The highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV video game, an action-packed shoot-'em-up thriller, hit store shelves this morning, prompting a storm of blog chatter and a lots of finger-pointing from critics who call the game violent and crass.

The game's release for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 is expected to be one of the biggest sellers in gaming industry history, topping Halo 3's fall record of $300 million in sales its first week.

By Monday evening, hours before the game was to go on sale, dedicated gamers straggled into GameStop in Roseville to pay the remaining balance on the $59.99 Grand Theft Auto IV they had reserved months prior. A number of Best Buy locations also held midnight sales.

"I can't wait," said Stoney Hinson, 30, of Minneapolis, as he milled about GameStop. "I took a vacation day off just for this."

But not everyone is swooning over the game and its franchise, which includes a series of Grand Theft Auto games all chockablock with guns and illicit sex.

The Parents Television Council issued a statement last week blasting the game for its violence and sexual content.

"It's just a crude, crass, disgusting, violent game," said Melissa Henson.

Henson, the council's director of public education, added: "I think that as these games become increasingly more and more realistic, we have more and more cause for concern."

The group sent letters to major retailers asking them not to sell the game -- which is rated M for mature -- or at least to display it away from minors and card anyone who buys it.

An earlier release, Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas, was rated AO for Adults Only in 2005 after a secret sex scene was discovered, prompting some major retailers to pull it from their shelves.

The council cited the perennial concern voiced about violence in games, TV shows and movies: That watching and acting out violence onscreen might encourage violent behavior in children.

Grand Theft Auto IV allows gamers to do everything from shoot innocent people going about their daily business to driving drunk to approaching prostitutes and drug dealers.

"What a wonderful message to be sending out to kids," Henson said.

The game's controversy apparently led the Chicago Transit Authority to pull ads for it earlier this month.

Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, a nonprofit serving the needs of gamers, thinks critics are misguided.

"These are leaps of faith that the activists are taking," he said, noting that the average gamer is 32 years old. "It's not a game meant for kids."

Both critics and fans agree that parents are the ultimate gatekeepers and need to educate themselves on the content of their children's video games.

Hinson's 7-year-old daughter, Nadine, wondered the aisles at GameStop Monday night eyeing games for herself.

"I don't dispute that it's violent," Hinson said. "My daughter, she's not going to watch it."

The latest Grand Theft Auto, developed by Rockstar Games of New York City and published by Take-Two Interactive, follows the story of Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who lands in fictional Liberty City, U.S.A. Bellic and his cousin, Roman, slip into debt and are "dragged into a criminal underworld by a series of shysters, thieves and sociopaths," according to the game's website.

A key difference between this installment and its predecessors is the freedom gamers have to make their own decisions that can set off a series of devastating consequences, said Andrew Reiner, executive editor of Twin Cities-based Game Informer magazine, the world's largest video game magazine.

Characters interact with each other more than in previous versions, the graphics and setting are more realistic and enemy combatants are far more intelligent, said Reiner, who played the game earlier this month as part of a review.

Gamers in the Grand Theft Auto world can listen to talk radio that lambasts liberals and conservatives, watch fictional TV shows, browse a fictional Internet and even visit the online store for Krapea, a satirical take on the furniture behemoth, Ikea.

"You're not going to look at games the same way again once you play it," Reiner said. "I can't stop thinking about it. Even now."

Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391