When Grand Theft Auto V launches tomorrow, it is assured of being a blockbuster, since preorders have been so strong, and it’s one of the most anticipated games of the year. The question is just how large a blast radius it will create.

The pent-up demand for a new version of Rockstar Games’ ultraviolent, open-world, urban culture series is high because Rockstar hasn’t released a new version since Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008. That game sold more than 25 million copies as of late 2012. The series has sold more than 125 million copies to date, generating billions of dollars for Rockstar and its publicly traded parent company, Take-Two Interactive. Its budget for development and marketing has been estimated at $260 million, but Rockstar could make that money back in a couple of days.

Colin Sebastian, an analyst at R.W. Baird, expects that the game will sell $1 billion at retail during its first month. He noted that the prior game sold 3.6 million units, or $310 million in retail value, worldwide on its first day in 2008.

“We expect GTA V to outpace GTA IV sales,” he said, noting the game could sell 20 million units by the end of parent firm Take-Two Interactive’s fiscal year ending March 31.

The third-person action-adventure is unlike just about any other video game in that its awareness on the cultural level is huge on a worldwide basis, and that is likely to translate into huge sales, no matter how good or bad this version is. [Check out our full GTA V review here.]

GTA V poster

Above: GTA V poster

Image Credit: Rockstar

How does it play?

I’ve played a large chunk of the Xbox 360 version (it’s also out on the PlayStation 3), and I still have a long way to go. The open-world content is practically endless, and this version will have a larger online life as well. Rockstar has become better and better over the years of blending a cinematic story with the freedom of playing in an open world. (Check out our full review by Giancarlo Valdes).

In scores posted this morning, GTA V has an average of 97 out of 100 on Metacritic, a review aggregator. That’s an extraordinarily high rating from 17 publications so far on the PS 3 and 29 publications on the Xbox 360 version.

This one has scores of missions spread across three playable main characters — Michael, the former gangster who gets pulled back into the criminal life; Franklin, a foot soldier who aspires to rise above life in the ghetto; and Trevor, a psychotic seasoned bank robber — in a huge fictional world of Los Santos, which is based on Los Angeles. The narrative ties together the stories of the three characters, as they coordinate increasingly large heists. And that motivates me to actually play GTA V through its conclusion.

Grand Theft Auto V middle finger

Above: Grand Theft Auto V middle finger.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Yet GTA V will likely fuel culture wars about games. It has some unabashed, brutally honest satire and gallows humor that appeals to adults. But it also has extreme violence, nudity, sexual situations, and nonstop profanity that will drawn out the critics who believe video games are ruining our society. In the second mission, it’s hard to discern whether the two black characters use the N-word or the F-word more, because they use profanity nonstop — in a playful way.

You can carjack just about any vehicle in the game with few consequences, though extremely bad behavior will drop the cops on you. You can shoot those cops to get away, and you get lap dances from strippers, all the while making sure to caress them when the bouncer isn’t looking (or you’ll get thrown out of the strip club on your face). People who like to defend video games as an art form would happily forget about this game, much like similar folks love to forget about trash TV as they extol the educational value of television.

If story and satire were all that gamers were after, GTA V wouldn’t necessarily stand out from many other games. But the gameplay is fun, the horizons seems unlimited, and there is no end to the variety of things you can do in the game, like riding jet skis on the ocean or flying attack helicopters through skyscraper canyons. You can can even play a dog in the game.

As a shooter, it handles smoothly. You simple pull the left trigger to auto-target an enemy and squeeze the right trigger of the controller to shoot. Driving is harder. Drag racing through the city with jacked up cars or fleeing the cops in a stolen vehicle is a core part of the game. Players could easily burn a 100 hours without consuming all of the content, compared to 10 hours for many video games.

GTA V main characters

Above: GTA V’s main characters: Michael, the former gangster who gets pulled back into the criminal life; Franklin, a foot soldier who aspires to rise above life in the ghetto; and Trevor, a psychotic seasoned bank robber.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Popularity contest

It isn’t easy to predict just how big GTA V will be.

I do believe that many gamers will be disappointed with the game’s graphics and its similarity to the gameplay of Grand Theft Auto IV. The cinematics look fine, but the movement of the characters is sometimes wooden, not fluid, and many of the game’s best features were also present in the last version.

But the overall quality level — of the design, bug-free execution, and character development — is higher this time, and the breadth of the content is far more expansive than the prior version. GTA V has some very intelligent jabs at modern society, making fun of Facebook, which is thinly disguised as “Life Invader,” whose purpose is to invade privacy and allow spying on you from afar. A character who may be modeled after both former Apple legend Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg incurs the wrath of Rockstar’s writer, Dan Houser, in one of the game’s high-profile scenes that depicts a major product unveiling at a keynote speech.

It is the gameplay that keeps players engaged with the game and prompts them to defy parents and other concerned folks who would prefer that they do something more productive with their lives. Rockstar, ever aware of its own controversial stances, showed its own defiant attitude with the raised-middle-finger image above.

This defiance of polite society, born from Rockstar’s founders, the brothers Sam and Dan Houser, is why Rockstar stands alone as a company that defines pop culture and makes fun of it at the same time. If there were an intellectual reason for why the game sells so well, that would be it. But the main reason is that gamers probably just find it to be fun.

GTA V Trevor on ATV

Above: GTA V ‘s Trevor on ATV.

Image Credit: Rockstar

The larger impact of GTA V

To beat its own track record with GTA V, Rockstar may have to win over both the hardcore fans, mainstream critics, and even some casual gamers who are curious about the game. The company did that with its Red Dead Redemption title, an open world set in the Wild West, in 2010. But GTA V will clearly establish whether Rockstar’s style of blockbuster games are at a peak or are in decline. 

Console game sales have been in the doldrums for a couple of years. But this fall, they are seeing a sales revival, and no title promises to lift the industry as much as GTA V, which will run on more than 157 million PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 game consoles that have been sold in the last console generation. That is a huge base that GTA V can sell to.

“GTA V is selling into the largest accessible market yet,” said Billy Pidgeon, a longtime video game analyst. “First week sales, including pre-orders, should exceed 10 million units worldwide. I believe GTA V should be the best selling title in the franchise. GTA V sales could eventually reach 30 million, driving GTA total lifetime sales well past 150 million.”

The new GTA won’t be available on the outset on the Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 — a fact that could dampen initial demand for those machines this fall. But eventually, it seems likely that Rockstar will publish versions of GTA V on the new platforms once more people have those next-generation consoles.

Back in 2008, when GTA IV launched, the base on current generation platforms was much smaller. Yet that game still managed to sell 6 million copies, or $500 million worth, in its first week.

All of the signs are positive for a big blockbuster opening. GameStop, the world’s largest game retailer, said that its third quarter outlook is better than expected thanks to expected strong sales of GTA V and other titles. Thousands of GameStop stores are expected to open at midnight tomorrow for GTA V launch events.

Based on preorder estimates by Cowen & Co., demand for Grand Theft Auto V is off the charts, with preorders coming in at an index rating of 384.1, compared to the No. 2 most-anticipated title, Call of Duty: Ghosts, at 69.4. That is based on Cowen’s objective analysis, dubbed the Ordometer, of various leading game indicators, and it suggests that GTA V could outsell Call of Duty: Ghosts by 5-to-1. Call of Duty games are normally the biggest-selling titles of the year.

Other game publishers are clearly steering clear of the blast radius. No major games have been scheduled at the same time as GTA V, except for some significantly smaller titles that are in completely different categories. Many publishers chose instead to release their major titles in August. That lifted sales in the U.S. for video games on a year-over-year basis for the first time since October 2011.

Sebastian said that he believes that by targeting GTA V customers, other publishers of hardcore games — Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision — could see a strong lift in their sales.

Pidgeon said that both GTA V and Madden NFL 25 will likely push third quarter revenue numbers upward.

“GTA 5 may crowd out some weaker hardcore titles into Q4, but its continuing success should have positive effects on overall software sales to close out 2013, as AAA titles from popular franchises including Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed will sell tens of millions of units in addition,” Pidgeon said. “Software sales will also see big boosts from other hardcore titles such as Watch Dogs and Batman Arkham Asylum, numerous quality sports and racing titles and evergreen, family and youth titles including Zelda, Just Dance and Pokemon X & Y.”