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The Player 

by MARTY DEMAREST & r & & r & Grand Theft Auto IV & r & Rated Mature; 360, PS3 & r & 4 Stars & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & K, Mom and Dad: Your kids are either playing it or watching somebody who is. Don't worry about them. Just fire up Grand Theft Auto IV. This will only take a moment. (Unless you like it.)

Ignore the game's plot about an Eastern European immigrant. It's written worse than mediocre TV crime dramas. What you should do first is make Niko Bellic jump. See how he moves with weight and momentum? We've made an art out of technological advances. It's no longer necessary to kill people to prove the power of our technology. We can harmlessly revel in it. Of course, just like modern missile technology, it's not perfect. If you walk up to a wall and punch it, Niko's fist will merge impossibly into the drywall. But you've got to admit, no civilians are hurt by the miscalculation.

Go outside. The sidewalk teems with pedestrians toting lattes and chattering into cell phones. If you see a stylish car, walk up and carjack it. Don't be surprised if the driver resists -- just kick him in the groin. No actual pain will be caused. Try the radio. Grand Theft Auto games usually have marvelous soundtracks, but somebody must have gotten lazy this time. It's mostly tired rock, hip-hop and Karl Lagerfeld (yeah, the fashion designer -- you can call that "clever" during dinner) spinning Eurotrash disco. My advice is, stick with the Russian pop. At least it's fresh.

Follow the story as it drags through games of virtual billiards and bowling, then hits a strip club where the stiff-jointed girls flaunt more inert, synthetic flesh than their real-life counterparts. The game's main missions are pretty much the same as they've been throughout the franchise, making this feel like Grand Theft Auto III.5: deliver drugs, steal cars, kill greaseball unionists at construction sites. On the peaceful side, it's possible to drive a cab, take a lifeless girlfriend on lifeless dates and hang with friends. One of GTAIV's biggest innovations is the challenge of driving while reading text messages. All that's missing from mundanity is the need to poop and buy gas. There's even an in-game Internet with half-funny writing just like the real thing, only without decent music to steal.

At some point, you'll have a car accident. So go ahead, speed up and crash head-on spectacularly. Kinda thrilling, isn't it? And look -- no blood or broken glass. You're safe, playing a game. To use that college degree you bought me, I'll quote Freud: "Civilization presupposes the non-gratification (suppression, repression, or something else?) of powerful instinctual energies." Videogames, as immersive works of art, release our "powerful instinctual energies" while freeing them from the civilized world's consequences. Games like Grand Theft Auto IV don't cause violence -- they liberate it.

THE GOOD: Grand Theft Auto IV marks a technological milestone in mankind's ability to simulate and satirize a world.

THE BAD: Conversations about war, "God" and "soul" fill the storyline. Grand Theft Auto games are only fully fun when they don't take things seriously, especially themselves.

THE BOTTOM LINE: It has lost the series' originality and subversive edge while becoming more than a little pretentious, but Grand Theft Auto IV is still awesome to behold.

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