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."

A game is rated before its release when developers give the ESRB clips of the game to examine. The ESRB then renders its decision. Last year, the ESRB gave "Manhunt 2" an AO rating. The developer then made revisions to the game to gain the more retailer-friendly M rating.

"The ESRB continues to be tight-lipped about what the changes were. I think the public deserves to know that," he said. "They need to be more transparent [about] what kind of tipped them in one direction or another. … They don't hand [AO ratings] out very often. The one time they have in recent memory for a wide release they pulled it back."

In late 2007, another media watchdog group, the National Institute on Media and the Family, released a study that found that retailers didn't enforce ESRB's age-related ratings system nearly half the time.

The Institute released a joint statement last week with the ESRB reminding parents to keep in mind the rating system. According to a spokesman, the National Institute on Media and the Family is still looking at "Grand Theft Auto IV" before releasing a statement on its content.

In an earlier interview, however, David Walsh, the Institute's on Media and the Family, told that overall the franchise goes too far in its content.

"Major game publishers have looked at a finished product" and decided not to go with it as is, Walsh said. "Take-Two, as a company, has never done that. They've made their reputation as being the renegade company that's willing to push the boundaries."

But for adult fans of the series, that may be part of the draw. "Grand Theft Auto IV" is expected to sell 9 million copies, a new record, in its first week.