Grand Theft Auto 4, the latest entry in the provocative video game series, arrived in stores early this morning poised to become not only the best-selling game of the year, but also the most controversial.
Since its debut in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto series has been a frequent target of parents groups and politicians who oppose racy and violent content in video games. But despite those concerns, or perhaps partly because of them, the underworld action game could sell more than 9 million copies in its first week, easily outperforming last year's top-seller, Halo 3, analysts say.
Unlike Halo 3, which boasted a marketing campaign that rivaled a Hollywood blockbuster, the launch of Grand Theft - a Mature-rated game where players can drive drunk and hit up strip clubs - has been more viral than mainstream. Fast-food tie-ins and TV ads aren't part of the push - a reflection of the game's bad-boy image.
"This game is always cast as a murder simulator and it's not. ... But it's a game that's very much designed for adults," said Adam Sessler, host of X-Play, a daily cable-TV show about video games. "Given that it's called Grand Theft Auto, I don't think that they hide that fact that they're selling transgressive behavior."
Early reviews have been near unanimous in their praise for the game developed by New York-based Rockstar Games. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote yesterday that the game "sets a new standard for what is possible in interactive arts."
Yet even before the game's release, some parents' group have been urging retailers not to sell the video. Seemingly innocuous advertisements for the game have been pulled from buses in Chicago and Miami.
"I don't think anyone's going to be surprised by the content. They certainly haven't been marketing it as a departure for this series," Gavin McKiernan, a spokesman for the Parents Television Council, said of Rockstar Games. "They have a long history of [violent games], and we have no reason to believe that there will be anything different about this version."
Throughout the Grand Theft series, players take on the role of an underworld thug who works his way up the criminal ladder by stealing cars and killing rivals and bystanders alike.
In 2005, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas elicited a wave of negative publicity after media reports of an Internet add-on that allowed players to cavort with prostitutes.
After the incident, the Entertainment Software Association changed the game's rating to Adults Only, greatly restricting it. Rockstar Games later released an updated version of the game.
"Because it was so popular ... it became this touchstone and this whipping boy to create culture wedge issues," Sessler said.
Advance copies of Grand Theft Auto 4, which sells for about $60, were not released. Journalists had to play the game in New York under Rockstar's supervision. According to the company's promotional materials, the game for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 systems follows Niko, an Eastern European immigrant, in his quest for the "American Dream." Players are able to explore Liberty City (a fictional stand-in for New York) while following the set plot line.
"They have created a city," Sessler said, praising the design of the game. "It's massive not just in the virtual acreage but the sense of detail that really makes the city that comes to life. You are inside of it."
Concerns about the game haven't stopped large retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart from stocking it. Many area stores, including the Best Buy in the Inner Harbor, planned to stay open past midnight last night to sell the first copies of the game.
Jesse Miller, an operations manager at Best Buy, said the chain will be enforcing its existing ID- carding policy, and cashiers have been instructed to remind parents of the game's mature rating.
Robby Rackleff, a 27-year-old graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, said his rental copy of Grand Theft Auto 4 should show up tomorrow.
"Judging by what I've seen on game-related Web sites, I'm pretty excited to play it," Rackleff said. "I haven't been excited about this type of game for a while."
As for the controversy, Rackleff said: "I don't see ... them upping the ante that much. I see a more developed work of art."
Sun reporter Sam Sessa contributed to this article.