Release of 'Grand Theft Auto IV' could be biggest ever

by James A. Fussell

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

29 April 2008


Hold on to your Glock, another violent video game is poised to blast its way into the record books.

In fact, some analysts are predicting that Tuesday’s debut of “Grand Theft Auto IV” for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 could be the most lucrative launch in entertainment history.

As in bigger than “Spider-Man 3.” Bigger than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Bigger, even, than the ballyhooed launch of “Halo 3” last fall.

Some believe that by year’s end, the Mature-rated “GTA IV” will gross nearly $800 million - almost twice the amount of last year’s highest grossing movie, the third “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Depending on your point of view, those figures are either impressive or depressing. The infamous series has a devoted fanbase, but the games themselves are hedonistic and almost unabashedly violent. If previous versions of Grand Theft Auto are any indication, “GTA IV,” should be packed with more immorality and blood-soaked carnage than you can shake a joystick at.

In “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” for example, players could pay a prostitute for sex, then kick her to death. You could kill policemen, distribute porn, mule cocaine for the mob and chuck Molotov cocktails into the street. You could murder characters with Gatling guns, chain saws, meat cleavers and screw drivers.

It’s enough to send the Mario Brothers running to the confessional.

Peter Larkin, store manager of Game Stop at Oak Park Mall in Overland Park, Kan., is expecting big things for “GTA IV.” Before the game went on sale, Larkin had - through pre-orders - sold out all of his store’s copies of the limited-edition version of the game.

But Larkin says he’s not sure if “GTA IV” will outsell “Halo 3,” the previous high-water mark in video game sales

“They’re clearly not advertising like they did with Halo 3,” Larkin said. “But you have to keep in mind the GTA franchise is older than Halo, and has a larger fanbase. And where `Halo 3’ was just sold for Xbox 360, `GTA IV’ is sold for both Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, so there are many more potential customers.”

There’s also more controversy. Because of the game’s graphic content, Larkin cards every buyer where there is a question to make sure they’re older than 17. If a teen comes in with a parent, he will read line by line a description of why the game is rated M.

“Often times the parent turns to the kid and says, `Oh, I don’t think so,’” he said. “This game is as graphic as an R-rated film.”

Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology at Iowa State University and an expert in violent video games, has not seen the new version of “GTA,” but if it holds true to form, he’s sure it has content many parents will find objectionable.

“Every month new studies come out on the violent video game effects on children,” he said. “The research base just gets stronger and stronger. In general violent video games have been shown to increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior and aggressive thinking.”

But in the absence of other risk factors, including poverty, abuse and broken homes, Anderson said, the effect is lessened.

“If you ask if violent video games will turn a normal, well-adjusted child into a school shooter, the answer is clearly no,” he said. “Being in a stable environment does tend to protect a person.”

Meanwhile, all fans care about is getting their hands on a copy. To them the GTA franchise is one of the most brilliant ever created, a lush, wild and adrenaline-fueled fantasy world where their wildest dreams and naughtiest fantasies are fulfilled.

“I just love to go around and do everything I could never do in real life,” said Josh Miller, a 20-year-old Kansas City man who planned to stay up all night playing the game. “It doesn’t mean I’d ever really want to do that stuff. But if I can do it in a game in my apartment, and nobody gets hurt, you know, why not? It’s just a different kind of escape, like TV shows or movies or books. They can be pretty violent, too. I don’t know why everybody’s always focusing on the video games.”

For Gene Nutt, owner of Game Nut Entertainment in Lawrence, Kan., it’s all about fun. Nutt rents out the space out above his Lawrence store to gamers who want to get together to play the hottest games. He has a LAN center upstairs with console systems and big-screen TVs, comfy chairs and a variety of multiplayer games going on.

“It’s definitely going to be a big day for us with the `Grand Theft Auto’ release,” he said. “I’m sure everything is going to have GTA on the screen.”

In the newest GTA you can stay good or go bad. You can drive around, explore, play pool, patronize businesses and listen to music. You also can drive drunk and beat up elderly people.

Beware, say the critics.

Bring it on, say the gamers.

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