'Grand Theft Auto IV': Brilliantly Realized Interactive Entertainment

Let's get this out of the way at the beginning. "Grand Theft Auto IV" features bad language, violence and morally reprehensible behavior. So does the Martin Scorsese film "Goodfellas."

Both are marvelous examples of work in their genre, and both are meant for adults. If you are not old enough to vote, you are not old enough to get involved. End of discussion.

Not that I imagine this will stop the howls of outrage in certain quarters when the most eagerly anticipated title of 2008 hits the shops on Tuesday.

The problem stems from the word "game," with its cozy image of childhood play or winter afternoons of Scrabble by a roaring fire.

"GTA IV" is not a "game," but a brilliantly realized piece of truly interactive entertainment. We don't have a grown-up word for this yet, so I'll use "intertainment."

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As with any work of fiction, one hesitates to give too much of the plot away, but here are the bare bones.

You play the role of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European migrant lured to Liberty City (a street-perfect replica of New York) by his cousin Roman's promises of wealth and happiness. When Niko sees the cockroach-ridden hovel where his cousin lives, he resolves to make a life for himself.

This is where the intertainment starts. To climb the greasy pole of the underworld, his fastest way to riches, Niko must win the trust of strangers, building their confidence in him so that favors might be repaid later. The tasks he must perform are the skeleton of "GTA IV." What makes it so splendid is the flesh that's then draped across it.

For Liberty City is yours to explore. Steal a vehicle, walk the streets, help a friend or punch them in the face. It's your choice, and as in life the choices you make will ultimately come back to haunt you.

Early in your adventure, for example, you must choose between helping Roman or going on a date. Neither choice is wrong, but since Roman is your only friend, is it wise to lose his confidence? On the other hand, can you cope with the angry phone calls from your abandoned date, which come through to the mobile phone that is your lifeline?

As the contingent possibilities of your life as Niko multiply, you are in essence creating your own dramatic narrative. Imagine that instead of watching Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas," you are him. Make the right choice and you might get out of this in one piece. Internet bulletin boards will surely soon be buzzing with details of other players' "lives" as Niko.

But even a would-be gangster needs time off, and Liberty City offers Niko many of the same distractions as any big city.

As well as its own radio and TV channels, there's a comedy club, where Ricky Gervais performs a specially written routine, cinemas, bowling alleys and even an Internet café where Niko can surf "GTA IV"'s own version of the World Wide Web.

Despite its American setting, the Britishness of this intertainment's designers shines through in the constant sly references, sharp dialogue and wry asides on American culture.

Stop and study any street sign or advertisement, check the book titles on a shelf, and you're not a million miles away from the hyperactive attention to detail that characterizes that other fêted piece of British animation, "Wallace and Gromit."

If this were a book, it would have "I couldn't put it down" plastered on the front cover. This would be considered a compliment.

"GTA IV" shows that it's time to start thinking about what we once called "video games" in exactly the same way.