By John Henderson

Killeen Daily Herald

It's probably going to be the biggest video game of the year, but even if it isn't, "Grand Theft Auto IV" will be the most controversial. Guaranteed.

Anyone walking past any Gamestop store for the past few months will have noticed the cel-shaded surly guy on a poster advertising "Grand Theft Auto IV," a game coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles on Tuesday.

Before long, anyone who cares about video games – and a lot more who don't – probably will be getting information about GTA 4 in both eyes and both ears.

Ever since its predecessor "Grand Theft Auto III" hit shelves in 2001, the words "Grand Theft Auto" have been a sort of code used whenever well-heeled public figures want to warn the world about the dangers of violent video games.

Maybe it's because the games are based in a reality closer to our own than, say, older-school shooter games like "Doom" and "Quake," or maybe it's the sheer popularity. "Halo 3" has the record, 4.2 million units, for most sales in a single weekend in September 2007, but the previous GTA game, "San Andreas," holds the record for the best-selling video game of all time in the U.S., with 8.6 million units sold as of the same month "Halo 3" came out, according to NPD Research.

GTA 4 is expected by its publisher to do $400 million in business in its first week, and at least one financial expert has predicted 5.8 million units sold in that time.

Or maybe it's because it's yet another game, rated "M for Mature," meant for an adult audience but fascinating to children, particularly young boys, such that their parents have a right to be concerned. Kind of like if they wanted to see an R-rated feature film that cost $60 and could be played at home for 40 hours or longer.

Take your pick.

So one week before GTA 4's release, here's some handy information for gamers, parents and anyone just curious.

A brief history

Don't be fooled by the title – GTA 4 is actually the sixth in the series, ninth if you count "Liberty City Stories" and "Vice City Stories."

The first two GTA games were relatively unpopular, but GTA 3, released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, featured three-dimensional graphics and a third-person view on the hero, a morally questionable mute who behaved at best like a conscientious thug, at worst a lovable sociopath.

The game world was made to look like an American East Coast city, with players allowed to treat it like a sandbox with few limits as to what they could do in a game. This included stealing lots of cars – hence the game's titles.

Rival gang bosses would give "missions" ranging from chauffeur to hired assassin, and the worst that could happen to the hero character was getting busted by police or take too much damage, in which case he woke up outside a police station or a hospital, having failed a mission if he was on one, and minus some money and/or weapons.

It was an instant hit, paving the way for two more GTA blockbusters. "Vice City," set in Florida in the mid-1980s, was thematically a cross between "Miami Vice" and "Scarface," with the player leading a low-level mobster to kingpin stardom.

"San Andreas," set in a West Coast-style land patterned on Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in the early 1990s, let the player control a member of a neighborhood gang who, naturally, rises to stardom through a series of jobs for gangsters and business owners, only to return home when his family is threatened.

Hitting the ground

The character on the poster is Niko, the player-controlled anti-hero of GTA 4. Just off the boat from an unspecified Slavic country, he moves in with his cousin in Liberty City, a fictional American city on the East Coast, only to find that his cousin isn't exactly living the American dream. Instead of a lavish lifestyle, Niko's cousin lives in a hovel apartment and runs a small taxi company, and expects Niko to work for him.

Information about the rest of the game has been sketchy at best, but it's been revealed that Niko has had a few run-ins with the law in his home country. Most of the game likely will be spent doing jobs for affluent business owners and rival gangs, presented mission-style with a cash reward and a plot advancement for success.

There will be optional side missions as well, following the GTA formula, letting the player hijack taxis, ambulances or police cars, and playing as if they were paramedics, cabbies or policemen – though not quite like the real thing.

Liberty City was the setting for GTA 3, but GTA 4's Liberty City is a different place, more closely resembling all but one borough of New York City (the game's creators have been quoted saying Staten Island would be too boring) and Jersey City than before. Brooklyn is "Booker," Manhattan is "Algonquin," Central Park is "Middle Park," and there's even a "Statue of Happiness."

Keeping Niko out of trouble is also going to be different than before. There will still be "wanted" levels, determining just how much effort law enforcement agencies from police to federal authorities will make to catch Niko, but the player will have to avoid a certain area of the city to escape capture, instead of waiting for a time limit to expire.

Niko will also have to ditch a vehicle and replace it with another in underground parking garages, out of sight of law enforcement personnel, rather than having them repainted like in previous GTA games.

Besides Niko's story as a single-player game, GTA 4 will have multiplayer games, including networked matches of cops 'n' robbers or racing, with the game map as a playground. Players with enough lead time and mean spirits can reportedly sabotage opponents' vehicles rather than trying just to outrun them.

Now we're getting into what a lot of gamers already know or at least could imagine. There's no telling how many of the promises will come true until launch day.

But it might explain why some people call in sick to work Tuesday.

Contact John Henderson at or (254) 501-7549.

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