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.
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."