Best of 2013 #2: Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto VGTA, how I’ve missed you. We’ve suffered numerous instalments of your pretenders since we last set foot in Liberty City, but they just weren’t the same.

I feel like I’m in a minority in standing by my high opinion of GTA IV, a game I felt certainly had flaws but did more than enough to justify the acclaim. Honestly, if they patched out the inane and annoying friendship system, I’d have no reservations about awarding that game a perfect score. Did it have as much to do as San Andreas? No, but it had different ambitions and fulfilled them admirably.

GTA V, meanwhile, strikes a balance that seems to have achieved the feat of pleasing everyone. It boasts the storytelling ambitions of IV – while arguably doing it better – and offers a ridiculous amount of content. It looks gorgeous, even on outdated hardware. Much credit, too, for the seamless character switching in an open-world game, which is an achievement both technically and narratively. I expect that to be much imitated in a genre that frequently follows the path forged by this series.

So how does Rockstar top this? Oh, I think you know.

Trevor Phillips

Ever since GTA protagonists became actual characters with motivations, it’s been walking a difficult narrative line. Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti, the first real attempt, was largely successful given that he was a willing criminal sociopath, even if it could be difficult to square his need to keep a low profile for his burgeoning criminal empire with his tendency to steal tanks, slaughter police and FBI, and brandish rocket launchers. Though less of a caricature than his inspiration, Tony Montana, Vercetti was less believable unless players chose to play it straight, taking on the role for themselves.

Trevor Phillips

This only got worse through San Andreas and the extended GTA IV saga, which presented reluctant protagonists. None wanted to be drawn into the criminal world, forced to kill and steal, yet all did and all could be made to commit slaughter on an industrial scale. GTA IV’s Niko Bellic was particularly guilty, both protesting his status as a killer without requiring much persuasion to go out and kill, and bemoaning his status as a poor immigrant while owning Algonquin penthouses and running around with $250,000 cash in his pocket. “Oscar-quality story” indeed.

I believe the somewhat poncey term these days is ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ – the incompatibility between a fixed narrative arc and player freedom. It’s not a problem unique to GTA, but as a series that champions freedom and has put gaming’s ambitions as a serious storytelling medium on its shoulders, the quandary is innate. We could see Rockstar experimenting with a way around it in Red Dead Redemption, which made violence and lawlessness inevitable in a violent, lawless world. John Marston could be played curiously bloodthirsty for a reluctant outlaw, but at least this was a world where running around with a gun didn’t seen incongruous, and a game where the inability to escape one’s past was a major theme. But how can it work in GTA’s modern USA?

Enter Trevor Phillips.

He’s a career criminal, so having a lot of cash stashed isn’t a stretch. He’s psychotic and so neither is a murderous rampage. He enjoys crime so getting pulled deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld is in keeping with the character. He’s Canadian, so… well, let’s not go there. He’s also responsible for – spoiler warning – one of the most disturbing scenes in the series. In a game that hit headlines for one scene in particular, I found the aforementioned one far more unsettling.

In other words, he’s the first GTA character who’s reflective of how people play GTA. Even, arguably, better at it than the silent ciphers like GTA III’s Claude, simply because he actually is a character.

GTA V is one of this generation’s great games, and Trevor is one of its great characters. What’s more, it’s the second generation in a row with a loveable psychopath from one of its top adventures at the top of the list. Clearly, it’s a pattern that works.

Best of 2010 #1: Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead RedemptionIf last generation’s defining games, the Grand Theft Auto series, feels like it’s past its best – a feeling that, I would suggest, is shared by Rockstar, given the reduced prominence of the franchise – what Red Dead Redemption did was prove that the formula itself is still full of life.

As much as I loved it, GTA IV was a very conservative entry, pulling back from the increasingly madcap antics that grew throughout the PS2 entries, and it received criticism for that. Red Dead, however, was a fresh start, and although it was similarly straight-faced, it had a maturity to its storytelling that I don’t think any game has matched. Here we had a fairly realistic period setting, largely populated by middle-aged characters, and all taking place under a solemn atmosphere as the pioneering Old West gave way to civilisation and the rule of law, leaving these characters robbed of their place in the world.

The game was full of moments showing this maturity, from the references not to modern pop culture but to things like Heart of Darkness; the clever, subtle use of music at key points in the story; the quite brilliant I Know You quest line; tough historical themes like the treatment of native Americans; and, of course, that ending. It’s supported by one of the most beautiful game engines I’ve ever seen, capable of staggeringly picturesque and surprisingly varied backdrops that were a pleasure to spend time in. I don’t find enough games nowadays that I’m tempted to jump right back into after finishing them, but that’s exactly what I did after spending 50 hours in this game world.

The fact that of all the games on this list, going back and watching some of my favourite moments on YouTube from Red Dead is genuinely eliciting an emotional reaction, feeling for John Marston and pining to go back into that beautiful world, is why it has to be my number one. It’s one of the handful of games that brings a smile to my face just thinking about existing in it, and I sincerely hope that its success will mean that it continues as Rockstar’s number one open-world adventure series.

Rockstar Redeemed

I finished Red Dead Redemption yesterday, and wow, Rockstar’s outdone itself on that one. I loved GTA IV and its expansions, but Red Dead was more mature, more beautiful, more poignant, and something that I want to see more of. Free-roaming games of this type are wasted on yet another modern crime spree, and I hope that this is enough of a success to see more interesting historical periods mined for their gaming goodness.

It’s stunningly beautiful at times, as striking as any of the great vistas thrown up in the open-world games this generation. Towards the end I saw a sunrise over the water at the town of Blackwater and had to stop and admire the view, and there are countless little places to sit on your horse and do so – the hints of the landmarks of Mexico that are visible from Rio Bravo, the view across all of Cholla Springs from the cliffs of Hennigan’s Stead, taking in the entirety of the plains from the summit of Nekoti Rock. I’ve loved the imagery of the Old West since the days when I’d visit Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom and Blackgang Chine right up until I discovered Sergio Leone, and Red Dead evokes it all as knowingly as GTA does the same with modern pop culture.

Up until the end – there won’t be any overt plot spoilers here, but I may allude to certain things – I’d been enjoying the story, but as it reached its finale it really turned into something special. The end of a certain stranger’s quest that runs through the game was the point where Rockstar upped its game, in my opinion, and from then on it turned from what was essentially a GTA story into the tale of redemption that the name was hinting at, while touching on themes of destiny and civilisation. Marston was a brilliant protagonist who you grow to care about, and the change of pace for the final act, although I’m sure some will dislike it, formed an important bookend and provided an emotional anchor for the finale proper.

And when I say ‘mature’, I don’t just mean blood, sex and bad language. The lawless Old West arguably fits the GTA template better than the heavily policed modern day; there’s none of Niko complaining about his inescapable life of crime and poverty as he sits there with $1 million in his pocket because, unless you go out of your way, you’re probably not ending the game with more than a couple grand in cash. Similarly, there’s less dissonance between Marston’s character and his actions when you decide to ‘play’ the character because he’s a former gang member being forced to do these things in a lawless world rather than someone who claims to want out but has an unfortunate habit of accepting hits from mob leaders for money anyway.

In short, Red Dead is a magnificent game. I think it’s a better game than GTA in every respect, raising the bar on the game that owns this sub-genre and plucking a game series from obscurity – really, does this have any relation to the distinctly average Red Dead Revolver at all? – and deserving praise just as much. I just hope it’s successful enough to spawn some follow-ups because I’m excited to see what’s next.

My Game of the 2000s: Grand Theft Auto III

As tempting as it is for me to put Shenmue, with its tenuous claim to not be a game of the 90s, on the pedestal again, when I think about it, the game of the decade just gone has to be Rockstar’s generation-defining crime epic. Above Metroid Prime, Resident Evil 4, BioShock, Halo, Half-Life 2… Only World of Warcraft comes close to such influence and commercial success, but I’ve never been able to get into that, so I’ll leave the celebrating of that game’s achievements to more interested parties.

Grand Theft Auto III

Like it or not, GTA III defined gaming in the 2000s, setting the PS2 on the path to a generation of complete dominance in much the same way as one of the 90s’ iconic games, Tomb Raider, had done for its predecessor. It was a revolution, essentially launching its own genre – we still don’t seem to have a universally accepted term for the open-world crime shooting/driving genre – and becoming the talk of workplaces and classrooms all around the world. It also brought terms like ‘emergent gameplay’ out of Edge columns and into a form where anyone could see what it was about. I remember chatting to people about what insanity they’d caused the night before for weeks afterwards, and in my circle a person’s achievements in GTA III almost became small talk, such was its universal popularity.

I still have so many memories about this game. San Andreas is largely lost to my memory in all but the vaguest of terms and I probably wouldn’t pass the Knowledge in Vice City, but I can remember this incarnation of Liberty City like the back of my hand. The sequels have it beaten in every respect on paper, but this one is still my favourite. This is when GTA had that sense of fun that made it famous but before it lost focus in pursuit of scope and bullet points on the box; before it started down that slippery slope of being a bit too focused on its storytelling – this essentially pointed your pleasantly silent protagonist in the right direction and let you go; before it got completely bogged down in imitating Rockstar North’s favourite films.

Grand Theft Auto III

Were the later games better, though? Maybe you’ve got a shout with Vice City and possibly GTA IV, but this was first, and for the above reasons, it’s my favourite, and it’s undeniably the most influential – the one that started it all. Vice City was like it was made for me as a child of the 80s – well… I was born in the 80s but know that it is the greatest of all decades – and I’m a staunch defender of GTA IV against the baffling backlash that it seems to have had, and yet none of them have captured lightning in a bottle as well as this did. Even though both its PS2 sequels sold more, GTA III is the defining one. When this game came out was the moment that the PS2 generation really started, and as that has to be the console of the 2000s, surely this is that decade’s game?

I’d be interested in anyone else’s opinions and personal picks. Just for God’s sake don’t make me read another top ten of the decade.

2009′s Honourable Mentions

For every one that made it, many more didn’t, but some came closer than others…

  • F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin – I deliberated whether this or Killzone was more deserving of the final spot for a while, but it was Killzone’s technical advances as well as its fantastic multiplayer that swayed it. Even so, F.E.A.R. 2 impressed me back at the beginning of the year with its intense action and clever storytelling – not so much on the story itself, mind – and it actually had a less intrusive version of that game’s weighty-feeling gameplay, so it deserves at least a little recognition.
  • Grand Theft Auto: Episodes From Liberty City – This was in there right until the end, and it was only the facts that (a) I don’t actually own a copy of this exact game – I downloaded both individual episodes – and (b) I decided that a full game was more worthy than a glorified expansion pack that swayed it. Nonetheless, this is as good as GTA IV – maybe better in the case of the phenomenal Lost and Damned – and gives us more of an adventure in Rockstar’s still-stunning Liberty City. It’s still unparalleled as a gaming environment and it’s going to take something special to top it for me.
  • Left 4 Dead 2 – I have no doubt that L4D2 justifies its status as a sequel rather than DLC; I just didn’t get enough chance to play it. Its proximity to Modern Warfare 2 and the perception that a worthy sequel couldn’t be produced in such a short period of time meant that very few of my usual gaming crowd bought it, and Left 4 Dead is something that you can’t completely enjoy with random people on Live. I think that Valve has the game where it wants it, though, and should it follow the game’s release with a steady stream of good content in 2010, I’ll be sure to give it the credit it deserves.
  • inFamous – This game suffered by not being Crackdown, which remains one of my favourites of this generation so far. Although it was technically far more impressive, this didn’t have the same sense of fun and took itself far too seriously for the ultimately silly subject matter. I enjoyed it – don’t get me wrong – but bolting more stuff onto an existing simple and perfectly good framework isn’t always a recipe for success. inFamous is still great, though, and I hope that Sucker Punch can build on this foundation, whether it’s in inFamous 2 or a returning Sly Racoon.
  • Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story – Believe it or not, this was actually the first Mario & Luigi game that I’ve been there at the beginning for, which is strange considering how much I’ve loved the previous ones. It kept me going for a good ten hours solid when I was in transit from the States and it’s everything you can expect from the series: the brilliant, self-aware humour and writing; some of the best animation around; and a way of gently ribbing those well-loved characters without taking away from them. It’s still very much new Nintendo, from the same box of games that would have never happened in the NES and SNES era as Smash Bros, and it’s even more insane than its precursors. Imagine all the gags that can come from being inside Bowser – the title is only the beginning, believe me – and they’ll pretty much all be there. Except that, you dirty bugger.
  • Trials HD – I deliberated for a long time whether this or Shadow Complex deserved a spot more, and the fact that Trials HD was left out shouldn’t take away from it. I knew it was going to be good when I first stumbled across it on PartnerNet and found that anyone who saw it was instantly enthralled, and so it proved because I still see people playing it today and the developer seems blown away by the reception and the boost in profile that its once-niche PC title has received. Proof that retro gameplay – and the insane difficulty that goes with it – isn’t dead. It just got pretty.

As happens every year, there were plenty of big hitters that I just didn’t get to play – Assassin’s Creed II and Dragon Age: Origins to name two – and that’s unfortunate, because I think that at least some of them would have had a good chance. Maybe if some of them had been delayed until early 2010… Oh…