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Critics slam 'GTA IV' without test drive

Politicians and organizations seek to cut off Grand Theft Auto IV even before its midnight Tuesday release.

Many critics started complaining about the violence and sexual content in Rockstar Games' 'Grand Theft Auto IV' before even seeing the game. Rockstar Games

To many in the video game industry, the two words "Jack" and "Thompson" engender horror and disgust.

Thompson, a self-appointed uber-critic of the industry, has spent the last few years railing away at games he deems too full of sex or violence. Never was he out in more force than during 2005's so-called "Hot Coffee" scandal, in which the monster hit Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was discovered to have hidden, but easily uncoverable, animations that mimicked sexual activity.

In the lead-up to the midnight Tuesday release of Rockstar Games' follow-up game, Grand Theft Auto IV, Thompson was at it again. (See GameSpot's review here: Grand Theft Auto IV (PlayStation 3).)

According to online technology news site Softpedia, Thompson wrote an e-mail to Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick's mother (Take-Two is Rockstar's parent company).

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"Your son last week was reported to have said the following about Grand Theft Auto IV," the letter allegedly began. "'We've already received numerous reviews, and to a one, they are perfect scores. My mom couldn't write better reviews...' Taking your son's thought, I would encourage you either to play this game or have an adroit video gamer play it for you. Some of the latter gamers are on death row, so try to find one out in the civilian population who hasn't killed someone yet."

In an e-mail to CNET Monday, Thompson confirmed that he wrote the letter, but said he sent it to Strauss' attorney and not to his mother.

"I sent it to Strauss' attorney to make the point that if you drag your mother into your porn business pimping," Thompson told me by e-mail, "you had better be prepared for blowback."

There can be little doubt that the release of GTA IV will be one of the biggest events of the year in video games, both from a business and entertainment standpoint--and from the perspective of politicians, organizations, and individuals like Thompson seeking to derail the game due to what they expect to be an overabundance of violence and sex.

For example, California state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), recently put out a press release in which he exhorted parents not to buy GTA IV for their kids.

"Unfortunately, the makers of Grand Theft Auto have a history of deceiving the ratings board and the public on the true content of their games," Yee said in the statement.

Indeed, Take-Two and Rockstar got into pretty serious trouble over the "Hot Coffee" scandal because Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was originally rated "M," meaning 17-year-olds could buy it. After the scandal broke, the publishers were forced to re-rate the game as "AO" for adults only. And in June 2006, Take-Two reached an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission promising to accurately depict the contents of its games.

Last week, the Parents Television Council issued a release demanding that retailers not sell GTA IV or, at least, not make it available to children.

Some say that even the violence in 'GTA IV' comes with an accompanying message: commit the crime, do the time. Rockstar Games

But after sifting through all these press releases, e-mails, statements, and demands that the world's retailers and parents run screaming from GTA IV, it's striking that none of the people behind these missives has seen the game, and thus couldn't possibly know its full contents.

Part of the problem, said Aaron Muszalski, a visual effects artist formerly with Industrial Light & Magic who teaches at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, is that critics of games like those in the GTA series pass judgment on a very small sample of the whole game.

"When it was reported that, in earlier GTA games, it was possible to have sex with prostitutes and then beat them to death," Muszalski said, "people who lacked a grasp of 'sandbox' gameplay were likely to have interpreted that news to have meant that to 'win' at GTA, one had to perform such tasks, perhaps even that they were a recurring stage in the gameplay.

"Of course, such a perception is grossly flawed, as anyone who has actually played GTA...will quickly tell you," Muszalski continued. "Many of the aspects of GTA that were most covered in the press were things that, in the actual course of gameplay, many people would never need nor choose to do."

Of course, no one denies that there is sexually suggestive or violent content in GTA and other games. And Rockstar Games didn't help its cause in its slow response to the "Hot Coffee" scandal, nor does it now with its reaction to critics who accuse it of serving up games that are harmful to children.

"We don't have any comment on that," Rockstar spokesman Steve Hahnel told me Monday.

Sen. Clinton takes a bye
But perhaps the more measured approach to the GTA situation evinced even by some of the series' more vocal critics might be a more fair way to go.

For example, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was one of the loudest members of the anti-GTA: San Andreas coalition in 2005, has decided to sit this round out.

"We are not planning to issue a statement at this point," Clinton spokeswoman Sarah Gegenheimer wrote in an e-mail.

And the National Organization for Women, which, according to the International Game Developers Association took GTA III to task for "encourag(ing) violence toward and the degradation of women (and) glorifies violence and degrades women," has also decided to remain calm. For now.

"We would really like to see the actual game before we comment on it," said Mai Shiozaki, NOW's press secretary. "But it's not like we're going to go out and buy it."

To be sure, there's little doubt that the controversy over the release of GTA IV is music to Rockstar Games' ears, no matter how shrill the criticism from the likes of Thompson, Yee, the Parents Television Council, and others.

Promotional screenshots for 'GTA IV' are dominated by scenes of one character or another wielding guns or being near explosions. But is this game any worse than dozens of other titles that go unnoticed by critics? Rockstar Games

After all, as they say, any publicity is good publicity.

"It's their leading franchise, and it's the driver of the vast majority of their profits," said Colin Sebastian, a senior video game analyst at Lazard Capital Partners, "and so the game needs to sell very well, and I think it will. It's one of the few blockbuster franchises you can count on, in terms of sequels and follow-ons."

Sebastian said that because of the game's huge existing fan base, plus solid early reviews and the fact that it's coming out initially on two platforms--Xbox and PlayStation 3--he expects GTA IV to live up to or even exceed the sales numbers of its hit predecessors.

Analysts predict that GTA IV of $170 million for first-day sales.

What GTA means to EA's takeover bid
One major component to the GTA saga is the game's role in the ongoing merger discussions between would-be buyer Electronic Arts and Take-Two.

What's clear in that dynamic, especially now that the game is being released, is that its success could impact the amount that EA is willing to pay for Take-Two.

"The expectations for GTA were already justifiably very high," Sebastian said. "EA understood that when they made their bid....Every day that passes, they're (going to be) losing out on GTA revenues, so they're likely to lower their bid over time....But if GTA massively exceeds their expectations, that could be a scenario where EA might have to raise their bid."

None of this, of course, matters to critics like Yee or the Parents Television Council, both of which cited the oft-reported history of violence in GTA as reason behind their statements.

"We've seen a number of clips of the game," said Yee spokesperson Adam Keigwin. "From the clips alone, and based on GTA and Rockstar's history, (Yee) thought it very appropriate to issue a statement urging parents not to purchase the game for their children."

Similarly, Gavin McKiernan, the national grassroots director for the Parents Television Council, said that despite not having seen the game yet, "You can't necessarily wait until the cat's out of the bag...There's a huge (GTA) marketing and release push, and I'm sure this game will sell lots and lots of copies, so you can't wait."

Plus, McKiernan added, "this is a pretty established, known quantity. If there was going to be a significant change in style and tenor, that would be well known."

To which Muszalski might say, "So what?"

"GTA has always been memorable for the degree to which it succeeds at dramatizing the narrative, and contextually supporting the players actions," he said. "This is not crime for crime's sake, as anyone who has really played the game will tell you, but which, sadly, may not be apparent to anyone who has merely had the game presented to them, mid-gameplay."