U.S. gives game Adults Only rating

“Grand Theft Auto” publisher Rockstar Games is delaying its latest controversial game, “Manhunt 2,” after it was banned by three European countries and slapped with an “AO” — adults only — rating in the U.S. that would essentially prevent it from being released.

Italy on Thursday became the latest European government to ban the title, in which players control an inmate escaping a mental asylum who gruesomely murders guards and other prisoners along the way.

It has already been red-lighted by censors in the U.K. and Ireland.

Meanwhile, game has gotten the industry equivalent of a ban in the U.S., as it received an AO rating, the equivalent of NC-17, from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. Most major retailers won’t carry AO games and Nintendo and Sony don’t license AO games to play on their platforms. Game had been skedded to come out in July for Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s Wii.

As a result, Rockstar parent company Take 2 said it has temporarily suspended release plans for “Manhunt 2″ as it “reviews (our) options with regard to the recent decisions made by the British Board of Film Classification and ESRB.”

Though it didn’t provide further details, Take 2 and Rockstar most likely will try to edit the game in order to garner an M rating (the vidgame equivalent of an R), and to pass the muster of foreign governments.

As it currently stands, “Manhunt 2″ could be barred across all of Europe. Italo Communications Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday that he has filed a complaint with the Interactive Software Federation of Europe, which will address a potential Europe-wide ban. Gentiloni’s office said in a statement that the Brussels-based org has agreed to address whether “Manhunt 2″ should be allowed on the European market at a meeting on Tuesday to be attended by Vivianne Reding, the EU commissioner for information, society and media.

Critics have taken particular exception to “Manhunt 2’s controls on the Wii, arguing that the console’s motion-sensing “Wii-mote” allows players to act out grisly murders even more directly than on a standard videogame controller.

However, Take 2 on Thursday continued to support the game’s content on artistic grounds.

“We firmly believe that parents and consumers, once informed as to the nature of any entertainment product, should be able to make their own choices,” chairman Strauss Zelnick said in a statement. “I have reviewed ‘Manhunt 2′ myself.  It fits squarely within the horror genre and was intended to do so.  It brings a unique, formerly unheard-of cinematic quality to interactive entertainment … I stand behind it fully.”

Last major videogame controversy, which led to denouncements from politicians and critics, also involved a Rockstar game: “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

In 2005, players found a hidden modification in that game, called “hot coffee,” which let them see an explicit oral sex scene if they downloaded a patch. Revelation led the ESRB to re-rate the game AO. Rockstar then removed the “hot coffee” mod and re-released “San Andreas” with an M rating.

Take 2, which owns Rockstar, is surely hoping to minimize the growing controversy, especially since a new board of directors and management team recently took over following an accounting scandal.

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