NEW YORK - Get ready for theft on a massive scale as Grand Theft Auto V - the latest installment in the billion-dollar video game franchise - lands on Tuesday.
The highly anticipated GTA V stars onetime bank robber Michael de Santa, who is looking to get back into the game. He's joined by two other characters who sign on for ever-more complicated heists.
And come Tuesday, fans who've bought more than 125 million GTA games can take another walk on the wild side themselves, when the new game lands on Microsoft Xbox 360 and Sony PlayStation 3, rated for ages 17-up. (Price: $60).
The franchise, which skyrocketed after 2001's Grand Theft Auto III, has since been deemed the best-selling action-adventure video game series by Guinness World Records.
GTA V arrives just two months before two new consoles hit stores - the Sony PlayStation 4 on Nov. 15 and the Microsoft Xbox One, on Nov. 22.
In a way, the game can put its own unruly - and unparalleled - stamp on the outgoing generation of video game systems. "The sheer ambition of the game is rather staggering," says Geoff Keighley, host and executive producer of GameTrailers TV on Spike. "In many ways it's a game that is only possible to produce at the end of a console generation, as development has taken more than half a decade to complete."
Along with followers, the GTA franchise has its critics, which surfaced once they learned players could carjack vehicles in the games. Developer Rockstar Games was loudly denounced for letting players in GTA III - and subsequent games - do business with prostitutes and shoot them afterward.
"GTA has arguably been the most controversial franchise in video game history, pushing the envelope with game play, content and violence," says Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy.
The games tread the same turf as films such as Scarface and, in this case, Heat. Criticism aside, Rockstar is constantly hailed for the quality of its games. This new GTA V game is the biggest production ever from the studio.
Scottish newspaper The Scotsman estimated the game's development and marketing budget at $260 million or more - invading the turf of movie blockbusters like the Harry Potter and Spider-Man franchises. (Rockstar was founded in Scotland, and one of its primary studios, Rockstar North, is in Edinburgh. The studio had no comment on the reported budget.)
The game literally covers more virtual ground than any previous game - it's larger than GTA IV, GTA: San Andreas and 2010's Western adventure Red Dead Redemption combined. There's a virtual Los Santos (the studio's fictional stand-in for L.A.) and miles of surrounding countryside. "It's big enough to get lost in," says the game's art director, Aaron Garbut, "but it never feels so big that it ever feels pointless or empty."
To encourage the exploration of the game's entirety, the designers for the first time let players control three different characters. Michael de Santa is joined by Franklin Clinton and Trevor Phillips. "It allows us to weave multiple stories together in an extremely compelling way that flows naturally to the player, and it gives the player more freedom in a game already synonymous with freedom," Garbut says.
An exclusive three-hour test drive at Rockstar's New York offices last week involved piloting a plane and helicopter, driving multiple vehicles, including a motorcycle - and the execution of a Mission Impossible-style skyscraper smash and grab.
Playing as Trevor, who's a veteran military pilot, a helicopter must be guided into position hovering over the building. Then, players take control of Michael, who must jump out of the chopper, rappel down the side of glass-windowed building and crash inside to rescue a suspect being interrogated by federal agents.
That's apparently just a taste. The latest trailer for the game also shows Trevor in a James Cameron-style submergible.
Players can entertain themselves with more pedestrian pursuits, too, should they want to veer off the plot for a while. You can play golf, do yoga and build a real estate empire. And for the first time, there's an online feature that lets players compete together and against each other.
No surprise, GTA V is expected to be a huge success. Publisher Take-Two Interactive has seen its stock price steadily rise this year, from $11 to more than $18 earlier this month. Retailer GameStop, which has seen brisk activity in pre-orders, will hold celebratory midnight sales events Monday in 3,900 stores. Best Buy will have midnight openings at 650 of its stores, too.
GTA V is "one of the most talked about games this year, and we're expecting it to be the best of the franchise," says Bob Puzon, senior vice president of merchandise for GameStop.
However, Rockstar may need to eventually release the game on those new video game systems to hit the 30 million sales mark that the most successful GTA games flirt with, says Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter. "If not, it probably won't sell as well," he says.
Still, GTA V's arrival on current generation game systems makes good business sense, McNealy says. There are "over 150 million Xbox 360s and PS3s out there," he says, compared with "likely under 2 million Xbox Ones and PS4s this holiday."
Whatever the system, the return of GTA is a seminal event for the industry, Keighley says. "There's something very special about (Grand Theft Auto) that no other game has been able to duplicate, although many have tried," he says.
By Mike Snider, USA TODAY