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The latest “Grand Theft Auto” videogame crashes into stores this week with all of the controversy of its predecessors in hot pursuit.


The series is renowned and reviled for its brutal violence in realistic city settings.


It’s also a popular franchise, with the industry speculating that the latest version—available for Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360—will sell 6 million copies in its first week, bringing in more than $400 million.


The three previous versions of “Grand Theft Auto” have sold about 32 million copies total and earned $1.24 billion in the United States, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.


“Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they surpassed the numbers,” said Libe Goad, editor-in-chief of AOL’s GameDaily.com. “The game has a very broad appeal. It has a wise-guy story line, very similar to the stuff you see on TV that has such mass appeal, and just based on that alone it should sell well.”


“Grand Theft Auto IV” brings a new twist to its popular of brand of street side gun battles, high-speed chases and criminal enterprise—all of which unfold in a sprawling virtual city.


For the first time, fans will get to play gangsters online, with up to 16 players simultaneously. That means player-on-player drive-by shootings, running over others with various vehicles and even using the whirling blades of a stolen helicopter to shear enemies into pieces—all while chatting over the Internet.


“Online play is easily more fun because you can interact with people around the world,” John Perry, a 16-year-old gamer, said as he was selling used games at Video Game Control.


Daniel Brown, manager of that store, agreed.


“I think people are going to spend a lot of time playing GTA online,” Brown said.


Perry and other fans say it isn’t the murder and mayhem that make the “Grand Theft Auto” games so popular—it’s the open urban “sandbox” environment that is most appealing.


For example, players can ignore the game’s plot and drive through the city while listening to virtual radio stations, collect different vehicles or complete missions to earn money and buy clothing and other items for their characters.


Or they can swerve stolen cars onto sidewalks packed with pedestrians, mow down gangbangers with automatic weapons and help different criminal syndicates vie for power.


Several groups have already issued warnings about the new “Grand Theft Auto” game, including the Parents Television Council, which issued a statement last week urging stores to keep the game away from children, and the National Institute on Media and the Family, which is encouraging parents to use discretion when buying games for their children.


“Grand Theft Auto IV” is rated “M” for mature by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, which says the game has content that “may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older.”


Many retailers, including Video Game Control, honor the voluntary ratings system set up by the gaming industry and won’t sell games to customers unless they fit the age ranges specified by the rating.


GameStop, a retail chain with some 3,500 locations that will open at midnight to sell “Grand Theft Auto IV,” also checks IDs for mature-rated titles, according to Bob McKenzie, the company’s senior vice president of merchandizing.


“We will not sell the game to anyone under 17 unless parents are right there and give approval,” he said.


Even though “Grand Theft Auto IV” is a sequel, it is the first “next generation” version of the game, with highly detailed graphics, an advanced combat system and several other tweaks to make it more realistic. For example, now when a player tries to steal a car, the door might be locked, so they will have to perform a special maneuver to bust out the window.


“Visually there is definitely a big difference,” said Jeremy Dunham, the editorial manager of the online entertainment network IGN.com. “The buildings look very realistic. As you go from neighborhood to neighborhood, you can see everything has its own personality.”


“Grand Theft Auto IV” also has a state-of-the-art virtual physics system to make crashes, explosions and other action in the game more lifelike.


“It takes into effect factors like the speed, how heavy a car is, how heavy the victim is and where the car hit him,” said Dunham, who has seen early versions of the game.


In earlier “Grand Theft Auto” games, playing solo meant gamers could set their own goals and explore at their own pace.


Now they also will be able to link up with others in special cops vs. crooks challenges, assassination missions or free-for-all death matches.


“The online community has really taken off, especially with Xbox Live,” Dunham said, referring to Microsoft’s gaming network for the Xbox 360. “This is a natural progression that people have been asking for. The idea of putting other people into the game livens things up and keeps it is going.”


Online play is also a way to add more revenue to the franchise. Take 2 Interactive, which publishes the game, and Rockstar Games, the studio designing it, will be able to add new rewards such as clothing for characters, cars and other trophies for the players performing best online, fueling the competition, as well as potential game sales.


The chance to win trophies and earn status in an online ranking system will fuel competition and promote the formation of organized teams usually called clans—a phenomena common to online games requiring teamwork.


“No matter what the game is, if you offer players the chance to be competitive they will be,” Dunham said. “I think you’ll see groups.”


McKenzie declined to say how many customers have reserved copies of “Grand Theft Auto IV” from GameStop, but he noted “it will be the biggest launch that I will have for 2008.”


“It has a very good chance of being a blockbuster title out of the gates for launch,” he said. “The great thing about this franchise is that it has legs and will remain a top-selling title throughout the year and into the holiday season.”

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