Don’t forget to come back for next week’s game in our list—one that is also known for its controversial content. In the meantime, why not join in the conversation either here or on our Community Discord? Do you want to see a new Grand Theft Auto game? Would you like to see a return to Vice City? As always, you can also follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s games are well known for several reasons—breaking sales records, popularising the open world genre, and offending a hell of a lot of people. But what would Rockstar Games be without a little controversy?
#44. Grand Theft Auto (series), by Rhain Radford-Burns
Grand Theft Auto began in 1997 on PC and PlayStation, developed by DMA Design (best known for Lemmings). With eight playable characters, six levels, and three cities, the titles were ambitious from the beginning. All three cities—Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas—suffer from crime and corruption, with local street gangs, crime syndicates, and corrupt officials for the player to deal with—themes that the series would later become known for. A bestseller in the UK, the game prompted two expansion packs—London 1969 and London 1961—and a full sequel in 1999.
Set in Anywhere, USA, Grand Theft Auto 2 saw some gameplay additions over its predecessor, though many felt that the graphics had seen little improvement. Players control Claude Speed as he completes missions for—and against—the city’s seven criminal gangs, including the Russian Mafia and the Hare Krishna. Despite high sales, the game received average reviews, and DMA Design went back to the drawing board for its next entry in the series.
Gaming in the Third Dimension
Less than a month before Grand Theft Auto III was planned to hit shelves, two passenger airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan in the single deadliest terrorist attack in human history, less than two miles from Rockstar Games’s New York offices. Grand Theft Auto—a series that allows people to attack police officers and terrorise random pedestrians—suddenly felt far less appropriate.
But too much work had been put into the title to quit now. Rockstar Games delayed the game by three weeks, some minor modifications were made, and the game hit stores on October 22, 2001. Tensions were high, and morale low—but that did not matter. Grand Theft Auto III became the best-selling game of 2001 (and the second-best of 2002) and one of the highest-rated games of all time.
In the game, players control an unnamed man (later revealed to be named Claude) as he becomes entangled in a world of crime after being left for dead. Several familiar features make a return—a large arsenal of weapons, the ability to hijack cars, and working for several local gangs—but for the first time, the player could explore a fully-3D open world.
The game looked great, and other developers took notice. Grand Theft Auto III is considered a leading role in the popularisation of sandbox game, including Saints Row and Crackdown, and sparked the term ‘Grand Theft Auto clone’, used to describe games with similar open-ended gameplay.
Following the success of Grand Theft Auto III, DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North) considered creating a mission pack for the game to add missions, vehicles, and weapons—but that was not enough, and the developer soon began work on the next standalone entry in the series. Nine months later, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was complete.
1980s Miami—“all sun and sea and sex,” as producer Leslie Benzies described—was the inspiration behind the fictional Vice City. Players control Tommy Vercetti, a loyal member of the Forelli Family, as he builds a criminal empire while destroying his criminal competition in the process. Such a great task required great talent: Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Something Wild) was brought on board to voice Tommy, alongside several other legendary actors including Danny Dyer, Luis Guzmán, and Danny Trejo.
Vice City was an instant success, receiving praise for its music and open world. However, like its predecessors, Vice City garnered some controversy. Some of the missions invited the player to harm Haitian and Cuban immigrants, prompting the mayor of New York to threaten Rockstar’s parent company Take-Two Interactive with legal action. As a result, all offensive statements were removed from future copies of the game. But that would not be the final time the series would attract controversy.
Want Some Coffee?
Two of the three cities from the original game—Liberty City and Vice City—had been re-explored. San Andreas was next.
After almost two years of development, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released in October 2004. Now a state, San Andreas consists of three cities: Los Santos (based on Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Francisco), and Las Ventures (Las Vegas), with several rural counties in between. The entire open world, which is almost four times as large as its predecessor, is explorable and full of activities to complete, including parachuting and flying.
Players control Carl “CJ” Johnson (portrayed by Young Maylay), a gang member who returns to Los Santos after his mother’s murder and finds his old gang in disarray. Set in 1992, the game takes inspiration from several real-life events in Los Angeles at the time, including the Blood and Crip rivalry, the Los Angeles riots, and the LAPD Rampart scandal. San Andreas continued the trend of its predecessors and utilised several notable celebrities in its roles, including Samuel L. Jackson, James Woods, Peter Fonda, and Ice-T.
San Andreas has gone down as one of the greatest games ever made and the best-selling game to be released on the PlayStation 2—but it was still not without its controversies. When the game released on PC in 2005, modders discovered a minigame hidden in the game files which allows the player to control sexual intercourse with their in-game girlfriend.
Dubbed “Hot Coffee,” the minigame was later discovered in the console versions of the game, prompting several international ratings boards to reassess or refuse classification and essentially removing it from sale. Within a few months, all assets had been removed from the game and it was allowed back on shelves—but the damage was done, and Rockstar never seemed to embroil itself in such a heavy controversy again.
Three smaller games would release in the years to come. Grand Theft Auto for the Game Boy Advance in 2004, followed small-time criminal Mike as he considers leaving Liberty City. Liberty City Stories, for the PlayStation Portable and PlayStation 2 in 2005, was a prequel to Grand Theft Auto III set in the same open world and following the story of Toni Cipriani.
Finally, Vice City Stories came along in 2006, also for the PSP and PS2, a prequel to Vice City that followed the criminal life of Victor Vance, brother of Vice City’s Lance Vance. However, fans would have to wait until the next console generation before getting their hands on the next big entry in the series.
Making the Leap to High Definition
Grand Theft Auto IV released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in April 2008. Following war veteran Niko Bellic as he attempts to escape his past in Liberty City, the game was a significant leap for the franchise, featuring a more living open world, significantly improved graphics, and a much deeper narrative. Michael Hollick gives an outstanding performance as Niko, and the character is one of the greatest to ever grace the medium.
The game hit some new highs for the series—including its review scores, leading to its ranking as the second-highest rated game on Metacritic to date—and broke sales records that would only be beaten by its successor several years later. As the series was known for, Grand Theft Auto IV drew some controversy, specifically due to the depiction of violence and ability to drive under the influence of alcohol, but that did not stop the game’s momentum to sell.
The following year would see two expansion packs released for the game, known as Episodes from Liberty City: The Lost and Damned, featuring Johnny Klebitz and his motorcycle club; and The Ballad of Gay Tony, which focuses on Luis Fernando Lopez and his efforts to help and protect nightclub owner Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. All three narratives tie into each other in a seamless and impressive manner, inspiring Rockstar to revisit the idea for the next main entry.
2009 also saw the release of the handheld title Chinatown Wars, following Huang Lee who arrives in Liberty City after the death of his father. Though the title is not remembered as well as the series’s main games, it is still highly regarded, sitting atop Metacritic as the best Nintendo DS game and second-best PSP game.
San Andreas made yet another return in the next main title for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar revisited the idea of three interconnected stories from Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansion packs—this time, however, players controlled all three characters in the same game: Michael De Santa (Ned Luke), a retired bank robber living with his dysfunctional family; Franklin Clinton (Shawn “Solo” Fonteno), a gang member trying to make a living; and Trevor Philips (Steven Ogg), Michael’s psychotic former partner who lives alone in his trailer in the desert.
The addition of three playable characters was not the only significant change to the series: the fictional state of San Andreas had grown even larger in scale, estimated to exceed the game worlds of San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Red Dead Redemption combined. The activities available to players had also expanded, with the addition of scuba diving, BASE jumping, golfing, and a stock market, among many others.
Grand Theft Auto V blew all previous sales records out of the water, earning over US$800 million within 24 hours and $1 billion within three days, making it the fastest selling entertainment product in history (beating any games, movies, books, and music). To date, the game has generated around $6 billion, earning its place as one of the most profitable entertainment products of all time, and is the among the best-selling video games ever. With fantastic graphics, fun controls, great music, and a compelling narrative, Grand Theft Auto V is an easy game to revisit—in part due to its re-release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in the years following its original release.
Despite promises of new single-player DLC for Grand Theft Auto V, none ever came. In the years since, Rockstar has focused on the game’s multiplayer mode, Grand Theft Auto Online, and the single-player mode has since been abandoned. The world has yet to see another Grand Theft Auto title in five years, and Rockstar has only released one title in the meantime—last year’s Red Dead Redemption 2. Some time may pass before the next entry in the series comes, but with the reputation that the series has rightly earned over the last 21 years, one would be foolish to assume that the time does not come eventually.
OnlySP’s Favorite Games #15—Half-Life
Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s entry covers a series so titanically towering over storytelling in games that it might almost be a joke to invoke its name…
#15. HALF-LIFE (series)
HALF-LIFE, by Mitchell Akhurst
If I like one thing more than science fiction, it is 1990s science fiction. Pick a medium and the 90s was overflowing with the genre: Babylon 5, Battle Angel Alita, Cowboy Bebop, Dark City, Deep Space Nine, Doom, Fallout, The Fifth Element, Ghost in the Shell, the Mars trilogy, The Matrix, Resident Evil, Sid Meyer’s Civilization (and Alpha Centauri), Snow Crash, Starcraft, System Shock, Terminator 2, 12 Monkeys, Wing Commander (not the movie), X-Com, The X-Files… and those are not even the top 10%.
With so much canonical sci-fi goodness, suggesting that Valve’s 1998 masterpiece Half-Life easily sits within that canon might come off as madness. A shooting game of all things (a world already pioneered in Doom), with dorky sound effects, cardboard people, poor quality VO, butt-electronica for a soundtrack, and a famously bad final third? Pish!
Yet, the game has aged like any fine cultural text: can you see the strings, if pointed out? Of course! But does Half-Life still envelope the player in a fascinating world, weaving a dramatic science fiction yarn, while being darn fun to boot? Indubitably.
Beginning with a long tram ride, players are introduced to the POV character Gordon Freeman’s new workplace, Black Mesa: a huge decommissioned military base in the southern United States. This yellow-and-black striped complex is a science fiction fan’s dream, mixing X-Files-esque Area 51 mystery with the domineering industrial design of Aliens‘s Weyland-Yutani. The place is filled to the brim with dark science experiments, ventilation ducts, rockets, loader mechs, and pools of toxic sludge.
Without spoiling the how and why, the research station is soon overrun by alien creatures, after an incident involving portals. Half-Life immediately evokes the basic premise of Doom, but rather than hellish heavy-metal demons, the monsters are cosmic enigmas out of something like Stephen King’s The Mist—no less scary than heaven and hell, but even more unsettling. More disturbing than the creatures of Xen is the G-Man—whose recurring presence, watching Gordon from afar, haunts the player until his final appearance, suggesting forces outside human understanding.
What is definitely within understanding, though, is that Half-Life took the first person shooter genre by storm when it released, outshining all competition (very rarely does anyone, for example, bring up Blood II, SiN, or the first Unreal, by comparison). Among writers, critics, or high-profile Hollywood directors, the game remains an important evolution in level design, worldbuilding, and FPS narrative in particular.
After years of FPS games to this point—games that were, for example, an action-packed dungeon-crawl with guns (Doom), or Super Mario World with more realistic dinosaurs (Turok), or the countless corridor shooters that might as well have been Mega Man in 3D—Half-Life forged a new path to the cinematic action games of today.
Much praise has been made of its uninterrupted POV, using cut scenes only sparingly and always from the player’s perspective. Most of the time, this meant that ‘cinematic’ scripted sequences happened in real time, forcing the player to participate in the goings-on like a true action hero, rather than just instigating destruction as was often the case in Doom or Quake.
Additionally, these sequences are as well paced as the cinematic classics that inspired the game—from room to room, and challenge after new challenge, no element of action or puzzle is reused ad nauseam as so many of Half-Life‘s contemporaries. (I dig Turok, but it has a lot of reused assets.) Finally, the pacing is not always about action, either. Rather than always presenting targets for the thrill of the fight, much of Half-Life is chilling and creepy. Many of the Xen creatures boast shades of Gigeresque monstrosity, as terrifying as they are grotesque.
One of the best examples of all of these features is the famous Blast Pit chapter, where an enormous tentacle creature must be avoided, using an occasional grenade to clear the path.
I came to the first Half-Life after the release of Half-Life 2, and this magnificent and quirky experience was none the worse for wear because of it. However, what does grate is the beautiful yet aggravating Xen portion at the end. Telling that, after remaking the first two thirds of Half-Life with the Black Mesa project, developer Crowbar Collective has taken many years and still not released their own heavily reworked version of the alien world.
Even as one who can forgive a lot of a game that I enjoy, the last third of Half-Life is a frustrating conclusion to what was such a rip-roaring adventure until then but, you know what? By the time the mysterious G-Man shows back up at the end and offers the player a difficult choice, the game has run Gordon and the player through such a ringer; told such a remarkable tale that the Xen chapters almost do no harm at all. Half-Life is a truly excellent game.
HALF-LIFE 2, by Ben Newman
How, then, do you improve on that? Perhaps “improve on” is the incorrect turn of phrase, how do you even extend or expand upon Half-Life’s industry-shaking splash? Valve, in 2004, attempted to add on to what many believe is gaming’s perfection with a title that was, well, even more perfect in the eyes of some fans. By taking Half-Life’s smaller, corridor-ridden scale and expanding it city wide, Valve’s few small additions and refinements led to a game that retained its predecessor’s sense of simplicity whilst taking a totalitarian narrative to grander, yet more personal levels.
When people think about both Half-Life games, the openings are what stick out. The quiet, cluttered hallways of Half-Life’s Black Mesa and the imposing, depressed state of City 17 are highlights not for any discernible gameplay reason, but because they embed the players in the world of both titles so easily.
As the train into City 17 pulls into the platform, players have roughly 30 minutes of walking through its Eastern Bloc-style architecture and streets, witnessing different levels of oppression, poverty, and depression from its inhabitants. Gordon Freeman, and by extension the player, are immediately members of the disenfranchised by merely existing; in just 30 minutes, players have shifted their mentalities from a hero who can defeat intergalactic entities to just another victim of politics that exist well above their head.
As a result, players are already aware at what is at stake without the need for exposition: The Combine are an enemy to humanity as a concept, and something must be done to stop them. There, then, all motivations for felling this seemingly omnipotent enemy are established quickly without sacrificing pacing.
The allusions to real-life totalitarian regimes and Bloc-style poverty are not lost on even the most politically non-astute players; by presenting an enemy that exists so close to real life, Half-Life 2 just seems to have a more intimate, personal sense of risk compared to the world-ending scale of its predecessor. The rest of the story and sense of pacing lay with the game’s endearing cast of supporting characters. While the adjective “unforgettable” is thrown around a lot in games criticism, the term is apt for the majority of Half-Life 2’s characters. Does a single gamer exist who doesn’t look back on Alyx Vance and Barry with a smile?
A lot can be done by sticking to first-person perspectives without compromise. As discussed with Half-Life, by not leaving Gordon’s HEV Suit, players become instantly invested in the characters he meets on his journey. The writing for each of the supporting cast, Alyx Vance in particular, is excellent.
While Half-Life had secondary characters to support the story, none had the same emotional depth and development as a character like Alyx who, in some ways, is the real protagonist of the game. Alyx joins players through most of their journey but is never an annoyance.
As her and Gordon’s relationship develops, Alyx stands out as one of the best-written sidekicks in videogame history. In a time where videogame writing was still prone to cliché and overstatement, Alyx stood out as the way to create a good character.
Gameplay-wise, too, Alyx’s AI was a welcome friend. Her evaluation of skirmishes makes sense, with her flanking and calling out enemy movements easily. In a time where the game industry was still having serious teething issues on how to create decent friendly AI, Half-Life 2 strolled into town to show the industry how to do it.
When replaying Half-Life 2, the intelligence and emotional depth of its cast of NPCs still marvels. Small touches like Alyx covering her face if you shine a flashlight on her to the emotive reactions of rebellion fighters when one of them dies show the two polarising points that Valve do so well: moments of subtlety and moments of maximalism.
When replaying the game, I noticed that if you turn off the flashlight when you’re in a darkened area with Alyx, she will comment on it, while slowly panicking in the pitch black the longer the player waits to turn the light back on. For 2004, that can be nothing more than a sublime touch of true artistic love. Valve’s delicate care on how to match the small strokes with bold displays of action is its biggest selling point, but is something that the company has lost.
Half-Life 2’s careful narrative balance extends to its gameplay. Oh, the gameplay – the game is still an absolute joy to play to this day, with its fast-paced set-pieces and horror-infused ambience excelling at even modern standards. The array of weapons, projectiles and, of course, the gravity gun leave players with a toolkit that is literally perfect. Each weapon gets used, but the true genius in Half-Life 2 is the gravity gun.
By creating a weapon that can manipulate gravity to turn everyday objects into ammunition, as well as the opportunity to counter-attack gargantuan enemies and projectiles alike, Valve made sure that the game became a canvas for player self-expression and inventiveness. The Source engine left the rest of the weapons feel weighty and responsive, but the gravity gun sort of encapsulated what Half-Life 2 was all about: creating a game that set a precedent.
By trusting players with a gameplay canvas they could fully manipulate, topped off by a world drenched in atmosphere, complimented by an array of supporting characters that truly felt like friends, the game was a statement of intent to the rest of the industry, a primal scream of “see if you can top this.”
From Half-Life 2 onwards, Valve only really wanted to create a game if it had something genre-pushing or defining at its core, a potentially damaging habit that began with the gravity gun. While Valve went on to release some truly excellent games from then on, with Portal being the clear highlight, the studio’s tendency to consistently try something new was germinated during Half-Life 2. As a result, the company is still scratching its head on how to continue the series, only half-dedicated to turning the valve of inspiration back on.
Could be difficult to come up with more influential and genre-defining games than these, but more of this nature are certainly on the way. Next week’s game may even have taken the crown from Half-Life 2 in one or more areas. Do you have a favourite game as influential as the Half-Life series that you would like to recommend—why not share it in the comments? As for the latest from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP.com, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join our community Discord server.
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