SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Video gamers geared up on Monday for the midnight launch of "Grand Theft Auto 4," as early reviews hailed the criminal action title as a brutal and satirical "masterpiece" equal to films like "The Godfather."
The near-universal accolades lavished on "Grand Theft Auto 4" also helped boost the shares of publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc as much as 3.4 percent, with analysts saying it could help the company's bargaining position as it faces a takeover offer from rival Electronic Arts Inc.
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.
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."
The glowing reviews may bolster the position of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc 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.
"These ratings are quite extraordinary. It's something special and helps us understand why Take-Two was so confident and adamant that they wanted to wait," said UBS analyst Ben Schachter.
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.
Many outlets of chains such as GameStop Corp and Best Buy Co Inc have taken advance orders for weeks and are throwing open their doors at midnight to accommodate gamers eager to be among the first to play.
"Our expectations are very high, higher than analysts give the game credit for," Take-Two Chief Executive Ben Feder told Reuters. "All the analysts had a (sales) number, give or take, and I think we will be on the upside of that."
"Grand Theft Auto 4" casts players as an Eastern European immigrant who delivers drugs, shoots cops and beats up prostitutes after falling in with a crime syndicate, stuff that has drawn fire from family groups and politicians.
Entertainment website IGN praised "Grand Theft Auto 4" for showing the effects of depravity on the main character.
"'GTA IV gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-calibre drama," IGN said.
Critics saved some of their most fulsome praise for the game's setting, a fictionalized New York called Liberty City, with distinct neighbourhoods and colourful inhabitants who react intelligently to the player and each other.
"The idea of a 'living, breathing city' has always been somewhat of a joke in gaming. Every city in the past has felt artificial in some way. But Liberty City feels like a real place," IGN said.
Some reviewers said the game was not without its faults, with many pointing out some graphical glitches and difficulty completing some of the nearly 150 missions on offer.
"Flawless? No. But it's about as close to a game can come to being perfect," popular gaming blog Kotaku.com said.
(Reporting by Scott Hillis, editing by Gerald E. McCormick/Andre Grenon)