Grand Theft Auto V is a shining example of those kinds of games that are destined to raise their heads at the end of a console generation, being the ultimate culmination of the developer’s work over the past half-decade or more. It is a game with its base in 2008, and Niko Bellic’s arrival and consequent disillusionment, in Liberty City, but the five years since then have seen the core mechanics honed through a series of largely unrelated games. It isn’t just the latest iteration of Rockstar’s opus; it is a reboot to the publisher’s systems development, with the same process bound to occur again in the next generation.
What process, exactly? The accumulation of a set of polished mechanics, borrowed from other games in Rockstar’s catalogue. To discover the evolution of GTA V, one needs only look at the rest of the publisher’s seventh-gen titles. Six months on from the release of GTA IV, Midnight Club: Los Angeles hit store shelves, being home to a fairly faithful recreation of the City of Angels as well as tuning RAGE’s driving physics to a more satisfying note and offering a robust vehicle customisation system. The Episodes From Liberty City dabbled in the use of multiple characters to flesh out the core story further while also increasing the number of extraneous activities to be found in the cityscape. Red Dead Redemption took this a step further by offering a sense of dynamism in its take on the Old West that had never been seen before in Rockstar’s sandboxes, introducing a world economy, hunting and some refinements to the law enforcement system. Arguably the biggest surprise came in 2012 when Max Payne 3 released, bringing the shooting mechanics up to a current-gen standard while refining the Bullet Time system introduced in Red Dead. It also saw the Euphoria animation system pushed, making enemy reaction to your gunshots seem much more realistic.
The trip from Liberty City to Los Santos has taken five long years, but they have not been wasted. Instead, they have been spent building what promises to be one of the most extensively beta-tested experiences of the generation, solely because its composite elements have been polished in four separate, well-regarded titles. It makes all the difference that all of them are now seamlessly intertwined within the uniquely satirical atmosphere that only Grand Theft Auto can create. The ambition of such an undertaking deserves to be applauded, and several developers in the twilight years of the seventh console generation have done just that. This is an ode to those who use the end of a generation to push their creativity.
Apart from Rockstar, the first developer that would spring to mind is probably Naughty Dog. Across three iterations of the acclaimed Uncharted series, they created and refined a set of gunplay, melee and stealth mechanics that aided in making each entry a Game of the Year contender. With The Last of Us, all of the adventures of Drake and Company were made to seem as though it as just practise for those of Joel and Ellie. That brilliant mechanics were tailored to a heavier and tenser experience, and bolstered by the inclusion of survival horror stalwarts such as crafting, weapon degradation and scavenging. I could continue but I intend to offer a post-mortem on The Last of Us in the near future, so I’ll leave off there.
Sometimes, a developer elects to move on from an established franchise before the publisher is ready to let it go. This is more often the case at the end of a generation, when the so-called ‘A-Team’ wants to leap feet-first into the next one and it presents an interesting opportunity. Undoubtedly, this was the case with Gears of War: Judgment. With Epic Games already working on the secretive Fortnite, development duties for the prequel were offloaded to satellite studio People Can Fly (Bulletstorm) and their influence was keenly felt. Judgment had a much more playful nature that the comparatively po-faced source trilogy, largely imposed by its faster pace and approximation of the “skillshot” system found in Bulletstorm. Beyond this, it offered a fundamental rethink of several established franchise elements that was enough to make the game feel fresh and new; a stark contrast to the criticism of the similarly concepted God of War: Ascension, which revolved around the idea that it felt tired and overly formulaic.
Incredible ideas can be born from this approach. DmC: Devil may Cry offered a good simulucrum of the original continuity’s combat, but it felt subtly different because of the Angel/Demon dichotomy, which was lifted from a very similar system found in Ninja Theory’s current-gen debut effort, Heavenly Sword. The real point of difference was the storytelling, which was far more nuanced and compelling that Capcom’s efforts. Injustice: Gods Among Us, the DC fighting game, was clearly built around the fundamentals of the Mortal Kombat reboot. Doing away with the gore and altering the over-the-top violence from semi-realistic to overtly cartoonish changed the entire feeling of the game and made it fit in wonderfully with the superhero setting. TellTale Games have worked primarily on IPs sourced from television and comics, but last year’s Game of the Year winning The Walking Dead would not have been possible had their unique concepts of narrative gameplay not been sharpened the likes of Monkey Island, Sam and Max and Back to the Future, with The Wolf Among Us promising to offer another subtle alteration in the formula.
These are the kinds of games that only emerge in the halcyon days of a generation’s end, as developers have been pushed to their technological limits and must instead explore their creative ones. For all the benefits that new hardware offers – the ability to push more pixels, improve physics and AI, among other things – it acts as a “get out of jail free” card for the more uninspired teams. They can gussy up their tired formulae with a shiny new lick of paint and pass it off as something different, and fool a great many in the process.
I don’t mean to be cynical, as there is evidence that several studios aren’t just relying on the new consoles to revitalise their sales, and are informing their latest projects with the work of their previous ones. For example, it isn’t difficult to spot Assassin’s Creed in Watch_Dogs, or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in Titanfall, or Deus Ex: Human Revolution in Thief, but these aren’t doing it with quite the same level of conviction as GTA V and The Last of Us. They seem to be more about adding new ideas than fundamentally reshaping those that their predecessors had, as is the case in Destiny, The Crew and Godus.
Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the introduction of a new consoles. Perhaps developers are destined to try to get a proper handle on the hardware before they can begin to really think about evolving their gameplay mechanics. Perhaps it is simply that their apparent technological limits have been shunted off into some undetermined point in the future and they must get back there before they are comfortable to tackle a project that will challenge them creatively. It is best for any creative entity to be at their limit as it forces them to explore, rather than steadfastly remaining on the same straightforward path.