how superior it actually is. It's not just sharper and higher resolution textures - it's a more solid, more tangible and vast Liberty City. We're talking leaves on detailed trees that are individually visible, and it's only just now when I turned on the console version for the first time in months that I said to myself: "Wow. This looks dated by comparison".

Our first taste of the PC edition of the game came back in August, when Rockstar demonstrated the game for the first time in Leipzig on a bloody huge 103" screen. But two weeks ago back at good old Rockstar HQ we got a more intimate hands-on demo of the game, which looked even sharper; it was much smaller a 24" flat monitor running at 1920x1200, so that's to be expected. Incidentally the maximum resolution supported is 2560x1600, and while the increased resolution does play a part in the overall visual upgrade here, there's a lot more to it than that.

Handled by Rockstar Toronto, while the original developers at Rockstar North work away on their top-secret downloadable content, the PC version has a fully customisable graphics menu. Texture quality can be set to high medium or low, you can toggle the shadow quality, texture filter quality, reflection resolution and water quality - all of which have four settings - low, medium or high (or 'very high', if you really have the extra juice). View distance, detail distance, shadow density and light distance can all be set from 1-100, and most interestingly, so can vehicle density, which also changes the way the game plays for obvious reasons, and to give you an idea of how much you can turn it up, Rockstar told us that the equivalent vehicle density featured on the console versions would have been just 33 per cent!

There's also the option to auto-configure, but you can of course play in lower resolutions depending on what you find important and to find the performance sweet spot. Alternatively, being frame rate junkies, we wanted to play around with the settings to see if we could get GTA IV running at a solid sixty frames per second - a state we can reveal is usually only achievable during the indoor environments in this PC edition. Well, by taking all the settings down, we were indeed able to get the game running at a consistently high 60fps frame rate outdoors, albeit in PS2-o-vision, which put a smile on our face. No, we didn't need a frames per second gage, and yes, we're sad like that.

However, on most set-ups, doing that will kind of defeat the point of what's really on offer in GTA IV PC; having the graphic settings optimised as high as possible, the PC version really trounces console in a number of areas. We wanted to test Rockstar's claim of better draw distance, so it seemed to us the obvious way to do this was to go get in a helicopter. Flying very high over Algonquin, and looking around us, we were blown away by the views of the entire map - all islands. This is not like you remember the helicopters on console. You can literally see everything: detail directly below you on the ground (including individual traffic) is not compromised, and you can see the entire game map with no paint filtering effect, no lighting cover up and no wobbling - just pure, sharp, awesome scenery and the draw distance of justice.

Back on the ground, the texture resolution is noticeably higher; you can see (and read) advertisements in the subway station, signs in buildings and logos on merchandise that you wouldn't even have noticed before. There's also something about the fluidity and detail that gives the gameplay an even more rapid feel than was experienced on console; locking on from enemy to enemy is much smoother and feels really cutting edge, and the graphics engine relies an awful lot less on motion blur to convey speed - on the console GTA IV, motion blur looked pretty incredible, but here on this set-up, it's so well executed you don't even notice it. They've obviously had some smart people working on this, and it's once again a testament to the RAGE engine's ability to upscale to higher spec, which we've only seen in the PC version of GTA IV for the first time. It's further evidence that RAGE is one of the best bits of technology in gaming right now.

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