NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Grand Theft Auto 4" went on sale early on Tuesday, with fans lining up at midnight to get the first copies of the criminal action video game hailed as a brutal and satirical masterpiece equal to films like "The Godfather."
Retailers such as GameStop Corp and Best Buy Co Inc took advance orders for the game weeks earlier and many outlets threw open their doors at midnight to accommodate fans eager to be among the first to play.
The Tuesday launch of "Grand Theft Auto 4" is expected to be the biggest entertainment event of the year, with first-week sales forecast to be up to $400 million, beating those of last year's "Halo 3" from Microsoft Corp.
At a GameStop store in midtown Manhattan, excited fans like John Alba and Enmanuel Lorenzo had been standing for hours in a line that nearly touched the end of the block, to get their hands on the game.
"It gives you the opportunity to escape reality," Alba said. "This game has everything -- sex, drugs, cars, money... anything you want."
Early reviews over the weekend lavished praise on the latest chapter of the hit franchise.
"Grand Theft Auto 4" casts players as an Eastern European immigrant who runs drugs, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes after falling in with a crime syndicate, stuff that has drawn fire from family groups and politicians.
Avid fans like Lorenzo seemed drawn to the excitement -- but only in game play.
"Violence is like sex. It sells," Alba said, outside the GameStop shop. "I like violence in games, it's cool. Not in real life."
Judging from early reviews, "Grand Theft Auto 4" -- made by Take-Two's Rockstar studio -- appears on track to be the best- rated video game ever and one that could cement video games as a serious art form.
"'Grand Theft Auto IV' is a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun," The New York Times said.
Fans also pointed to the game's graphics, music and importantly, its location in "Liberty City" -- a fictional setting that resembles New York City -- as factors that made it racy.
"The story line is probably one of the best, its more realistic," said Carlos Garcia, a Brooklyn resident who was at the GameStop store in Manhattan.
Based on more than a dozen reviews compiled by Metacritic, a widely tracked aggregator of gaming reviews, the version of GTA4 for Sony Corp's PlayStation 3 game console has scored a perfect 100, while the one for Microsoft Corp's Xbox 360 has achieved a 99.
"Rockstar's magnum opus is a modern-day masterpiece that could change the way the world views video games," gaming news and reviews Web site GameSpy wrote, awarding the game a perfect five-star rating.
"You'll quickly come to realize that the nuanced story telling and presentation is on par with the finest films by directors like Martin Scorcese or Francis Ford Coppola."
Shares of Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc rose 1 percent on Monday, helped by the positive early reaction.
That could help the company's bargaining position as it faces a $2 billion takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc.
Take-Two Chairman Strauss Zelnick, who has rejected EA's offer as too low and has insisted on waiting until after the game's launch before entering discussions.
Reporting by Scott Hillis in San Francisco and Aarthi Sivaraman in New York; Editing by Lincoln Feast