I’ve been bored to death of video games for the past five years. It’s not because of the industry’s lack of innovation or inability to create new, intriguing concepts to pique the interests of yours truly, but maybe it’s because I grew out of playing them.
This is the usual sequence when it comes to Troy Sparks and a video game: hear about game, read about it, become compelled, buy game, play it one day, think it’s awesome, play it for about a week or two straight… and then never play it again.
Over the last 5+ years, a few games have done that to me. Now, every year I’m a sucker for sports games. I love tweaking the in-game sliders to (attempt to) create a realistic simulation of the sport as it is in real life. The best sports gaming franchise out there is the NBA 2K series, bar none. But again, every year, the sequence that I mentioned above happens, and I lose complete interest. I’ll build an Association with the Boston Celtics, play one season, and be finished with it. Now, I used to love playing sports games online, but now, not only on NBA 2K but on Madden, everybody gravitates to the best teams on the game rather than playing with any young and/or lower tier teams. On NBA, everybody only seems to roll with the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder (when the Celtics had Ray Allen, they were always a top pick and I avoided playing as them despite the Celtics being my team since they were considered ‘cheese’). On Madden, the teams of choice? Always the San Francisco 49ers or Green Bay Packers.
I remember the good old days from 2005 on the original Xbox console — sports games back then… everyone used to pick different teams. Either that or, uh, I used to be really, really good and didn’t complain about this kind of shit.
But speaking of 2005, that’s the last year the sports gaming world had any competition. NFL 2K5 had just released in July 2004, and to me it’s the greatest football video game of all-time (it had everything that the Madden series, even today, lacks in every facet), and it was beating Madden ’05 out before EA Sports decided to buy the exclusive NFL license. In the basketball realm, there was ESPN NBA Basketball 2K5, NBA Live ’05, NBA Shootout, and in baseball there was ESPN MLB 2K5 and MVP Baseball 2005. 2K combated EA’s move and bought the MLB license.
Competition is a damn good thing, especially in gaming, but there’s hardly been any in the sports world. There’s no choices now. You have one of each in most sports games, and that’s that (although EA Sports is returning with NBA Live for the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 after not being in the basketball video game land since 2009).
As for contemporary first person shooters, Call of Duty was fresh in 2007 and 2008. No, really, in January 2008, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was a fresh game, but ever since, it’s been the same, recycled garbage with no improvement in gameplay. I’m still raising an eyebrow over how in the hell that franchise became so popular. I’ve always been a Halo fan. Halo 2 (2004) and Halo 3 (2007) are two of the best games ever (backing this statement up with the multiplayer). But again, I wouldn’t be able to sit down and play a game from the series nowadays, at least online. Too many ignorant kids and basement dwelling ‘adults’ to contend with. I can’t do it, folks.
I also, once upon a time, used to give a solid damn about RPGs. Oblivion and Mass Effect, to name two… now? I just don’t have the motivation, will or time to want to sit down and put any effort into one of them. Sounds like a chore to me, at this time. I can imagine, after 45 minutes of playing an RPG nowadays, I’d want to dive through the closest window.
But there’s one goddamn gaming series that hooks me back in each and every single time, and it doesn’t matter what year or when. I’ve been playing the series since I was a kid, when the games were merely played with an annoying overhead camera angle. The newest one just released on Tuesday. Yes, Grand Theft Auto V. To anyone that doesn’t like the series, I don’t trust you as a human being. It’s a complete and total satire/parody of modern America as well as a humorous take on violence. A lot of dark/black comedy involved. Radio stations (one of the best parts of the GTA series that always makes for good listens among the music and ‘commercials’) parodize the shit out of everything, making fun of everything from pop culture to politics. I personally love how the “far right” and “far left” is made of. “Idiotic Liberal News” and “Weasel News: Confirming Your Prejudices!”
But I wasn’t ready to call Grand Theft Auto V a ‘great game’ until I heard this song in it:
Come on. Who in the hell doesn’t enjoy themselves some Rick goddamn James?
But again, GTA V is also an intelligent, wickedly comic, and bitingly relevant commentary on contemporary, post-economic crisis America rather than just a simple parody. Everything about it drips satire: it rips into the Millennial generation, celebrities, the far right, the far left, the middle class, the media… Nothing is safe from Rockstar’s sharp tongue, including modern video games. One prominent supporting character spends most of his time in his room shouting sexual threats at people on a headset whilst playing a first-person shooter called Righteous Slaughter (“Rated PG – pretty much the same as the last game.” Obviously a Call of Duty parody) It’s not exactly subtle – he literally has the word “Entitled” tattooed on his neck, and the in-game radio and TV’s outright piss-takes don’t leave much to the imagination – but it is often extremely funny, and sometimes provocative with it.
GTA’s San Andreas is a fantasy, but the things it satirises – greed, corruption, hypocrisy, the abuse of power – are all very real. If GTA IV (2008) was a targeted assassination of the American dream, GTA V takes aim at the modern American reality. The attention to detail that goes into making its world feel alive and believable is also what makes its satire so biting. I love it.
GTA V’s plot happily operates at the boundaries of plausibility, sending you out to ride dirt bikes along the top of trains, hijack military aircraft, and engage in absurd shootouts with scores of policemen, but its three main characters are what keep it relatable even at its most extreme. The well-written and acted interplay between them provides the biggest laughs and most affecting moments, and the way that their relationships with one another developed and my opinion of them changed throughout the story gave the narrative its power. They feel like people – albeit extraordinarily fucked up people.
Michael is a retired con man in his 40s, filling out around the middle as he drinks beside the pool in his Vinewood mansion with a layabout son, airheaded daughter, serially unfaithful slut of a wife, and very expensive therapist — all of whom hate him. Franklin is a young man from downtown Los Santos who laments the gang-banger stereotype even as he’s reluctantly seduced by the prospect of a bigger score. And then there’s Trevor, a volatile career criminal who lives in the desert selling drugs and murdering rednecks; a psychopath whose bloodthirsty lunacy is fuelled by a combination of methamphetamine and a seriously messed-up childhood.
Speaking of Trevor, I happened to be in control of the character in a shooting rampage against the cops in his residential hometown near his trailer park in the area of “Sandy Shores” and he yelled, “You spit on me and my homeland?!” For those of you that don’t know or are unfamiliar, that’s a direct reference (lyric) to the Alice in Chains’ song “Rooster”.
The actual act of switching between the characters also provides a window into their individual lives and habits, fleshing out their personalities in a way that feels natural and novel. Pick a character and the camera zooms out over the San Andreas map, closing back in on wherever they happen to be. Michael might be at home watching TV when you drop in on him, or speeding along the motorway blasting ‘80s hits, or having a cigarette at the golf club; Franklin might be walking out of a strip club, munching a bag of snacks at home, or arguing with his ex-girlfriend; there’s a good chance that Trevor could be passed out half naked on a beach surrounded by dead bodies or, on one memorable occasion, drunk in a stolen police helicopter.
It could be nearly anything, because there is a bewildering multiplicity of things to do in the new San Andreas – tennis, yoga, hiking, racing on sea and on land, flying planes, golfing, cycling, diving, hunting, and more. The missions are an able guide to both San Andreas’ locations and its activities, touring you around the map and whetting your appetite for independent exploration of it all. The way that we’re introduced to San Andreas never feels artificial – the map is completely open from the start, for example – which contributes to the impression that it’s a real place, somewhere you can get to know. If GTA IV’s Liberty City feels like a living city, San Andreas feels like a living world. I saw people walking their dogs along the beach in the country as I jet-skied past, arguing on the street outside a cinema in Los Santos, and camped – with tents and everything – overnight on Mount Chiliad, before packing up and continuing a hike in the morning. It’s astounding.
No other world in video games comes close to this in size or scope, people. And there is sharp intelligence behind its sense of humor and gift for mayhem. It tells a compelling, unpredictable and provocative story without ever letting it get in the way of your own self-directed adventures through San Andreas.
It is one of the very best video games ever made. Even though I’ve barely scratched the surface with this game, it’s easy to say that. And again, this is all coming from a guy that’s been bored with video games for half a decade.