'Grand Theft Auto IV' Preview: Rockstar Games' latest adds drunk driving, strip clubs

NEW YORK " Niko Bellic will be able to do just about anything gamers want him to do.

For the scruffy leading man in "Grand Theft Auto IV," that includes blowing stuff up, driving drunk, meeting someone online, going on a date, hailing a cab, listening to the radio, killing innocent bystanders, patronizing strip clubs, flying helicopters, earning cash for criminal activities, running from the police and, of course, hijacking lots of cars.

Players will be tempted with such seedy choices in Rockstar Games' wildly anticipated ninth entry in their controversial but lucrative "Grand Theft Auto" franchise, set for release April 29. "GTA IV" will be the first game in the 10-year-old "GTA" series for Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 video game consoles.

"We wanted to completely rebuild the core mechanics and create a really slick, cool experience," Rockstar Games vice president and "GTA IV" writer Dan Houser told The Associated Press following a 90-minute demonstration of the game.

Bellic, a thuggish Eastern European immigrant, has already become an iconic figure to the millions of viewers who've spied the mature action-driving game's official trailers over 40 million times online. Many have jammed blogs and message boards like GTA4.net with speculation about the game's plot, characters, locales and gameplay.

Houser wouldn't mind if such zealous fans tapped the brakes.

"We want people to be really excited and not know everything by the time they play the game," he said. "Of course, we want them to understand what they're buying, but we want there to be surprises along the way."

Hunger for "GTA IV" " details! screenshots! clips! anything! " has been mounting since the game was announced at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2006. Expectations hit a speed bump and holiday wish lists had to be revised in 2007 when Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar Games' parent company, said last August the game wouldn't be released until 2008.

"We felt we owed it to the many fans of the game, in particular to people who are thinking about buying hardware but haven't yet done so, to have a game that was really amazing and really pushed the limit," said Houser. "It would've been foolish to rush something out and disrespectful to the audience."

In the open-world game, Bellic descends on Liberty City, Rockstar's take on New York, after being lured there by his cousin. As Bellic, players can traipse through the expansive urban atmosphere and engage in illegal activities right around the corner from detailed recreations of landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, Coney Island and Times Square.

"We wanted to make the storytelling more sophisticated and more organic," said Houser. "We give you choices to really recreate the experience of an immigrant moving to New York in the present time and emulate walking down the street and meeting the freaks that you meet. It's largely streamlining and adding to the ideas that were there before."

In what Houser says is his favorite "GTA IV" mission, players are tasked with assassinating a character who's laid up in the hospital. How gamers achieve this goal is completely up to them, whether they decide to quietly sneak in through a window, boisterously bust through the front door guns blazin' or don scrubs and simply turn off the mark's life support.

"We're giving the player choices without ramming it down their throats," said Houser. "They even have a choice at the key moment in the whole story. I don't want to go into too much detail about it, but I think putting that into the hands of the player is very fun."

Graphically, there are layers of realism not found in the previous over-the-top "Vice City" and "San Andreas" editions of the game. In "GTA IV," if players hit a newsstand, papers go flying through the air. Bump into an electrical pole and sparks may surge. With new technology from NaturalMotion, characters can spontaneously react to their surroundings.

"If the graphics are slightly cartoony, we make sure the writing is slightly cartoony to match that," said Houser. "Obviously, the graphics have gone closer to realism, so we wanted everything else to be closer to realism as well."

The gamemakers are also injecting conventions found in a totally dissimilar gaming franchise: "The Sims." Social interaction is heavily embedded throughout "GTA IV." Bellic can go online at Internet cafes in Liberty City and access over 100 fictitious Web sites. He can cultivate relationships with other characters through cell phone calls, e-mails and quality time at bars, comedy clubs, cabarets, bowling allies and strip clubs.

Yes, strip clubs.

Rockstar has long been known for pushing buttons and fueling gaming controversies. In 2005, a hidden sex scene was discovered in "San Andreas," causing many retailers to pull the game off store shelves. Last year, the British Board of Film Classification refused to certify Rockstar's "Manhunt 2," a gory game which received an Adults-Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board in the U.S. (The rating for "GTA IV" is pending.)

Houser assumes "GTA IV" will spur its own outcry.

"I expect it because we've had so much of it in the past," said Houser. "I wish people would treat video games the same as other media. They seem to not want to do that for reasons that I don't understand. It's a convenient enemy for people."

Scandal or not, video game analyst Mike Hickey at Janco Partners expects 5 million copies of "GTA IV" will sell the first week of release, on par with last year's record-breaking $300 million first-week sales of Bungie Studios' "Halo 3." Hickey says that Rockstar's hush-hush promotional effort " more viral, less in-your-face than the "Halo 3" campaign " could give "GTA IV" an edge.

"Maybe the first week 'GTA IV' sales won't do what 'Halo 3' did, but I can almost guarantee they'll probably outsell 'Halo 3' in the first year," said Hickey.

That choice is up to gamers, too.

On the Net:

Rockstar Games: http://www.rockstargames.com

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