TORONTO - "Halo" was big. "Grand Theft Auto IV" will be bigger.
Tuesday marks the release of the latest chapter of mayhem in fictional Liberty City, home to the successful "Grand Theft Auto" video game franchise from Rockstar Games.
The long-awaited game, whose release was pushed back from last November, has a history of success at the cash register. And the latest instalment should be even more profitable considering that it is available for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 users right from the get-go. In the past, Xbox users have had to wait for their version of the game to come out.
The last blockbuster game release was "Halo 3," an Xbox-exclusive title that took in an estimated US$170 million in its first 24 hours of release last fall in the U.S., according to Microsoft. "GTA 4" is expected to surpass that take - and the $300 million that "Halo 3" took in during the first week.
"We think even just on Xbox 360, it's got a shot at dethroning 'Halo 3,"' said Jason Anderson, head of marketing for Xbox Canada.
"A staggering figure," Matt Levitan, marketing and PR manager for PlayStation Canada, said of estimates of US$400 million in opening sales.
That prospect prompted chains like Future Shop and Best Buy to open select stores at midnight Monday to take advantage of gamers' hunger to buy it.
Fuelling the success of the game is the rapidly growing number of next-generation consoles being sold, although "GTA 4" is not available on the popular Nintendo Wii system.
The new game showcases Niko Bellic, who has left his native eastern Europe to escape his past. ("During the war, I did some bad things and bad things happened to us. I was very young and very angry.") Bellic seeks his fortune, along with cousin Roman, in Liberty City. As they fall into debt, the two find themselves slipping further into the criminal underworld.
The early reviews have been raves. Eurogamer.net gave it 10 out of 10. So did IGN, Game Informer, TeamXbox and VideoGamer.
"'GTA IV' gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-'em-up to an Oscar-calibre drama," says IGN. "Every facet of Rockstar's new masterpiece is worthy of applause. Without question, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is the best game since 'Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time."'
"'Grand Theft Auto IV' is the greatest game to come out for the Xbox 360 so far," said TeamXbox.com.
The "Grand Theft Auto" franchise is seen as ground-breaking in the video game world because it moved gamers into a wide-open world full of choices - and consequences - rather than taking them along a rigid path. Rated M for mature, the game also drew fire for its "do anything to anyone" style of play that includes murder, carjacking and assault.
But IGN says this game's protagonist comes with real pathos.
"Starting from nothing, Niko makes a living as a killer and enforcer, a bad-ass foreigner who appears to have no morals. The longer we stay with Niko, the more we see that there is a broken human being inside, one who would give anything to escape the person he once was."
"Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," the last game in the series, sold more than nine million copies when it was released in 2004, according to NPD Group which tracks the industry.
One of the attractions of "GTA 4" is the multiplayer aspect, with up to 16 people able to play together.
"Multiplayer is critical ... Gaming is social in nature," said Anderson. "This is not about 17-year-old boys alone in dark basements. It's about getting together with your buddies and playing."
"There's already so many hours built into a 'Grand Theft Auto' game," said Levitan. "This extends the life of the game even further."
Xbox, which operates its own highly successful Xbox Live online service, will also offer exclusive downloadable content in the fall. Sony hopes to offer something similar down the line but for the time being notes that its online PlayStation Network is free, unlike Xbox Live. Levitan also notes that "GTA 4" will load off the PS3 hard drive, possibly making game play quicker.
Anderson points to "Gears of War 2," slated for release in the fall, as the next big title. Levitan points to "Metal Gear Solid 4."
Video game publisher Take-Two, which owns Rockstar, has been subject to a US$2-billion hostile takeover bid from Electronic Arts since February. Take-Two has been holding out, refusing to enter formal talks with EA or any other suitor until April 30, the day after "GTA 4" goes on sale.