A few weeks ago, we bought an XBOX 360. That officially brings us into the Wii60 ranks that were predicted at the start of the latest “next generation” console war. It was a bit of a steep purchase, since we bought Rock Band along with it (and Burnout Paradise too, FWIW). Rock Band is largely responsible for the dearth of posting on this blog and LeftCoastMama. Gwen plays guitar, I play drums. Aidan sings. Yes, keep that visual in mind … in reality, it’s not nearly as bad as you think it might be.

A few days ago, you may heard of a small game released called “Grand Theft Auto IV“. The GTA series has become quite notorious for the amount of sex, drugs, and violence portrayed in the game. I had played the very first GTA game — a top-down game where you could steal cars, shoot people, and run over pedestrians. I don’t recall there being much (any?) sexual content in the first one. Even then, it was a fun, addictive game. You can actually download that game, legitimately, for free.

Fast forward a few years and now the forth edition of the game is out, to much hubbub. And yes, we did pick it up, and I’ve been playing it a few hours every night over the past week. It is as violent as you have heard. The language in it is as crude as you might expect in the back alleys of New York (the city on which the game’s Liberty City is based). There is sexual content. Stealing cars is commonplace. Running over pedestrians is easy and lacking of any serious consequence (but don’t run the tolls on any of the bridges!).

And yet this is a magnificent game. It is, by far, the best looking and best sounding game I’ve ever played. The attention to detail in the city is incredible. Every city block is different, and different neighbourhoods have their distinct feel. There are tonnes of cars and pedestrians on the roads — sometimes. In the middle of night, not so much. In the day time, lots. Traffic increases at rush hour. There are lots of taxis, and an incredible number of incompetent police cars. Pedestrians have lots to say (usually not of it very polite). There are 18 music stations you can tune into in whatever car you’re in, all with track lists numbering well over a dozen songs. You can watch TV. You can surf the net. You can bowl, play darts, play pool, go drinking, go to a cabaret, and participate in lots of other activities.

The city’s architecture is something to see. Towering skyscrapers, lots of impressively lit bridges. Tunnels. Parks. Slums. Construction. An airport with airplanes landing and taking off with regularity. A Statue of “Happiness”. A comprehensive subway system with 4 lines. The city is massive, and the game comes with both a street map and a subway map.

The sun rises and sets on Liberty City, and all light sources are a thing of wonder. Shadows fall as expected, and are nice and soft, not hard and ragged as in many other games. I will often find myself walking or driving along and lose myself in just looking at the game. You can find lots of screenshots on the net, but you could start here. Frankly, they don’t do the actual game justice.

On the otherhand, the game is quite violent and crude. The control system leaves a bit to be desired, and although each different type of car/truck/van/garbage truck/motorcycle drives differently, they’re all pretty twitchy when it comes to steering. Fighting and shooting isn’t particularly easy. The camera doesn’t help a whole lot when driving — it’s hard to see if you’re going to run into something or get T-boned at intersections.

Although this game is being set up as the biggest entertainment release (surpassing that of any other video game or movie) I wonder if a game without the history and notoriety that this one brings, without the sex and violence, and keeping with the visuals, sounds, voices, and storytelling would be as successful or more successful. Sadly, I don’t think so. And yet I can’t help but wonder if a superhero game (think Superman, Spiderman, or even something like Hellboy) would be able to function in this setting just as well. Or a suspense/mystery (think Phillip Marlow).

Still, despite the 18+ rating, it’s quite a compelling game. Liberty City keeps drawing me back in…