I’m a new citizen in Liberty City. It’s the major cityscape that looks like New York and Chicago. My cousin has been here for a while and he’s helping me move up in crime world as a Russian immigrant named “Niko.”

And so begins the saga of another attention magnet that helps me escape an otherwise world of concern and obligation.

I was one of the first in line for the new Grand Theft Auto IV video game released by Rockstar Games. After a couple of weeks of game play, I’m convinced this is one of the best video games of all time.

Rockstar is the interactive computer game company who gained worldwide recognition with titles like the original Grand Theft Auto, Vice City and San Andreas. It’s one of the most successful game franchises ever, selling over 6 million copies in the first week of release and although I have never played any of the earlier versions, the new release has me swimming in a video game that has it all! Great graphics, action-packed game play, unlimited circumstances, never-ending puzzles and plenty of humor and sarcasm to make the game well worth it’s $60 package price.

Rockstar Games continues to crash old entertainment barriers and allow their fans to live out their fantasies in a virtual environment that’s visual, violent and no-holds barred. The company found by Sam Houser, his brother Dan and childhood friend Terry Donovan are always setting the bar a little higher. Their status as game developers is truly rock star status and they are completely deserving.

It wasn’t long ago Rockstar was in the news for secretly (so they say) burying a sex scene inside the game play. Forget about hiding this time around. It wasn’t long before I “got lucky” with Michelle right from the very beginning and one quickly finds out that this game is rude, real and full of sex, drugs and rock and roll. There’s plenty of stereotypes floating in this environment. It’s chaos in Liberty City and that’s the way it should be – at least in game play.

As mentioned, I’m a newcomer to Liberty City. I probably know more about the company that produces the franchise than I do about the actual game – but I’m learning fast.

From the opening scenes, I learn my place in this virtual city that resembles both New York and Chicago and my name (as everyone else who plays) is “Niko Bellini.” I’m meeting up with my cousin Roman who helps me work my way up on the streets in any way possible.

Roman is a cagy character with an overblown sense of purpose. He’s full of shit, knows it and we evidently have a history together that makes him a key alliance in the game. Together, he introduces me to game characters, criminals, girls and serves as home base with my first apartment and job – driving a taxi.

From there, Grand Theft IV is a continuous thrill-ride of discovery, opportunity, surprise and plenty of virtual eye-candy. It’s certainly deserving as of the best video-games ever brought to the X-Box console and if you miss this one, you’re missing a lot.

It’s not just about the game play either. The beauty of a great video games are the nuances layered into the game experience that conjure the “Wow” factor. Sure, the game has to be fun, but any more it’s the little nuances that make the difference.

Weather is a good example. There’s rain, fog, lightning, storms, sunny days and more inside Liberty City. You get wet when it rains and it’s hard to drive through the city. You can run, swim, drive and explore miles of streets and neighborhoods too. Some of the city streets are bright as Times-Square and on a big-screen, you really are playing in a fantasy world. Even the street corners are busy with people walking around having conversations with themselves and others. You truly never really know what to expect either.

One of my favorite aspects of Grand Theft 4 are the modes of transportation. For the car enthusiast, you’ll see most any make and model driving around in a cluttered maze of traffic. It’s easy to car-jack a ride of your own too. There’s Corvettes, Hummers, Porsches, Audis, Lexus, BMWs and even old classics like Dodge Chargers, Granadas, Pintos, Lincolns, Cadillacs and more. Each one behaves differently when you drive sporting different speeds and responsiveness and you’ll even have fun in various races through the city. Get bored with the car, jump on a motorcycle. You can even find boats and helicopters as you unlock the game by completing various “missions.”

Driving around Liberty City could take months to explore every neighborhood and side street. In your car, you can switch radio stations and enjoy close to 20 different channels that play music from classical, rock, reggae, classics and my favorite “Jazz Nation.” Nothing like causing mayhem in Liberty City with Bebop blaring on a stolen car with 20 cops chasing you down as helicopters and the Feds try to crash you from every corner.

The characters are complex and entertaining in this game too. From my first nights in Roman’s apartment, I’m introduced to all kinds of people. The “story-mode” is like a movie within the game that introduces you to life-like characters who present you with missions that expand your social circle. The characters each have rich story lines that lead you into situations battling street thugs, drug dealers, weapons dealers and more. One of the scenes puts you in a bank heist that makes you feel like you’re playing a part in Heat – blasting away at cops from the inside of a bank as helicopters and Swat teams attack from all sides.

Grand Theft IV has games within games too. You are connected to the world with a cell-phone and Internet access and can meet up at anytime with people in your address book to bowl, throw darts, play pool, go to a strip club, a restaurant and you can even “get lucky” if you play your cards right.

Grand Theft Auto is an epic game. I’m hardly into the game play myself and enjoy talking to others about what we’re finding. Each day, it’s a water-cooler topic to talk about the latest level and the next surprise. Sam McConnell, our programmer told me he flew a helicopter to the top of the Empire State building, got out and jumped over the edge. Now there’s something you don’t experience every day.

There’s a couple of innovative considerations in this game that may open doors into the future for a more connected gaming experience.

Grand Theft has a online component that allows you to play with 16 others in the game environment and I’ve yet to make it into that landscape, because there’s so much to offer otherwise. This is way more than a first-person shooter game too. It’s a great story, got great game play from sports and other forms of recreation and has some way cool effects and stunts that are available from every corner. It’s a racing game, a strategy game and a video game that could never be played the same way twice. You have choices to make from time to time and these choices all lead to different story lines that continue to develop. Microsoft is rumored to release future updates to GTA4 in the future and you may be able to download these straight to the X-box gaming console.

I’m an old gamer from the past. Started out with ‘Pong” with my mother and brother back in the mid-seventies. I played Pacman (at Poor Richards in Johnson City) to academic probation during college and I continue to be fascinated by any new game that captures my attention and this one is truly a fascinating time-magnet and could very well be the best video game every produced. This one will be hard to top, but I can’t wait. Until then, my belly gets bigger, my skin gets whiter and I’m addicted to this new game, so call me back around July 4th and I might be ready for some sunshine.