At midnight Tuesday, thousands of gamers will pack into consumer electronics stores across the country to snag their copy of the most anticipated -- and potentially most controversial -- video game of the year: "Grand Theft Auto IV."
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.
The insanely popular video game franchise has become more popular with each new edition of the series. According to NPD Group, the original, which came out in 1997, and newer versions of the game, sold 1 million and 1.2 million copies, respectively. "GTA 3" went on to sell 6.2 million units, "GTA: Vice City" sold 7.2 million and "GTA: San Andreas" sold 9.2 million. Compilation packs alone racked up another 7 million in sales.
"Grand Theft Auto IV" is expected to be no different. Take-Two Interactive, the game's publisher, has reportedly said it projects that the game will hit $400 million in sales within the first week.
"I would expect it to be one of the top-selling games of the year, if not the top-selling game," NPD analyst Anita Frazier wrote in an e-mail. "It's interesting that while previous GTA games have been platform exclusive at launch, this is the first time that it will be available on [PS3 and Xbox] simultaneously, making it available to a potentially bigger audience."
Brian Crecente, managing editor of video game blog Kotaku, attributes "GTA's" place in pop culture to one thing: the franchise's innovation.
"GTA the franchise was the first mainstream game to popularize 'sandbox gaming.' It's a type of game where you don't have to follow the linear path created by developers. ... With sandbox games, you have that world that's created, and you can do what you want in that world," Crecente said. "The production value is through the roof. They really spend their time crafting these games, and it shows."
Crecente, who also reviews video games for a newspaper, spent five days last week locked in a hotel room with the newest version of the game.
"I ended up playing a little under 40 hours," he said. "I'm a gamer, and I write about games, but that's not something I normally do. ... "I think that everyone's expectations will be met with the game."
Crecente said that what makes the new "Grand Theft Auto" a standout is its ability to allow players to play online with their friends.
According to Crecente's blog, Microsoft is already reinforcing its server capacity to prepare for potential online game play on its Xbox 360.
Retailers Prep for Launch
Microsoft isn't the only one preparing for the big launch. Best Buy and Game Spot are holding midnight openings across the country. Circuit City is offering $10 gift cards to customers who preorder.
Justin McElroy, a West Virginia-based editor at the video game blog Joystiq, was on his way to preorder the game earlier this week.
"I'm excited to play it. ... I think I'm probably like a lot of people. Fifty percent want to play the game, and 50 percent" want to interact with other gamers, McElroy said. "Buying a game at the same time as everybody else is the closest we get to a mass social experience sometimes."
McElroy, who has played every incarnation of the game except for "GTA IV," said he loves the innovations the franchise has developed over the years.
"In most games, there's a fairly linear structure. You're going from task to task. [In "GTA"], there's always tons of things to do," he said. "They put a lot of time and a lot of care and a lot of craftsmanship into the game. The whole experience is fun even if the game was designed for you to play straight through it."
Choose Your Own Soundtrack
Another innovation is a revamp of the title's in-game radio. In "Grand Theft Auto IV," players will be able to buy the songs on their in-game radio from Amazon.com, allowing them to pick what type of music they listen to as they drive.
Ben Kuchera, gaming editor of tech blog Ars Technica, believes this and other music games like "Rock Band" could signal a new method for digital music distribution.
"I know 13-year-olds now listening to Deep Purple because of 'Rock Band.' I think this is a powerful tool to boost catalog music back into people's consciousness," Kuchera said. "It's a really interesting approach."
But the franchise's innovation isn't always received positively. "Grand Theft Auto" has drawn ire from critics for years, not only for its violent and sexual content (in one version, players get points for having sex with prostitutes) but also for hidden, hackable content that some critics say would have increased its rating from M (Mature) to AO (Adults Only).
In "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," for instance, developers embedded a minigame called "Hot Coffee" in which the player could invite his girlfriend in for "coffee" and have sex with her.
Some Critics Concerned
In advance of its debut, "Grand Theft Auto IV" has already inspired controversy. Last week, the Chicago Transit Authority removed "GTA IV" ads from its buses. Similarly, several politicians, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and parent groups have already voiced concern.
To this, Kuchera cries prejudice.
"I could point you to five games that are on the market that have worse content than 'Grand Theft Auto,' but for some reason those don't get the press," he said. "This game is such a lightning rod. There's so much harsher things out there that it's easier for kids to get their hands on."
"It is a violent game, but it isn't any more violent than [the movie] 'Scarface,'" he said. "[Gaming] is going through the same trial by fire that comics and music and movies had to go through, as it makes its way to mainstream entertainment from a niche."