NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - "Grand Theft Auto 4" went on sale on Tuesday, with fans lining up to grab the first copies of the criminal action 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 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 stood for hours in a line that nearly reached the end of the block.
"It gives you the opportunity to escape reality," Alba said. "This game has everything -- sex, drugs, cars, money ... anything you want."
The game 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.
GTA publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc said it would release initial sales data later this week or early next week. Strong early results could help the company's bargaining position as it faces a $2 billion takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc.
Take-Two management has rejected EA's offer as too low and has insisted on waiting until after the game's launch before entering discussions.
"Come Wednesday, for sure we're willing to talk," Chief Executive Ben Feder told Reuters on Monday.
Take-Two shares rose 16 cents on Tuesday to close at $26.63 on Nasdaq, the seventh straight day it has finished higher than EA's offer price of $25.74 per share, in a sign that investors expect EA will have to dig deeper to seal the deal.
The release of "Grand Theft Auto 4," originally scheduled for October last year, was pushed back until Tuesday to put extra polish on the ambitious game.
Some viewed the late release positively.
"It was actually a very smart move on their part to move it back because it gave a lot of people an opportunity to upgrade their systems ... so now there's actually a bigger chance of people going out and grabbing this game," said Chris Arsada, general manager of a GameStop store in Los Angeles.
Judging from early reviews, "Grand Theft Auto 4" -- the latest version of the hit franchise 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.
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 that for Microsoft Corp's Xbox 360 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 Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola."
Additional reporting by Scott Hillis in San Francisco; Editing by Quentin Bryar and Braden Reddall