Critics Come Out Swinging on 'Grand Theft Auto IV'

As fans drool over the realistic graphics of the newest edition of "Grand Theft Auto IV," critics have pummeled the blockbuster video game franchise for everything from excessive violence and sexuality to allowing drunken characters to get behind the wheel.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is the latest group to join the fray, criticizing a sequence in the game that allows players to drive drunk. The group has asked the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), which sets the ratings for video games, to change the rating from M for "Mature" to AO for "Adults Only." An AO rating is generally considered a kiss of death for games, as major electronics retailers refuse to carry AO-rated games.

"Drunk driving is not a game and it is not a joke," MADD said in a statement this week. "Drunk driving is a choice, a violent crime and it is also 100 percent preventable."

The long-awaited latest installment of the often lambasted series has a plotline similar to past games: Players are submerged in an urban criminal underworld where they must shoot, rob and kill their way through the fictional Liberty City, a near-exact replica of New York City.

MADD is also asking Rockstar Games, the game's developer, to consider stopping distribution. Analysts have said they expect "Grand Theft Auto IV" to break current video game sales records.

"We have a great deal of respect for MADD's mission, but we believe the mature audience for 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is more than sophisticated enough to understand the game's content," Rockstar Games told the Associated Press in response to MADD's request.

MADD is far from the only group that's speaking out about the game's content.

In advance of its debut, the Chicago Transit Authority removed "GTA IV" ads from its buses. Similarly, several politicians, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and parent groups that haven't even played the game have voiced concern.

One of those groups is the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment.

"This needs to be treated as an adult product," said Gavin McKiernan, the group's national grassroots director.

Although fans defend the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise by comparing it to an R-rated movie, McKiernan argues that this comparison isn't applicable.

"An R-rated movie is a two-hour passive experience. With this we're talking about 71 to 80 hours of game play where you're practicing and completing these [violent] acts," he said. "The bottom line is we're dealing with something that has greater potential for harm than an R-rated movie. Then it's being classified as the same thing and it isn't."

In addition to Rockstar, McKiernan also criticizes children's toy stores like Toys 'R' Us that carry the product and encourages other stores to be more careful about who gets their hands on M-rated games.

"We're not trying to ban the game, but if you're not trying to treat it as an adult product," you shouldn't be carrying it all, he said.

While he believes the ESRB generally does a good job, he criticized their lack of transparency when it comes to rating games, citing a review of another controversy-stirring Rockstar game released last year: "Manhunt 2."

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