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"Grand Theft Auto IV" has razzle-dazzle effects.

It's his first day with the new computer system, and Officer Tony Killion is trying to work out the kinks.

He pokes the touch-screen, types in a few commands and ends up with the wrong prompt. He tries again, navigating menus, entering commands so he can log in before work.

This is all high-tech stuff. He has a GPS, a wireless network and a computer that runs circles around the one I have at home.

"We can do all our work in the car," he says as we drive through Concord. Meanwhile, all this equipment means I'm cramped in the passenger seat, literally riding shotgun with a 12-gauge holstered near my left knee.

I am on a ride along with Killion because I am curious. Having played as a criminal in the "Grand Theft Auto" series, I've always wanted to know what life was like on the just side of the law.

In Rockstar's popular franchise ("Grand Theft Auto IV" is out on Tuesday), I've stolen cars, slept with prostitutes, taken injured people to the hospital and — I hate to say it — shot some cops.

Now, riding with Officer Killion, I'm getting a police perspective and learning what a satirical open-world game gets right and wrong about real life.

Driving along with him, it doesn't take long for me to mention "Grand Theft Auto." When I bring it up, the patrol officer says, "I played the first one, and I didn't like it. It was too far from reality. I won't let my kids play it. I don't like the idea of going around and hunting cops, and this was even before I became one."

Killion has a PlayStation 2 and plays "Halo" and "Call of Duty" on his son's Xbox 360. In other words, he's a gamer, but because he's a police officer, he doesn't get to play much.

But quite frankly, he doesn't need to worry. From the looks of it, his job, with all its gadgets, is like playing a video game.

In "Grand Theft Auto," players have to be familiar with a city that mirrors their real-life counterparts. They need to know who owns what neighborhood and where to find ne'er-do-wells.

In Killion's case, he knows his way around the city of Concord. We drive around his beat of southern district, which includes Monument Boulevard. He points out people he knows, and they all seem larger than life: old drunks, gang members, persnickety landlords.

His computer reads off little missions for him. Investigate an unconscious man on the grass. Check out an alarm in a residential neighborhood. Look into a 911 call. If he's near the assignment or if it's his area of responsibility, Killion heads in that direction.

There's a map on his touch-screen marking the incident, and we head toward it like a game waypoint. Along with that, there are little police cars dotting the streets on the map; they represent colleagues covering their own beat.

Today, Killion spots a possible gang member in what could be a potentially stolen car on Clayton Road. He turns on his sirens. We follow the sedan, and this is where video games diverges from reality.

If this were "Grand Theft Auto," that car would be rocketing down the road, knocking into other vehicles and running over pedestrians. There'd be shootouts and maybe a helicopter if the pursuit was violent enough. I, of course, would have wet my pants at the first car crash.

Being an officer is never good in "Grand Theft Auto," so I'm thankful when the offending vehicle pulls over, and Killion and the driver talk harmlessly about removing a plastic cover over the license plate. In real life, most people have more sense than to flee the police.

The next call we get isn't in some drug-infested apartment complex or shady alley. Instead, we end up taking a call in suburbia. It's a leafy neighborhood and the site of a family crisis.

Again, this is where real life and video games deviate. A family is concerned with one of their own, a schizophrenic man who refuses to take his meds. He sits out on the sidewalk. His sister is in tears.

Killion handles the situation the best he can. The officer knows the law, and says he can't take the guy in. He talks with the family, trying to help them understand that there's little he can do aside from being persuasive.

He talks to the man and advises him to go back on his medication. The man refuses and sits and smokes.

If this were a game, the quickest and easiest solution would be violence or maybe a cut-scene. It goes to show that no matter how much technology goes into making a game, it fails to reproduce the complexities of human relationships. How would Rockstar do this scene? The answer: It couldn't.

In "Grand Theft Auto," I've chased down thugs. I've run down thieves and saved a neighborhood from burning down. But I've never dealt with a situation like this. Fantasy is fantasy because it's simple. Real life, as awkward and uncomfortable as it is, can be harder to nail down.

In the next few days, I imagine I'll be sitting down with "Grand Theft Auto IV" and I'll go back to being a criminal, doing things that would usually get me the electric chair in real life.

Although the game is said to look and sound more realistic, I'll think of what Officer Killion does — patrolling the streets, dealing with drama — and realize how far games still have to go.

Reach Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanews group.com.

OVERVIEW
  • WHAT: "Grand Theft Auto IV"
  • PLOT: Niko Bellic, an ex-soldier, immigrates from Eastern Europe to Liberty City with promises of the American Dream. Instead of a life full of money and women, he finds himself stuck in a world that's anything but pleasant.
  • U.S. SALES: "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" has sold more than 8.6 million copies.
    "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" has sold more than 6.8 million copies
    "Grand Theft Auto 3" has sold more than 5.7 million copies.
    Predictions for "Grand Theft Auto 4" sales range from 6 million units in a week to 13 million units in a year.
  • CONTROVERSY: The series has always been a magnet for criticism with its satirical approach and mafia-inspired subject matter. Along with its violent nature, "GTA" came under fire in 2005 with a "Hot Coffee" modification, a hack that opened up an erotic minigame that was never meant to be seen.