"Grand Theft Auto 4" set to entertain and inflame

SAN FRANCISCO Sat Apr 26, 2008 12:40am EDT

1 of 14. An in-game screenshot of Grand Theft Auto IV is seen in a handout image courtesy of Rockstar Games.

Credit: Reuters/Rockstar Games/Handout

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Beatings, carjackings, drive-by shootings, drunk driving and hookers. For video game fans, it can only mean one thing: "Grand Theft Auto 4" is here, with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast.

The latest chapter in the wildly popular and controversial criminal action franchise from Take-Two Interactive Software Inc (TTWO.O) is poised to be the biggest entertainment product of the year, with expected first-week sales of up to $400 million -- dwarfing Hollywood's biggest box-office openings.

The handiwork of Take-Two's Rockstar game studio headed by British brothers Sam and Dan Houser, "Grand Theft Auto 4," which will be launched next Tuesday, promises to crank up the thuggish drama that made previous installments the equivalent of "The Godfather" for Generation PlayStation.

"We also felt over the last few years there hadn't been a great standout gangster movie. Maybe we could do something ourselves that would live alongside that stuff," Rockstar's Dan Houser told Variety magazine in a recent interview.

The gobs of processing power provided by Microsoft Corp's (MSFT.O) Xbox 360 and Sony Corp's (6758.T) PlayStation 3 gaming consoles allowed Rockstar to imbue even background characters with personalities and unique behaviors.

"The game just feels like a movie now. The camera angles, the little details and things you look for in a film are things they can do now," said Ricardo Torres, editor-in-chief of GameSpot, a leading gaming review Web site.

CONTROVERSY, AS ALWAYS

Of course, it would not be a "Grand Theft Auto" game without controversy.

The series that gave gamers the freedom to shoot cops and hook up with prostitutes before beating them up and stealing their money has added drunk driving and lap dances to its repertoire of vicarious thrills.

"A lot of it is done just tongue-in-cheek. It has that same sense of humor (as past games) that is very juvenile but at the same time is a parody of American culture," said Crispin Boyer, senior executive editor of video games for the 1UP Network.

Previous GTA games have been a lightning rod for criticism by politicians. 2008 Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton said in 2005 that the series was demeaning to women.

The negative publicity has not stopped GTA from becoming one of the most successful game franchises ever, having sold 70 million copies worldwide and spawning legions of imitators.

The game may also determine the fate of Take-Two, which is resisting a $2 billion takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc ERTS.O. If sales are stronger than the already lofty expectations, it could force EA to pay more.

A dystopian coming-to-America story, "Grand Theft Auto 4" revolves around an Eastern European immigrant who ends up running illicit errands for local mob bosses.

Yet the game is not without moral consequence. Players face tough choices regarding who lives or dies and whether ambition is more important than friendship, decisions that affect the outcome of the story.

"Grand Theft Auto 3," debuted in 2001 and was seen as a new beginning for the franchise because it defined a new genre of "open world" games that gave players unprecedented freedom. Two unnumbered games in the series have launched since, each with lots of sales, and lots of controversy.

"'Grand Theft Auto' really speaks to a new age of gaming. It's a type of gaming that is culturally relevant," said Geoff Keighley, host of Spike TV's GameTrailers TV show.

OPPOSITION STIRS

The game carries a Mature rating, meaning retailers are not supposed to sell it those under 17 years old, but critics charge the industry rating system is easily skirted and that children will end up playing the game anyway.

"We are calling on all major retailers to reconsider any decisions to sell this," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, a media content watchdog.

Rockstar, which declined requests for an interview with the Housers, bristles at such suggestions. "If this was a movie or TV show and was the best in its field, you'd give it loads of awards and put those awards shows on television," Dan Houser told Variety.

(Editing by Adam Tanner, Richard Chang)

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