The thieving is still grand

Voted No. 1 place to sublimateviolent instincts, GTA4 takes on New York.

?”Grand Theft Auto 4: Liberty City” is like New York turned inside out. There are no Sarah Jessica Parkers scurrying past fruit stands in Manolo Blahniks, no beach parties in the Hamptons, no school bus tours of kids ferrying to the Statue of Liberty. The settings are basements, dumpsters, abandoned buildings and occasionally cliffsides where it’s just you, climbing along at night on a break from a bounty hunt.

Grand Theft Auto 4

Developer: Rock Star Games
Price: 59.99

Here, you’re a foreigner in a big U.S. city. More specifically, you’re Nico, a newly arrived Bosnian who gets roped into the dirty dirties of his idiot cousin.

Nico’s not a bad guy to be. Not attractive under his husky nose and buzzed hair, but cool-headed and a good swimmer. Plus, it’s relaxing to be a virtual person in the first place. They can survive multiple car crashes on about one burger a day.

Although he gets wasted on dates with his girlfriend, Michelle, Nico never takes the drugs that he is surrounded by. Elaborate soap opera-like scenes of cocaine snorting and joint-passing happen about once every five minutes, but alas, Nico abstains.

Despite being criticized by the family-values camp since the first time a mother spied her 12-year-old son shooting a virtual hooker, “Grand Theft Auto” continues to spin out its own web of sideways morality. The main characters deal with cocaine and weed as often as your mom deals with postage stamps, sometimes just chilling out and often having breakdowns and embarrassing episodes. The closest to virtual substance use that GTA gets is a drunk-driving mode. Calm down mom; watching a drug dealer sob and swear over a line of cocaine doesn’t necessarily glamorize the lifestyle.

GTA’s pseudo-America is mostly a “South Park”-like romp that pokes fun at our values and social weaknesses. Extensive radio ads parody our cheaper forms of entertainment with their own versions, like “America’s Next Top Hooker,” whose slogan is, “It’s time to judge women again!” This time they’ve spread their culture-simulation to create a GTA Internet, where one can buy $100 ring tones.

The sheer amount of detail in GTA4 makes it obvious where the designers’ heads were in its development. The simulated Web dating, long cell phone conversations and countless buildings with elaborated interiors are in themselves overwhelming, and that doesn’t even approach the conversations and interrelations that must have taken a savvy knowledge of several demographics. Characters slip in and out of several languages, including the Bosnian that Nico occasionally resorts to with his family. At some points the dialogue consists of Caribbean Creoles translated to Jamaican English translated to a simple instruction at the bottom of the screen: Find a cop car and pull over a brown van.

With all this work, a few details got left behind in GTA4. The restaurant scenes, which were full of food choices in “San Andreas,” are now painfully awkward. Nico walks into a diner and stands silently in front of a counter, while a blonde server stares at him and moves in the bobble characteristic of idle video game characters. Finally, she gives him a burger which he immediately devours as she gazes on. The awkward silence just may make you want to do one of the few your selection of buttons allows, like, say, try that new gun on her. Seeing as you can simply run out, steal a car and get the cops off your back in two minutes, you might find yourself committing waitressicide quite often.

The driving still isn’t too smooth, but it will probably never get better. What’s the fun of cruising in a stolen car if you don’t knock over every streetlight you pass or put yourself in danger by giving a few too many cop cars a love tap on the bumper? The game is called “Grand Theft Auto” after all, not “Shooting Drug Dealers in the Face.” The sloppy, intoxicating drives are the sign that you are entering the non-Hillary-Clinton-approved part of society, a world of cathartic violence serving as your gun and ride buffet. Who needs burgers after all that?