Cheers and fears as Grand Theft Auto IV revs at starting line

"Grand Theft Auto IV" hits streets on Tuesday and is expected to race into record books as the fastest-selling video game ever despite being tailed by critics condemning its violent themes.

Rockstar Games is predicted to sell at least six million copies of "GTA IV: Liberty City" in its first week, with die-hard fans eager to play the game in which triumph depends on acts such as carjacking, gambling and killing.

"This is going to be the game of the year," video game industry analyst Edward Woo at Wedbush Morgan Securities told AFP .

Rockstar Games and its GTA franchise are a focal point for critics that fear violence in video games warps the minds of young players and turns them into real-world thugs or killers.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) stamped a "Mature" label on GTA: IV banning US retailers from selling the game to anyone less than 17 years old.

The game's rating includes a warning it contains "intense violence, blood, strong language, strong sexual content, partial nudity and use of drugs and alcohol."

Game play includes simulated sex with prostitutes and drunken driving.

The ESRB and the National Institute on Media and the Family are urging parents to vigilantly check ratings on games for their children.

"With the latest installment of the Grand Theft Auto series...parents need to be reminded to make sure their kids are playing games appropriate for their age and level of maturity," says a joint statement released Friday.

"It is critical that parents consider the assigned rating carefully."

Despite perceptions that video gamers tend to be children, industry statistics indicate typical players are more than 30 years old.

"People think video games are for kids and they're not anymore," said Woo.

While concerns about violent games breeding criminals remain strong, US national statistics show that violent crimes by children have been on the decline for years while video game play has rocketed.

"If there is this big causal trend you would expect to see a large leap in violent crime among kids, but there is not," said Mia Consalvo, an assistant professor specializing in video game research at Ohio University.

Rockstar unintentionally made it easy for critics by patching over instead of removing a raunchy mini-game crafted into the software of the prior GTA title, according to Consalvo.

Hackers figured out how to unlock the game with a "Hot Coffee" modification that spread quickly on the Internet. An ESRB probe cleared Rockstar of wrongdoing but resulted in the game being re-rated adults-only.

GTA's appeal is fueled by a captivating story line and an open-world format that lets players go where ever they wish in a virtual New York City area, according to Woo.

Most video games are "linear" in that characters move along pre-programmed paths in animated worlds.

"Instead of just watching a movie and being fed the story you can can go another way and the movie goes in that direction," Woo said of the freedom players get to roam about in open-world games.

"That is what people want; more interactive entertainment rather than watching a TV show."

The blend of controversy, innovative play, and compelling story along with the momentum of a series started with the release of the first GTA game in 2004 create a "perfect storm" around the franchise, Consalvo said.

By Friday word spread that a pirated version of GTA: IV was loose on the Internet.

Rockstar declined to comment for this story. Rockstar is owned by Take-Two Interactive, a New York City firm that is a takeover target of the world's largest videogame maker Electronic Arts.

Take-Two rejected a two-billion-dollar offer from EA and delayed talk of negotiation until after the release of GTA: IV on April 29.

Analysts believe EA will need to raise its offer to close a deal with Take-Two, which hopes to gain leverage with a superstar launch of GTA: IV.

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