NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES "Grand Theft Auto 4" went on sale Tuesday, with fans lining up at midnight to grab the first copies of the criminal action game hailed as a brutal and satirical masterpiece equal to films like "The Godfather."
Retailers such as GameStop Corp (GME.N) and Best Buy Co Inc (BBY.N) took advance orders for the game weeks earlier and many outlets threw open their doors at midnight to accommodate fans eager to be among the first to play.
The launch of "Grand Theft Auto 4" is expected to be the biggest entertainment event of the year, with first-week sales forecast to be up to $400 million, beating those of last year's "Halo 3" from Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O).
At a GameStop store in midtown Manhattan, excited fans like John Alba and Enmanuel Lorenzo had been standing for hours in a line that nearly reached the end of the block to get their hands on the game.
"It gives you the opportunity to escape reality," Alba said. "This game has everything -- sex, drugs, cars, money ... anything you want."
"Grand Theft Auto 4" casts players as an Eastern European immigrant who runs drugs, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes after falling in with a crime syndicate -- stuff that has drawn fire from family groups and politicians.
Avid fans like Lorenzo seemed drawn to the excitement -- but only in game play. "Violence is like sex. It sells," Alba said outside the GameStop shop. "I like violence in games, it's cool. Not in real life."
DELAYED RELEASE A "SMART MOVE"
Judging from early reviews, "Grand Theft Auto 4" -- the latest version of the hit franchise made by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc's (TTWO.O) Rockstar studio -- appears on track to be the best-rated video game ever and one that could cement video games as a serious art form.
Its release, originally scheduled for October last year, was pushed back until Tuesday mostly due to technological hurdles.
But some viewed the late release positively.
"I think that it was actually a very smart move on their part to move it back because it gave a lot of people an opportunity to upgrade their systems to the next gen., so now there's actually a bigger chance of people going out and grabbing this game," said Chris Arsada, general manager of a GameStop store in Los Angeles.
"'Grand Theft Auto IV' is a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun," The New York Times said.
New York fans pointed to the game's graphics, music, its multi-player feature and importantly, its location in "Liberty City" -- a fictional setting that resembles New York City -- as reasons they found the game racy.
"The story line is probably one of the best, its more realistic," said Carlos Garcia, a Brooklyn resident who was at the GameStop store in Manhattan.
Based on more than a dozen reviews compiled by Metacritic, a widely tracked aggregator of gaming reviews, the version of GTA4 for Sony Corp's (6758.T) PlayStation 3 game console has scored a perfect 100, while that for Microsoft Corp's (MSFT.O) Xbox 360 achieved a 99.
For LA gamer Johnny Cervantes, it was all about "Very good graphics, better strip club scenes, multi-world play, multiplayer, very excited for that, multiplayer."
"Rockstar's magnum opus is a modern-day masterpiece that could change the way the world views video games," gaming news and reviews Web site GameSpy wrote, awarding the game a perfect five-star rating.
"You'll quickly come to realize that the nuanced story telling and presentation is on par with the finest films by directors like Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola."
Shares of Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two rose 1 percent on Monday, helped by the positive early reaction.
That could help the company's bargaining position as it faces a $2 billion takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc
Take-Two Chairman Strauss Zelnick has rejected EA's offer as too low and insisted on waiting until after the game's launch before entering discussions.