'Grand Theft Auto V' hits streets in brash debut

The unabashedly brutal "Grand Theft Auto V" hit the streets Tuesday, in the global launch of a sequel that promises to enthrall fans of the blockbuster videogame franchise.

Rockstar Games spent five years crafting the title, with a rumoured production budget of $270 million, and the time has paid off for gamers according to a slew of reviews giving it top marks.

"You can really see the maturity in this version, the graphics look sensational -- it really is like being in a virtual copy of LA," said computerandvideogames.com digital manager John Houlihan.

"This really is a blockbuster that almost dwarfs the movies in some way," he told AFP, describing it as a "cultural phenomenon".

Grand Theft Auto IV blew away videogame and Hollywood records by raking in an unprecedented $500 million in the week after its release in 2008.

The franchise has won legions of fans and cadres of critics with gameplay in which triumph depends on acts such as carjacking, gambling and killing.

Play in Grand Theft Auto games has included simulated sex with prostitutes and drunken driving. The latest version is said by reviewers to be rife with more of the same, along with profanity-packed dialog.

"GTA is essentially the 'Sopranos' of videogames," Tech Savvy analyst Scott Steinberg said, referring to the hugely popular US cable television series centered on Mafia characters.

He said the "the 10-ton gorilla of videogame franchises" provided an antidote for mounting pressure on console videogames posed by free-to-play titles tailored for smartphones or tablets.

"Obviously, this is going to help kickstart the holiday season for the videogame industry, which has taken a beating," he said.

GTA V is set in a fictional city of Los Santos based on real-world Los Angeles and its nearby hills and beaches.

It is billed by the New York City-based videogame publisher as the "largest and most ambitious" title in a franchise that has sold more than 114 million copies since its debut in 1997.

"Grand Theft Auto V builds on everything we've learned about open world gaming," said Rockstar founder Sam Houser. Open world refers to games where players are given the freedom to explore vast levels at their own pace.

Versions of "GTA V" for play on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 videogame consoles or personal computers powered by Windows software launched worldwide Tuesday in respective time zones.

Midnight release events were held in an array of countries to let GTA lovers snap up the game the instant Tuesday arrived.

Major retailer EB Games held a midnight launch party in Sydney's World Square, featuring DJs and free burritos -- in a nod to the Burrito cargo van that appears in the series.

Torrential rain put a dampener on the night but didn't stop GTA zealots.

"If a storm stops you from getting your hands on gta you ain't a die-hard fan," Ryan Nero said in a messaged fired off on Twitter. "I just rode through a hardcore thunderstorm to get my copy."

In London, fans who began queuing last Friday outside HMV in the retail heartland of Oxford Street rushed to the registers and grabbed their copies to a soundtrack of high-decibel music.

"Rockstar make the best games out, that's just a matter of fact," said Taylor Pelling who was first in line, dressed in a furry hat and sweatshirt to keep out the autumn chill.

"I've been here since Friday at 5 o'clock in the morning. I'm a bit tired but I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on the game."

Fans in Japan will have to wait though as the instalment is not available in the key market until next month. Translations issues mean the nation's hard-core gamers can face weeks of delay for new titles.

Hisakazu Hirabayashi, a veteran gaming analyst who heads Tokyo-based consultancy firm InteractKK, said he expects Grand Theft Auto V to do well when it is finally unleashed on the nation's hard-core gamers.

The franchise is popular for "a Western game", he said, noting that overseas megahits frequently disappoint in Japan in comparison with Final Fantasy or Super Mario series.

In Hong Kong, another top Asian gaming market, hard copies hit the street Tuesday although the online version won't be available until Wednesday.

"I will go get it right after school," one fan who called himself superboy12340 said on a Hong Kong online forum, of the game which is an 18+ rating in many countries.

The franchise's appeal is fueled by captivating story lines and an open-world format that lets players go wherever they wish in game worlds.

"You can rob banks or you can do a yoga lesson or you can fly a plane or you can play tennis," Houlihan said.

"Or you can do what I sometimes do, which is just wander round the world in a really flashy car and listen to some of the hilarious radio stations -- so there really is everything for you to explore, it's a world of possibility."